February 1, 2004
Why did so many intelligence experts by so many countries get snookered by Saddam? Everyone believed that Iraq had stocks of chemical and biological weapons, and was working hard to build atomic bombs. Maybe the Russians didn't believe this, but they're not saying anything. The problem we have here is that the spying business has run out of spies. This has happened gradually over the last three decades. Many people did not notice.
There was a time when, if you wanted to find out what was going on in a foreign country, especially a restrictive police state, you would turn to the head of your intelligence service and inquire, "what do our people on the inside say?" For thousands of years, peacetime intelligence was all about finding, hiring and taking care of spies in foreign countries you needed to keep an eye on. Spying was a tricky business, and somewhat unsavory. After all, you were usually dealing with traitors. Many of your spies were betraying their oath of loyalty for money, or some other valuable consideration. Some of the more savory ones were doing it for religion, ideology, vengeance, or disillusionment with their current employer. There was also the problem of spies who just took the money and fed you believable lies.
A spymaster needed more than just a strong stomach, you also had to be able to keep track of who was reliable, accurate and, most important, not betraying you as well. Double, or even triple, agents were not unknown. A good spymaster had to be a very talented fellow with exceptional people skills. Just another bureaucrat would not do. Since exceptional spymasters were hard to come by, many national leaders were always concerned about the quality of information they were getting from their network of spies. When mass media came along, spying scandals became popular subjects for screaming headlines and calls for resignations. Kings and dictators can deal with this sort of thing, elected rulers cannot. These politicians live in fear of criticism, as do the bureaucrats they appoint to run intelligence operations.
So it's no surprise that, when spy satellites and all manner of electronic eavesdropping equipment appeared, interest in spies rapidly declined in the United States, and elsewhere as well. The U.S. was generous with the "imagery" (photos taken from space) and American allies could almost always get the picture they wanted. Which brings us back to Iraq. How could everyone miss the fact that Iraq was only pretending to have Weapons of Mass Destruction? Actually, it was worse than that. Saddam, beset by a U.N. embargo, assassination attempts and untrustworthy henchmen, didn't know he was being played by his weapons scientists. Saddam thought he was developing new chemical and biological weapons, but all he was getting for his money was doubletalk. American, and other, intelligence agencies believed the doubletalk as well, because no one was plugged into the inner circles of Saddam's police state.
Despite being a police state, Iraq was pretty open to a competent spymaster. There were plenty of people entering and leaving Iraq (legally and otherwise.) Saddam had encouraged the establishment of multiple channels between his government officials and people on the outside. A lot of this was in support of smuggling oil out and illegal goods in, so many of these links were with criminals. Lots of underworld access with people close to Saddam. It's no secret, and should be no surprise, that spymasters work with crooks a lot. By definition, a criminal is someone who buys and sells without much regard to rules or scruples.
Alas, in the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. Congress decided that it was beneath the United States to deal with criminals and unsavory people when engaged in espionage. Spy satellites are so much cleaner. Plus they are made in the USA, by American workers. None of this exporting millions in cash to bribe some guy with a long rap sheet, who happens to party with some Baath Party munchkins who hear a lot of interesting conversations. You simply can't trust people like that. These amazing satellite photos, on the other hand
That's how everyone got snookered. Establishing enough spies in Iraq to have exposed the WMD scam would have taken more money, talent, and dirty dealing than most governments were willing to tolerate. And then there's the media risk. One of your spies gets ticked off and bumps into someone from the Washington Post. Who needs the headaches? It's easier to deal with being ignorant. If no one else knows what's going on, where's the harm?
It's possible that the Russians did know Saddams WMD were non-existent. When the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of Russian spies lost their paychecks and protections. The 90s were embarrassing for revelations of the degree to which Russian spies had penetrated American and European governments. But before the end of that decade, the Russians began to put their house of spies back in order. The KGB always had a good spy network in Middle East. This was KGB country, because corruption and bribery was more enthusiastically practiced, and the locals appreciated the KGBs fanatic attitude towards keeping secrets. At the same time, the KGB was reliable. The KGB had a lot of friends inside Iraq, but would not want to risk exposing these sources by saying Iraq had no WMD, and why this was so.
But Iraq is not the problem at the moment. Does America have reliable spies inside Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan? Wait a minute, some of those countries are supposed to be American allies. Yes, the governments are supposed to be our allies. But Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan all have factions that are decidedly anti-American. If you want to know where the next unpleasant surprise is coming from, you want to have someone inside your enemies camp. That's where spying started thousands of years ago. And that's where it still is.
Unfortunately, to be effective, espionage efforts have to take place in dark corners. So we dont know if the CIA has got itself back into the spy business. Probably not, or at least not yet. It takes a long time to build up an effective network. Maybe work has begun, maybe not. Doesn't make much difference right now, because we're still flying blind. But the war on terror is going to last a while. Never too late to get started, because the winner of the war on terror is going to be the one with the best spies.