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Why Governments Falter..and Prevaricate

Carne Ross analyzes why governments fail to understand problems and respond properly (in the context of Iraq War): (this is not an easy article to excerpt from; bear with me).

There is a tendency in government to see intelligence material as being at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of information. Awash with information, government reifies the skill of abstracting the core from the mass (indeed it is a skill tested in the entrance exams when you join, for instance, the Foreign Office). Unlike the voluminous flow of diplomatic telegrams, memos and open-source information that hits computers on desks across government every day, intelligence arrives in slim folders, adorned with colourful stickers announcing not only the secrecy of the information therein but the restricted circulation it enjoys. The impression thus given, a product of these aesthetics, is of access to the real thing, the secret core denied to all but the elite few.

History gives an interesting example of this phenomenon, namely the case of the Zinoviev letter. In 1924, Britain’s Foreign Office was sent a copy of a letter, purporting to come from Grigori Zinoviev, the president of the Soviet Comintern, addressed to the central committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The letter urged the party to stir up the British proletariat in preparation for class war. The letter then appeared in the press, causing immense political and diplomatic repercussions. It was a major embarrassment for the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and the governing Labour Party. The opposition Conservatives won the general election four days later. Relations between Britain and the Soviet Union soured, and Anglo-Soviet treaties were abandoned.

Only in 1999, when the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook ordered an investigation of Britain’s official archives, was it confirmed that the Zinoviev letter was a fake. The fake was believed as genuine by the Foreign Office, the archives revealed, because it came from the Secret Intelligence Service (this an observation from the Foreign Office’s own archival investigation).

An additional factor in Iraq was also that many of the human sources of intelligence had an understandable interest in exaggerating what they were reporting, not least because they wanted to encourage the overthrow of a regime they hated. The role of the Iraqi National Congress, the key Iraqi opposition group before the war, in providing “humint” is now well-known. But, interestingly, the Butler inquiry discounts this factor, instead pointing to the SIS’s failure to properly validate its sources, the long reporting chains and the sources’ lack of expertise on what they were reporting.

Back in the capitals, there is meanwhile an invisible undertow at work on the civil servants who collate and analyse this information. If ministers want a particular story to emerge, it has a way of emerging: the facts are made to fit the policy. It takes a brave if not foolhardy civil servant to resist this tide. This is not to claim that there was some secret cubicle in Whitehall (or Washington) where evidence of Iraq’s weapons was deliberately fabricated, but something more subtle. Evidence is selected from the available mass, contradictions are excised, and the selected data are repeated, rephrased, polished (spun, if you prefer), until it seems neat, coherent and convincing, to the extent that those presenting it may believe it fully themselves.

All of these reasons will have contributed to a considerable bias in the information that the government received and the analyses then produced on Iraq’s WMD. All of these reasons should have inspired caution; any assessment based on such information should have been heavily caveated. But, as the Butler report relates, instead of transmitting these caveats in its public presentations, such as the infamous Number 10 dossier, the government left them out. What was broadcast to the public was in effect not the summit of a hierarchy of information but a selection from a spectrum of information, a spectrum that ranged from the well-established to the highly speculative, and the selection came from the wrong end. Just as I once produced one-sided arguments to justify sanctions by ignoring all contrary evidence, the government produced a highly one-sided account of inherently unreliable information.

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