The Great Intelligence Scapegoat

I spent a number of years in military and defence intelligence working on issues related to the great array of operations that occur around the world with Iraq being the most notable one. Jokes aside about military intelligence, it was always fascinating to see “intelligence” used as an almost default answer when tough questions came up, often cited side by side with “national security” and “that’s classified”. While at some later point I may write an article about the somewhat inprecise nature of intelligence collection and analysis, I thought I may write about the misunderstood and misrepresented nature of the role of intelligence in decision making (particularly at the political/ strategic level). It was tough learning this lesson as intelligence professionals would perhaps prefer that their imput becomes the key factor in decision making but that is wrong.

Fundamentally, intelligence is only one of a range of factors that goes into decision making and nothing more. Political and policy factors are just as important, and possibly carry more weight. While decision makers should weigh up all the factors, some of the non-intelligence factors can take prominence AND can be hidden by using “intelligence” as a very useful and convenient scapegoat. The case for invading Iraq is a case in point. There was desire for regime change however the political reality dictated that an alternate justification be given, hence the WMD issue. While circumstantial evidence existed to suggest the existence of WMD, WMD concerns were elevated and assessments not based on fact or evidence were then used to justify the 2003 war (the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda was far more spurious).  Intelligence assessments would also have pointed to the importance of not winding down operations in Afghanistan in 2002, but again the political and policy considerations of the then up-coming invasion of Iraq took precedence.

Some get offended by saying that they are misled by their governments but this is perhaps a nieve view. Politics and deception are interwoven to quite a degree. Governments and opposition parties use and misuse information they have at hand to enhance their own position (and neither side is blameless). Intelligence is a great target for misuse as national security considerations will often prevent real information or assessment from being brought into public view – and therefore scrutiny is absent.

Recent Iraq Discussions

Recently there was a round table discussion with Dr David Kilcullen, the Chief Counter-Insurgency Advisor to General David Petraeus. A number of blogs that I subscribe to described this discussion including Austin Bay’s blog and Black Five. In many respects, there was nothing particularly new about what he said – many military professionals who have been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan know that many of his comments are similar to those that have been echoed by military people for the last few years and largely ignored. There was a substantial body of history to draw on – the US Small Wars manual, the lessons from Vietnam, the Malayan Emergency, Ireland and so on.

It is refreshing though to see that at the highest strategic level of the military effort in Iraq there is this appreciation of the situation in Iraq, and a recognition that war is more multi-dimensional than a simplistic use of ‘kinetic’ force aimed at finding a target and destroying it. While I would fear that it is perhaps too late to fully make good the situation in Iraq, I expect that this change of focus will ensure that the situation is less grim than it would otherwise have been.

Almost two weeks ago, a former Colonel in the Australian Army, Mike Kelly, retired from Defence and decided to stand for parliament in the upcoming elections. He was interviewed for the ABC’s 7.30 report and gave a very interesting insight into events in Iraq. I had had the opportunity of meeting Colonel Kelly a number of times in Baghdad and so it held a great degree of personal interest for me. He again alludes to the lack of following the advice of military planners and particularly points to the de-Ba’athification policies as a key failure in the Iraq war.

US Election 2008

The Chaser has started the all important coverage of the US Elections next year. It is worth having a read of this article just to get a bit of background on some of the main Democrat contenders. An equally insightful article will be posted about the other team at some point soon.

NB. The Chaser is similar to The Onion in the US, but there is a TV show as well…

Iraq Memoirs

When I served in Iraq back in 2004, I wrote a number of group emails that I sent to my friends and family. After returning to Australia, a few people suggested that I consolidate them and consider publishing them (not that they are necessarily any good). Anyway, I have posted them on my blog, so if you are interested, go to Dispatches from the Front. There is a table of contents there as well.

Wolfowitz vs the World Bank

Today heralds a decision that could see Paul Wolfowitz’s future at the World Bank rather quickly curtailed.  In highly charged politic situations such as this, it is easy for facts to get overtaken by technicalities that detract from appropriately understanding the situation.

At the heart of this issues lies the fact that Paul Wolfowitz had a conflict of interest but still acted. This is manifestly inappropriate and he needs to step down as he has undermined his own credibility and the credibility of the position he holds, and by extension, the credibility of the World Bank. Drawing a similarity to corporate law, a company director who doesn’t absent himself or herself from a decision where there is a conflict of interest is in a lot of trouble. Dealing with conflicts of interest in business can be painful, but they are of secondary concern to the potential for undermining the integrity of decision making within a business. Regardless of the size of the matter, there is an important principle here. Surely if such duties on directors are so important, then one imagines that they should be more onerous for those that occupy positions such as the Head of the World Bank. By trying to hide his actions does nothing other than reaffirm the thoughts of those that believe he needs to go.

US military blogging ban

Today’s news services have again covered the decision by the US military to ban its soldiers from using social media (blogs, Myspace etc). Austin Bay’s blog alerted me to this a couple of weeks ago. He also pointed to a very comprehensive article by Wired from the start of May that is worth reading. The two main reasons given are firstly bandwidth usage and secondly OPSEC (or operational security, the protection of sensitive information associated with operations).

While appreciating both of these concerns, this is truly an ignorant decision by people who do not appreciate the importance that deployed soldiers place on being able to communicate with loved ones and the potential wider positive influence that can be used through social media. It is also a bit patronising to entrust soldiers with prosecuting the war at the tactical level, but not consider them sufficiently mature to consider OPSEC.

A large number of US personnel are spending close to one year in two, or six months each year, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite the Iraq war having only started four years ago, many of my friends have now spent two years of their life there. For those of us who have been to war, we understand the real importance of being able to communicate with family and friends. The pressures on soldiers are high enough without taking away their ability to communicate. While the cost of larger bandwidth use may be higher due to the use of myspace etc, surely it does not compare to welfare and morale of deployed forces, and the potential for increased retention problems.

One of the major failures of this war has been the appalling lack of trying to win the information war, at home and in the operational environment. Since the fall of Baghdad, the political-strategic direction of the war has been an almost complete failure. Even some of the great reconstruction work that has gone on has been overshadowed by the complete inability of the US administration to deliver positive messages about this – and into this void, Al Qaeda and other terrorist/ anti-Iraqi forces have been able to bombard people with negativity about what is happening in Iraq. Even in the West, press coverage of the war has been overwhelmingly negative. In some ways, I would equate this decision with some of the decisions in World War One that led to the slaughter of Ypres and the Somme. Back then, senior leaders refused to acknowledge that technology had changed the face of war forever with the advent of the machine gun and other weapons of war; now, senior leaders refuse to acknowledge that technology has again changed the face of war, this time due to the internet.