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Last Updated: Friday, 1 April, 2005, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Attitude vital to good intelligence
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The twin intelligence failures of Iraq and 9/11 have prompted both the US and British governments to shake up their intelligence services.

President Bush (right) with former Senator Charles Robb
The US report on WMD was radical
They have reacted in different ways, with the Americans being radical and the British measured.

The national stereotypes are proving rather good guides in this case.

You can see this for a start in the language used in the reports of the groups set up to examine the failure over the alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The latest US report, from a commission appointed by President Bush and headed by a conservative federal judge Laurence Silberman and a former Democratic Senator Charles Robb, was blunt.

'Dead wrong'

"We conclude that the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure," they said in a letter to the president.

The contrast with the style of the British report, from a committee headed by a former cabinet secretary, Lord Butler, is quite marked.

You will look in vain in the Butler report for words like "dead wrong". The Butler team, which reported last July, preferred British understatement and spoke only of "weaknesses" as in the phrase "weaknesses in the human intelligence relied upon by the UK".

You can also see the difference by what happened to the two men on each side of the Atlantic who had most to do with the intelligence assessments.

In the US, the head of the CIA George Tenet, resigned.

The trick is to balance that competitive element with an ability to make an overall and balanced assessment
In the UK, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, also lost his job - but by being promoted to be head of the Secret Intelligence Service.

The major result of the various American proposals has been the nomination by Mr Bush of a new intelligence supremo.

He is John Negroponte, a veteran diplomatic fixer who as US ambassador in Honduras in the 1980s organised the Contra rebels in their attacks on the government of Nicaragua.

More recently, he has been US ambassador to Iraq.

'Intelligence checks'

Mr Negroponte is supposed to lead and co-ordinate all the various intelligence organisations that until now have been more or less in competition with each other.

The Robb-Silberman Commission has recommended that he be given adequate powers.

Competition among agencies is not a bad thing in itself because it can act as a check on maverick actions, and other recommendations actually seek to set up rival centres of analysis.

The Commission says, for example, that there should be a "non-profit sponsored research institute" outside the agencies to provide a "critical window" by doing its own studies.

The trick in the organisation of intelligence structures is to balance that competitive element, which can encourage sceptical and contrary views, with an ability to make an overall and balanced assessment.

It turned out in the case of Iraq that the British method of relying on a central coordinating body, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), was just as bad at reaching the correct conclusion as the American system, under which one organisation, the CIA, had the lead.

Dose of scepticism

So the British government has recently accepted the recommendations of the Butler committee that mechanisms should be created within and alongside the JIC to allow for dissent and an opposing view.

Butler report
The Butler report was more understated than its US equivalent
A new official has also been appointed specifically to act as a check on the findings of others.

One of the disasters over Iraq was that information from a source which emerged very late in the day was not put to the experts in that field, with the result that the UK government dossier on Iraq was further flawed.

So the experts are to be brought in closer to those who make the final assessments and the assessments staff is being significantly increased.

Of course, all this re-organisation is no real substitute for a good dose of scepticism.

It often comes down to an attitude of mind.

A recent television documentary-drama about the death of the UK government scientist and weapons inspector Dr David Kelly showed that even he believed Iraq probably retained illegal weapons.

He had concluded that missing stocks of weapons material probably meant that they had been hidden in order to make weapons secretly. They had not.

A question of attitude

A famous case of the wrong concept was in 1973 when the Israelis were convinced that the Egyptians could not and therefore would not attack across the Suez Canal. The attack took place.

No amount of built-in dissent can protect an organisation from the wrong attitude.

Intelligence has never been more vital because the power of terrorists has never been greater
In 1944, a young intelligence office named Brian Urquart warned his superiors that the Germans had a Panzer division near the Arnhem Bridge which was the last and most important objective of Operation Market Garden, the attempt to leap frog into Holland to break though into Germany.

Urquart was ignored. The Panzers were there and the bridge was not taken.

The reforms in both cases are basically aimed at injecting more foresight into intelligence agencies, which would lessen the need for a lot of reports armed with hindsight.

But the history of intelligence is so littered with major misjudgements that even these reforms cannot guarantee success in the future.

Intelligence is not an art, let alone a science. It is often just a guess, more or less educated.

Yet intelligence has never been more vital because the power of terrorists or a rogue government, perhaps armed with nuclear weapons, has never been greater.

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