The secret services and the media are mutating, with each becoming more like the other
by Philip Bobbitt
The Guardian, Wednesday July 2, 2003
Reprinted with the author's permission
In 1987, I was the legal counsel to the US Senate select committee on the Iran-contra affair, and principal author of its report, Covert Action and the Constitution. Part of that committee's conclusions dealt with the charge that the Reagan administration had misused intelligence procedures to persuade itself that a significant Iranian faction of moderates existed with whom the US could deal to secure the release of American hostages.
In the US, the "national intelligence estimates" - official papers that assess specific issues - are crafted by the National Intelligence Council, a group drawn from the entire intelligence community. The council produced more than one estimate pouring cold water on the White House's idea of negotiating with "moderates" in Iran. But the administration sought an estimate that would bolster its position, and eventually got one, which gave considerable momentum to what became a quite unconstitutional if amateurish project.
Although the US and the UK differ in some constitutional respects, the lessons of that debacle may shed light on the present controversy as a new select committee examines the use of intelligence products in the run-up to the war in Iraq.
First, there will always be a "reliable" "senior person" who disagrees with the official estimate arrived at by community processes. There are two kinds of secrets: those that someone knows (whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or whether, as the New York Times put it, "Iraq really did destroy virtually all of its weapons, retaining only the ability to start banned programmes up again once the world stopped looking") and those that nobody really knows (what he would do with them, and how other regional actors would react if he acquired nuclear weapons, for example). So-called "strategic warning" depends upon assessments of both capability and intentions. It is not surprising that dissenters can always be found; indeed good intelligence organisations try to encourage this as a way of sharpening their estimates and preventing the mindless group-think that seizes so many institutions (including the press).
So it is not whether a journalist can find a single dissenter, but rather what the community, through its collaborative procedures, produces. In Britain, the joint intelligence committee is the vehicle for those procedures, and its head, John Scarlett, is much respected among intelligence officials. Unless he, and his committee, have completely gone off the rails in an effort to propitiate No 10, then charges about a cooked estimate based on a leaking dissenter are misplaced.
Second, intelligence assessments do not deal exclusively with secrets nor rely exclusively on clandestine sources and methods. The issue of the "dodgy dossier" seems to be that one of the estimates was prepared using unattributed material from a decade-old PhD dissertation, and not that the material was false. This seems to betray a broad misunderstanding of the intelligence product. There was a time when a large section of CIA analysts was devoted to things like estimating Chinese rice-production, but reliance has been increasingly put on "open-source" materials, gathered from publicly available materials.
If the criticism is that the unacknowledged use of academic materials is, in itself, incorrect because it gives the impression that their conclusions and analyses were the product of the intelligence community, then this is no criticism at all. It may have hurt the feelings of the PhD researcher not to have been footnoted, but there is nothing inappropriate about what would, in other circumstances, be plagiarism.
These points do not mean, however, that the entire controversy is a tempest in a teapot. On the contrary, these issues prefigure some of the conflicts to come as we learn to cope with new security threats, and the emergence of a new constitutional order that demands more transparency in government.
The fraught relationship between the intelligence agencies and the press is mutating, with each taking on some of its opposite number's characteristics under the intense competition of the 24-hour news cycle and the pressures of investigative journalism, on the one hand, and the new demands on intelligence agenices arising from terrorism, on the other. As a result, the press will have to learn to be as sceptical of its sources, and as shrewd in triangulating facts that confirm or disconfirm the accounts it collects, as any good intelligence agency. And intelligence agencies will have to learn the collaborative information sharing of the best editors and journalists.
Take the search for Iraqi WMD. The former weapons inspector Hans Blix announced he would not share, and would only receive, intelligence. This is a mistaken reversal of the policy of his much admired predecessor, Rolf Ekeus. The coalition seems bent on searching for things like centrifuges and weapons stocks, which are easy to hide and can be quickly destroyed, and not for the paper trail that as journalists know, will, show the transactions by which Saddam Hussein acquired large stores of biological weapons (including those from some embarrassed states). Until Saddam is captured it is highly unlikely that such documents will be brought forth by people who remain terrified of retribution and the public should be told this.
Both the press and the intelligence agencies will have to change if they are going to serve society. The idea of a communications director who is knowledgeable about actual operations is anathema to intelligence professionals. They know, as few in the public credit, that even the simple disclosure by governments of generally reported information can have disastrous consequences. The reporting, for example, of US capabilities to intercept Bin Laden's mobile phone conversations was followed by their abrupt cessation, with all the loss of life this may have entailed on September 11. But a sceptical public will not be satisfied by the complacent murmuring of talismanic phrases like "sources and methods"; rather skilled communications directors - the despised "spin doctors" who are accustomed to dealing with the press openly - will have to become a part of the intelligence apparatus.
The mirror-image description I have given of the press corps and intelligence community is evident in the present controversy. The BBC is being criticised for an insistence on using single-source material simply because it is highly inflammatory, sexy, fits the prejudices of the reporter, and fulfills the insistent requirements of management - in other words, the very elements of the indictment the BBC levelled against the government.
I venture no opinion on the merits of this matter. I have complete confidence in the integrity of the select committee investigating this matter, and in the statements of Scarlett and his colleagues on the JIC. And I have no opinion on the behaviour of the BBC, whose journalists have, like their counterparts in the commercial press, taken up the role of "critique" of all governments, liberal or conservative, that was once the province of the left parties. This development is unavoidable, even if its worst excesses of contempt for politicians and civil servants can perhaps be mitigated by thoughtful editors and presenters, of whom the BBC has many.
Philip Bobbitt is a former director for intelligence programmes at the US National Security Council
The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk)
Online essay: http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,989079,00.html