Uneasy statesmen and spy alliance




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 22 July 2003

The cracks in the normally smooth process of intelligence sharing between London and Washington must soon force both governments to accept that the strategy of using intelligence to justify pre-emptive war in Iraq has failed.

This failure is not explained by a faulty or misplaced conviction on the part of the two governments that something needed to be done about Saddam Hussein. Nor do the US Central Intelligence Agency and the UK Secret Intelligence Service (known as MI6) have any doubts about the veracity of most of the information they had assembled.

The failure has been in transforming the intelligence into a credible and enduring political argument.

Secret intelligence is a potent weapon. The sequence of events that led to the apparent suicide last week of David Kelly, the British scientist and former UN weapons inspector, in part stemmed from his portrayal by the BBC as a “senior intelligence source”. As controversially, President George W. Bush cited British intelligence as the source of claims that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger.

In fact, Mr Kelly was not an intelligence source, while Mr Bush’s claim was later proved to be based on forged documents and not on British intelligence. Information drawing on this stock of secret facts has now become a veil used to obscure the shortcomings of a strategy based on secrecy rather than openness.

“Intelligence,” a senior intelligence officer told me recently, “is that crucial 5 per cent that can make a picture whole.” Rarely is it so substantial as to constitute the entire picture. But by falling back on intelligence to justify war, both the US and UK governments sought to transform that “crucial 5 per cent” into 95 per cent of the reason to fight. The dangers of doing so are now emerging.

A crucial but overlooked element in the debate about the credibility of the secret intelligence used to justify the war is that information accepted by the CIA was often rejected by MI6, and vice versa.

The different views of the US and UK intelligence services on the issue of Iraq’s alleged attempts to procure uranium are consistent with the way intelligence agencies work but at odds with the way governments work. The increasingly uneasy relationship between statesmen and spies – particularly in Washington – now risks seriously damaging both, as we see the pitfalls of building a case for war that is dependent on the assessments of the intelligence agencies rather than the ideological convictions of parliaments.

Throughout the lead-up to war, the rationale pursued in Washington held the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington as the starting point. Within hours of the attacks, the Bush administration sought to implicate Mr Hussein and link the regime to al-Qaeda. In the UK, this link was never accepted by MI6, despite the issue being at the heart of the US rationale for war in Iraq.

Other significant differences existed. In the immediate pre-war period, the CIA concluded that, if left unchecked, Iraq could build a nuclear weapon within one year, while the UK assessed that it would take twice as long. With the outbreak of hostilities, the coalition partners’ vastly different assessments of Iraq’s military capability and strategy quickly became clear. Again, secret intelligence was the source of these differences.

Herein lies the difficulty for the US and UK governments. To convince their doubting publics of the correctness of war, the governments in London and Washington had at all costs to highlight the common ground and breadth of agreement that existed between them. But to achieve this they used material from intelligence agencies whose positions differed on crucial issues and whose often opposing views are a normal state for the intelligence community.

It is these opposing positions that enrich the US-UK intelligence-sharing process – but which have become the Achilles’ heel of the two countries’ political alliance. The contradictions in intelligence are clearly untenable as the building blocks of such an alliance. No more so than when they are subject to political opposition and media scrutiny – from which the intelligence agencies can try to keep their distance, leaving their political masters to utter only partial facts while arguing that the full story cannot be told because it is a secret.

The writer is the FT’s security correspondent


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.