MI6 and CIA seek to draw a line under very bad year




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 23 December 2004

John le Carré’s Perfect Spy was a mythical character who always carried elements of reality.

Just like the master novelist’s fictional account of the twilight world of intelligence, real-life spymasters have never wanted the world to know how much of the aura surrounding intelligence is mythical and how much is derived from fact.

But as intelligence agencies draw a line under an exceptionally bad year, it is not the myth of their own invincibility they will be seeking to rebuild.

The imperfections of intelligence are routinely accepted by the agencies, particularly regarding matters as difficult as determining the nature of Iraq’s weapons programmes. “There is nothing new in this. We have been caught out in the past,” says one senior official.

But such frankness has not diverted attention from the fact that the US and UK governments presented cautious intelligence as certain fact and transformed intelligence into a policy that led to the invasion of Iraq.

Few would now trust a government that said it wanted to go to war based on intelligence. Yet such distrust may damage future attempts to address terrorism and weapons proliferation, both of which will be detected mainly through the work of these intelligence agencies.

“The reason things go wrong is because the top stops listening to the things they don’t want to hear,” says a senior government adviser on one side of the Atlantic.

“Things can always go wrong. In the case of Iraq we had lost touch with the truth on the ground. Therefore our estimates were some way off, and that’s a very common cause of policy failures,” he says.

But government officials in London and Washington are seen by some intelligence officers, and others in security circles, as having used the word “failure” loosely. Where there is continuing animosity between government and spies, this tension has emerged from the debate on whether the fault lies with the information gatherers or those who chose to tailor it in particular ways for public consumption.

“[MI6] must take some of the blame,” says an expert closely associated with the big UK intelligence issues of the past two years. He adds: “The service was confident of what it was saying at that time. But it will also have learned from the government putting its information in the public domain, where it doesn’t belong and shouldn’t belong.”

Such opposition to the public use of intelligence was rarely expressed by UK intelligence agencies prior to the Iraq war. But insiders now admit that the caveats MI6 attached to the information passed to the joint intelligence committee – some of which were later removed – were allowed to disappear partly because officials were enticed by being at the heart of policymaking.

“The [MI6] chief [Sir Richard Dearlove] was seduced by 10 Downing Street, and he should have made a more measured response,” says an intelligence insider. “I think they seduced him by bringing him into top-table decision-making.”

Some in the British intelligence community felt that the interests of MI6 were inadequately defended in Downing Street.

In Washington, some say the same. Some in the US intelligence community argued for taking decisive action against targets on the basis of limited evidence, while others insisted that cast-iron cases were required before any actions were taken. Both camps feel they were hurt by shortcomings in the relationship between intelligence officials and government.

The caution of some UK intelligence officers fell on deaf ears in Downing Street, just as routinely as CIA analyses were dismissed by the White House when they did not suit policy priorities. Meanwhile, retribution is devouring Washington’s intelligence community – and is bubbling quietly along some corridors in Whitehall.

Reform has been the agencies’ response to this mix of public humiliation and professional embarrass ment. The CIA’s counter-terrorism centre is to be subsumed as part of big changes in the US intelligence structure.

MI6 has almost completed the implementation of reforms – in particular to its intelligence collection pro-cedures – called for in Lord Butler’s official report into the intelligence it provided on Iraq’s weapons.

“Ultimately the reputation of MI6 isn’t going to be made or lost by contacts with the external world,” says a senior UK official. “It’s going to be made by what people make of the service’s intelligence product. But it’s noticeable that one part of the debate that is not going on any more is over whether we need intelligence.”

The turmoil at the CIA as Porter Goss, its new director, seeks to bring in close political allies and increase intelligence officers on the ground, is of concern to other countries that share information with the US.

In London, by contrast, the controversy surrounding the appointment of John Scarlett as MI6 chief has abated. His role in producing the controversial dossier on Iraq’s weapons is seen as part of the intelligence failure – but also as equipping him with an intimate knowledge of government. As MI6 seeks to re-establish its credibility among the government departments that are its key “customers”, the latter is likely to prove a greater strength than the former proves a weakness.

This article is part of a year-end series on the future of multilateral relations


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.