Assessing Assessed Intelligence
Assessing Assessed Intelligence
What is "assessed intelligence"?
The question arises in conjunction with the crisis of credibility engulfing British Prime Minister Tony Blair. His government's September 24, 2002 dossier, "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction," has come under renewed scrutiny in the ongoing Hutton Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide of weapons expert Dr. David Kelly. Among the issues the Inquiry is examining is whether the language in the dossier was stronger and more assured than the intelligence upon which it was based.
One key sentence receiving a closer look appears in Blair's Foreword: "What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons." http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/Page275.asp
Blair is a lawyer by training and proud possesser of a razor-sharp mind. It strains credulity that he missed that statement's logical flaw: If continued production of WMD truly is "established beyond doubt," he should be referring to "proof" or "incontrovertible evidence," not "assessed intelligence."
Dame Pauline Neville-Jones is a former political director of the British Foreign Office and former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). In the July 13 edition of the British newspaper The Independent, she observed that "Assessed intelligence involves interpretation - but the completeness and accuracy of the information can't be established beyond any doubt." (Link requires subscription: http://argument.independent.co.uk/commentators/story.jsp?story=423967)
In other words, "assessed intelligence" and a measure of "doubt" go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other.
Commenting specifically on the dossier's Executive Summary, penned by current JIC chair John Scarlett, Dame Pauline added this:
"Assessed intelligence is not the same as 'facts' and should not be treated as such. I doubt it should be called 'evidence.' The executive summary of the report refers to 'evidence' only in connection with 'public evidence.' Otherwise it talks of intelligence providing 'important insights' and comments 'intelligence rarely offers a complete account of activities which are designed to remain concealed.' Quite."
General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a similar point. "Intelligence doesn't necessarily mean something is true," he said at a Pentagon news briefing. "You know, it's your best estimate of the situation. It doesn't mean it's a fact. I mean, that's not what intelligence is." (NYT)
"Best estimate of the situation" is pretty good layman's lingo for "assessed intelligence." The key word is "estimate," as it alerts the layman that what he's about to hear is not established fact.
And why, you ask, must intelligence be "assessed"? Because much of it is garbage. Here's Newsweek's take on one form of intelligence - reports from defectors - in a pre-war story titled "Spies, Lies & Iraq":
"Iraqi defectors who offer themselves to the CIA are put through strenuous interrogations and lie-detector tests. The credible ones are given new identities and homes in America or Germany. The rejects are cast loose to fend for themselves. Some of them are nonetheless embraced by the [Iraqi National Congress] - and, according to CIA officials, recycled to the more sympathetic (and more credulous) hawks in the Pentagon. Their stories are then worked over by Wolfowitz's special intelligence unit - and passed on to the White House. The CIA, in turn, is asked then to rule on the credibility of information provided by defectors the agency has already deemed to be incredible." (Newsweek, Feb. 10, 2003)
Dubious INC-linked defectors were among those making unsubstantiated charges of continuing WMD production in above-ground factories and (yet-to-be-discovered) mobile and underground labs.
The same month the British dossier was published, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency tried its own hand at assessing Iraqi's WMD stocks and capabilities. Portions of this classified report were declassified in June 2003 and are available online here
The DIA expressed a number of concerns about what Iraq retained from pre-1991 WMD stocks and what it might be up to in the present, as well as what it could produce in the future, particularly in the absence of inspectors. But the report also stated this:
"There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons. . . ."
"No reliable information" - accent on "reliable" - is a very sensible formulation for describing Iraq in September 2002. It's the DIA's way of saying that under the current circumstances, with no inspectors on the ground and Saddam's hard-to-penetrate regime in power, it's darn tough to make a "best estimate."
The DIA didn't release earlier drafts of the analysis, but I'll go out on a limb and say that none included this statement: "The assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons."
Unlike Tony Blair, the DIA had doubts. Or maybe that should be rephrased: Unlike Tony Blair, the DIA was willing to acknowledge its doubts.
The Hutton Inquiry should recall the prime minister and ask him (1) what "assessed intelligence" means, and (2) if he truly had no doubts or merely a cynical strategy of pretending such was the case - on continued production and a host of other WMD-related issues - so as to win over Brits and Yanks who did have doubts.
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Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he published "Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His 'Techniques of Deceit'" and "The Disinformation Age". He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu