Saturday, February 07, 2004
Bad Intelligence =Stupidity? Discuss

The intelligence services coordinate their reports through the Joint Intelligence Committee, a body that analyzes the information received and prepares memoranda for the Prime Minister or any other politician who is designated to receive this documentation. This system has remained in existence since its establishment during the early years of the Cold War.

This system has continued without change through the trend towards the legalisation of the intelligence services. Both MI5 and SIS were placed on a statutory footing in 1994 and became subject to greater, though very limited, parliamentary supervision with the Intelligence and Security Committee. These developments took place in response to calls for greater control and transparancy over the security services after public explorations of their methods such as the Spycatcher Scandal. Moreover, the end of the Cold War appeared to remove their deadliest enemy from the scene. Legalisation of the security services was a willingness to exchange institutional flexibility for legal sanction.

This trend towards transparency and legitimation was also reflected in the more influential role of Parliamentary Select Committees since the reforms of 1979 and culminated in the parliamentary vote on the Iraqi war. Yet, as the media has become more accustomed to receiving information in these matters, it is difficult to ascertain how the use of intelligence has changed over the years. This area results the closest links between democratically elected politicians and existing state structures. Did Hutton show politicised relationships that had always developed in practice but remained hidden until the Blair administration unwisely used intelligence in their public documents? Or was there a greater politicisation between Ministers and civil servants involved in intelligence under the Blair administration? After all, it was the unprecedented and public use of intelligence sources in political documents that drew civil servants into the political sphere, a line that they crossed without being aware of the fact, since they also considered the dossiers to be administrative documents.

However, the use of intelligence sources to provide evidence for a course of action has proved problematic. Intelligence can rarely deal in certainties and relies on risk
assessment or "filling in the dots" to structure tentative conclusions. The intelligence failures that have dogged Britain provided sufficient warning to any government not to place a faith in their arguments. They were unable to predict the Argentinian invasion or warn of the danger that Saddam Hussein was close to achieving a nuclear capability. Reliance upon these sources to provide firm evidence for any political action has backfired upon the government.

The media has reacted sceptically to the claims of the government and, in doing so, has educated parts of the public on the use of intelligence to justify foreign policy. The lesson is that the government cannot find firm evidence for the reasons that they stated for going to war. This is where the government may have performed another disservice through their manipulations. They have fed expectations that the government should be able to provide firm evidence of weapons of mass destruction or any other threat before taking any action. This requirement to certify the declaration of war in the public arena is partnered with a need to seek parliamentary approval, through a debate or a vote. By seeking popular legitimation, Blair has tied his own hands and, perhaps those of his successors, before undertaking any future foreign policy adventure.

The question arises: where do we go from here? There are three (probably more) possible developments:

1) Blair could try to return to the traditional powers of the executive in this matter, but under present circumstances, would prove unable to persuade his own Cabinet or the Parliamentary Labour Party. This may return if the Tory Party is ever returned to power.

2) The intelligence services must have now woken up to the consequences of placing their own assessments in the public domain to support a political course of action. It would not be surprising if there is now a call to strengthen the procedures governing the relationship between the Joint Intelligence Committee and its political masters. This would ensure that the intelligence services were once again shielded from the uses to which their information is put after the harsh light of Hutton, where the integrity of the footsoldiers was sullied by the actions of their masters.

3) The pressures for greater transparency and supervision could achieve their natural conclusion with proper parliamentary institutions holding inquiries and interviewing security personnel in camera. The appointment of the US inquiry into the failures of intelligence during the Iraqi campaign has shown the drawbacks of our own intelligence services, and forced the government to appoint an equivalent committee. Due to their close relationship with the United States, and their public role before, during and after the war, the JIC is now subject to the harsh glare of the searchlight that is focussed upon the US partners. Perhaps they ought to forsake the shadows and adopt the higher public profile of the CIA. Neither secrecy or a public profile has proved more effective.

Will the forthcoming Butler Report necessitate further reform and the Americanisation of our intelligence services, resulting in a British version of the CIA and FBI?

(20.58, 7th February 2004)


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