Last week, The Washington Post reported that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is preparing to issue a report that is highly critical of the prewar intelligence used by President Bush to decide to go to war in Iraq. The soon-to-be released report apparently singles out the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate for its reliance on “circumstantial evidence and single-source or disputed information.”
The announcement caused another frenzy of second-guessing and charges that the White House misled the public when making the case for war.
Yet, to those familiar with war and the study of strategic decision-making, these revelations come as no surprise. In fact, they are to be expected. Perhaps it is time that we recognize what strategic leaders have known for thousands of years: that all decisions are made without complete information, and that some of the available information will be less than perfect.
More than 175 years ago, the war theorist Karl Von Clausewitz wrote, “Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false and more are uncertain … reports turn out to be lies, exaggerations, errors, and so on.” He further stated, “If we consider the actual basis of this information, how unreliable and transient it is, we soon realize that war is a flimsy structure that can easily collapse and bury us in its ruins.”
What was true then is true today. Intelligence exists in the realm of uncertainty. Information is gathered and turned into intelligence when we connect the dots and evaluate these bits of information to establish enemy intentions and capabilities. But this process of turning information into intelligence is imperfect for a multitude of reasons. As a result, we in the military have a saying: “Never believe the first report. Or the second.”
I well remember a speech that I attended in which a senior intelligence official portrayed a future that offered something he called “exquisite intelligence.” As he began defining this term as total information and situational awareness, one could see the disbelief on the faces of the members of the audience. The men and women in attendance knew well, that exquisite intelligence is an idea whose time will never come.
So, what can we reasonably expect from a strategic leader who is required to make decisions with less than perfect intelligence? Clausewitz told us “he should possess a standard of judgment, which he can gain only from knowledge of men and affairs and from common sense. He should be guided by the laws of probability.”
Which brings us to the use of and quality of prewar intelligence and Mr. Bush’s subsequent decision to go to war. On the eve of the war in Iraq, the president — indeed the entire world — believed that Saddam Hussein either possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or was trying to gain them. Furthermore, there was ample evidence that his intentions were not favorable to the United States or its allies. You can base this on the intelligence that Bill Clinton used to support his 1998 attack against Iraq; or the United Nations’ belief that Iraq was in possession of VX, mustard gas and anthrax in 1998 (with no subsequent proof that he had destroyed these items in the five years since); or on a series of other valid intelligence reports too numerous to mention.
The fact remains that the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate was not the lynchpin that triggered the recent war. It was simply another piece of a puzzle that included Saddam’s actions and suspected motivations.
So, if what I have outlined above is true — or believed to be true at the time the decision was made to go to war — then it does not matter one whit whether WMD are ever found. What matters is that the entire world community, and specifically the United States, thought that there was a high probability that Saddam Hussein had WMD and that he would either use them or pass them off to those who would.
That said, quit second-guessing the president. He made the best decision that he could make with the best information available.
And that is all that we as citizens should expect.
What did Clausewitz say about the current round of hand-wringing? That, too, is well documented: “The textbooks agree, of course, that we should only believe reliable intelligence, and should never cease to be suspicious, but what is the use of such feeble maxims? They belong to that wisdom which for want of anything better scribblers of systems and compendia resort to when they run out of ideas.”
Roger D. Carstens is a major in the special forces. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. military.