The intelligence inquiry might meet at pearl harbor

While we're on the subject of intelligence inquiries, I have an inquiry about intelligence. Is it possible that, as a rule, it is limited? I don't mean human intelligence, though even a cursory read of the newspapers would support that conclusion as well. I mean we should not expect, on Iraq, a level of clarity not previously attained by mortals. For instance, to this day we aren't sure whether Germany used biological weapons against humans during the First World War, as they feebly did against draft animals. And how about Pearl Harbor? The U.S. intelligence failure there was so spectacular that conspiracy theories persist to this day. But as my dissertation adviser noted, if the Japanese had struck the Panama Canal on Dec. 7, 1941, a retrospective combing through the raw intelligence data would have pointed strongly in that direction too.

Then there's Stalin's legendary failure to believe Hitler was about to attack him in 1941 despite many warnings. But it's only a legend; Stalin actually told the Red Army Academy graduation banquet on May 5, 1941, "There will be war, and the enemy will be Germany." I think attempts to hide his precise knowledge from Hitler, such as having a German communist who warned of the invasion shot, have confused analysts. (The unfortunate defector was actually shot after the invasion began, but that's bureaucracy for you.) Stalin had been preparing for years. He didn't need spies to tell him Hitler was treacherous and militaristic.

Consider, too, a famous Soviet intelligence success in 1941: Stalin's top agent in Tokyo saying Japan did not plan to attack the U.S.S.R., just in time to transfer troops from Siberia to stop the Nazis at the gates of Moscow. But of course the spy could not in principle know the Japanese wouldn't change their minds. All he could do was help confirm Stalin's hunch that the gamble made sense.

Doubtless there are intelligence successes we don't know about precisely because they succeeded. Far more often, analysts help confirm what was in any event probable. Even when it's not true. For instance, Stalin knew of western atomic research. On the other hand, the KGB spent years trying to locate the small group of capitalists who were the U.S. equivalent of the Politburo. Worse, they may have thought they'd succeeded.

Meanwhile, for decades the CIA drastically overestimated the Soviet economy, and underestimated their weapons programs. But not because they were unenlightened. Rather, like John Kenneth Galbraith, they had discarded their silly anti-communist prejudices. The CIA also didn't foresee the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, partly due to excessive Congressional restrictions on intelligence in the 1970s but also partly because it was such a foolish thing to do. Which the KGB also apparently didn't notice.

Then there's the intelligence failure of the 20th century: Nobody foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union even a year in advance. I don't just mean the CIA. The KGB missed it too. Which is unfortunate as you'd think it would be a matter of some concern to the Politburo.

I do not wish to suggest that spies and analysts are fools. Their best efforts can still fail if "clients" refuse to listen to what they are being told, though we already know that's not what happened regarding Iraq. It's also hard to know whether key sources are really double agents (or insane) because any attempt to confirm their best stuff risks exposing them. But the fundamental problem is that life itself is highly unpredictable and therefore they can't predict it.

At least two people I respect, my colleague David Warren and the Mackenzie Institute's John Thompson, fear that the inquiries into intelligence about Iraq will become witch hunts. But I doubt people who believe in witches will be asked to serve on them. And as liberal commentators routinely utter absurdities about, say, the Kay Report quite unrelated to its text, why worry about them?

I do worry that the inquiries may succumb to the urge to recommend centralization of intelligence gathering when what we really need is robust diversity, even bureaucratic turf wars. If so, they will be driven in part by illusions about what intelligence can do. So remember: It wasn't just George Bush and Wesley Clark who didn't realize Iraq had no usable WMDs; neither did Saddam Hussein. Not even James Bond could have discovered it. A sound training in market economics was worth more than all the files in KGB headquarters in predicting the demise of the Soviet Union. And if you had read Mein Kampf you'd have know Hitler was a warmonger.

So I hope any intelligent intelligence panel will quickly see the limits of intelligence.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson