Iraq: Policy failure, not intelligence failure


WASHINGTON, July 2, 2014 — Inaccurate analysis over the last week claims that the current crisis in Iraq is the result of a failure of U.S. intelligence.

An article in the Huffington Post on June 30 by Michael Brenner drops the bombshell that, “The big unreported story of the Iraqi crisis is the failure of American intelligence agencies to foresee the ISIS campaign. Indeed, the ISIS phenomenon from its emergence two years ago until now has largely passed under the radar of the CIA, NSA et al.”

The Washington Free Beacon quoted Bill Cowan, a former Special Forces officer who worked as a contractor in Iraq, as saying, “This is an absolute intelligence failure on the part of the CIA.”

Both those statements, and other echoes of the same sentiment, are dead wrong and woefully misinformed.

The HuffPo articles quotes “officials” as “admitting” they were “caught by surprise” which Brenner cites as proof that the intelligence community failed. If true, those officials almost certainly were not taking intelligence briefings and were operating with blinders on.

The intelligence community – as well as think tanks, the press and average citizens – have long warned about the sectarian tensions in Iraq, the violence, and both the Sunni and Shi’ite militias.

According to the Sunday Times, analysts warned the Obama administration of the threat of ISIS to Iraq’s stability on several occasions and also highlighted the weakness of Iraq’s army.

Even at the time the United States withdrew from Iraq, intelligence officers advised that violence was likely to continue and that the best way to keep peace was for foreign troops to remain.

Declassified portions of both National Intelligence Estimates on Iraq in 2007 highlighted concerns about stability, violence and the Iraqi army. In November, the intelligence community noted, “However, the level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high; Iraq’s sectarian groups remain unreconciled; AQI retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks; and to date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively.”

The NIE further states, “…levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance” and “Political and security trajectories in Iraq continue to be driven primarily by Shia insecurity about retaining political dominance, widespread Sunni unwillingness to accept a diminished political status, factional rivalries within the sectarian communities resulting in armed conflict, and the actions of extremists such as AQI and elements of the Sadrist Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia that try to fuel sectarian violence” among other insights.

Given the continued violence and increased tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite, compounded by the government of Nouri al-Maliki, it is almost impossible to believe that the intelligence community drastically altered its prognosis.

As for the Islamic State of Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS,  issued a video in November 2006 announcing its formation, which would have caught the attention of the intelligence community.

Moreover, even if intelligence was blind to its actions until the start of the Syrian civil war, the actions of ISIS were highly visible when that conflict started. The Obama administration cited ISIS as a constraint to providing weapons to Syrian rebels, strongly suggesting that at least some intelligence identified the strength, ideology and goals of the group.

The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai or Caliph Ibrahim, has also been on the U.S. radar for at least two years. In October 2011, the United States listed al-Baghdadi as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” and offered a $10 million reward for his capture and death. Again, that strongly suggests intelligence had identified him as a terrorist.

A was almost certainly consistent, even if intelligence officers lacked specific dates of attacks.

Intelligence became even more adamant about the threat in Iraq starting in February, when ISIS began making gains.

At that time, Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned Congress in February that ISIS “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014”.

Then in April, Kurdish officials said Kurdish President Masoud Barzani told Vice President Joe Biden during a discussion in the White House about an ISIS plan to attack Mosul and to then move on to Baghdad.

The problem comes not from the intelligence community, but from the choice of policy makers not to use information.

The intelligence community does not decide policy.  It provides information to decision makers who then make decisions about how to use that information.

Part of the brilliance of US intelligence is that it is objective, and that the intelligence community is not beholden to providing information that matches U.S. policy goals.

Politicizing intelligence – “cooking the books” or manipulating information to match a certain goal – is disgusting to most intelligence officers and instances where it has happened are shameful stains on the community.

U.S. officials, in both the Bush and Obama administrations, elected to allow Maliki to dictate U.S. policy in Iraq. They ignored the flashing red lights and sirens coming from the intelligence community, preferring to wait until the crisis evolved and deepened.

The intelligence failure on Iraq is a failure of intellect by our policy makers, not a lack of information from our intelligence community.

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.
  • Bren Pool Vignaroli

    Excellent points all the way around! Great read and thank you for pointing all of this out Lisa Ruth.

  • bikerdogred1

    Lets see the head of the CIA is a muslim and the muslims walk all over the place and no one knows anything seems brilliant if you ask me,just like a plan coming together.

  • acmaurer

    Choices, choices: play golf, read intelligence reports. What to do?

  • Pingback: Despite billions spent on intelligence, we know very little | Communities Digital News()

  • Peggy Williamson

    Lisa, since ISIS shares the same faith as CIA Director Brennan, couldn’t he be the first troop on the ground in Iraq? I don’t trust him around Christians.