Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
19 July 2004

The biggest con-trick

The Butler report 3 - We've all been dazzled by the glamour of James Bond and other fictional heroes

By Phillip Knightley

Lord Butler is too generous. The per-formance of “the intelligence community”, he says, has been “impressive”. But we should face the only important truth in the Iraq fiasco: most intelligence is useless, and spies who promise to provide reliable information are guilty of the biggest confidence trick of our age.

Most political leaders know this but ignore it because they find intelligence a handy tool. Tony Blair wanted intelligence material about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq. The intelligence services did not have it. So Downing Street took what little vague intelligence there was and used all of its presentational skills to convince sufficient MPs of the need to attack Saddam Hussein before he attacked us.

The intelligence services did not protest vigorously enough because they had been intimidated by a new approach inspired by the administration in the US. There, the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had argued that the CIA was too independent, and that its role should be to support the administration’s policy, just like any other government department. Rumsfeld felt it should stick to collecting intelligence and leave both its analysis and application to politicians. This idea suited the Blair government, and the results were quickly apparent. Intelligence provided by the Secret Intelligence Service was used by the Joint Intelligence Committee to produce the infamous Iraq dossier, whose “presentation” was then handled by Downing Street.

Old-time British and US intelligence officers were horrified at these developments and protested that intelligence would be “bent” to suit politicians’ plans. As the Senate and Butler inquiries have shown, that is exactly what happened.

Unless, as a result of these inquiries, the trend is reversed, we have entered a dangerous period in the relationship between governments and intelligence services. Until now, intelligence failures did not greatly matter. The military historian Sir John Keegan spent three years looking at the importance of intelligence in wartime and concluded that it never wins wars. “Intelligence experts hate conceding that truth. The public collude,” he wrote. “The reason is that the fiction of intelligence, beginning with Childers and Buchan, reaching its apogee in our age with the works of Ian Fleming and John le Carre, has worked so powerfully on the western imagination that many of its readers, including presidents and prime ministers, have been brought to believe that intelligence solves everything . . . If only life were so simple.”

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

And, as a study by the Royal Institute of International Affairs has shown, intelligence failures have been even more dismal in peacetime. Western agencies failed to predict the first Soviet atom bomb. They failed to predict the invasion of Korea. They failed to predict the Hungarian revolt and the siting of Soviet missiles in Cuba. They failed to predict the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghan-istan. Above all, when any western tourist to Moscow could see that something strange was going on there, western intelligence services failed to consider the collapse of Soviet communism and the end of the cold war. Then they never imagined that Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait, and, even though terrorists had attempted to blow up the World Trade Center once before, they were caught by surprise on 11 September 2001.

The record of the KGB was no better. In 1994, the respected historian Vladislav Zubok published the results of his research into the Soviet side of the cold-war espionage battle and accused the KGB of delusions of grandeur. And the former KGB general Oleg Kalugin has said: “When people in the west say that Soviet intelligence penetrated the higher echelons of western government, I know that this is not true.”

A conference on intelligence history held in Germany in 1994 was attended by a panel of spymasters from east and west. I challenged them to name a single important historical event in peacetime in which intelligence had played a decisive role. No one could do so.

So how come the intelligence services have not been rumbled and called to account? Part of the answer is Keegan’s theory that we have all been so blinded by the fictional glamour of the craft that we have been unable to see how useless our spy services are. But another reason is that spymasters have been brilliant at turning failure into triumph and finding plausible excuses when things have gone wrong. These range from “We have actually done very well, but we can’t tell you how well because of operational secrecy” to “We were so underfunded that we did not have sufficient officers to do the job” – both excuses are echoed by Butler. When the spies issue warnings and nothing happens, they say: “That is because the terrorists knew we were on to them and aborted their plans” (something we have heard often since 9/11). Or they blame the way their governments have interpreted their reports: “The warning was there, but you failed to heed it.” That was the explanation people in British intelligence gave for the Falklands debacle.

The intelligence services, wishing to maintain their special role in British life (as one of our biggest growth industries), feel it is essential to appear all-knowing. So when Blair asked them for a dossier on the threat posed by Saddam, a realistic answer would have been: “There’s a problem, Prime Minister. For 50 years we’ve been concentrating on communism. Now we’re reorienting ourselves. We have to recruit agents in areas where we consider terrorism a threat. When we’ve found someone, we have to determine whether he is a genuine recruit or whether he is being planted on us by the opposition.

“Then we have to examine his material over a long period to assess its value and reliability. None of this can be done quickly. It is a slow and subtle process. Our experience is that it can take five to ten years to develop a good agent. So when you ask us what we can tell you about Iraq, Saddam Hussein, any weapons of mass destruction he might have and whether he is likely to use them, then we have to say, ‘We don’t really know’.”

What a lot of trouble that simple answer might have saved.

Phillip Knightley is the author of The Second Oldest Profession, a history of intelligence services

Topics in this article :