When John Chilcot said ‘…flawed intelligence and assessment…’ at the unveiling of the long overdue Iraq Inquiry report I was immediately reminded about a discussion I had with a senior military officer in 2000. Working in an intelligence team as a desk head, a senior officer said to me ‘I have a theory – find intelligence to prove it’. So I went away, did much analysis and reported back that the officer’s theory was incorrect and that in fact my assessment based on intelligence was the opposite of the theory. I did try to explain the one makes assessments based on all the intelligence collected, not select intelligence to back up a theory and completely ignore intelligence that did not support one’s theory. My report was dismissed and the senior officer found a pliable intelligence analyst to write a report using incorrect intelligence to support their theory.
Unfortunately, during my time working in intelligence this theorising and presenting reports that senior leaders thought officers and ministers wanted to hear became the normal way of working and reporting. The ‘dodgy dossier’ Blair and Campbell presented to Parliament to justify the war in Iraq was an example of this.
The background to this was in 2001 the Cold War was over, Northern Ireland was over and intelligence services were desperately trying to justify their existence and protect budgets. So leaders of the various UK intelligence services pandered to political leaders, civil servants and senior military officers in an attempt to keep their budget lines and status. They ‘encouraged’ intelligence analysts to over emphasis threats; they could not believe their luck when 9/11 occurred. The 9/11 attacks should have prompted political leaders to thoroughly review how the intelligence services managed to completely fail to predict this attack. Instead the intelligence services used this as an opportunity to increase budgets – yet they still do not manage to do their job properly, as we have seen with the failure to predict 7/7, the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria and the rise of Daesh.
Intelligence is about predicting threats to our national interest; it is about working out how and when attacks will be carried out. Intelligence failure after intelligence failure has led to further increases in their budget lines despite austerity. A few leaks to compliant journalists in thrall to intelligence services means the press and narrative is against cuts to their budgets.
Until the intelligence services and their leaders are held to account and they learn to stand up to ministers rather than pandering to political whims, the constant failures and production of flawed intelligence and assessment will continue.
Phillip Clarke is a former military intelligence analyst and a member of VFP UK.