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Saturday, June 14, 2003


Questioning U.S. intelligence

LONDON -- It now seems clear that United States and British intelligence about Iraq was woefully inadequate in relation to Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction.

The three mobile laboratories that have apparently been found may be significant, but they don't amount to a "smoking gun." Possibly the recently intensified search may result in more significant finds. Perhaps, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld disingenuously suggested, the Iraqis may have destroyed their holdings prior to the invasion, but shouldn't it be possible to find evidence to support such a suggestion?

Whatever the facts, it seems clear from reports in the British media that uncorroborated information, such as from Iraqi defectors, was taken too literally. Defectors, anxious to enhance their chances of asylum, would naturally exaggerate. Serious attempts should have been made to verify their stories, or at the least their stories should have been reported in intelligence reports with caveats about the truth of such reports.

Sadly, it seems that intelligence summaries that almost certainly contained such caveats were rewritten, and in some cases the evidence, although it is improbable that it was invented, was exaggerated so it could be exploited for political purposes to back up a policy that had already been decided.

The intelligence community is clearly dismayed by such misuse of the products of its efforts, although a cynical public has come to expect this sort of behavior from politicians who put so much emphasis on "spin."

American and British leaders who attempt to dismiss these stories as malicious are underestimating their impact on public opinion and on trust in the political process. The furor over the failures and distortion of intelligence unfortunately detracts from the impact of the flood of information emerging from Iraq about the horrific behavior of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The Americans at least said all along that their aim was regime change, although that was not how they justified the attack at the United Nations and in the court of world opinion. It is now being said that the Americans only went along with efforts to get Security Council backing to help the British government in its efforts to win public support for action.

It seems that hawks in Washington are now turning their attention to other regimes that are tyrannical and antidemocratic, such as Iran. But some also focus on North Korea and Syria. The Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe ought also to be included in their sights, but it does not pose a threat to America and the hawks only seem to care if they think that the regime in question supports international terrorism against American targets.

Unfortunately, American intelligence has not only been inadequate over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The Americans, despite all their sophisticated information-gathering, have been unable to find Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, to say nothing of Hussein and his barbarous sons. They should not be surprised if the public is skeptical of U.S. intelligence regarding the intentions and armaments of other odious regimes.

The chaos in Iraq following the attack may not have been the result of inadequate intelligence, but more a failure of planning and execution. Many observers find it appalling that despite months of planning so little preparations seem to have been made to reinstate essential Iraqi infrastructure such as water and electricity. The American (and British) aim is to establish a democratic regime in Iraq, but this can only be established once law and order have been restored -- and this apparently means using at least a part of the apparatus of the old regime.

We are constantly reminded that 9/11 has meant a sea change in American attitudes toward the world. U.S. President George W. Bush has declared that those who do not support the fight on terror to the full (by which he seems to mean the U.S. interpretation of it) are anti-American and potentially hostile. In the fight against international terrorism, in his apparent view, there can be no holds barred.

Unfortunately, when this is taken to extremes, it can mean that the end is considered to justify the means even if this involves ignoring basic human rights, including those of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. There are obvious dangers in such an attitude. It could undermine the values that Americans and others are striving to sustain. It also attracts criticism of double standards and hypocrisy.

In fact, I have far too much faith in basic American common sense and values to believe that the hawks in the U.S. administration will be allowed, without a serious struggle and internal debate, to lead the U.S. into dangerous courses based on inadequate intelligence and planning.

Europeans and Japanese need to try to understand the changes that have occurred in the American psyche since 9/11, and we must continue to cooperate fully in the fight against international terrorism. But we should also make every effort to ensure that the battles are based on better intelligence and carried out on the basis of better planning.

The Americans undoubtedly have the firepower to impose their will anywhere, at least temporarily. But they have yet to demonstrate that they have understood fully that to win in the long run they must win over hearts and minds. "Soft power" is not, as some hawks allege, a euphemism for appeasement. Nor, of course, should "firepower" become a euphemism for bullying.

I can well understand American irritation with French President Jacques Chirac, whose arrogance is only matched by a few in Washington. But it is childish and silly to regard Chirac as symbolizing France and proceed to boycott French products. It would be equally stupid of the French to retaliate in kind.

I remain both pro-American and pro-French, as I believe any sensible and educated adult should be.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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