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.