Did Sloppy Intel Doom Syrian Civilians?

The government needs to reconcile with its misuse of intelligence

Did Sloppy Intel Doom Syrian Civilians? Did Sloppy Intel Doom Syrian Civilians?

Uncategorized September 6, 2013 0

Funeral for sarin gas victims outside of damascus. Shaam News Network Did Sloppy Intel Doom Syrian Civilians? The government needs to reconcile with its... Did Sloppy Intel Doom Syrian Civilians?
Funeral for sarin gas victims outside of damascus. Shaam News Network

Did Sloppy Intel Doom Syrian Civilians?

The government needs to reconcile with its misuse of intelligence

In his speech urging the country to support U.S. Pres. Barack Obama’s decision to strike the regime of Bashar Al Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry referenced an unclassified intelligence summary about the alleged chemical strikes by regime forces against civilians just outside of Damascus. The document notes the U.S. government had knowledge that an attack was forthcoming, which raises a troubling question: could the chemical attack against Syrian civilians have been prevented?

The assessment says the intel community made its judgment about Assad’s use of chemical weapons based on “intelligence pertaining to the regime’s preparations for this attack and its means of delivery,” which suggests they had some sort of foreknowledge of the attack. In December of 2012, when intelligence suggested the regime was preparing chemical warfare agents, the White House publicly warned them to stop. It didn’t this time, however, and now some are wondering why the administration didn’t warn the victims about what was coming.

Intelligence is not an exact science. An Associated Press story relates what happened: there was no concrete proof the attack was going to happen beforehand, but analysts were able to forensically stitch together pieces of information to prove that it had.

“Connecting the dots” is an old canard in the public discussion of intelligence — and one of the most pernicious phrases one can use. The myriad assumptions built into it are simply wrong. Intelligence is not a puzzle to be assembled, but rather a combination of intuition, informed guesswork and interpretation resulting in a probability.

If that sounds really difficult and uncertain, that’s because it is. Intelligence is inherently uncertain, even when they use phrases like “high confidence” to substantiate a claim. It is also why claims of intelligence certainty are so often overstated — not just in the runup to the war in Iraq, but all throughout many conflicts. And it is why even those who support intervention in Syria are asking to see the evidence the White House keeps referencing.

Iraq is a fascinating example of how flawed intel can be manipulated to disastrous results. Many assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability were indeed flawed. But, according to Paul Pillar, who was the National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, that flawed intel also included dire strategic assessments about the dangers of invasion — assessments the Bush administration went out of its way to ignore. The White House had its preferred conclusion, and it cherry-picked from among its intelligence analyses to support that pre-determined conclusion.

In Fixing the Facts, an analysis of how intelligence gets politicized by policymakers, U.S. Navy War College professor Joshua Rovner explains how this is a long-standing problem for national security. Many times throughout the Cold War, he explains, those looking to expand U.S. militarism manipulate intelligence to exaggerate threats. Those opposed to such militarism accuse cry “politicization.”

Complicating this dynamic is the classification of assessments. When the intelligence community wrote a National Intelligence Estimate of Iraq’s nuclear capabilities, it seemed a clear “slam dunk” about the dangers of dictator Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs. Public versions of the estimate, however, excluded (pdf) much of the hedging language and caveats of the classified NIE, which created a misleading picture of what the government really knew before the invasion.

So the question of whether “intel says” something specific is not always easy to answer, nor is it always a smart assertion for policymakers to rely on.

Missing in the Syria debate inside the beltway (though certainly not outside of it) is that the intel community and those who wish to use its findings to sell another war, have fundamentally lost the trust of the American people. Rather than grappling with the uncertainty and complexity of intelligence analysis, and trying to explain the complications of the war in Syria to the public, policymakers seem to be relying on, essentially, “trust us.”

After two long, hideously expensive, brutal wars, trust is at an all-time low. Intel has been misused so long for so often that few see the need to blindly trust the powers that be over war. Yet inexplicably, the White House is not trying to persuade the public to agree to its plans for an ever-expanding war. It should not be surprised when the country rejects their grand design.

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