5 October 2003

The spies who clutched at straws

What has appalled the British and US governments is that such incompetence was supposed to have been a thing of the past. After the intelligence community was caught flat-footed by the events of 11 September, 2001, everything was supposed to have changed.

Instead, the intelligence services appear to have no better idea of what is going on in those parts of the world hostile to them than they had before the planes smashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

In February, the CIA was said to believe that al-Qaeda was planning major attacks against Americans in the US and in the Middle East to coincide with the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. None materialised. Intelligence reports suggested there were concerns about al-Qaeda's ability to deploy a dirty bomb. Nothing came of it. The reports were compiled from interviews with captured al-Qaeda members, clearly eager to hand over the information their inquisitors wanted to hear.

Later the same month, intelligence services claimed Iraq was moving some of its weapons of mass destruction 'every 12 to 24 hours' to avoid UN inspectors. No evidence has ever materialised to support this contention. In Britain, intelligence reports prompted the arrival of troops at Heathrow airport to thwart what was described as a serious threat. But planes were not grounded and, after a few days, the soldiers left.

Before Mr Powell's UN speech, the US National Security Agency produced tapes purporting to be of Iraqi officials discussing how they had thwarted the weapons inspectors. The recordings included such gems as: 'Move that', and: 'Ha! Can you believe they missed that?'.

None of the threats materialised. As for the tapes, they have been forgotten. The theory that the intelligence services are now touting is that they have been the victims of a very effective bit of bluffing, that Saddam duped them into believing he had weapons of mass destruction to save face in the Middle East and to try to stave off the threat of invasion. If the Arab world believed he possessed weapons of mass destruction, it is argued, it would boost his standing in the region, although how this fits with the assertions of Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi deputy prime minister, that no such weapons existed is not explained.

There is an alternative theory - that they are just not very good at their jobs.

That really is quite a lot of forgotten allegations. You'd think, for example, that chasing down the Iraqi officers on the tape Powell produced at the UN would have been a priority. Why then, have we never heard about it again?


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