Rodric Braithwaite: Intelligence agencies cannot read the future

From a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs by the former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee
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The Independent Online

The most foolish criticism that can be directed against the intelligence agencies is that they have failed to predict great historical events. The future is inherently unpredictable. Intelligence agencies are no better able to see into it than journalists, academics, diplomats, or ordinary people with common sense.

Percy Cradock, the most distinguished of all former chairmen of the Joint Intelligence Committee, put it like this: "[We must] accept that in the last resort intelligence is an attempt to know the unknowable." He also identified the risk that: "the analysts become courtiers, whereas their proper function is to report their findings, almost always unpalatable, without fear or favour."

Even in 1993 we were trying to work out whether or not Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and what he might do with them. The Government's dossier last September was therefore nothing very new. But it was a pretty muddled affair. It was entitled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction", a terrifying subject. Large passages of it were not about that at all. They were about Saddam's unpleasant secret policemen.

This illustrates an iron law about the way drafting committees work. In the effort to get consensus, the drafters lose sight of what words means to the ordinary reader. To the JIC, Lord Hutton was told, the phrase "WMD" simply meant that Saddam could fire chemical shells from field artillery. Two witnesses to the inquiry said that it was not their fault if the press misinterpreted them. That is absurd. The JIC and Downing Street have only themselves to blame if the public failed to grasp what they were trying to say.

But the JIC's real failure seems to have been that it fell straight into Percy Cradock's trap. It stepped outside its traditional role. It entered the Prime Minister's magic circle. It was engulfed in the atmosphere of excitement which surrounds decision-making in a crisis. Whether they realised it or not, its members went beyond assessment to become part of the process of making and advocating policy.