Thursday, January 22, 2004


A few thoughts on inteligence and Intelligence Organisations, sparked off by the PANORAMA special last night.

The Kelly Affair throws up a lot of issues. One is on the nature of inteliigence, secret or otherwise.

MI6 and other beasties are really no more than Think Tanks with very special strengths and weaknesses. We can get some idea of how they work by looking at more public Think Tanks, the IPPR for example, or the Oxford Research Group. Each of these Tanks has methods, sources and biases and to get the best out of their work we, the rest of the world, need to be aware of these 'frames' and make comparisons between them. Of equal importance, a competent Tank can compare its own work with others and learn from its own mistakes. We dont have the opportunity to assess the Secret Inteligence Services in this way and, of equal importance, the SIS doesn't have the public incentive to refine its work and assumptions as its mistakes are highlighted by others work.

The SIS has the handicap of having secret sources, and the need to guard against seduction from the power of limited knowledge. The 'glamour' of being an insider, of being able to say to Public Questioners 'if only you knew what we knew...'. The whole Kelly to Gilligan exchange shows how unreliable such intelligence gathering can be. Here it is a Civil Servant to a journalist, in another context it might be an Iraqi middle-level scientist to an intelligence debriefer.

The problem is that once the Press have a Reliable Source it feels its duty is done. At least the SIS feels a professional duty to qualify its advice and put confidence limits on its assessments. But what it gets may still be chatter that is overvalued because it is 'secret'.

My feeling for what happened is that the SIS got its interpretations on 'WMD' mixed up through too much reliance on secret sources which turned out to be chatter. Kelly got it wrong too, as he genuinely thought Saddam had deployable chemical stocks. So Blair was misinformed by the SIS on the basic danger and made his basic decisions using this duff data. However the SIS did not produce data that would support an immediate war, so Downing Street pressed for statements that met its needs. It got this though some stripping away of the 'confidence limits' in the SIS presentation, so that it was left in essence with a Press Report. Kelly recognised the grave dangers in this unprofessional shuffle and tried to indicate his unhappiness. Gilligan picked up on this but overemphasised the Political Theatre in a way that Kelly did not intend as he had no special knowledge of this.

Bottom line for me, the whole affair shows that we didnt have such good data on Sadam as we thought and the BBC in the end got an accurate picture out on this failure, though part of the process of assembling this picture was through the exposure of errors in some BBC reporting. Blair was let down by the SIS making wrong assessments of Iraqi capabilities (ie that Iraq had useable WMD of any kind at all) but made sure he couldnt escape from the consequences of this error by placing political requirements on the evidence presentation that multiplied the effects of the error. I have no idea what in all this influenced Dr Kelly when making decisions on his own future, but in his shoes I would have been disgusted by the betrayal of the Professional standards he clearly tried to uphold in a world full of dangerous opportunities for overfeeding the illusions of chatter.

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