Organizational reforms can't prevent people from being wrong.

Military analysis.
March 31 2005 7:21 PM

To Err Is Human

Organizational reforms can't prevent people from being wrong.

Intel officials gave him what he wanted
Intel officials gave him what he wanted

The presidential commission on the WMD-intelligence fiasco issued its 601-page report today, and it turns out to be a bit of a fiasco itself. The report starts out strong, with its headline-grabbing charge that all of America's spy agencies—the CIA, DIA, NSA, FBI, and so forth—were "dead wrong" in their judgments that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. However, as you scroll through the pages (drowning yourself in caffeine to stay awake), three things become clear:

First, the report presents only a few new facts about the case, though this may be due more to timing than to discretion; other probes and press stories have uncovered most of the omissions and malfeasances since President Bush (reluctantly) created the commission 14 months ago.

Second, its authors are either startlingly naive or disingenuously deceptive about the political context behind the intelligence errors.

Third, and most dismaying, the report's recommendations for improving the "intelligence community" have little bearing on its analysis of what went wrong. Had all its proposed reorganizations been in place four years ago, there's nothing that suggests the agencies—or the Bush administration—would have reached more accurate conclusions.

Reading beyond the executive summary reveals that the intelligence failure on Iraq had little to do with management, interagency disputes, or sloppy organizational charts. Rather, the main causes were twofold. First, on many points, well-placed intelligence analysts were simply wrong; it's as plain as that, and it's hard to see how any reshufflings or new directives might have overwhelmed human fallacy. Second, everyone knew President Bush was gearing up for war; he, therefore, wanted, needed, to find Iraq worthy of invasion; and the heads of intelligence, doubling as administration appointees, accommodated that disposition.

The commissioners try to skirt this political dimension of the intelligence analysts' findings. "In no instance," the report states up front, "did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgment." However, it goes on, "That said, it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence agencies worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."

Later on, the report elaborates: "Some analysts were affected by this 'conventional wisdom' and the sense that challenges to it—or even refusals to find its confirmation—would not be welcome." This "climate" was shaped, the report continues, by a "gathering conviction among analysts that war with Iraq was inevitable." (For more on this tendency, click here.)

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The report also notes an inherent conflict. The director of the intelligence community must be close to the president in order to have influence, but this means he risks a "loss of objectivity," as the director then becomes "part of the team." As a result, intelligence analysts "may be dissuaded from offering dissenting opinions."

One reason the commissioners address this point so briefly, and obliquely, is that President Bush didn't want them to bring it up at all. As Lawrence Silberman, the panel's co-chairman, explained at the press conference this morning, "Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us agreed that this was not part of our inquiry."

The panel didn't interview the president or vice president. The report doesn't even mention the special five-man team that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld set up in his Pentagon office in the fall of 2002 to scour raw reports for the slightest suggestion of evidence, which the CIA might have missed, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or links to al-Qaida. An executive order is an executive order. But for a report about intelligence errors to avoid such matters is like viewing Hamlet through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (but, unlike Tom Stoppard, not for laughs).

Still, the report cites several analysts as saying they would have reached their erroneous conclusions even in the absence of this political "climate." To the extent that's true (and the report makes a good case that it is), the causes of their mistakes are scattered throughout the report. The various agencies, the report states, "collected precious little intelligence for the analysts to analyze." Intelligence-gathering technology these days is "not cutting edge." The analytical branches "have suffered from weak leadership, insufficient training, and budget setbacks that led to the loss of our best, most senior analysts." They have difficulty recruiting and retaining people "with scientific and technical skills, diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, management experience, and advanced language capabilities." "Technical expertise, particularly relating to weapons systems, has fallen sharply in the past 10 years." As for human spies, "we simply need more people."

These are serious problems, but they won't be solved by shuffling the bureaucratic layers or molding a new one.

Another source of error is that intelligence analysts assumed Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, especially biological and chemical weapons. He'd acquired them before; U.S. analysts had underestimated his capabilities the first time around, before the 1991 Gulf War; therefore, the report states, evidence from 2001-03 was viewed "through the prism of their assumption that Iraq was reconstituting" its WMD, resulting in a "tunnel vision."

This is an insightful observation, but what can anybody do with it? We all view evidence through the prism of some assumptions. That's the nature of human perception and cognition. If we didn't, we would experience the world as random sensory stimuli.

As one way to deal with this natural tendency, the report suggests the cultivation of "competitive intelligence analysis." Special groups should be set up to interpret intelligence data in ways that are "explicitly contrarian" and "licensed to be troublesome." This sort of enterprise works well in certain contexts. For instance, war-game exercises pit a blue team against a red team, so that war plans can be tested against at least the simulacrum of an enemy. But an institutionalized red team in intelligence analysis would come to be viewed as a formality to be tolerated, then sidestepped. When President Lyndon Johnson held Cabinet meetings on the Vietnam War, he always invited George Ball, a State Department official who famously opposed the war, so all the officials could say they listened to a dissenting view. Ball otherwise had no effect on their thinking.

The limits of organizational reform are most desperately expressed in a section of the report that attributes intelligence failures to "a lack of imagination." No doubt. But this isn't something that can be redressed by fiat. It takes imaginative people, the resources to hire them, and the incentives to keep them onboard.

The report does make a few suggestions that are sensible, practical, and nearly cost-free. The most intriguing and significant is the idea of forcing intelligence agencies to make clear—to the president and other policymakers—how much of their analysis is based on solid data and how much on assumptions and inferences. Too often, these distinctions were left out of intelligence estimates on Iraq—or buried so deeply in the report that they weren't noticed by officials too busy to read more than the summary.

John Negroponte will soon go to work as the national intelligence director—a new post that was created at the instigation of the 9/11 commission. It's a job with vague powers; it's not yet clear just what the NID will do. This could be one of his tasks—to explain to the president, from a dispassionate position, just what's inside those intelligence reports: how much is hard fact, loose inference, sheer guesswork, likely fiction. Nobody else seems to be telling him now.

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