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Intelligently Misleading

There is no right answer.

12:00 AM, Mar 25, 2008 • By MICHAEL TANJI
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THERE IS PERHAPS NO clearer example of why the U.S. intelligence community has such a serious credibility problem than the recently released report on the relationship between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and terrorist groups. Media outlets friendly to the meme that there was no such connection were leaked a copy of the report and latched on to the statement that there was no "smoking gun" linking Saddam and al-Qaeda. Clearly, however, none of those reporters bothered to actually read the report or ask any critical questions.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of Islamic terrorism who read the early headlines and then read the report cannot help but come away with a severe case of cognitive dissonance. Iraq was a state sponsor of terrorism and had we not gone to war with Iraq after 9/11, it would still be a focal point in our fight against Islamic terror. That Saddam and bin Laden never shook hands--presumably the only "smoking gun" that the most obtuse analysts of this subject would accept--is hardly the point. Glomming on to that narrowest parsing of al Qaeda here is akin to saying Senator Lieberman is not a Democrat because he has donned the label of Independent.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than documents from Saddam's own intelligence service, which confirm that the regime was funding the group Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the early 1990s. Led by Ayman al Zawahiri, the EIJ eventually morphed into what most observers call "core" al Qaeda. Zawahiri became al Qaeda's second in command when al Qaeda was formed in the late 1980s. Saying Iraq was not supporting al Qaeda, when there was no meaningful distinction between the EIJ and al Qaeda, strains credulity.

Therein lies the problem: this report--and every assessment dealing with intelligence or national security matters--is crafted with such extreme precision in an impossible quest to be "right" that they end up being absurdly wrong. This quest for false precision skews our understanding of very clear and simple truths. This is part of the reason why so many policymakers of all political persuasions hold intelligence in such disdain. The books and articles that document Saddam's relationship with terrorist groups that were published before this report was issued are numerous and draw largely the same conclusions that this review of classified material shows. Secrets are only valuable if they tell you something meaningful that you didn't already know.

This is a problem that is endemic in the intelligence community and particularly bad in agencies that have taken a beating in recent years for providing incomplete information about the threat posed by Iraq's WMD programs. To compensate, agencies caveat their work to the point that ten different people reading the same report will come away with at least nine different interpretations of the report's findings. By not making unambiguous calls about what is known and more importantly what is unknown, intelligence agencies don't serve their consumers; they confuse and infuriate them.

It is not for a lack of trying that intelligence agencies don't come up with volumes of perfect information, and sophisticated policymakers understand that clandestine activity--risky and time consuming--is going to come up short. Intelligence consumers know better than to expect a "slam dunk" analysis; what they do expect is honesty and clarity to help them develop courses of action. Absent such a deliverable, policymakers will turn to sources of information and advice that they trust: think tanks, expatriates, academics, and others in their personal and professional networks that may have no access to secrets but have no fear of calling a spade a spade.

Restoring the credibility of intelligence starts with a shift away from couching what we know as a way to build false authority. You cannot speak "truth to power" if everything you say boils down to "maybe."

No significant event in history was predicted and no analytic methodology is so rigorous that it can defy the infinite variables that exist in the real world, so the focus of our efforts should not be to strive to always be right but to focus on not getting the obvious things wrong.

Thinking that this report is the last word on Iraq would be a mistake; as would thinking that anything of national security significance will play out in a fashion we expect. We will be surprised and our worst fears will be confirmed; the least we can do is be honest about it.

Michael Tanji is a former supervisory intelligence officer in the department of defense and a Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow.