If there is a case to be made for opening up more of the activities of the secret services to public scrutiny, you need only look at the failures of the privileged political elites presently tasked to monitor them on our behalf. Associate Editor Rohan Jayasekera at Index on Censorship, comments. (01-OCT-04)
Source: Index on Censorship
Public disclosure is anathema to the spy. The reach of Freedom of Information law, in place in the US , in process in Britain , is limited when it comes to the security services. But not even the intelligence community can escape some scrutiny in a democratic state, so it falls to elite parliamentarians – in the House of Commons and the US Congress – to watch the spooks on the public´s behalf.
Thanks to the current post-mortems into the comprehensive US-British failure of intelligence in Iraq , it´s now clear that they have to do their job better.
Former top British government official Lord Butler of Brockwell delivered a gently-worded but nonetheless hard-hitting report this week that found that the intelligence on which Tony Blair based his case for war against Iraq was ‘seriously flawed´.
That case was agreed between a small circle of key ministers and advisors. Blair´s own cabinet was sidelined along with the rest of the dissenters. Where were the sceptics prepared to do the one thing that Blair wouldn´t – to ask whether the intelligence community´s evidence of Iraqi wrongdoing really justified war?
The buzz phrase floated by Butler and his opposite numbers over in the US Senate, which released its own report into the failure of intelligence in Iraq , was ‘group think´. The term was devised by US psychologist Irving Janis to explain the collective failure of the US leadership to avert humiliation at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1960.
Group think is a collective loss of critical faculties, where contradictory evidence is sidelined or discredited by groups of decision-makers fearful of indecision. There is no-one to ask the difficult questions – to be the small boy who sees that the king has no clothes.
US and British critics of the system are infuriated by this blinkered approach. The Senate found that the CIA´s conclusions, rather than being false or wildly overstated, were often contradicted by the actual evidence.
Thomas Oliphant of the Boston Globe concluded that US president George Bush had simply read the cover summary and skipped the actual report. As had security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell´s visits to CIA chief George Tenet before they both went to the UN to make a case for war “never once turned up the hedging, contradictory information that the Senate committee (later) found by the bucketful”
Both Butler ´s 196-page report and the Senate 511-page tome both concluded that someone should have spotted the discrepancies earlier and raised the alarm. But who?
In Britain , the spooks´ representative, John Scarlett, chairman of the joint committee of British intelligence agencies (JIC), did not speak up when Blair´s cabal of key colleagues began, in Butler ´s words, placing “more weight… on the intelligence than it could actually bear”. Butler also noted that Blair´s cabinet had been rarely consulted. A Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services existed, but had only just met for the first time in eight years. Who else?
The British parliament provides oversight of the country´s three intelligence agencies via its Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). According to its website, it operates within the “ring of secrecy” and has wide access to highly classified information. A bi-partisan body, its reports – “after any deletions of sensitive material” – are placed before Parliament by the Prime Minister and it issues ad hoc reports from time to time.
Similarly the US Senate intelligence committee has a staff of 30 and an annual budget of $3.5 million. It too is tasked to oversee its national intelligence services and can withhold funds until spotted shortcomings are fixed. How did they get on? Not very well, says Washington Post columnist William Safire.
“Where has this Senate committee been for the past decade?” he asks. “Did any of its recent members – John Edwards, for one – have the wit to ask the CIA, with its $40 billion a year to spend, how many American spies we had in Iraq ? (Answer: not one.) If the intelligence agencies were as badly run for years as the Senate now says, then congressional oversight has long been bleary-eyed.”
The Intelligence and Security Committee´s contribution has come in for less criticism; it appears to have made all Butler ´s points to Scarlett´s committee earlier, but too late or without effect. Yet Blair cites the fact that the Intelligence and Security Committee exists as one reason for refusing to call a full public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the march to war in Iraq .
As long as oversight is the committee´s job, it will have to do it better. Lord Butler warned of the risk of ‘group think´ among Britain ´s intelligence services. He recommended that a “structured challenge” and a “Devil´s advocate” approach should be built in to how the intelligence community develops its evidence.
The best last hope of the citizens of the US and Britain is that their parliamentarians should lead by example and apply just that technique to its own oversight duties.
Rohan Jayasekera is the Associate Editor of Index on Censorship, and is currently directing the charity´s programmes in Iraq.
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