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Probabilities and Certainties By: Bobby Eberle
www.GOPUSA.com | Wednesday, July 14, 2004


The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has now released its long-awaited report on the Intelligence Community's efforts regarding the gathering, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence data regarding Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. This intelligence information formed the basis for the Bush administration to go to war to oust Saddam Hussein's regime. The report blasts the intelligence efforts on many fronts, but one of the most striking failures of the entire Intelligence Community was their predetermined mindset that Iraq had an active WMD program. In a major breech of research and analysis protocol, this mindset caused analysts to deal in certainties rather than probabilities.

In making the case for war against Iraq, the Bush administration relied heavily on the National Intelligence Estimate from October 2002 titled "Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction." The National Intelligence Estimate is a collection of intelligence analysis, and in this case, the analysis painted a clear picture of ongoing and expanding weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq. The Senate, in its review and investigation, found that most of the major key judgments in the National Intelligence Estimate were "overstated" or "not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting." In short, the Senate investigation found "a series of failures, particularly in analytic trade craft, led to the mischaracterization of the intelligence."

In some fields, such as mathematics and engineering, there are events which can be explained in certainties. One plus one equals two. Pressure is directly proportional to force and inversely proportional to area. These are facts, and decisions based on these facts can be trusted. However, in the intelligence business there are no hard and fast equations and seldom are there certainties. Rather, when policymakers must base their decisions on intelligence analysis, they are relying on probabilities -- on the scenarios most likely to exist or to occur in the future. Herein lies the problem in build up to the war with Iraq. The Bush administration built its case on data without being given the full story, and thus proceeded to war with pieces of a puzzle that appeared to fit, but upon closer inspection were really jammed together to form an indictment of Saddam Hussein and his regime.

The National Intelligence Estimate stated several "certainties" which the Senate investigation found lacking in adequate support and confidence. In particular, the National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iraq:

  • "is reconstituting its nuclear program,"

  • "has chemical and biological weapons," and

  • "all key aspects of Iraq's offensive biological weapons are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War"

In the above statements, from a research and analysis perspective, what are the key words? Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons? No. In this case, the key words are "is," "has," and "are." In other words, the claims made in the National Intelligence Estimate were stated as certainties. According to the Senate investigation, these certainties were either "overstated" or were "not supported by" the underlying intelligence reporting provided to the Senate committee.

Why did this happen? The Senate report cites several reasons. First, the Senate report faults analysts for not properly highlighting activities which serve a "dual use." For example, according to the committee, the intelligence "did show that Iraq was procuring dual-use equipment that had potential nuclear applications, but all of the equipment had conventional military or industrial applications. The Senate report found that none of the intelligence reporting indicated that the equipment was being procured for suspect nuclear facilities. Thus, intelligence showed that Iraq was purchasing equipment that "could" be used for nuclear applications, but not that it "was" being used for nuclear applications.

In another example, the report stated, "Iraq's efforts to deceive and evade United Nations weapons inspectors and its inability or unwillingness to fully account for pre-Gulf War chemical and biological weapons and precursors could have led analysts to the reasonable conclusion that Iraq may have retained those materials, but intelligence analysts did not have enough information to state with certainty that Iraq 'has' these weapons."

The Senate Committee said that the Intelligence Community did not accurately or adequately explain to policymakers the uncertainties behind the judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. As stated in the report, "Intelligence analysts are not only charged with interpreting and assessing the intelligence reporting, but with clearly conveying to policymakers the difference between what intelligence analysts know, what they don't know, what they think, and to make sure that policymakers understand the difference."

The Senate Committee cited a "group think" atmosphere in which the prevailing mindset was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that intelligence analysis was clouded by this group think. The Committee said that standard procedures of a group playing "devil's advocate" or trying to debunk the intelligence data were not properly followed. According to the report, "This 'group think' dynamic led Intelligence Community analysts, collectors and managers to both interpret ambiguous evidence as conclusively indicative of a WMD program as well as ignore or minimize evidence that Iraq did not have active and expanding weapons of mass destruction programs."

It should be noted that the Committee found no evidence that the Intelligence Community's mischaracterization of the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities was the result of political pressure. However, political decisions were based on the intelligence, and when those decisions result in waging war, then policymakers must be given the full story. For the sake of our men and women in uniform, the Intelligence Community must do a better job.

There are few certainties when intelligence information is based on covert operations, defectors, intercepted transmissions, interrogations, reconnaissance, and circumstantial information. In many cases, policy decisions must be based on a "best guess" or most likely scenario. In order for such decisions to be made, the "best" information must be put forward and the confidence in and reliability of the information must be presented. If a decision to go to war is based on information that analysts believe with a 99% certainty, that's clearly better than going to war based on data with a 50% confidence level. If, however, no confidence level or probability is given, and if those probabilities are stated as certainties, then policymakers do not have the full picture in order to make the best decision. Yet, that's exactly what happened with Iraq.

Is the world better off with Saddam Hussein out of power? Most definitely. Does the transformation of Iraq lead to hope for a new democracy in the Middle East. Absolutely. However, there will be more battles to face in the war on terror, and decisions made during those battles will be based largely on the efforts of the U.S. Intelligence Community. If we as Americans are going to stake our reputation on the accuracy of intelligence data, if we are going to ask other nations to send their own brave men and women to fight for the cause of freedom, if we are going to claim that a nation is a grave and growing threat, then we must have reliable and verifiable intelligence information. We owe it to any American whom we ask to step forward, fight, and possibly die in America's war on terror.


Bobby Eberle is President and CEO of GOPUSA (www.GOPUSA.com), a news, information, and commentary company based in Houston, TX. He holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Rice University.


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