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Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

Few geo-strategic and geo-political judgments on lessons learned from the Iraq War are likely to top, at least in sheer starkness, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s valedictory statement that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”

I’m not even going to try to top that one. Besides, I’m the intel guy, not a policy wonk, and ten years may not be enough time for the really big lessons of Iraq or anywhere else to have ripened. So, instead, I’m going to look at “lessons learned” though an intelligence rather than a policy lens.

First of all, there is the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on weapons of mass destruction. Just to be clear, I was in the room when it was approved. I voted yes. I had earlier told Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, that the National Security Agency (where I was director at the time) had mountains of evidence on Saddam Hussein’s WMD program. The problem was that it was all circumstantial rather than definitive.

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Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

Americans are unlikely to learn anything from the Iraq War for one simple reason. Rather than subjecting the war to the critical scrutiny it deserves, they are keen to forget it.

Recent accounts claim that Michael Morell, deputy director of the CIA, has commented that evidence that Osama bin Laden was living in Abbottabad was equally circumstantial. In fact, we may have had stronger evidence on Iraqi WMD that we had on bin Laden’s location.

What is most striking about the 2002 estimate is not that it was wrong (which it certainly was), but that the language of the estimate was so unambiguous. We had our footnotes from State Department and Energy dissenting on “aluminum tubes” and the nuclear weapons program, but in retrospect the language is clearly over-confident and the unsuspecting policymaker leaning on this intelligence is given a false sense of certainty. Lesson learned: Share your doubts.

A second lesson: When America enters a fight, the distinctions between tactical and strategic (or national) become meaningless. As I said, I was director of the National Security Agency at the time of the invasion of Iraq and doctrinally I was charged with supporting the national leadership and Department of Defense echelons down to about the corps level.

Doctrine didn’t work. My chief of research came back from a week-plus visit to Iraq with a troubling report card. They loved us at MNFI (the multinational force headquarters), tolerated us at division, and below that barely knew who we were.

Shortly thereafter, we imbedded NSA teams down to the regimental (in the Marine Corps) and brigade (in the Army) levels, and became integral to those units’ organic intelligence assets. Low-echelon GIs were tweaking and pointing the most precious national assets for their immediate tactical needs. Lesson learned: doctrine be damned; do whatever it takes. In signals intelligence as in policy, the formerly tactical had become strategic and vice versa.

A third lesson: An outgrowth of this kind of integration was the inevitable blending of intelligence and operations, of what are known as US Code Title 10 authorities (traditional military activities) and Title 50 authorities (traditional intelligence activities, including covert action).

In 2006, within a few days of US special operations forces killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the notorious leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, I (then director of the CIA) received a hand-written personal note from Stanley McChrystal, then head of Joint Special Operations Command. It was a simple “thank you.”

As CIA director, I visited various intelligence centers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were all impressive. As I was about to exit a facility, I generally would pause, look over my shoulder, and ask, “Hey, who here works for me?” In other words, the previous two hours of the visit had not given me any indicator of who was who. It was just one team. That was a measure of our integration.

Much has been made of this, and some members of Congress have complained that similar if not identical activities have been arbitrarily booked under Defense Department or intelligence authorities and hence fall under the oversight of either the intelligence or armed services committees—but not both.

Lesson learned: Get beyond this. Operationally successful arrangements should not be put at risk to protect congressional prerogatives. Oversight is essential but its structure should reflect operational imperatives, not the other way around.

Lesson four: Intelligence support for a preemption strategy is really hard. The Bush administration famously described it as a duty to “anticipate and counter threats, using all elements of national power, before the threats can do grave damage” (emphasis added). For me, in the simplest terms, that raised the question of how good American intelligence would have to be to identify such threats and to identify them at a confidence level that would justify America shooting first.

Intelligence is always designed to inform policymakers, but it usually does so in the face of continuing doubt. It enables action even in the face of ambiguity. This looked different; this looked like intelligence as evidence.

And before anyone is tempted to dismiss this as a peculiar Bush administration or Iraq War phenomenon, consider the present administration’s policy toward Iran and its nuclear program. President Obama has rejected containment and has promised not to allow Iran to acquire a weapon—all of which will require intelligence to be able to “anticipate and counter” this threat before it materializes. For the intel guy, that challenge has the feel of Iraq WMD redux.

One final lesson, or perhaps an “un-lesson.” With the country at war for eleven years, much of American intelligence has been shaped to support brave young Americans in harm’s way. Much of what now passes for analysis is really targeting. I told David Petraeus shortly before his confirmation hearings that the CIA never looked more like its World War II predecessor, the OSS, than it did today.

These are good things. But it is also good to remember that the CIA is not the OSS; it’s the nation’s global espionage and analytic service. And if it and the rest of the intelligence community do not remember and tend to these broader roles, the nation will be the worse for it. That’s another lesson worth heeding.

Michael V. Hayden was director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009.

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