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Saturday, Feb. 14, 2004

The fallibility of intelligence

LONDON -- The Jan. 28 report of Lord Justice Brian Hutton's inquiry into the death last July of British government defense scientist David Kelly was highly critical of the behavior of the British Broadcasting Corp. and a BBC reporter who had accused the government of "sexing up" intelligence for the September 2002 report on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The reporter had alleged that the government knew all along that it was not true that Iraq had WMD that could be deployed within 45 minutes.

The government was pleased with the Hutton report, which exonerated it and Prime Minister Tony Blair while only mildly criticizing the Ministry of Defense for not having done enough to help Kelly. As for the BBC, the chairman of the governors has resigned and a lot of soul-searching is going on about what went wrong inside the corporation.

Hutton decided it was not within the scope of his investigation to comment on the accuracy of the government's intelligence or on whether the intelligence justified the government's decision to send British troops to Iraq. Many observers think that these issues should be the subject of a separate independent inquiry, not least because of the failure so far to find WMD in Iraq and of the resignation of the U.S. chief weapons inspector.

It is not possible at this stage to declare with certainty what went wrong in the intelligence-gathering and political processes leading up to war, but the intelligence services will have to look long and hard at their sources and how they analyzed what they gleaned. It may be useful to review the nature and sources of intelligence on Iraq.

One important source was signals intelligence, such as intercepted messages in clear language and those that could be decoded. There would also have been reports of conversations on mobile phones. Many of these would have been deliberately vague and might indeed have been designed to deceive.

Wireless traffic is a valuable source of information in relation to troop movements, but is more problematic in relation to the existence, capabilities and whereabouts of WMD. Signals intelligence in these cases needs to be treated with care and, wherever possible, checked against other sources.

Another significant source of intelligence is documents that are intercepted or provided by agents. These, too, can be planted by an enemy and used to deceive. Therefore, it is again vital to carefully check their authenticity and to seek confirmation from other sources.

A third source of generally reliable intelligence is observation by satellites. Modern photographic reconnaissance methods permit accurate pictures of ground features, but satellite photos can be inaccurate in determining the location of vehicles that can be quickly moved. Mobile labs probably cannot be distinguished from other trucks, and underground facilities cannot be confirmed. Further information would have been provided by weapons inspectors and by other observers visiting Iraq on business or on diplomatic missions.

Intelligence also would have come from Iraqi defectors. It should have been treated with skepticism since it was being provided with a view to receiving a reward, even if that meant being granted asylum.

Finally, there would have been intelligence from agents paid by the allies. Intelligence agencies -- if only because they are paying out large sums for such intelligence -- often give undue credence to the reports of their agents.

It seems possible that too much credence was given to reports by agents and defectors over the issue of WMD and that not enough was done to confirm stories that might have been planted to deceive.

In any event, it seems clear that the analysis of intelligence was defective in that it described reports as facts rather than as unconfirmed rumors, and did not state that alleged facts came from only one source and were not confirmed.

As every intelligence officer knows, the basic problem is that politicians and generals demand facts and hard evidence and get furious when they are presented with reports hedged with caveats. In their view, words such as "possibly" "maybe" and "perhaps" weaken the report. They demand something short, snappy and to the point and condemn noncomplying subordinates as having no conviction.

The government claims that it did not deliberately distort intelligence. Yet it clearly wanted firm evidence to justify its decision to go to war, and that is what the intelligence services, responding to the pressure to produce hard evidence, provided on Iraq's WMD. The Joint Intelligence Committee in Britain should have been chaired by an independent experienced civil servant, not by one of the agencies providing intelligence.

In the British case, the chairman, John Scarlett, was from the secret intelligence services, and he, perhaps unconsciously, might have ensured that greater prominence and credence were given to reports from his organization.

These questions, which were not considered by Hutton, should now be investigated. They are also relevant to Japanese authorities who, in the case of Iraq, have had to rely largely on intelligence that has been passed to them by the Americans and the British.

The Japanese government will also need to consider carefully how far it can rely on the available intelligence pertaining to North Korean nuclear-weapon and delivery capabilities. How much intelligence on these issues comes from American and South Korean sources and how much can be confirmed by Japanese sources? Of course, any information suggesting an imminent danger must be taken very seriously, but every effort must be made to verify the intelligence available.

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

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