Inquiries point to need for intelligence overhaul

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 July, 2004, 12:00am

Following the US Senate intelligence committee's findings last week that shaky and inconclusive evidence about Iraqi weapons programmes was used to prop up the case for invasion, the UK is bracing for similarly damning conclusions from the Butler report on British intelligence just before the war.

Lord Butler's report is expected to echo the Senate findings, calling into question whether Prime Minister Tony Blair's assessment of a 'serious and current threat' from Iraq was justified based on information available at the time. The advice he received from his attorney-general - that international law justified the invasion - may also come under attack.

In throwing into question the main reasoning behind a pre-emptive strike and an occupation that has so far claimed thousands of lives, the reports raise important questions about the need to reform intelligence gathering in both countries. Agencies such as the FBI, CIA and MI6 should be given the independence needed to gather, analyse and present information based on the level of threat in evidence - instead of, as is suggested, being led by the political priorities of sitting administrations.

Oversight and supervision are necessary - and the possibility of rogue spy agencies able to act on their own must be guarded against - but these reports do point to problems that are keeping intelligence analysts from doing their work effectively. And while it is important to understand how relatively flimsy evidence was spun to make a case for the war - as well as to see there are safeguards against it happening again - it is equally important to look at what the findings have to say about the failings within the intelligence gathering systems themselves.

Very likely, the same lack of communication, sloppy work and reliance on second-hand or barely reliable sources that undermined the gathering and interpretation of information ahead of the Iraq invasion affect other areas. Specifically, these are weaknesses that compromise safety in the face of a continuing threat from al-Qaeda and other terror organisations inspired by its tactics.

Certainly, the calls for an overhaul of the US system are likely to grow louder after the commission looking at the attacks of September 11, 2001, releases its final report later this month. In analysing the data available before the attacks, the commission found no evidence of co-operation between Osama bin Laden's group and Saddam Hussein. But what it did find was a lack of communication between the FBI, CIA and civil aviation authorities, along with an inability to identify crucial information received and pass it on to decision-makers who could act upon it.

Nearly three years after the attacks, it is not clear whether these problems have been addressed. Then there are the systemic weaknesses exposed by the Senate committee report - for instance, that the US had few first-hand sources in Iraq just before the war. If all of this is considered along with indications that radical militants still have ambitions to attack the US and other parts of the world, it is clear the intelligence issue has implications far beyond a trumped-up case for war in Iraq.

The weaknesses exist even though the US spends US$40 billion a year on intelligence gathering, and as the Senate report points out, throwing money at the problem is not going to help. Proposals are set to range from creating a co-ordinating intelligence organisation to giving some existing agencies, particularly the CIA, more power and control of their own budgets. There is also sure to be an emphasis on improving information technology and systems for sharing data.

After the Butler report, the immediate focus in Britain is likely to be on the political accountability of Mr Blair and his cabinet. It may be that there is a case to answer there. But it would be a mistake to frame the debate too narrowly. As in the US, the intelligence failings are, most probably, not limited to a one-off miscalculation about Hussein's weapons programmes.