Reflections on the US invasion of Iraq: it was still bad intelligence

I know I have gone over this material before but there is nothing like an anniversary to occasion yet another look at an incident.  The ‘incident’ I am referring to is the 15th anniversary of the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003.  No matter what side of the political spectrum you belong to I think all agree that, in hindsight, that decision was a disaster, especially for the Iraqis as we shall see below.  So, here is one more attempt to unpack what went wrong.

Some have pointed to the hypocrisy of a US invasion of a country it once saw as an ally (during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war when the US saw Iran as the bigger problem, in no small part due to the 1979 embassy/hostage affair), but to be truthful alliances are fleeting.  After all, the West is now a key ally of both Japan and Germany against whom we were engaged in a world war from 1939-1945.  Friends and enemies have a strange way of shifting their positions in the world of diplomacy and international relations.  The US flip flop on Iraq is no different.

Simply stated, the choice to go to war in Iraq was bad, ill-informed and led by individuals who probably had some kind of ideological axe to grind or willfully ignored/cherry-picked the intelligence available at the time.  What appears to have happened 15  years ago is that a small number of senior US officials had it in for the regime of then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.  Whether it was frustration over the failure to overthrow him following the Gulf War of 1990-91 (after Iraq invaded Kuwait and apparently threatened to do likewise to Saudi Arabia), or genuine concern over the regime’s brutal treatment of its own people (not that such concern dictated US foreign policy consistently in the past) is beyond my scope.  I do feel that the anger over 9/11 coloured officials’ views, demonstrating yet again that making a big decision while you are emotionally distraught is seldom a good idea.

Most readers know what happened next.  ‘Intelligence’ deemed to be solid said that Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction and that Al Qaeda, the perpetrator of 9/11, had ties to the Iraqi government.  Neither claim was true: Hussein’s minions told their leader they had weapons they didn’t, probably out of fear of being killed for not doing what Hussein wanted, and the main source on AQ-Iraq links, codenamed ‘Curveball’, lied (human sources do that on occasion).  As a result, bad intelligence led to a bad decision.

Not that I can blame the intelligence gatherers entirely.  I do believe that highly-placed officials in the Bush Administration wanted to blame Hussein for 9/11 and had essentially answered their own questions before they asked the intelligence agencies for their input.  This was a case of ‘we know Hussein is in on it: just find some intelligence to satisfy our foregone conclusion’.  So,war it was.

Nevertheless, the intelligence used/twisted/exploited was bad.  There is no other way to describe it.  Those responsible for collecting and assessing that intelligence – the CIA I assume – blew it.  Those of us  in the intelligence trade are expected, as we should be, to ensure to the greatest possible extent that the information is correct and corroborated so that the advice we give to policy makers is the best possible.  This was clearly not done in late 2002 and early 2003.

It is hard to fathom the consequences of this move.  I recommend the reader take a look at an op-ed in today’s New York Times by an Iraqi to comprehend, even if a little, what war has done to his country.  What worries me more is that drums of war are beating again.  Saudi Arabia is doing what it can internationally to convince the world that Iran is the devil’s spawn.  The wannabe king in waiting, MBS, has called Ayatollah Khamene’i, Iran’s Supreme Leader, ‘Hitler’ and a bunch of techies have created a video game showing a triumphant Saudi army invading and conquering Iran (to the gratitude of thousands of Iranians – gee where have we heard that one before?  Oh yeah, the US conviction that Iraqis would throw rose petals at the feet of their ‘liberating US soldiers’.  How did that go?).

You would think that by now we would have learned that war is a bad thing and should be waged only in the most dire of circumstances.  We really should exhaust every other possible remedy and policy before unleashing the dogs of war.  And yet, we seldom learn, do we?




By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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