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Essay: The U.S. intelligence failure on Iraq

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One of the biggest intelligence failures in U.S. history. A series of miscalculations, specific selection and manipulation of information together with the illusion of a quick win that would result in the support of the Iraqi population and increase influence in the Middle East under the basic idea of Neo-conservatism. This essay will focus on two aspects of the intelligence failure: the corruption and biased nature of the CIA and U.S. intelligence in assessing the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the United States and the Middle East, followed by the mistaken assumption of that the U.S. intervention would be supported by the Iraqi people and that its influence and democracy would spread through the Middle East. The main aim will be to analyze these different factors and demonstrating how the entire failure is based upon the cherry-picking and internal modification approach the intelligence had towards Iraq in order to fulfill its self-interest.

False Interpretation of  U.S. Intelligence

The main reason of the U.S. intelligence failure on Iraq is the corrupt nature of the U.S. thinkers and intelligence community, which then lead to the manipulation of sources resulting in the failure of intelligence. An example where this could be seen is in the presumption that Saddam was pursuing a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) program. Since 9/11 the United States government was searching for a casus bellum in order to invade Iraq (Freedman 2011, pg.8), thus the U.S. agencies started to investigate the flaws and threats posed by the Assad regime, which started the corrupt cycle of specific selection of information. The U.S. intelligence faced ‘confirmation bias’ where individuals selected evidence that supported their hypothesis rather than contradicting it (CIA 2008). An example of this is when the Iraq foreign minister, Naji Sabri, met with Bill Murray, CIA head in Paris, in September 2002, and discussed Saddam’s intentions to have WMDs, however the report presented at the end of this meeting clearly stated that at that point in time there was virtually nothing (Taylor 2013). Following this meeting CIA Director, George Tenet, made a speech claiming that Iraq is stockpiling chemical weapons and developing nuclear weapons that could be ready within 24 months and legitimized this by stating that he collected this information by having “Direct access to Saddam and his inner circle” (Taylor 2013). In response Murray said that his report mainly stated that Saddam did not have a real nor active WMD stockpile or program, majorly due to the shortage of materials. Murray himself, a CIA head, believes that the intelligence was cherry picking that consisted of selecting and combining supportive sections of the reports to stir public opinion towards the wanted policies (2013). Another example of this is when the CIA claimed that the aluminum tubes in Iraq were evidence of the WMD program, but this was not completely true because intelligence analysts explained that their size was too small to be used for uranium enrichment (Fitzgerald and Lebow 2006). This once again shows how the government reshaped the occurrences in Iraq in order to provide enough reasoning to start the war, however this also demonstrates how maybe this is not the intelligence’s failure but of the Bush administration poor approach to foreign policy which was based on weak evidence, thus shifting the blame to U.S.A.’s leaders for taking such aggressive measures against such a sensitive topic. Overall, this demonstrates the unprofessional nature of the U.S. intelligence and administration which undoubtedly resulted in the failure, the manipulation of information was successful in starting the war, but it was too fabricated to convince the Iraqi population and world spectators to support the U.S. invasion.

Additionally, failure derived from the increasing competition among agencies, each seeking “to maximize [their] position relative to the others for influence in national security policy” (Turner 2005, pg.46) by reshaping their assessments to best fit the government’s wanted results. This level of common false agreement was the perfect recipe for an intelligence plan with no concrete foundation and creating an infertile ground to challenge assumptions and views. This point is further supported by Professor Robert Jervis, “Ambiguities were missed or downplayed, alternative interpretations rarely were fully considered.”(Jervis 2006, pg.22).  This restricted the intelligence from making concrete conclusions, which of course only supported their claim, but as mentioned before false claims are most sensitive. However, this also demonstrates how the reason of failure is not only on the intelligence agencies but also on the Bush administration that pressured the agencies to give them the results they wanted in addition to the already existing poor communication between the agencies and the government. The direct transmission of unfiltered information from analysts to the administration (Gialmard and Patty 2011) opened the situation to being interpreted within a biased context rather than being filtered through the diverse levels of analysis by specialists. Predominantly this manifests the impaired structure of U.S. decision making process, analysis and research which all played a major part on the failure in Iraq by both the intelligence and the Bush administration’s self-interest.

Flawed Approach towards Iraq’s Domestics

The U.S. intelligence additionally failed in Iraq because of poor planning and approach to Iraq’s domestics after the invasion, thus failing in its aim to create a democratic American control state in the Middle East. The reason failure begins from the foundations, where general Steve Hawkins was given the role of planning the occupation and reconstruction of Iran, however Hawkins had no Iraq-specific knowledge (Fitzgerald and Lebow 2007) making him a questionable choice from the authorities. Before the invasion the CIA had multiple simulations to foreshadow a post-Saddam Iraq, which demonstrated high civil disorder, as a result the CIA ordered the Pentagon to not view these trials. This makes us question if the intelligence really wanted this intervention in Iraq to succeed or wanted to propagate further chaos in the area in order to have long-term war effects to create weapon trade system and prolong the duties of the intelligence agencies. Additionally, if the Pentagon showed that the postwar situation would be dangerous the Congress would not have been as willing to support the invasion (2007). The results of the simulations matched the reality, the illusion that the U.S. wanted as saviors remained an illusion replaced by the world’s view of the U.S. as invaders. The U.S. aimed to have further control on Iraq and Middle East by placing a puppet leader, but this failed because the new leader had no support of the Iraqi population and failed to build coalition with the citizens’ opinions (Lebow 2008). This resulted in violent resistance against the new regime that as we know today has lead to the polarization of groups in the area. The reason of failure of U.S. intelligence once in Iraq is again fueled from self-interest, it wanted influence in the area but resulted in creating further chaos, it expected the people to welcome democracy but completely ignored the different perspectives and culture shock of different nations, it ignored the fact that not every country is America. Additionally, they also assumed that Iraq’s regime wasn’t as corrupt and that their economy would be stronger. U.S. aimed to depose Saddam’s regime, liberate Iraq and watch the nation rebuild itself (Fitzgerald and Lebow 2007), a completely unrealistic foreign policy analysis, the invasion would have been a complete metamorphosis of Iraq’s ideals its impossible to expect direct change and success. This once again demonstrated the weak nature of the U.S. intelligence and leaders due to their lack of analysis and their correct application, making us question why they would delude themselves if it would result in their failure.


In conclusion, the U.S. intelligence failure on Iraq could be explained from the corruption of the different levels of the U.S.A. decision-making team and the Pentagon. After having analyzed the flaws and mistakes made in both the lead up to the invasion and the invasion itself, it is clear that the main reason of failure originates from the self-interest of each actor in the system. Intelligence agencies provide manipulated and limited information or crude resources to the Bush regime because they want to start the war with Iraq and each agency competed against each other, thus creating a proliferation of false interpretations. The government also acted with self-interest since it also cherry picked the information from the intelligence agencies that would better fit their interest to invade Iraq. Concluding, the main reason that explains what caused the failure of U.S. intelligence on Iraq is the absence of real and concrete information and resources on Iraq because of the masking created by the American state and intelligence in order to have a casus bellum and establish its self-interest in the Middle East.

Originally published 15.10.2019

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