Time for a Red Team on the Syria Intel

by Pete Hoekstra

A few years ago the House Intelligence Committee was wrestling with a decision: what to do with a major satellite program that had been under development for years. The intelligence community was firmly behind the program. The program promised exciting new capabilities. But for three years, it had experienced significant delays and cost overruns. The project managers told us not to worry, that all the hurdles had been identified and overcome. The project was back on track. But then there were more delays and overruns.

Finally, on a bipartisan basis the Committee demanded a “Red Team” be formed. A Red Team is a group of subject-matter experts gathered together to review and challenge conventional wisdom. In this case, they were asked to review the analysis, recommendations, and conclusions of the project team and intelligence-community experts. Their review concluded that the proposed technology stretched current capabilities, that program managers were overly optimistic, and that it was likely that cost overruns and schedule delays would continue. In summary, the program was much riskier than what was being presenting. The program was terminated. The Red Team provided an independent analysis and perspective that had been missing, it saved the government billions of dollars and endless years of headaches.

The recent headlines on Syria scream for a Red Team analysis. Haven’t we learned how difficult intelligence is? How possible it is to be wrong? How often we have been wrong? Have we forgotten the sorry analysis of WMDs in Iraq?

It’s time for a Red Team to challenge the conventional wisdom that Assad ordered the gassing of the Syrian population. Are there answers for all the questions that need to be asked to reach the conclusions currently being posed? Those questions include: Does Assad have full control of all WMDs in Syria? Are there those who would try to stage a chemical weapons attack to implicate the Assad regime to generate American engagement? There are more.

I have talked to enough chemical-weapons experts who have raised serious questions about the gassing videos and the circumstances surrounding the attacks. They see some inconsistencies that raise red flags.

I remember the debate concerning WMDs in Iraq. Looking back, one of the problems is that Congress was never presented with a Red Team analysis that challenged the assumptions and conclusions of the intelligence community. Every piece of information was presented and interpreted to reflect the fact that there were WMDs in Iraq. No one was ever given the challenge of looking at all the evidence and asked to make the case as to why the conventional wisdom might have been be wrong. As a result, Congress and the intelligence community suffered from groupthink.

Here’s one classic example. Experts used as “evidence” that WMDs existed in Iraq the fact that Saddam himself said he had a WMD program. Case closed. Later, those same experts came back when WMD hadn’t been found, asked to explain how they could have been so wrong. They claimed Saddam falsely said he had WMDs to send a strong signal to his enemies to leave him alone. He believed his enemy was Iran, not the U.S., and he wanted to make sure that country didn’t attack. Even though he did not have WMDs, Saddam believed that by putting out an effective campaign of disinformation he could prevent an attack by Iran. He never believed his disinformation campaign would be swallowed hook, line, and sinker and lead to an attack by the U.S.

Such a herd mentality is hard to stop. All the experts are now saying that, without a doubt, Assad ordered the attack on his own people that killed hundreds. I believe it is time for us to step back, challenge the conventional wisdom, order a rigorous Red Team analysis, and see what they come up with. Let’s not find ourselves in the same divisive debate that we found ourselves in after the invasion of Iraq.

— Pete Hoekstra is a former U.S. congressman from Michigan who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

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