What Were We Witnessing? Iraq’s WMDs
The following is based on a reading of Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, where Weiner quotes George Tenet, once head of the CIA, as saying that the agency was wrong on its conclusions that Iraq had WMDs not because of “’political reasons or a craven desire to lead the country to war,’” but because of its incompetence. “’We didn’t get the job done.’”
Let me propose an alternative to Tenet’s claim that it was “incompetence” that led the CIA astray, viz., that it was the very “competence” of the agency’s experts that led it astray.
It is, in some senses, too easy an assessment to attribute this failure to incompetence, which leads to the conclusions that “mistakes were made” and, in the future with better agents, these could and would be corrected. These “mistakes” were not endemic but aberrations and, therefore, easily correctible. The harder assessment of this failure rejects incompetence as the cause or, put differently, looks further into this incompetence and finds a critique of experts and expertise. It asks: What do experts see? How do they see? Does an American who is an expert on, say, Iraq actually understand, know, or see Iraq by virtue of her expertise?
Experts are focused; they only see parts of the phenomena that are in front of them. So consider: Some experts, intelligence experts in the CIA, are assigned to determine if Iraq possesses WMDs. That is their focus; that is what they are looking for, signs of WMDs, and so they focus their seeing on such signs. And if they find such signs, that constitutes success. They have successfully completed their assignment, proving that they are, in fact, experts.
And ask yourself: What would happen to the bona fides of these experts were they to say, “We found no signs of WMDs,” and then there turned out to be such weapons, discovered when they were used? It is fair to say that their bona fides, their expertise, would vanish into the thin air. They would lose their authority as experts. And so experts are inclined, when asked to look for signs of WMDs, to find signs that such weapons exist. That result is safer, both for the enemies of those alleged to possess such weapons and for the experts themselves, as it protects their status, their authority, their professionalism.
We have the idea that experts are concerned with, as Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” That is, we think there are no incentives for experts to interpret “just the facts” in controversial ways. But that isn’t the case at all. Intelligence experts have incentives to find “the intelligence” they are looking for, to find signs of the phenomena thought to be hidden from view, at least from the view of non-experts. By finding such hidden phenomena, these experts prove their expertise, their professionalism, their competence. It is then their desire to succeed, to prove or demonstrate their competence that makes them, frequently, out of touch with the reality they claim to know, to see.
So, if politicians or governments establish policies that are dependent on experts and expertise, the expectation should be that such policies will prove to be less than satisfactory because they will be, frequently, out of touch with reality. George Tenet was reputed to be a decent man and there seems to be no reason to doubt this reputation. But perhaps his decency was part of his shortcomings insofar as it led him to accept, as decent people do, what the experts told him. “My experts tell me it’s a slam dunk!” And if they tell him and us that, why doubt them?
So although it might seem and even might be indecent to say so, it should be said anyway: Decency and expertise are not enough, ever.