21 September 2010

Why Intelligence Fails: lessons from Iran and Iraq

Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War is the title of a book by Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, published by Cornell University Press, 2010.

It examines in detail two major intelligence failures: the inability of CIA and the wider intelligence community to understand the turmoil in Iran leading up to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and the misjudgement of Iraq’s programs of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the period preceding the 2003 war.

Jervis had had a twelve month assignment as a scholar in residence with the CIA in 1977, and in November 1978, when the CIA realised that the Shah was in much more trouble than the intelligence community had appreciated, he was invited to return and appraise the intelligence effort – in particular, to examine the quality of the work in the light of the information that the analysts had available. The first part of the book is largely a version of his report, with necessary deletions (“redactions”) which he assures us do not change the story, and with contemporary commentary.

Then follows his analysis of the extent to which there was intelligence failure in relation to Iraqi WMD, and why it happened.

In his final chapter Jervis discusses broader issues of the contested relationship between policymakers and intelligence, in relation to which he makes the insightful comment that:

...despite the fact that decision makers always say they want better intelligence, for good political and psychological reasons often they do not, which is part of the explanation for why intelligence reforms are rarely fully implemented.

He concludes with a discussion of various reforms, “both those that are overrated and those that involve greater training and greater infusion of social science and are worthy of more attention”.

This book is no light read, but it well repays the effort for anyone who has a serious interest in the craft of intelligence, and how it can best support policymaking.

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