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Politicians Don't Understand The Limits Of Intelligence

Intelligence is almost always flawed to some extent.

11/07/2016 12:17 PM AEST | Updated July 15, 2016 12:57

Last week, Sir John Chilcot's review revealed that in 2003 the then-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, committed his country to the US-led invasion of Iraq based on 'flawed intelligence and assessments'.

After the report's release, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard made a statement that when he sent Australia to war with Iraq in 2003 "There were errors in intelligence, but there was no lie".

Neither the Chilcot review, nor Howard's statement, address the intelligence tradecraft and policy factors that created the perceived intelligence flaws and errors. The secretive nature of the intelligence profession means many are curious, but ill-informed, about its inner workings.

Over the past 20 or so years I've been regularly asked 'what's strategic intelligence analysis all about'. These days I have a well-rehearsed stock answer to the question.

Imagine for a moment that I give you 10,000 jigsaw puzzle pieces. Then imagine I tell you that an indeterminate number of these pieces belong to a single 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Then imagine I ask you to tell me what the 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle picture is of: but I am not going to give you any more clues. No easy task. But it's easy compared to the great intelligence game where the adversary is constantly trying to deceive you.

In 2002, then United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, tried to address the Iraq weapons of mass destruction intelligence challenge with his now infamous 'known knowns' and 'unknown unknowns' comments. But, in doing so, Rumsfeld unintentionally highlighted that he didn't understand, the uses and limitations of intelligence.

On rare occasions intelligence can be used as conclusive evidence that something is a fact. In reality, though, seldom does intelligence afford you a full picture: and often what is collected is contradictory. More often than not, the intelligence available to an analyst or decision maker is insufficient in quality and accuracy to conclusively prove anything.

In hindsight, intelligence is almost always flawed to some extent.

Good intelligence tradecraft involves a range of analytical techniques that ensure that the validity and reliability of different assessments or explanations are tested. In the end what is presented to the decision maker by intelligence agencies is neither hard evidence nor fact but a theory with an associated assessment of its likely probability.

Chilcot's review reveals that there were indeed two fundamental problems with the intelligence-based decision making at the time of the Iraq war.

First and foremost, competing theories about WMD intelligence were not adequately tested. In 2002 and 2003 analysts and decision makers alike started their analysis by accepting the assumption that Saddam had WMD as a fact.

Secondly, and just as importantly, decision makers in London, Canberra and Washington didn't seem to understand the uses and limitations of intelligence. Howard's comments regarding errors in intelligence reveal that, to this day, he may not understand that intelligence is almost never fact.

Even with flawed or inaccurate intelligence, decision makers and staffers alike should've been contesting the validity and reliability of the assessments in the context of other information sources including United Nations inspection reports.

Before 2003, this had happened in Australian national security decision making on a number of important occasions. Neither the intelligence community nor the National Security Council supported the Australian interventions in Bougainville, East Timor or the Solomon Islands. But in each case Howard and his staff contested the intelligence and military perspectives, after which the missions went ahead.

While some are calling for an Australian review, much of the needed work has already been undertaken in response to Phillip Flood's 2004 inquiry into the Australian Intelligence Agencies.

In Australia we have a strong accountability framework to address organisational overreach within both the Australian Intelligence Community and law enforcement. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security reviews the activities of the Australian Intelligence Community. But further work on reviewing analytical tradecraft and education for intelligence users is required to ensure contestability.

The next Australian government should consider expanding the role of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to include, within its scope, the review of analytical tradecraft in practice.

The next government should also explore how it educates its ministers, staffers and departmental policy officers on the uses and limitations of intelligence.

From television to movies, popular culture has painted intelligence as the omnipresent 'magic bullet' to all national security problems. Unfortunately this is more science fiction than fact.

If intelligence and national security policy making errors are to be avoided, changes to intelligence contestability and education are needed more than ever.

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