The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Politics, Intelligence, and Academic Analysis

January 10, 2012

Writing in Foreign Policy, Paul Pillar makes the case that most so-called “intelligence failures” stem from bad leadership rather than problems with the US intelligence community. He touches upon a number of cases, but Iraq looms large:

Had Bush read the intelligence community’s report, he would have seen his administration’s case for invasion stood on its head. The intelligence officials concluded that Saddam was unlikely to use any weapons of mass destruction against the United States or give them to terrorists — unless the United States invaded Iraq and tried to overthrow his regime. The intelligence community did not believe, as the president claimed, that the Iraqi regime was an ally of al Qaeda, and it correctly foresaw any attempt to establish democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq as a hard, messy slog.

Pillar’s discussion of proliferation is a little more nuanced. He writes:

The intelligence community was raising no alarms about the subject when the Bush administration came into office; indeed, the 2001 edition of the community’s comprehensive statement on worldwide threats did not even mention the possibility of Iraqi nuclear weapons or any stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. The administration did not request the (ultimately flawed) October 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraqi unconventional weapons programs that was central to the official case for invasion — Democrats in Congress did, and only six senators and a handful of representatives bothered to look at it before voting on the war, according to staff members who kept custody of the copies. Neither Bush nor Condoleezza Rice, then his national security advisor, read the entire estimate at the time, and in any case the public relations rollout of the war was already under way before the document was written.

I can’t speak to all of these claims, but the evidence seems pretty overwhelming that “intelligence failures” — understood as erroneous conclusions produced by the intelligence community in which Bush administration pressure played no role — cannot be blamed for the catastrophic decision to invade Iraq.

This discussion provides a nice pivot to something that’s bothered me for quite some time. Robert Jervis wrote a scholarly book on intelligence failures that, inter alia, places responsibility for the WMD-debacle on the CIA. In response to a negative review in the New York Review of Books, Jervis wrote:

Powers’s other point is that the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, Jami Miscik, threatened to resign unless the White House stopped pressuring her. But her complaints were about the CIA’s refusal to affirm links between Saddam and terrorism, not about its WMD findings, which was the topic of my analysis. This is a key point. If politicization explained intelligence assessments, we would find them converging with administration preferences. But on Iraq and terrorism, they never did.

This line of reasoning strikes me as a classic “academic logic” blunder, one that I’m surprised that Jervis, as a former scholar-in-residence at the CIA, would make. Bureaucrats and officials pick their fights; they are much more likely to fall on their swords (or threaten to) over battles they believe they can win than over battles they see as losers. Whatever the truth of the matter, Miscik’s behavior is in no way inconsistent with the claim that politicization drove intelligence analysts to overstate the threat of Iraqi unconventional-weapons proliferation.

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.