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April 8, 2005 -- IN a rare show of unity, the American establish ment has put its partisan tradition aside to praise the presidential commission that has just described prewar intelligence on Iraq as "dead wrong." While we should have no illusions about the efficiency of America's costly, bloated and poorly led intelligence services, it is important not to draw wrong conclusions from the commission's report.

To start with, these services are instruments in the hands of the political leadership. Direction as to what to look for must come from the political leadership. What is presented as a failure of intelligence, therefore, may well be a political failure.

It was the political leadership that failed to understand that, with the Cold War over, the United States needed to refocus its intelligence services towards new sources of threat. That did not happen. Even today. Russian-speakers in the "intelligence community" reportedly outnumber Arabic-speakers 20 to one.

In the specific case of Iraq, successive U.S. administrations failed to appreciate the dangerous direction that that country had taken under its Ba'athist rulers, especially from 1979 onwards. From 1958 until the late 1980s, the United States did not even have an embassy in Baghdad.

Another glaring example of political failure concerns Iran. Over the past quarter of a century, successive U.S. administrations have identified the Islamic Republic as a growing threat to American national interests. And yet there has never been any serious attempt at developing a coherent Iran policy — which would, in turn, spell out specific intelligence needs.

The issue of Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions was first raised during the Ford administration in 1977. A year later, the Carter administration gave Iran virtually unlimited access to U.S. nuclear technology. The issue was again highlighted by Clinton-era Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1992. And yet the presidential commission asserts that even today Washington knows very little of substance about the subject.

The greatest danger in misreading the commission's report, however, lies elsewhere. Without saying so openly. the commissioners appear to imply that the war to liberate Iraq was somehow caused by faulty intelligence.

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But is this true? The decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power was a political one that enjoyed almost unanimous support in Washington from the mid '90s onwards. The Iraq Liberation Act, signed by President Bill Clinton, committed the United States to the liberation of Iraq not because of weapons of mass destruction but with reference to Saddam's violation of human rights and his decade-long defiance of the United Nations.

The conflict between Saddam Hussein and the U.N. was about a wide range of issues, of which the WMDs was only one. That no appreciable stocks of WMDs have been found in Iraq so far does not render the other reasons for toppling Saddam Hussein inoperative.

The commission's report might cause confusion as to the relationship between intelligence on the one hand and political decision-making on the other by implying the primacy of the former. That could encourage the concept of a government of spooks, as was the case in the former Soviet Union, and is still the case in some Arab states ran by their mukhaberat (secret services.)

In a democracy, however, a firewall must separate intelligence-gathering and -analysis from political debate and decision-making. There may be times when even good-quality intelligence would have to be discarded in favour of a political judgment regarding a specific issue.

In the late 1930s British intelligence consistently, and often accurately, reported on Hitler's massive arms build-up — but with the erroneous conclusion that it was primarily aimed against the USSR. Even the German-Soviet pact did not shake that firm belief. Thus the availability of good-quality intelligence did not prevent the making of poor political decisions. The appeasers knew exactly what Hitler was up to but lacked the vision to put it in proper context.

In the specific case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was determined to keep people guessing about his WMD program. By making life difficult for U.N. inspectors, and insisting that some sites remain off limit, he encouraged suspicions about his intentions. The fact that his entire rule was based on secrecy and double-dealing made the claim that he maintained a clandestine weapons' program plausible. That impression was entertained and reinforced by Iraqi exiles who had an interest in vilifying the Ba'athist regime.

Now, let us imagine that the so-called intelligence community had reported in 2003 that Iraq was genuinely free of WMDs. That would not have changed the nature of the Ba'athist regime and Saddam Hussein's destabilizing strategy in the Middle East. Nor would the regime have ceased to be an almost daily calamity for the people of Iraq.

With a narrow focus on WMDs, the U.N. might have felt obliged to lift the sanctions on Iraq, thus liberating Saddam Hussein from the constraints that had forced him to rein in his deadly ambitions. Within a few years, Iraq would have re-emerged as an even bigger threat and one far more difficult to contain, let alone eliminate.

A narrow view of intelligence as a snapshot of reality at any given time could prove counter-productive. Such a snapshot could show Saddam Hussein without any WMDs at a particular time, ignoring the fact that he had had them at some other points and may well have them again if given the opportunity.

The real WMD in Iraq was the Ba'athist regimes and its machinery of oppression and war — which was found and dismantled.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is member of Benador Associates.

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