What does all this say about how the intelligence agencies operate? It says that the intelligence agencies are not as all-knowing as most of us think (and the intelligence agencies would like to have us think) It says that intelligence agencies find safety in numbers. They tend to agree with one another, at least when forced to make a public statement on something (like, does Iraq have WMD). This is caused by fear, fear of being wrong or, perhaps, more of fear that someone else will be right. The intelligence agencies are not immune to the allure, and safety, of the conventional wisdom.
The fact of the matter is that no one had penetrated the inner sanctum of Iraqs leadership. Aptly called, the Republic of Fear, Saddams Iraq was very much a police state. Saddam ruled by fear and secrecy. When his government fell in April, 2003, many senior leaders were captured. Few of them had a clear idea of exactly what Saddam was up to. Eventually it became clear that Saddam was running a scam, one that even many of his closest aides were not in on. In hindsight, what Saddam did made sense. Especially from Saddams point of view. Saddam had many enemies, inside and outside of the country. With his armed forces wrecked in the 1991 war, and his oil wealth greatly diminished by the UN embargo, his best remaining weapons were fear, and secrecy.
The appeal of the conventional wisdom is not limited to intelligence professionals. The news media is another believer. When a big story breaks, whether its true, or relevant, does not matter. If the public perks up, every other new outlet picks up the story and a feeding frenzy ensues.
Several studies of American intelligence efforts prior to September 11, 2001 reveal that nearly everyone thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD, or chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.) Iraq had none of them, but Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate in proving that. The refusal led the intelligence services of all major nations to agree that Iraq must have the WMD. After all, why else would Saddam Hussein play games with the UN weapons inspectors? It turned out that Saddam was spinning his tales because he felt the illusion of having WMD was the only thing keeping Iran, or anyone else, from coming after him. The illusion of WMD still made him a mighty leader in the eyes of many Moslems, particularly Arabs. That was more important to Saddam than getting the UN embargo lifted, or the welfare of Iraqis.
This conventional wisdom has its origins in human nature. Thats why we have urban legends and, as Napoleon noted, lies mutually agreed upon. If it sounds true, or at least interesting, it could be true. If theres no compelling evidence to the contrary, you have another bit of conventional wisdom. And so it was with Saddams weapons. It seemed a reasonable assumption, and with no compelling evidence to the contrary, the WMD were as if they were real.