Espionage has always exercised a macabre fascination for both the macho and the cerebral. Depending on style and personal inclination, both James Bond and George Smiley have, at one time or other, tickled the fantasies of those who love a dash of adventure to oodles of gentlemanliness. Even after the anonymity of Cambridge Circus yielded way to the architectural garishness of Vauxhall, the SIS, or MI6 as it is better known, has retained its special status in the global intelligence community. MI6 conveyed a special type of romance that was so lacking in the sinister purposefulness of both the American CIA and the Israeli Mossad. It enjoyed such a monumental degree of respectability that the outgoing “C”, Sir Richard Dearlove, has actually been appointed Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, on his retirement from a lifetime of spying.
Some of the MI6’s undeniable aura appears to have been dulled by the understated but sharp indictment of its record in the Iraq conflict. The report of a committee headed by Lord Butler of Brackwell constitutes a damning indictment of the quality of intelligence supplied by MI6 to the British government. Butler has held the intelligence inputs into decision-making to be “seriously flawed” and “insufficiently robust” to suggest that the regime of Saddam Hussein was in violation of United Nations resolutions. In plain language, the inquiry has implied that Britain was led into a spurious conflict thanks to bogus intelligence which was fed to the public in the form of the notorious Iraq dossier.
Of course, it is not the MI6 alone that has been faulted for misleading the politicians. A report of the Senate Intelligence Committee released last week has pulled no punches in its assault on the CIA. The CIA’s failure, the senators argued, “to accurately analyse and describe the intelligence was the result of a combination of systemic weaknesses, primarily in analytic trade craft, compounded by a lack of information sharing, poor management and inadequate intelligence gathering”. The premier intelligence service that boasts a $40 billion annual budget was flayed for being guilty of “groupthink”, a euphemism for unthinking conduct, and perpetuating a “risk-averse corporate culture”. These shortcomings, the senators concluded, “will not be solved by additional funding and personnel”. Presumably, the senators desired the CIA reinvent itself.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report is harsher on the CIA than the Butler report is with MI6. Yet, notwithstanding the cultural differences that mark the language of the reports, there is a feeling on both sides of the Atlantic that the intelligence services have become unduly politicized. In short, they have strayed from the straight and narrow path of information gathering and assessment to undertake a more proactive policy role. In the context of the Iraq war, the charge of “groupthink” can only mean that the presentation of intelligence was woefully selective and that White House and Downing Street were fed stories about Iraq they wanted to hear. Butler, in particular, has come down hard on the Joint Intelligence Committee for shedding its tradition of carefully-worded reports and putting its stamp of approval on a dossier drafted by spin doctors. There is no charge of fabrication but it is held that the spymasters stretched the “outer limits of intelligence available”.
To many, the furore over flawed intelligence seems a ridiculous diversion from the central question of political responsibility. It is hardly a well-kept secret that within hours of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, an influential section of the Bush administration had come to the conclusion that Iraq was somehow responsible. So intense was the hatred of Saddam Hussein in the Bush camp that it did not require the niceties of either satellite photographs and communications intercepts or human intelligence to unilaterally extend the scope of the war on terrorism to Iraq. For the neo-conservatives, a war on Iraq was ideological and an instrument for making west Asia safe for democracy. To the pragmatists, toppling Saddam was a strategic necessity. Either way, the conclusion wasn’t based on hard evidence of Baghdad actually possessing weapons of mass destruction.
Likewise, regardless of what Blair claimed to the electorate, Britain’s participation in the Iraq war was necessitated by the special Anglo-American relationship. For London, standing shoulder to shoulder with the US was a strategic necessity and a historic responsibility. Intelligence reports were incidental to the conclusion. They could, at best, bolster a decision taken for other reasons. “There is always,” former British foreign secretary, Sir Douglas Hurd, admitted recently, “a temptation for politicians to exaggerate the importance of intelligence reports because of the glamorous badge of secrecy they carry.”
It was beyond the scope of both the senate inquiry and the Butler committee to explore the underlying rationale behind the Iraq war and pronounce whether or not it strengthened the war against terrorism. We must leave such a verdict to both the voters in the two countries and to history. What needs exploration, for the moment, is the importance of intelligence inputs in decision-making. Is intelligence blessed with such purity that it can skirt political realities'
In an ideal world, it can. The Butler report is lavish in its praise for the MI6 role in unearthing the clandestine nuclear market of the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. This was indeed a remarkable success story and the Western pressures on both Pakistan to disown Khan and on Libya to abandon its nuclear weapons programme were intelligence-led decisions. In the case of Pakistan, the endeavour of the intelligence agencies was sharply at variance with the diplomatic courting of President Pervez Musharraf.
Yet, even on this count, the underlying political direction of intelligence is obvious. The MI6 and other friendly agencies were active in pursuing the underground nuclear trail because it was part of their non-proliferation brief. If, as the former head of MI6 told the Butler inquiry, his agency was “a victim of a lack of experience and a lack of sufficiently expert resources” to deploy in Iraq, it is because that country was not regarded as a priority.
It was, of course, a priority for the US but the CIA messed it up by its over-dependence on the coloured information provided by Iraqi émigrés. The CIA was even a victim of a crude forgery suggesting a massive Iraqi purchase of uranium in Niger.
Political direction is central to the effective functioning of any intelligence agency, especially in an age of information overload. There has to be a clear identification of priorities and sufficient time for operational arrangements to be made. Selectivity is crucial when you consider that by the mid-Nineties, the CIA’s sensors had the ability to collect intercepts to fill up a Library of Congress every three hours. At the same time, the identification of priorities cannot be confused with political involvement. The intelligence agency chief who imagines his job is to provide arguments in support of political beliefs of the ruling dispensation is doing neither himself nor his government a favour. Nor are national interests enhanced when the intelligence agency, as in Pakistan, becomes an autonomous player, shaping policy, choosing governments, organizing coups and assuming the role of a state within a state.
For the free, democratic world, these are testing times. A successful war against political tyranny has yielded way to a new conflict against a hidden enemy who relies as much on the quiet deployment of terror as on medieval certitudes. The new situation demands new strategies and a complete understanding of the other side. The role of intelligence hasn’t diminished. Its collection, assessment and eventual use have become a shade more demanding. For the intelligence agencies the message is clear: perform or perish.