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It's Academic!

Why the new Senate report on Iraq fails to take the intelligence situation seriously.

1:10 PM, Sep 13, 2006 • By MICHAEL TANJI
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IT TOOK ONLY A FEW MINUTES for media outlets to disseminate headlines about how the recent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report comparing pre-war intelligence claims against post-war findings was a refutation of the stated reasons for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Focusing on the conclusions of the multi-section report, most news accounts walked down a checklist of the "lies" allegedly perpetrated by the Bush administration.

But the SSCI report is of limited use for anyone seriously attempting to understand what was--and was not--going on in pre-war Iraq. The report is limited in scope, comparing primarily the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq with the findings of the Iraqi Survey Group and a small set of supplemental materials.

Disturbingly, the report treats actual and potential source material in a curious, if not outright suspect, manner. Substantial weight is given the statements from top former regime officials with every incentive to lie--including Saddam Hussein himself--while at the same time the report disregards the treasure-trove of documents, audio and video tapes, and computer disks that have not been fully analyzed. As I have said before about the shortcomings of our approach to captured media exploitation:

We could very well have in our possession ample material to support all the reasons the public was told justified going to war--or we could find the opposite, or find there are no clear conclusions to be drawn. But unless we look, we will always be faced--in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld--with a huge cache of "unknown unknowns."

After all the detainees have been interrogated, and all of the sand at suspected facilities has been sifted and tested, the only way finally to close the book on what [was going on in the former regime] is to analyze every last reliable source of data available to us. That is, if we are really interested in the truth.

Understanding what was going on in Iraq prior to the allied invasion, what we got right in our pre-war intelligence assessments, and where we went horribly wrong, will require and effort that is years away from what any congressional committee is prepared to carry out. Which means that the new Senate Intelligence report is nothing more than an academic exercise designed not to illuminate an important area of inquiry, but to make political hay.

TO BEGIN WITH, understand that we are somewhere in the first quarter of the timeline along which a thorough post-mortem should be carried out. Even under the best of circumstances, it would be impossible to wrap up the history of Saddam's Iraq in four years given that mountains of data have yet to be fully examined--and that vast majority of suspected sites in Iraq that have yet to be explored.

I was involved in the process of exploiting captured document and other media for roughly four years. When the SSCI report says captured media has been given an "initial review" the closest analogy is that it is giving a Cliffs Notes version of the story. If you were honest, you would never say that you have read and understand the intricacies of Shakespeare because you skimmed the Cliffs Notes version. Yet that is what military intelligence, and in turn the SSCI, are saying when they insist that they have not missed anything of significance from media captured in Iraq.

Updating our knowledge of pre-war Iraq should be a near-real-time effort. New discoveries that alter preconceptions about Saddam and Iraq are being found all the time; in part from data not considered by the SSCI report and in part from the soldiers on the ground that unearth new information on a daily basis. Given all of this, we should not be capturing the post-war examination of Iraq in printed tomes released years after the fact. Rather, all of the open source and declassified materials should be crafted into a Wiki and posted online for interested parties to examine, analyze, debate, and comment on.

IF NOTHING ELSE the SSCI report highlights how inadequate our intelligence coverage of Iraq was before the war and how woeful our efforts to rectify those shortcomings have been since.

Prior to the war, Iraq fell into the intelligence bin labeled "hard target," which is a euphemism for countries where we are essentially unable to recruit agents and that have the ability to hide from our satellites. The SSCI report notes that the CIA apparently had only one highly-placed source in Iraq's government. Our dominance in technical collection capabilities was also no great help. As a Pentagon briefing pointed out in 2002, Iraq had a highly capable denial and deception program that made technical intelligence virtually useless.

These shortcomings in Iraq should be object lessons for current intelligence reform. Our approach to hard targets in the past was clearly inadequate. It is time for original thinking--or perhaps the adoption of some more risky practices--to avoid future intelligence gaps.

IN COMPUTER SCIENCE the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" is a reference to the fact that if you enter bad data into a computer program, it will dutifully return bad results. The initial response upon seeing an unexpected answer is to mutter "stupid computer," until you go back and realize you fed the machine rubbish (computers cannot yet mutter back to the stupid human). In a sense the process followed by the SSCI staff is similar to a focused and well-meaning computer; they had specific directions and specific sets of data to process.

As long as our efforts to address outstanding issues related to the war are reduced to hand-waving arguments intentionally based on incomplete sets of data, a comprehensive and accurate truth about pre-war Iraq will never be known.

Michael Tanji is a former senior U.S. intelligence officer and an associate of the Terrorism Research Center. He opines at