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The Doctrine of Nagging Doubt

Is U.S. intelligence good enough to support the Bush Adminstration’s doctrine of preemption?

December 6, 2003

Is U.S. intelligence good enough to support the Bush Adminstration's doctrine of preemption?

The war with Iraq has divided Americans pretty much along party lines. Yet, in one regard and regardless of party affiliations, Americans on the left and the right are united.

Both sides sense that the current conditions in Iraq prove their country does not have the kind of detailed knowledge necessary to "preempt" with any degree of confidence.

In the lead-up to the war with Iraq, top Bush Administration officials made numerous representations that Iraq was an imminent threat to the region — and even to the United States itself.

In March 2003, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney even suggested that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. We now know that Iraq did not present an imminent threat.

It is amazing to realize what the actual basis of these assertions was in the run-up to the war.

The U.S. government assumed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction on the basis of — extrapolation. In other words, the U.S. "intelligence" was based in concepts of mathematical conjecture — not hard evidence.

It is even more amazing to realize that U.S. commanders in the field evidently went into battle without accurate knowledge of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction capabilities and deployments on the battlefield.

To make matters worse, other governments relied on Bush Administration evidence provided with great aplomb and assurance.

Some even joined the coalition on the basis of this information. Others shied away from military commitments.

Yet, these undecided countries openly and publicly supported the war's objectives, on the basis of representations made by the administration that Iraq possessed WMDs.

But not all governments bought the intelligence provided by the United States.

In fact, in the fall of 2002, representatives of several governments publicly stated they had reliable information Iraq possessed no stockpiles of WMD.

They asserted that the Bush Administration’s representations were inaccurate. Among them was the Russian government — a country known to possess many great mathematicians.

Apparently, Russia has better mathematicians than the ones the U.S. government relied upon for its "evidence."

Unfazed, the Bush Administration rejected these assertions and continued to insist it had reliable information to the contrary.

Therefore, all governments, it said — doubters or not — should join the coalition to topple Saddam.

To assess the real fallout from all this, step back into history for a moment.

Over many decades, the United States has developed important collaborative relationships with foreign governments in the area of intelligence. It is also well known that the United States possesses technological superiority in certain kinds of intelligence.

By the same token, quite a few foreign governments are more than happy that the U.S. government is keen to foot the bill for the development and operating costs of all those satellites, spy balloons and so on.

Why not support the United States in this regard whole-heartedly — as long as it shares relevant intelligence?

In particular, U.S.-provided signal intelligence, or “Sigint,” as well as image intelligence, or “Imint,” has been found to be accurate and reliable by foreign governments.

Based on that track record, foreign governments have increasingly come to rely on conclusions and information provided by U.S. intelligence over the years.

In contrast, another key dimension of the spying game, human intelligence — or “Humint” — has for some time been a weakness of the U.S. intelligence process.

To compensate for its deficiencies in this area, the United States has developed reciprocal relationships with foreign governments that traditionally have invested more in humint capabilities — and obtained better results from them as well.

Yet, as intriguing as all of this they may sound — and the relative strengths and weakness analysis — really describes the intelligence world of yesteryear.

The challenges of today are fundamentally different from those of two decades ago.

Unfortunately, intelligence institutions are not organized to deal with the conditions of today.

During the Soviet era, Americans fully understood the nature of the challenge — because it was based on a highly advanced technological system of arms.

Sigint and imint — the two areas where the United States was (and is) at the top of the game — came in handy for detailed and reliable threat assessments.

Today, however, we are no longer dealing with nuclear silos and coordinated structures for an assault on the United States.

Those structures — sunk into concrete and mounted onto unwieldy trucks moving about — were the ones U.S. intelligence with its prime capabilities could decipher quite easily.

Armed with that information, U.S. leaders could manage those threats very well.

Today, the problem is much more elusive. As a consequence, the U.S. government has to look at ways to make structural reforms that address these new threats.

Some experts, including former National Security Agency director Bill Odom in his book, Fixing Intelligence, suggest some structural reforms, including in the area of human intelligence.

Important though it undoubtedly is, that kind of advice admittedly sounds like what, say, the IMF has dispensed to member countries for decades in order to reform — and modernize — their economies, often to little, if any avail.

Still, intelligence institutions are going to have to be reorganized to deal with today’s conditions — if the doctrine of preemption is to remain the theoretical underpinning of U.S. foreign policy decision-making.

And yet, it may already be too late for that. The political uses of intelligence information, for all its faults, are based on nothing more than credibility.

To be sure, any intelligence information always involves a degree of uncertainty.

But two things can prove deadly in this regard. The first is too much cocksureness in light of what proves to be disastrously false intelligence.

That undermines U.S. credibility and effectiveness not just with leaders of nations who had their doubts.

Worse, it almost decapitates those leaders of other countries where sticking to the U.S. point of view took particular courage in light of vehement domestic opposition.

But the fallout effect is even worse on the American people themselves.

I have argued that President Bush's doctrine of preemption requires a level of certainty and assuredness.

If these stipulations cannot realistically be met under the usual operating conditions of intelligence gathering, then the whole proposition — rooting the nation's security and well-being onto a concept that establishes an impossible standard — is truly disastrous.

Perhaps this logic also explains why, in the end, Mr. Cheney, President Bush and all the other U.S. policymakers always sounded so sure.

They just had to — for the doctrine of preemption to work.

Instead, in the eyes of many nations around the world — and increasing numbers of Americans — their much-cherished doctrine has turned into something quite different — the "doctrine of nagging doubt."

That, however, is a concept upon which neither the power nor the security of the United States can — and should — ever be based on.

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