Fixing intelligence around the policy, JIC-style!

An exchange with Patrick Radden-Keefe, author of Chatter, dating back to 2007. As relevant as ever (imho) in light of the “intelligence” recently served up to persuade MPs and the public to support the bombing of Syria…

Dear Patrick,

Trust you’re well.

In your article, “The Long Intelligence Haul“, published at Slate, you argue that “The rush to war in Iraq… represented a false positive, in which analysts too readily connected dots and saw a threat where there was none”, and furthermore that “The weakness that got us into Iraq should be relatively easy to fix”.

I can see where you’re coming from here, but, in my view, this analysis – which you elucidate further in the rest of the article – is misconceived. In particular, your premise – that “analysts too readily connected dots” seems not to capture the essential dynamic, in my view, of the relationship between the intelligence agencies and government – at least, not in the UK. May I ask if you’ve read the transcripts of the Hutton Inquiry? The inquiry, justifiably in my view, took a real pasting in the UK press at the time, but one thing it did do was confirm that UK foreign policy is formulated by an elitist, anti-democratic clique, consisting of senior ministers, unelected policy aides and advisors, and the heads of the main UK intelligence agencies.

What’s clear from the testimony is that the intelligence chiefs served up a threat assessment to suit the political needs of the UK government. And, of course, what the government desperately needed at the time was a document that hyped the threat from Iraq in order to soften up public opinion for military action that HAD ALREADY BEEN DECIDED UPON IN WASHINGTON. We know this latter point is accurate from the Downing Street Memo – a transcript from a meeting which took place in July of 2002, at which all the usual UK suspects were present, including the heads of the foreign intelligence agencies (GCHQ, MI6). We also know from further testimony submitted to Hutton – from, amongst others, Brian Jones (DIS) – that there was considerable concern within the lower ranks of the intelligence community about the way the government dossier was being drawn up, and, specifically, the prominence that was being afforded to particular pieces of intelligence (e.g. 45 minutes and uranium from Niger).

In other words, at the level of the individual analyst, it would appear that the dots were NOT in fact being connected – at least, not in a manner that portrayed Iraq as the clear and present threat that Blair and others would later claim. On the contrary, the picture painted by the evidence at Hutton
is one of senior managers – and ultimately the JIC – over-ruling the concerns of analysts lower down the hierarchy and cherry-picking intelligence to suit the needs of government.

Given that the heads of MI6 and GCHQ were present at the July 2002 meeting and intimately involved in the subsequent drafting of the dossier building the case for war against Iraq, the conclusion that the upper echelons of the intelligence agencies have become dangerously politicised seems inescapable. Your analysis seems to level blame at the level of individual analysts, yet in reality, it’s pretty clear that blame lies higher up, with ultimate responsibility falling upon the agency heads that make up the JIC. Being a structural problem, this politicisation of the upper echelons of the intelligence agencies is anything but “easy to fix”. Indeed, without wholesale (democratic) reform, it’s hard to see how any significant change might come about.

Best wishes,

Dear Joe:

Many thanks for your email, and please forgive the delayed reply. I couldn’t agree more with your point about politicization, but in glancing back at the article, I think that was actually part of the point I was aiming to make. Of course Iraq was an instance in which political masters ordered up the intelligence they wanted to buttress their aims and claims. I should have qualified the phrase “analysts too readily connected the dots” to make clear that analysts were effectively being told to do so by their bosses. But that’s precisely the “strong wind” that I quote Paul Pillar talking about. As for how hard or easy it will be to fix, the Iran story I cite does give me grounds for optimism, and I still believe that relative to the false-negative problem, the false-positive problem is less of a challenge. As you rightly point out, the political elite twisted and manipulated the classic bottom-up intelligence production arrangement, and having been badly burned, I think many in the intelligence community are working hard to restore the integrity of those procedures.

All best wishes,

Dear Patrick,

Many thanks for your email.

Having re-read your article “The Long Intelligence Haul” in conjunction with your email, I do appreciate that we are, to a large extent, “singing from the same hymn-sheet” here. That said, I do detect an important, if somewhat nuanced, difference between our respective analyses. Paul Pillar’s “strong wind” does indeed seem an apt metaphor for what happened vis-a-vis Iraq, but only up to a point. As I see things, the real question is from WHERE this wind is emanating. I could be misinterpreting, but you (and Pillar) seem to be suggesting that the source of this “wind” is/was the politicians, who then leaned on intelligence chiefs, who then leaned on analysts. This is certainly how I read your statement below for example:

“…the political elite twisted and manipulated the classic bottom-up intelligence production arrangement.”

What I was attempting to suggest – obviously very badly! – was that this conception of events, whilst not inaccurate, doesn’t quite capture the real dynamics of the relationship between the intelligence agencies and politicians. The way I see things, the intelligence chiefs are themselves a PART OF THIS “POLITICAL ELITE” – both in practice and in terms of ideology (how they “see the world”). Put another way, the intelligence chiefs are not, in my view, accurately conceptualised as a separate entity being leaned on by politicans; rather, they are a part of the very same decision-making and policy-formulating elite, which clearly has major implications when thinking about potential reform. Indeed, short of ripping out the upper echelons of the intelligence agencies, it’s hard to see how any reform will actually achieve the desired goal of ensuring the agencies’ independence – both ideological and actual.

Of course, another issue that is relevant to reform in the UK (and this applies especially to British sigint) is the “two masters” dilemma – the fact that UK intelligence agencies are heavily reliant upon US intelligence. Indeed, GCHQ, as you are well aware, is almost completely integrated into a network ostensibly run by the NSA, and this poses an additional layer of complexity when it comes to consideration of potential reforms.

Regarding your discussion of the “false-negative” problem, I don’t disagree, but of course, ultimately, this is a problem that can only be alleviated, even resolved, by finding political solutions to the underlying causes of terrorism. Once politicians and intelligence agencies start recognising the root causes of terrorism, and once politicians start implementing policies that ensure people around the globe are not receptive to extremist rhetoric (of varying types), then the “false negative” problem disappears as there are simply no dots to connect. All a bit idealistic? Perhaps. There’s no doubt in my mind, however, that we need to start radically re-evaluating our theories and approaches towards securitisation, with a much greater emphasis upon excision (of problems) at root.

Anyways, apologies for rambling and thanks for reading.

Best wishes,


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