The inconvenient truth

By any standards it seems a fine kettle of fish. Most of the intelligence gathered by two of the best-equipped nations on earth seems to have been false. False because the agencies were deceived, either by the ‘enemy’, or by people with an interest in promoting a particular response. False because analysts made wrong deductions as they either ignored evidence and analysis which did not suit their prepossessions, or because they filled in the blank spaces according to their preconceptions, or their feeling of what the target was up to. And they did this long before any idea of pleasing political masters, or the ‘customers’, came into it.

The customers made clear what they wanted to hear. When this was not the case, they doubted the analysis. Governments demanded that intelligence information be made publicly available so as to justify political decisions already made. The analysis became advocacy, often at the initiative of analysts themselves.

The closer one gets to the customer, the greater the anxiety to please. William Percy, a former senior military spook, gave a nice example to a parliamentary committee last year.

‘It is my experience that initial assessments (made by the relevant desk officer) often undergo significant changes in tone during their progress up through an organisation, depending on the disposition of the various reviewing officers. A simple example of changes might illustrate the point: Originator/desk officer: there is no evidence that Section head: it is unlikely that Division head: it is unlikely, but possible, that Branch head: It is possible that Such changes are not incompatible, but they do alter the tone of an assessment.’

In the blame game for the false impressions given by governments about the existence, extent and threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, claims that Saddam might arm terrorist groups, and of his links with Islamist organisations, it is almost impossible to find a formal pre-invasion assessment, whether in Australia, Britain or the US, with significant caveats about these findings. Only one intelligence analyst, Australia’s Andrew Wilkie, made public his doubts before the invasion, resigning in protest at political misuse of intelligence. Britain’s dissenters, Dr David Kelly and Brian Jones, did not voice their frustrations until after the war. While some unnamed American analysts leaked their concerns about the misuse of intelligence, they were swamped by the noise of those ‘in the team’.

The public had ample access to information casting doubt on the claims, from other countries, independent experts (including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons inspections teams) and the broader debate. Even though most experts took the existence of some WMDs as read, there was, in Australia, a reasonably informed debate about whether we had a casus belli. Yet government could always claim that it had access to secret  information to overcome any doubts. Australia’s intelligence establishment, which also briefed the Opposition, did not demur.

All this they did before the interventions of politicians and spin doctors, or the military who, once set for war, believe that disinformation is a part of operational security. Governments misused the assessments they were given, either via their own intelligence advisers or when directly briefed in Washington, Texas and London. They stressed the information which supported decisions they had made, and dismissed that which did not. ‘Might have’s became ‘had’s, tentative findings became conclusive  evidence, and assertions by Iraqi dissidents became statements of fact. That’s what politicians do. But did they lie? Not in the direct sense. Were they told of caveats on information they were given, or advised if later information undermined earlier assertions? Never directly. Following the ‘children overboard’ affair, the chances that an official can get to Howard with unpleasant news, particularly in writing, are slim. Howard’s office screens everything, and there is no record of whether messages are passed on. Surely, in the prelude to war, senior leaders were reviewing the evidence on a daily basis? Not really. Australia’s involvement did not turn on the intelligence information: we were just along for the ride.

There is no great case for Australia to investigate how we got the intelligence on Iraq so terribly wrong. We relied on false intelligence from great and powerful friends, even if our agencies sieved most of it, and rewrote bits from an Australian view. The inquiries in the US and the post-Hutton review will reveal most of the information. The sober but devastating report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ( is a taste of what is to come.

For those who wonder about the quality of Australian government, a process so debauched on such an important issue, inspires little confidence. What of mundane issues such as determining higher education or health policies or participating in free trade negotiations, or even routine actions; a government appointment or the settling of a major contract? Is government only soliciting submissions that promote the decisions it wants to make?  Decisions are no longer made as ministers argue the pros and cons with their public servants, but determined between the minister and his (or her) advisers where who said what, or what caveats exist is rarely documented. Too often bureaucratic dealings are with the minders, not the minister, and just what the minister knows is never clear. Formal submissions have been ‘settled’ with the staff before they go up for signing. In a government paranoid about leaks, ministers will not chance an official paper contradicting the ministerial rationale. It’s this trend, not just this latest manifestation, that ought to have people worried.                                       

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.



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