February 11, 2006

Iraq and Bad Intelligence

Many people are arrogent engough to believe that they 'know' 'objective reality' as it 'really is'. Conversely, many people are paralyzed into inaction because they never have enough information to make an educated guess about the right decision. These people act as if they 'do not know' even an approximation of 'reality'.

In reality, major decisions are often made based upon incomplete information. When such a situation arises, one must think of the consequences of being wrong and the probabilities involved in worst case scenarios.

For instance, pick a single car about to enter the U.S. from Canada. The probability that this particular car is carrying a suitcase nuclear bomb is very, very low. Further, one cannot know what is in the trunk of this particular car.

You have two options: wave the car through without checking the trunk or stop the car and check to see what is inside. What is the proper course of action?

The proper course of action depends entirely on the consequences of being wrong. If you stop the car, and find that there is nothing in the trunk, you have inconvenienced the driver. Further, since you must repeat this action several thousand times a day, there is also the cost of hiring additional border agents. If you never find a bomb then you have wasted precious resources that could have been used in other places.

Imagine, though, that you don't stop the car and it does have a nuclear bomb in it. Oops.

The nature of estimating threats is that it is always based on incomplete information. We didn't know just how poor the Soviet military arsenal was during the Cold War. We didn't know that nuclear weapons were already on the island of Cuba during the missile crisis. Today, we don't know if Iran really intends to build a nuclear weapon. We don't know the extent to which al Qaeda has been destroyed. Yet, we did, and must continue to base policy decisions on incomplete information anyway.

Professor Chaos (also posted at OTB) has an excellent post that is a must read on ex-CIA official Paul R. Pillar's argument that the Adminstration was aware of uncertainties in the pre-Iraq war intelligence. First, he notes that the CIA is a bureaucracy, so that the President only sees what is presented to him by the top eschelon--namely the Clinton appointee George Tenet. Then:

Pillar suggests, as have countless others, is that there was ample evidence refuting the WMD intel but the Bush administration "cherry picked" that which pointed in the direction to war. There seems to be some truth to the notion that the administration listened more closely to intel that suggested a threat, but we can't ignore that this occurred in the aftermath of September 11 -- when the intelligence community (Pillar included) had ample information but failed to "connect the dots."

In this light, the "rush" to go to war in Iraq was less a case of selectively using unreliable intel as it was the result of erring on the side of national security. Pillar may see that differently because he was a CIA insider, but his analysis here fails to recognize this broader national security lens through which the administration would have based its decisions.

Also, it begs the question of action. Even if the Administration knew the intelligence was incomplete, so what? A decision, one way or another, had to be made. One cannot wait until a perfectly clear picture becomes available--because one never does. Waiting for perfect intelligence is a recipe for disaster because perfect intelligence is never available. To believe that it can be is naive.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 01:09 PM | Comments |