Charles Duelfer, the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, has reported that Saddam Hussein possessed no WMD when America attacked last year. Throughout the 1990s, Duelfer said, Saddam was deliberately ambiguous about his WMD capability, mainly to save face and deter his enemies, especially Iran. As a matter of fact, until Saddam told them the truth shortly before the U.S. invasion, even the most senior military and civilian officials in the Iraqi government thought their country had WMD.
From an intelligence point of view, this leaves us with an astounding paradox. Even if the CIA’s operations against Saddam over the past 10 years had been flawless, America still would have been wrong about Iraqi WMD. Indeed, our intelligence estimates would have been even further off the mark than they were.
To see why, try this thought experiment. Instead of having no human penetrations of Saddam’s regime at all (which was in fact the case), imagine the CIA had conducted wildly successful HUMINT operations. Imagine we had the espionage dream team in Baghdad, with seven well-placed agents clandestinely reporting to us from within the upper-most corridors of Iraqi power. These agents would be four-star generals and top-level cabinet ministers, people with direct personal access to Saddam Hussein, members of his inner circle. Assume the CIA had these agents fully vetted and controlled, so there was no question about the veracity of the intelligence they were passing us. Finally, say we had the Iraqi counterintelligence services penetrated enough to know that none of our seven agents were secretly being used by Saddam to deceive us.
This would be a spy ring made in espionage heaven, the polar opposite of an ‘intelligence failure.’ But here is where the dream goes awry. Duelfer’s report shows that Saddam, as part of his ‘divide, intimidate, and control’ style of management, actually duped his closest aides into believing he had WMD. Amazing, but true. Members of Saddam’s inner circle, the very group the CIA would try to infiltrate to discover the truth, were themselves being deceived. The perfect stable of ideal human penetrations would have brought us no closer to the truth than we were with literally zero agents in the Baghdad government.
But it’s even stranger than that. If policy makers had faith in intelligence estimates that incorporated no human reporting (and they obviously did), then HUMINT from multiple agents with superb access would have led to boundless certainty in Washington. The standard confidence-building indicators in intelligence analysis (consistent information from multiple, well-placed, and vetted human sources) would have there in spades. Our leaders would have ‘known’ Saddam had WMD, beyond doubt. Yet they would have been dead wrong.
The lesson is as important as it is perplexing. During the Cold War, when our enemy was the Soviet Union, the important secrets were held in bureaucracies like the Ministry of Defense, not by a single person. (At least not after Stalin.) That meant if you had an agent inside the MOD, you could steal MOD secrets and find out what the enemy was doing. And if one part of the bureaucracy was feeding you disinformation (e.g., the counterintelligence service), one of your agents in another part of the bureaucracy (the Foreign Ministry, say) might be able to tip you off.
Today it’s different. With Saddam Hussein, we have a case in which the ultimate truth resided with the leader alone. Up against an adversary like that, the CIA would achieve nothing by going after the classic targets. Much the same is true for our other enemies in this baffling new war, like al Qaeda and its Southeast Asian cousin, Jamaah Islamiyah.
The old assumptions no longer get traction. The CIA needs to come up with new ideas. Really new ideas. Officers in the Clandestine Service must devise subterfuges nobody has ever thought of, adopt approaches that could never have worked in years past, and hunt targets that spies never dreamed of hunting before. Freedom, imagination, risk-taking, and individual genius are key. This is really where the intelligence side of the war on terror will be won or lost. And to be frank, few of the 9/11 Commission’s bureaucratic recommendations will be of any help here.
Contrary to Senator Kerry and others, salvation does not lie within the pages of the 9/11 report. The last thing the CIA needs is another layer of bureaucracy. Instead, the number one priority for DCI Porter Goss must be an Agency of innovation, daring thought, and inspired action. The Cold War assumptions are truly dead, and the Duelfer report is the proof. Goss needs to bury them, and then give us something new.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA. Email: email@example.com