6 December 2003. Thanks to O.
Guardian report on the speech: http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,4813441-103685,00.html
The Royal Institute of International Affairs
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Speech by Sir Rodric Braithwaite CGMC
Chairman, Joint Intelligence Committee 1992-1993
The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House
Friday 5 December 2003
This speech is issued on the understanding that if any extract is used, the speaker and The Royal Institute of International Affairs or Chatham House should be credited, preferably with the date of the speech.
It's nice to see you all here today to listen to a talk on a subject which ought to be intrinsically uninteresting.
The subject of intelligence attracts attention out of proportion to its real importance. My theory is that this is because secrets are like sex.
Most of us think that others get more than we do. Some of us cannot have enough of either. Both encourage fantasy. Both send the press into a feeding frenzy.
All this distorts sensible discussion. I'll return to the point at the end.
A. SOME BASIC PRINCIPLES
1.The first goes without saying: We need secret intelligence against secretive enemies.
Liberals sometimes argue that secret intelligence is of no value, and that secret agencies are a menace to our civil liberties.
That is quite wrong. We cannot do without secret intelligence to defend ourselves against enemies who are themselves operating in secret.
Wellington's intelligence network in the Peninsula gave him a decisive edge over his French opponents. Enigma was essential to our victory in the battle of the Atlantic. American electronic intelligence dominated the battlefield in Iraq.
And of course it is impossible to operate against terrorists and their organisations without a major effort of human and technical intelligence. We have seen that in Northern Ireland and we are seeing it today.
2. People have unreasonable expectations of what intelligence can do.
The most foolish criticism that can be directed against the intelligence agencies is that they have failed to predict great historical events: the rise of the dictators, the fall of the Shah, the end of Communism.
The future is inherently unpredictable. Intelligence agencies are no better able to see into it than journalists, academics, diplomats, or ordinary people with common sense.
The coup against Gorbachev in the summer of 1991 is a good case in point. All of us thought a coup was possible. Only the CIA got the timing right. And even the CIA failed to predict that the coup would fail.
Percy Cradock, the most distinguished of all former chairmen of the Joint Intelligence Committee, put it like this: "[We must] accept that in the last resort intelligence is an attempt to know the unknowable, and scale down our expectations accordingly." (Percy Cradock, Know Your Enemy, London 2002, page 289)
3. There is no essential difference between secret and open information
All information is either true or false. It is either relevant or irrelevant. It is either timely or it is too late. It is either properly assessed or it is misunderstood. It is either acted on effectively or it is not.
Just because information is gained by secret means, however ingenious, does not mean that it is necessarily either true or useful.
4. Intelligence agencies are no more immune to error than other human organisations.
The technical intelligence agencies - codebreakers, satellite photographers, eavesdroppers - produce intelligence that is in a sense documentary. Even so it may be neither timely nor relevant. And historians know that documents too can be ambiguous.
That is even more true of the stuff produced by spies. Spies are vulnerable to human error: greed, fear, a desire to please, an urge to fantasise, and the practical difficulty of operating in secret. Graham Green's novel "Our Man in Havana" is a cruel satire. But like any good satire, it has a grain of truth in it.
The agencies try to sort out the wheat from the chaff. They do not always succeed.
5. It's the assessment, not the intelligence, that matters.
From the autumn of 1940 the Soviet intelligence agencies put together a remarkably accurate picture of Hitler's plan to invade. Stalin refused to act, for reasons which initially made sense but eventually led the Red Army to the brink of catastrophe.
In the autumn of 1941 General Freyberg managed to lose the battle of Crete, although he had twice as many men as the attacking Germans and detailed Enigma intelligence about their plans.
Neither of these disasters was an intelligence failure. They were a failure of leaders to assess the information available to them and to make sensible use of it.
Assessment is a tricky business, a matter of judgement, not science. Information is always fuzzy. There is almost never enough of it. It rarely leads to an incontrovertible conclusion.
The Americans believe that truth emerges from a dialectical clash of opinions. In Washington different intelligence agencies generate different interpretations. These may only reconciled when they get to the White House. This enables the political leadership to pick the interpretation that feeds their prejudices. The result has been a string of American intelligence failures.
The British, on the other hand, try to reach a consensus among interested parties. Their instrument is the Joint Intelligence Committee, lodged in the Cabinet Office. It consists of the heads of the intelligence agencies and senior officials. These people assess a wide range of secret and open information on matters of interest to the policymakers. In the past the Committee tried to be intellectually rigorous; to support no particular policy conclusion; and to show a united front to ministers.
The result is often a bland lowest common denominator, which does not make for exciting reading. One minister remarked that he found JIC assessments "boring". And a colleague found them "unhelpful". I took all that as a compliment.
The alternative is worse: the risk identified by Percy Cradock that "The analysts become courtiers, whereas their proper function is to report their findings, almost always unpalatable, without fear or favour." (Know Your Enemy, page 294)
6. Action is more important than assessment.
Even the best assessment cannot guarantee sound decisions.
Leaders in business or politics navigate by intuition and judgement. Those in their immediate entourage are driven by loyalty, the need to protect their boss, and the need to ensure that his decisions are implemented. Those inside the magic circle find it hard to be coolly objective.
The pressures in Downing Street are even greater because of the cross current of political rivalries and the unrelenting curiosity of the press.
