25 Mar 2008

A Standard of Perfection

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Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Ladin neglected to go down to the county courthouse and file a signed and notarized partnership agreement. Instead, Iraq’s government covertly supplied funding and weapons and provided training facilities, medical treatment, and sanctuary to individual terrorist leaders and to a confusing array of variously named and affiliated terrorist groups.

Deniability is, of course, precisely why governments, like that of the former Baathist regime of Iraq, employ surrogate non-state actors as instruments of violence against Western states. If Iraq attacked the United States openly, the legitimacy of a full-scale US military response would have been unquestioned. Because actual attacks are committed by a handful of individuals affiliated with obscure jihadist entities, leftwing members of the US Intelligence Community always find themselves conveniently able to maintain that no definitive proof linking a sponsoring state like Iraq is available.

Michael Tanji explains how the game is played.

There is perhaps no clearer example of why the U.S. intelligence community has such a serious credibility problem than the recently released report on the relationship between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and terrorist groups. Media outlets friendly to the meme that there was no such connection were leaked a copy of the report and latched on to the statement that there was no “smoking gun” linking Saddam and al-Qaeda. Clearly, however, none of those reporters bothered to actually read the report or ask any critical questions.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of Islamic terrorism who read the early headlines and then read the report cannot help but come away with a severe case of cognitive dissonance. Iraq was a state sponsor of terrorism and had we not gone to war with Iraq after 9/11, it would still be a focal point in our fight against Islamic terror. That Saddam and bin Laden never shook hands–presumably the only “smoking gun” that the most obtuse analysts of this subject would accept–is hardly the point. …

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than documents from Saddam’s own intelligence service, which confirm that the regime was funding the group Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the early 1990s. Led by Ayman al Zawahiri, the EIJ eventually morphed into what most observers call “core” al Qaeda. Zawahiri became al Qaeda’s second in command when al Qaeda was formed in the late 1980s. Saying Iraq was not supporting al Qaeda, when there was no meaningful distinction between the EIJ and al Qaeda, strains credulity.

Therein lies the problem: this report–and every assessment dealing with intelligence or national security matters–is crafted with such extreme precision in an impossible quest to be “right” that they end up being absurdly wrong. This quest for false precision skews our understanding of very clear and simple truths. This is part of the reason why so many policymakers of all political persuasions hold intelligence in such disdain. The books and articles that document Saddam’s relationship with terrorist groups that were published before this report was issued are numerous and draw largely the same conclusions that this review of classified material shows. Secrets are only valuable if they tell you something meaningful that you didn’t already know.

This is a problem that is endemic in the intelligence community and particularly bad in agencies that have taken a beating in recent years for providing incomplete information about the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD programs. To compensate, agencies caveat their work to the point that ten different people reading the same report will come away with at least nine different interpretations of the report’s findings. By not making unambiguous calls about what is known and more importantly what is unknown, intelligence agencies don’t serve their consumers; they confuse and infuriate them.

Ambiguity, a permanent feature of Intelligence, becomes in the hands of the sophists of the Intelligence Community’s anti-Bush establishment a very effective tool for undermining policy. By utilizing a 100% standard of certainty, requiring unimpeachable and totally disinterested first-hand witnesses of excellent character, and clear documentary evidence, it becomes possible to exculpate both pre-2003 Iraq and today’s Iran of any role in terrorism or efforts to acquire WMD at all, and thereby to delegitimize the Bush Administration’s casus belli.

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Liberty Peak Lodge

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