The U.S. Intelligence Report on Syria: Learning from Iraq

The U.S. intelligence community is about to release its most important single document in a decade: its report on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The key question is whether the Obama Administration and the U.S. intelligence community understand just how important it is.

Roughly a decade ago – on February 5, 2003 - Secretary of State Colin Powell was trapped into making a statement about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the UN that proved to be almost totally false and that he later summarized as follows: “"It turned out, as we discovered later, that a lot of sources that had been attested to by the intelligence community were wrong…I understood the consequences of that failure and, as I said, I deeply regret that the information - some of the information, not all of it - was wrong…It has blotted my record, but - you know - there's nothing I can do to change that blot. All I can say is that I gave it the best analysis that I could."

In fairness to Secretary Powell, he made every effort to validate what he said before he said it. He was trapped, however, by both earlier U.S. statements and by a rush to produce “intelligence to please” a narrow cadre of ideologically motivated policy makers, and by almost as many problems in German and British intelligence as in the U.S. intelligence.

Many of the facts involved are laid out in a report issued by the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence called the "Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq". Somewhat ironically, this report came out on July 4, 2004 – a time when faulty U.S. intelligence and the absence of new Iraqi missile and WMD programs had already embarrassed the United States before the world. Moreover the seeds of a major Iraqi civil war were already dragging the U.S. into a “long war” when it had initially planned for U.S. forces to start leaving Iraq within 90 days of Saddam’s fall.

The report found fault after fault in the U.S. effort, although it came out too soon to trace the full extent to which policy level pressure had been put on some key analysts in DIA. It also did not fully address a series of previous problems in the intelligence assessment going into Desert Fox, all of the forces involved in politicizing intelligence within the Pentagon and in dealing with Iraq’s largely non-existent ties to terrorism, and all of the problems in the methodologies involved – issues that were highlighted by key members of the Committee in their “additional views” on the report.

It is all too clear, however, that the end result of the overall US intelligence effort by the 2003 invasion of Iraq – and the systematic misuse of intelligence by policymakers before and after the invasion -- did much to discredit the U.S. and its allies, to destroy trust in intelligence reports that cannot reveal every source and method, and in the motives of U.S. officials.

While there sometimes seems to be an almost deliberate effort to forget about the scale of these failures in the U.S. intelligence community and at the policy level, these are failures that have been reinforced throughout the world and especially in the Middle East and Islamic worlds. They have been further reinforced by the failure to find any physical evidence of Iraqi WMD programs and links to terrorism after the invasion.

More broadly, they have been reinforced by the broad perception among the Arab states in the region that the U.S. took a bad situation under Saddam Hussein and ended up leaving a broken Iraq that no longer had the military forces to contain Iran, and had lost its Arab identity, and was under a largely Shi’ite government heavily influenced by Iran.

These latter judgments exaggerate both U.S. mistakes and failures, and the degree to which the Maliki government is linked to Iran, but they shape much of the debate, public opinion, and anti-U.S. conspiracy theories in much of the Arab world. They also shape policy level views more quietly in much of the rest of the developing and Islamic worlds. Moreover, private conversations with Russian and Chinese officials make it clear that they see the U.S. as creating the intelligence it wants to intervene in ways that make regional instability and Islamic extremism worse rather than better.

The Obama Administration now faces the challenge of having to produce a new series of intelligence documents to prove that action in Syria is based on a clear decision by the top officials of the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons on a large scale against civilians. It faces the dilemma that it must limit what it says to protect U.S. intelligence sources and methods. It also, however, faces the reality that the U.S. lost the credibility to argue from authority and on the basis of its reputation more than ten years ago. The U.S. government may trust the U.S. government. That is not a trust the world shares, and recent polls indicate that it may not be a trust American people share as well.

One can only hope the Obama Administration understands this. Its first unclassified report is not a minor event. It will either redeem the reputation of the U.S. government and U.S. intelligence community or undermine it in ways that may take decades to recover from. Every error, every overstatement or fact in that first report that does not prove out over time, will impact on U.S. credibility indefinitely into the future. The limits and flaws in what that initial report says will fuel every anti-American conspiracy theory in the region. So will any failure to constantly follow up the report by further validating it will undermine its credibility where it proves to be correct.

This time, we must not only get it right the first time. We must prove to the world we are right again and again. We also need to back firmly away from the overblown rhetoric that Secretary Kerry has used to date. Short policy statements are one thing. Intelligence reports and factual white papers are another. We need to be cautious enough to show our actions are not based on a rush to judgment or propaganda. We need to show we are not repeating the mistakes of 2002-2003 in Iraq. We need to push the state of the art in releasing information to the very limit of what we can do without sacrificing our intelligence capabilities.

The pressures involved are already clear. Russian and Syrian denial, splits within the Arab League, and conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory in the region. The worst, if not the sickest, of these illustrate the challenges we face. It is not simply the idea that the Syrian rebels and/or the U.S. have carried an attack to justify U.S. action; it is that Israel somehow carried out the attack and/or secretly is manipulating the U.S. by feeding the U.S. false intelligence. The good news that most regional and western variants on this theme have limited their rhetoric to being anti-Israel without referring to Jews in the broader sense and being overtly anti-Semitic. The bad news its that if we prove to be wrong – or even to have made overstatements that can be partially discredited – we will not be able to separate the end result from its impact on Israel and on or Arab allies who back us in the action we take and will have to deal with the worse conspiracy theories and pressures from Islamist extremists that follow.

None of this is a reason not to act. All of it is a reason to see the U.S. intelligence effort and unclassified reporting in the context of American credibility in the region and the world. It is a reason to be factual and objective. It is a reason to back away from overstatement, propaganda, and emotional appeals. There are times when “strategic communications” needs to let the facts – and the uncertainties – speak for themselves.

Equally important, the sudden need to come fully to grips with Syrian possession of chemical weapons raises the broader issue of how to establish a lasting base of American credibility on issues like weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. should not wait for a crisis to communicate key threats like the growing proliferation of missiles and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. 
The U.S. should never again repeat this rush to credibility or get trapped into releasing a rushed and poorly drafted summary of an NIE on Iran – a release that still prejudices U.S. arguments about the Iranian nuclear problem. It should not rely on a few paragraphs in an annual testimony to Congress by the Director of National Intelligence that the press barely covers and even most “experts” do not seem to read.

In the past, the U.S. dealt with critical national security issues by having the U.S. intelligence community putting out annual reports on Soviet Military Power and on World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers. It used to put out an annual “blue book “on proliferation, missiles, and weapons of mass destruction. It did not indulge in childish exercises about the cost of such reports and the “burden” on the U.S. intelligence community of having it talk to the American people and the world.

The current crisis over Syrian use of chemical weapons cannot possibly be adequately treated by one rushed, interim report. It will need constant follow up and press statements that inform rather than dodge. The Obama Administration does, however, need to go much further. It needs to see the U.S. intelligence community as a key way of informing the world, of building up trust in U.S. policy and intelligence statements, and in moving U.S. strategic communications from spin to convincing truth. In today’s world of instant mass communications, lies, and conspiracy theories; intelligence cannot succeed by keeping the secrets; it can only succeed by using them.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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