It all works as long as the Prime Minister's judgment and intuition are in order. But when these fail, the damage is serious. It happened to Mrs Thatcher. It happened to Anthony Eden, whose gross misjudgements at the time of Suez were based in part on his faulty reading of unreliable intelligence.
B. INTELLIGENCE AND THE IRAQ WAR
Even in 1993 we were trying to work out whether or not Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and what he might do with them. The Government's dossier last September was therefore nothing very new.
But it was a pretty muddled affair. It was entitled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction", a terrifying subject. Large passages of it were not about that at all. They were about Saddam's unpleasant regime and his unpleasant secret policemen. Much of the information in the dossier was in the public domain. Much of it came from the UN inspectors. Much of the rest was said to be either "indicated" or "confirmed" by intelligence. I have no idea what that intelligence actually was. But the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq does not inspire confidence.
The dossier said that Saddam could "deploy" weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. It spoke of an "imminent" or "current" threat. The maps in the dossier showed that Iraqi missiles - if they existed - could hit Cyprus.
Politicians talked of Saddam's nuclear ambitions. In America they made much play with the image of the mushroom cloud. The press and the public came to alarming conclusions. The headline in The Sun was "45 Minutes to Doom".
This illustrates an iron law about the way drafting committees work. In the effort to get consensus, the drafters lose sight of what words means to the ordinary reader. To the JIC, Lord Hutton was told, the phrase "WMD" simply meant that Saddam could fire chemical shells from field artillery. Two witnesses to the inquiry said, with much pain, that it was not their fault if the press misinterpreted them. That is absurd. One writes in order to be understood by one's audience. The JIC and Downing Street have only themselves to blame if the public failed to grasp what they were trying to say.
But the JIC's real failure seems to have been that it fell straight into Percy Cradock's trap. It stepped outside its traditional role. It entered the Prime Minister's magic circle. It was engulfed in the atmosphere of excitement which surrounds decision-making in a crisis. Whether they realised it or not, its members went beyond assessment to become part of the process of making and advocating policy. That inevitably undermined their objectivity.
C. DOES THE SYSTEM NEED CHANGING?
Intelligence operations are delicate things. They inevitably go wrong from time to time, and then you have a scandal. Whatever mistakes the agencies and the JIC made over the Iraq war, I doubt if the system needs fundamental overhaul.
But one change is both necessary and simple. The Joint Intelligence Committee must get back to its basic task: the cool and objective assessment of the information available to it. It must keep out of the magic circle. It must never, ever, involve itself in the making and presentation of policy. It must leave that to the politicians and the press officers.
There is a second and lesser question. After investigating the JIC's failure to predict the Argentinian attack on the Falklands, Lord Franks recommended that it should be chaired by an outsider to avoid departmental bias. For the next ten years the chairman was a retired ambassador.
I did not see why a retired ambassador should be any more objective than anyone else. His powerful colleagues would always keep the Chairman in order. On my recommendation, the chairmanship reverted to a serving official. From 1994 to 2001 the chairman came from the Foreign Office. Since then he has come from MI6.
I still doubt if tinkering with personalities makes much difference. But perhaps this should be looked at again. A retired High Court judge would fit the bill very well. He would be beyond ambition, and experienced above all in the weighing of evidence. Perhaps Lord Hutton himself would like the job.
D. SECRECY, MYSTERY, AND DEMOCRATIC CONTROL
Lord Hutton's inquiry marks a further step along the path towards transparency and democratic control of the British intelligence agencies which was initiated by John Major 10 years ago.
At that time Major finally broke the absurd convention by which the British pretended they had no intelligence agencies. He put the agencies on a legal basis for the first time. And he set up a Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security to as an instrument of democratic control.
This is not an easy task. Secret agencies have to operate in secret by definition. There is a limit to the extent to which outsiders can be allowed to penetrate the detail. Civil libertarians will always be dissatisfied. Yet the parliamentary committee has been quite effective. Its report on the Iraq crisis revealed some awkward details. It has strengthened its authority. That is good news.
Here there is an important distinction to be made, the distinction between secrecy and mystery.
Sunday newspapers and novelists thrive on the mystery which surrounds the intelligence agencies. So do the agencies themselves: it is good for recruitment, it frightens the enemy, and it helps to bamboozle the Treasury at budget time.
But while secrecy is unavoidable, mystery is not. A senior official once accused me of "failing to believe in intelligence". I answered that one can believe in God, little green men, or the world-wide Masonic conspiracy. But one can no more "believe" in intelligence than one can believe in the Inland Revenue. Both are legitimate and essentially humdrum functions of government. To glamorise or mystify intelligence, or to exaggerate what it is capable of doing, is not in anyone's real interests.
One reason why the government claimed that "intelligence confirmed" that Saddam's weapons threatened British interests was because their other arguments for war were cutting too little ice with the public.
But we live in a democracy, and in a democracy the government should not try to justify its actions on the basis of information it is not prepared to reveal. Secret intelligence is unlikely ever to provide the killer fact, the certainty which would alone justify an exception. The public is always entitled to be sceptical of claims to the contrary.
Let the final word rest with the Armed Services Committee of the US House of representatives: "Policy makers and private citizens who expect intelligence to foresee all sudden shifts are attributing to them qualities not yet shared by the deity with mere mortals." (House, August 1993, quoted Mark Urban, UK Eyes Alpha, London 1996).