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Nichols: Bad intelligence led to Iraq war mistake

POSTED: February 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.

After I graduated from my university, I went to Washington, D.C., and got a job as an intelligence research analyst. After being cleared to work with sensitive materials including top secret, I entered the large work force that is the intelligence community.

I remember the first top secret document that came to my desk. It was legal size with a green band across top with the label “Top Secret.” Two characteristics of that first document I remember still. At the left was a description of the source of the information (no name, just a general, brief statement about the source). At the right was an evaluation of the reliability of that source.

I learned that all information had to be evaluated as to source. Basic accurate information was what we analysts wanted to discover. We were to avoid two other types of information. One was misinformation, simply a mistake, like when we bombed the Chinese Embassy during the war in Yugoslavia. Our maps showed the embassy as being across the street. The maps were wrong.

Disinformation is material that has been deliberately distorted to give us false information, perhaps sprinkled with good data so we will think the report is accurate when it is not.

When analyzing a situation, we tried to avoid incorrect information. If possible we tried to obtain a second source for the situation being studied, like getting a second opinion before a major medical procedure.

According to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations explaining our invasion of Iraq, we had “solid intelligence” that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction.
I believe that “solid information” was based on a report from a single source, code-named “Curve Ball.”

He was an Iraqi scientist who defected to Germany and told German intelligence that he was an eye witness to a laboratory in which Saddam Hussein was producing WMD weapons.

To be fair to the intelligence community, this disinformation was believable because Saddam had produced poison gas weapons that he had dropped on his own Kurdish citizens during his war with Iran. He thought the Kurds were helping the Iranians (and some might have been doing that because they wanted to create their own country, independent of Iraq). If he had made weapons of mass destruction before, he could be doing that again.

We also accepted this disinformation because it told us what some of our officials wanted to believe. Researcher bias is the simple tendency of all analysts to see what they want to discover, and to ignore what contradicts their theory.

So our invasion of Iraq was a result of accepting disinformation as being true. It was our first major mistake.

Our second mistake is not admitting we made a mistake in accepting unverified intelligence as being “solid intelligence.” Instead we have tried to insert a second reason for our invasion of Iraq because we thought Saddam Hussein was a supporter of the terrorists responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban and they were actually involved in supporting al-Qaida. I have seen nothing that proves to me that Iraq was also directly involved like Afghanistan.

The war in Iraq is also a major mistake because of the unexpected consequences it has caused.

On the day after 9/11, most of the world felt sorry for us and supported our efforts to find out who did this to us. This worldwide support of the United States was similar to that after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Look at world opinion of America today. Most of that early support has evaporated. Many foreign governments see the U.S. as a big bully trying to boss the world.

The costs of this war have been overwhelming. I saw one estimate that the total cost may be more than $1 trillion. The financial burdens of wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq have pushed our national debt out of sight. Our grandchildren will pay for this war all their lives.

However, the greatest losses of the war are our killed and wounded military service members and their families who suffer because of this war.

The war in Iraq has had many other consequences. Powerful anti-American sentiment is spreading among the youth in the Middle East and support for al-Qaida seems to be growing. What is our message to these young people?

How can we change their dislike of us? I do not know the answer.

We all need to pray that God will give our next president the wisdom and courage required to deal with this situation effectively. Our grandchildren should not be forced to suffer more because of the mistakes we make today.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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