Good Intelligence

June 5th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Chapter 7 of The Honest Broker talks about the role of intelligence in the decision to go to war in Iraq. Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee released two reports (PDF, PDF) documenting how the Bush Administration misled policy makers and the public by politicizing government intelligence. Here is what Senator Jay Rockefeller had to say in a press release:

“Before taking the country to war, this Administration owed it to the American people to give them a 100 percent accurate picture of the threat we faced. Unfortunately, our Committee has concluded that the Administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence,” Rockefeller said. “In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

“It is my belief that the Bush Administration was fixated on Iraq, and used the 9/11 attacks by al Qa’ida as justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. To accomplish this, top Administration officials made repeated statements that falsely linked Iraq and al Qa’ida as a single threat and insinuated that Iraq played a role in 9/11. Sadly, the Bush Administration led the nation into war under false pretenses.

“There is no question we all relied on flawed intelligence. But, there is a fundamental difference between relying on incorrect intelligence and deliberately painting a picture to the American people that you know is not fully accurate.

“These reports represent the final chapter in our oversight of prewar intelligence. They complete the story of mistakes and failures – both by the Intelligence Community and the Administration – in the lead up to the war. Fundamentally, these reports are about transparency and holding our government accountable, and making sure these mistakes never happen again.”

I explain in The Honest Broker there is an important difference between serving as an issue advocate and serving as an honest broker. In this situation, the distinction was lost. The Administration had every right to make whatever case to the public that it wanted to make.

However, as the second report linked about argues, it warped the process of intelligence gathering in order to generate (suppress) information that supported (did not support) its desired outcomes. This represented a pathological politicization of the intelligence community and limited the scope of options available for debate among the public and policy makers.

Protecting the function of honest brokering among relevant experts is hard to do.

7 Responses to “Good Intelligence”

  1. steven mosher Says:

    Going to war in Iraq was the precautionary principle in practice.

    BTW. I predicted 5K US combat troup deaths before the war started.

    How’d I do?

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  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Steven- Indeed, that is exactly the argument I make in THB . . . get your copy today;-)

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  5. Tom Fiddaman Says:

    Since when does preemptive strike = precautionary principle?

    Setting aside the fact that the PP is normally regarded as an environmental principle, it’s about avoiding an action when there’s a priori reason to suspect harmful consequences. One could better argue that going to war in Iraq was a violation of the precautionary principle.

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  7. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    A more common interpretation of the PP holds that uncertainty is not a reason for inaction. Here is what the 1992 Rio declaration of the environment says:

    “in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capability. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”

    Substitute a few words and you have:

    “in order to protect NATIONAL SECURITY, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capability. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty ON WMDs shall not be used as a reason for postponing PREEMPTIVE measures to prevent WMD PROLIFERATION”

    See also:

    The issues are precisely parallel, which is of course the fatal flaw in the PP — one person’s action is another’s inaction.

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  9. Tom Fiddaman Says:

    Roger -

    Word substitution sounds good, but all it proves is that the Rio PP statement isn’t fully specified. There are two crucial assumptions underlying the PP:
    - the entity to be influenced by action is benign if undisturbed
    - there are a priori reasons to think that the action harms the entity
    These make some sense if you’re talking about release of an endocrine disruptor into an aquatic ecosystem. They don’t hold at all in Iraq; the two situations aren’t even remotely parallel.

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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks, the malleability of the PP is one reason why many scholars (myself included) have determined that the PP is a useful one to dress up ones values, but not really an effective guide to collective action.

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  13. Tom Fiddaman Says:

    I agree that it’s a fairly useless rhetorical device. It may work when communicating with someone who shares the above unstated assumptions, but in broader debates it quickly gets transplanted to situations where the analogy breaks down. It seems to me that it ought to be straightforward to come up with a clearer formulation that could guide action, though perhaps it would be much narrower.