Politics & Policy

The Uncertainty Dilemma

CIA can't know everything. So what?

In Voltaire’s Micromegas, a gigantic visitor from another planet asks a sailor why humans bicker so much. “Because we agree on the two or three things we understand,” explains the sailor, “and we disagree on the two or three thousand things we don’t understand.”  The bickering over Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction has become deafening — and we still don’t understand what was at stake.

In his new and much-discussed book, At the Center of the Storm, former CIA director George Tenet writes, “One of the greatest mysteries to me is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable.” Indeed, that is a mystery to many people, but the reason is that the underlying policy issue was never properly understood — even in the administration. Resolving the problems that arise at the interface of intel and policy in a security environment dominated by uncertainty may be the greatest intellectual challenge that has ever faced the government of the United States — and we have only begun to understand it.

Tenet writes that no serious debate was given to the imminence of the Iraqi threat. But he also makes it clear that this was beside the point:

The absence of evidence and linear thinking, and Iraq’s extensive efforts to conceal illicit procurement of proscribed components, told us that a deceptive regime could and would easily surprise us. It was never a question of a known, imminent threat; it was about an unwillingness to risk surprise.

In a later passage, he gets to the critical question:  

We should have said, in effect, the intelligence was not sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Saddam had WMD. The evidence was good enough to win a conviction in a civil suit but not a criminal case. Would we have gone to war with such conclusions?

But intel is not evidence. Intel is by its nature fragmentary and inferential. The evidence we needed in Iraq was on the ground in Iraq, and Saddam controlled all of it. When Tenet said the case for war was a “slam dunk” he was jumping the barrier that should separate intel and policy. The intel was ambiguous. Intel is always ambiguous, especially when the question is as vast as that posed by Iraq. Because the presumption was already against Saddam — and rightly so — the intel community’s ambiguous answer left Cheney and many other people with no doubt that Saddam had WMDs — as a policy judgment based on history and the totality of the circumstances, of which intel was only a part. 

Policymakers do not have the luxury of coming to no firm conclusion simply because the intel comes to no firm conclusion. What has been consistently missing from this whole debate is an appreciation of the fact that, given Saddam’s history, we had to presume the worst. By 2002, the only thing that could assuage our fears about Saddam was transparency in his regime. Without transparency, we were facing a potential threat of unknown scope that — should it ever materialize — could cause much more damage than a punitive action would be able to remediate.

And that meant that it was Saddam — not the United States — who had the burden of proof as to the WMDs. It was the administration’s failure to understand this and make this clear which has led to the widespread — and absolutely false — perception that because the pre-war intelligence was mistaken, it was a mistake to invade Iraq. If policy should never “cook” the intel, neither should intel “cook” the policy. Even if the administration had known how unreliable the CIA’s intel really was, the problem facing it would have been exactly the same.

Think of it this way: After the stock-market crash of 1929, policymakers in the United States realized that when publicly traded companies commit fraud, a punitive reaction does not suffice to make the victims whole. So they responded by drafting the brilliant securities laws of 1933 and 1934, which placed a heavy burden of financial transparency on corporate America. Henceforth, we would not wait for evidence of fraud before taking punitive action. Today, publicly traded companies are penalized immediately just for failing to file independently audited financial statements according to a strict schedule. 

It has now become clear that without similarly draconian penalties for failing to keep proper records, the attempt to control WMD proliferation is going to fail. 

Even granting that the evidence of Saddam’s WMDs was less than a “slam dunk,” policymakers were still facing an uncertainty that was terrifying because of Saddam’s record and the lessons of September 11. What were policymakers supposed to do with this uncertainty? That was the real issue all along. Saddam’s claims to have disarmed were worthless without verification.  What we needed was proof of disarmament, and only Saddam — or a military occupation — could provide that.

So what the administration did, without ever fully realizing it, was to assume the following strategic posture: Saddam has the burden of proof, and if he can’t fulfill it, we will get our answers from Central Command. The problem is that they arrived at this posture instinctively, rather than in any systematic and analytical way, and there was the policy failure. When Hans Blix reported to the Security Council that he could come to no conclusion about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction because Saddam was not providing sufficient documentary evidence to justify a conclusion one way or the other, war became inevitable. But the administration still had not made it plain that an inconclusive inspections result would mean war.

Because Security Council Resolution 1441 failed to place the burden of proof on Saddam, and on the contrary created a definition of “further material breach” that in practical effect put the burden of proof on the United States, Colin Powell found himself in the Security Council a few weeks later presenting inferential intelligence assessments as hard evidence.

Powell never correctly articulated the U.S. position, which was very simply that Saddam’s failure to provide transparency would lead to a military confrontation. Indeed, neither Powell nor anyone else in the administration ever mentioned “transparency” or “uncertainty” at all — the terms which ought to have defined the entire debate. Instead, he was trying to prove “further material breach” by proffering a bunch of “evidence” that was nothing more than inference, in a presentation that was entirely contrary to the strategic posture of the United States.

By that point, the policy had unraveled.  The public clamor for the administration to reveal what the intel was saying had overwhelmed the need to make it clear that the intel was beside the point.  All across the administration, people were relying on intel to make a case that should have been one of policy.  That was not an intelligence failure.  It was a policy failure — and a political failure — and it occurred in the White House. 

George Tenet did his job. He told the senior leaders the most he could tell them — that Saddam probably had WMDs, but that ultimately the scope of the threat could not be known with certainty. For policymakers, that made the case for war a “slam-dunk,” and that’s how it should have been put to the public.  Would support for the war then have been diminished?  This is the question Hans Blix asks in Disarming Iraq.  And the answer is — perhaps.  But nothing could be worse than losing sight of the policy issue and getting the public support the war for the wrong reason.

Those who criticize Tenet should not take comfort in the fact that his is a self-serving account. So what if it is? At least he dispels the dangerous myth that this was all about a cabal of neocons unreasonably bent on war. What is clear in page after page of his book is that he struggled with the ultimate policy dilemma.  Perhaps his error was that he allowed himself to become too deeply involved in policymaking.  At any rate, he dispels the myth that it was the policymakers who encroached on his turf.

In the months after 9/11 the administration rushed its consideration of the terrifying uncertainty posed by Saddam’s Iraq — and by the confluence of rogue regimes, WMDs, and terrorism in general. One might like to lay the blame somewhere, but the fact is that George Tenet — and the rest of the administration — were in the end just dedicated public servants overwhelmed by grave and unprecedented issues of policy.

Our failure as a nation to understand those issues presages many more years of mindless bickering. And the bickering we have heard since 2002 is an emergency siren. We have to understand the threats of the 21st century — and the grave policy issues they raise — so that we can agree on an ethical, lawful, and logical way to defend ourselves. Otherwise, some of “the two or three thousand things we don’t understand” might kill two or three thousand more Americans — and perhaps many more than that.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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