Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Iraq, Intelligence, and Policy

Steven E. Meyer


December 12, 2005

There has been a lot of controversy about the role of intelligence in the Bush administration's decision to attack Iraq. How can we fairly assess how the administration used intelligence?

A few ground rules. First, there is no one-to-one relationship between intelligence and policy formation. Policymakers do what they want with intelligence. In formulating policy they can—and do—accept, ignore, or change it. That is their legal right.

Second, intelligence is routinely "politicized." In other words, it is quite common for policymakers to influence intelligence while it is being collected and usually before it is converted into finished intelligence. This is done almost always to shape intelligence to support a predetermined policy position.

Third, the intelligence community is highly fractured. The United States has 15 separate intelligence organizations and often, but not always, they do not coordinate with each other. In part, this is due to the fact that intelligence organizations focus on different types of intelligence. Consequently, policymakers often can find intelligence to "support" almost any policy they favor. Reforms, focused on the creation of a Director of National Intelligence, are intended to heal these schisms, but so far they are not proving to be very successful.

Fourth, in a democracy it is extremely difficult to keep secrets. It is not uncommon for an administration to leak classified information in order to affect a situation. Classified intelligence is also often released by the media as part of the citizens' "right to know." It is illegal for government officials to release classified information, but it is not illegal for the media to do so.

Finally, an administration is free to set up any intelligence unit it wants in order to handle, interpret, or even create intelligence. For example, the Bush administration established the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon to make sure there was sufficient "intelligence" to support a decision to go to war.

So, what role did intelligence play in the decision of the Bush administration to invade Iraq? First and foremost, many officials in the Bush administration believed for many years that Saddam Hussein had to be removed. Once they attained power, these officials—now in a position to act—were determined to change the face of the Middle East, starting with Iraq. From the very beginning, intelligence was intended to support the basic conviction that Saddam Hussein had to go. The near hysteria caused by the attacks of September 11, 2001 significantly bolstered the position of these officials.

We know now that much of the intelligence that was gathered was misleading and downright wrong. But, there was enough intelligence being produced by the intelligence community that could be used to support the administration's position. Does this constitute an intelligence failure? Yes, in part, because much of the intelligence community itself bought into the faulty intelligence and was all too ready to pass it to an administration that was eager to jump on any information that could be used to justify its policy.

However, there were several parts of the intelligence community that dissented from the prevailing view to create more than reasonable doubt. For example, the State and Energy departments and some sections of CIA and Britain's M16 dissented from the prevailing views. The administration—as well as much of Congress—knew about these dissents, but those who were determined to go to war ignored, dismissed, or denied them. In the final analysis, a "perfect storm" of misleading intelligence and policy preemption by the Bush administration made war almost inevitable.

—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science,
    National Defense University

    (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”