I've been reading a great book about World War II military intelligence -- one of those nonfiction books that makes you think no fiction writer will ever be up to the task. I was enjoying it as "pure" history (is there any such thing?), but today realized that it is incredibly useful for thinking about recent news regarding Ahmad Chalabi and Iranian intelligence, and the search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq generally.

The book is The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War, by Thaddeus Holt (just published). The author, a former Deputy Under Secretary of the Army, describes with precision and wit how first the British and then the American military learned to deceive Germany and Japan regarding the Allied force strength and intentions. It's the sort of book I would send to a Hollywood producer buddy if only Hollywood had any shot at not screwing it up (*ahem*).

Holt describes how the British "A" Force, the group charged with deception, undertook to cause German forces to take actions favorable to the British:

The object of a deception is not to induce the enemy commander to think something, but to induce him to do something: To act as you want him to act ... Your target is the mind of the enemy commander. You must judge what estimate of the situation given to him by his intelligence services will induce him to act as you wish. Your customers are the enemy intelligence services. You need to know how they operate, and what information given to them will induce them to give their commander the estimate of the situation that will cause him to act as you want him to act.

(p. 50.) The early learning process, in 1940-41, showed the British deceivers how to construct a "story" that would produce the desired effect:

[T]he most effective deception is one that confirms what the enemy already wants to believe; ... [A deception] "story" can be based on an operation that had been considered and rejected[.]

(p. 51.) I was particularly struck when reading the chapter on "The Customers" -- that is, the people to whom deceptive stories were passed, in order to induce a desired action:

Intelligence people in all wars tend by nature to inflate order of battle figures [to play it safe]; savvy commanders know this and make allowances for it.


"Deception can never be effective either in love or in war," Sir Michael Howard has well said, "unless there is a certain willingness to be deceived."

(Both quotes from p. 101.)

How does all this apply to Iraq, WMD, Chalabi, and Iran? Well, we know that the Bush Administration has cited WMD as the key reason to go to war in Iraq, and that to date no such weapons have been found in the country. Suppose for a moment -- and I think this is a reasonable supposition, supported by Bob Woodward's recent Plan of Attack and other sources -- that the Bush Administration really believed WMD existed in Iraq. Suppose also -- again, I think this is more than reasonable at this point -- that their belief was completely mistaken. The question that follows for me is, how did they make such a mistake?

Assume that no one in the US willfully made up the WMD story themselves in order to accomplish other goals (a complete contrivance is a remote possibility, but I suspect by now one of the originators would have leaked). Did the intelligence community provide the Administration with enough supporting material to make the case plausible, both to themselves and others? (Certainly seems that way.) Was it really just the Administration pushing the intelligence community for the answer they wanted -- did they effectively lie to themselves by forcing bad interpretations of innocuous data? Or did the inclination in the Administration towards action against Hussein meet with a deliberate attempt to deceive the US into action?

Holt's book, of course, gives me no way to say one way or another -- but what it does show, I believe, is that all the conditions necessary for a deception existed:

  • There was a "story" -- that Hussein had WMD;
  • The furtherance of the story accomplished a clear object, the removal of Hussein from power;
  • The story was based on real plans that Hussein seems to have abandoned;
  • The story was bolstered by information given or suggested to the US intelligence agencies (Holt points out that deception is most useful when military forces are not in direct engagement but instead are planning for action);
  • The story matched what the Bush Administration already wanted to believe about Iraq and Hussein;
  • The story was built up over a long period of time; and
  • The story was sufficient to prompt the US to take action.

If this was a planned deception -- and again, Holt makes it clear that much smaller-scale deceptions required tremendous planning efforts -- I wonder who planned it. Chalabi and his organization? That seems like it should not have succeeded since their interests were so clear and would have been so clear to everyone involved; plus, they seem unlikely to have been able to provide any logistical or physical support for the claims of defectors. Iran? I would have to say Iran is the primary suspect if a planned deception actually occurred: their interest in removing Hussein is clear; today's Times article on the topic calls the Iranian spy service "one of the most sophisticated in the Middle East"; and they clearly had contact with Chalabi and could have fed him notional evidence to pass to the US. Others might suggest Israel, which would seem to have the sophistication but not, I suspect, any better access to Iraq than the US itself. I'd doubt even a very strong Israeli desire for Hussein's removal could have produced this result by these means.

A few things don't quite add up, here, suggesting that I'm taking my enjoyment of the book too far. If Iran was running a deception, and the US was reading Iranian intelligence traffic (see the NYT article), why didn't we catch on earlier -- were they that careful? Why was Chalabi deliberately blown, and why did he tell the Iranians what he is accused of telling them? And finally -- why is this news coming out at all? Does the Bush Administration really hope the American public will forgive them for their mistaken war because they were lied to about WMD by Chalabi? That seems impossibly naive -- Mayberry Machiavellianism indeed!

In any case, the one thing more and more apparent to me, as I read further in Holt's book, is that the Bush Administration decision-makers do not fall into the category of "savvy commanders" who make allowances for inflated intelligence estimates. It seems instead to have been the opposite -- that the intelligence estimates were not nearly enough to support the war effort, and they went ahead regardless. If they were systematically deceived, how much the deceivers must have celebrated at the enormity of their success, and the paltry effort needed to produce the action they desired.

Holt, by the way, is speaking this Friday in New York at City University of New York. I'd love to hear a report of what he says -- it would be interesting to see if he addresses this topic.

[A long first post! The next will be shorter and more amusing.]


  2004-06-02 14:20 Z