The report [1] on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) used to justify pre-emptive action against Iraq was presented by the US as an intelligence document, with information from different sources that served as proof of Iraq’s failure to comply with its international obligations. The following is a critical assessment of Powell’s speech and its strengths and weaknesses as an intelligence report.

The US Intelligence Community employs a number of intelligence sources divided among five major collection disciplines[2], which Powell made use of in a limited way.

  • GEOINT- Geospatial Intelligence (also IMINT/PHOTOINT) refers to imagery intelligence, the collection/interpretation of photos from aerial vehicles/satellites of objects/people/activities referenced to the Earth.
  • SIGINT- Signals Intelligence refers to the interception of signals, either from electronic sources or from people. It can be the interception of communications between two parties (COMINT), the pickup of electronic emissions from modern weapons systems (FISINT), or the pickup of data relayed by weapons during tests (TELINT).
  • MASINT- Measurement and Signatures Intelligence refers to weapons capabilities and industrial activities.
  • HUMINT- Human Intelligence refers to human espionage activities in foreign countries, which in turn makes use of other INTs (i.e. wiretapping, a form of COMINT).
  • OSINT- Open Source Intelligence refers to information acquired from publicly available sources, like the worldwide web, industry, academia, experts, and media.

In Powell’s introduction, he mentions the main types of intelligence he would use to make his case on Iraq’s real intentions and capabilities: “technical”, including intercepted telephone conversations (COMINT) and photographs (GEOINT), and “people” (HUMINT). Powell did not mention the OSINT he would refer to as well.

The use of COMINT in Powell’s speech is based on five intercepted communications, allegedly between Iraqi senior government officials and military officials. While sources are mentioned, they are not identified other by the speakers’ ranks in the Iraqi army. Besides that, however, if one listens to the conversations and translations, one can indeed listen to two men seemingly worried, or trying to hide something. And considering Iraq’s past actions and behaviour, those types of communications seem to give good indication and warning, and can thus be interpreted as a threat.

Powell also refers to satellite photos to show how WMDs were being moved from sites. He warns of the difficulty of interpreting these images, and says what supposedly imagery specialists had concluded. While showing these images, he claims the facilities house chemical munitions, providing details such as the number of bunkers used for that purpose, yet he never mentions how they know those facilities house those types of munitions. Satellite images by themselves are not evidence of Iraq’s concealment activities because they only show a limited picture from the outside. Could those facilities be housing something else? The only way of corroborating those claims would be with images from the inside, or with reliable HUMINT testimonies, none of which were provided.

The HUMINT used by Powell was also based on weak sources. A number of those were defectors, who could have passed information just as a way to exit Iraq safely. The same could be said of eyewitnesses. Powell also made numerous references to unnamed human sources (i.e. ‘al-Qaeda source’, ‘numerous human sources’, ‘intelligence provided to inspectors’). Rarely were those sources identified, and again, none were corroborated.

Open source intelligence is the most reliable source in this case, since it is available for a broader audience and is, in this case, produced by a legitimate institution, which can also be corroborated. Still, Powell’s presentation rarely refers to it. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) report claiming Iraq has illegal 380 SA-2 rocket engines is significant, and it does indeed show that Iraq was engaging in an illegal activities. Yet the interpretation was extrapolated to mean that those missiles could be used for carrying WMDs, which in turn would make it necessary for the US to prove that Iraq was in possession of those types of weapons.

Another important aspect of Powell’s speech worth assessing is his lack of clarity when defining what he is trying to convey.

There is inaccurate usage of the terms ‘facts’, ‘evidence’, ‘information’, and ‘intelligence’, occasionally using them interchangeably. Information is data (learned or obtained) given meaning and structure, while intelligence is based on inference (analysis and logic) and refers to information that is collected, processed, and analyzed, and used for a specific policy purpose. The use of information alone lacks much utility. The knowledge you get from a piece of information can become a fact if it is verified. But intelligence is not based solely on information nor is it based on facts. It guides policy but cannot be used as evidence, or proof, to make an argument and take a specific course of action, mainly because evidence is based on a legal standard for action. Finally, intelligence is not a fact, as the former requires a human perspective for its analysis and interpretation.

Powell does not account for those distinctions in his speech. A section in his introductory remarks illustrates this. He says a purpose in addressing the Council is to “…provide you with additional information, to share with you what the United States knows about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction…”, adding that “… what you will see is an accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behaviour – Iraq’s behaviour demonstrates that…”. Here, the term information is used as meaning evidence, or proof of Iraq’s WMD program, but again conveying truth and certainty. The term fact portrays the possession of verified information, but seems to be used as evidence that proves Iraq’s behaviour.

Powell also makes constant use of the phrase “we know”, presenting information as truth, which is not possible in the intelligence community, and that contrasts with what intelligence is supposed to do: present reliable and unbiased information for decision-making. The term fact is used similarly, presenting information as absolute truth, instead of as verified information about something.

Since Powell is addressing the Security Council for the purpose of making a case against Iraq and its failure to meet its disarmament obligations, information gathered about a specific event can in turn be tailored and become intelligence when presented to a specific audience with decision-making powers. Yet, most of the information he presents lacks corroboration and analysis, and fails to convey confidence to decision makers on the reliability of the sources.

National security analysts in US intelligence agencies could have gained additional insights by accessing traditional law enforcement sources, such as:

  • Databases: Data and intelligence sharing could have provided analysts with otherwise unknown information, or could have corroborated information already assumed to be factual. Collaboration with domestic intelligence agencies could have been helpful in terms of access to databases. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) could have provided information about Iraqis in the US who had contact with people in Iraq, for example, thus providing insider accounts that were rare and invaluable.
  • Human sources: Given Iraq’s strong grip on dissidents, opposition, and foreigners, it proved difficult to have human sources inside the country. A good way of getting information from human sources is to make contact with people already inside, something that could have been done with access to Iraqis inside Iraq through outsiders.
  • Communities: Linked to human sources are communities inside and outside Iraq. Those who were persecuted or simply not benefitting from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (the majority) had strong incentives to provide information against the regime, and were thus good sources of information of activities inside Iraq (if properly analyzed and corroborated).
  • Technical sources: Intelligence based on information from intercepted communications and satellite imagery, some of the key sources used in the speech, could have been better analyzed if corroborated with other sources. Telephone interceptions could again have provided useful information if there were proper human sources to support the information on the ground.

Considering the strengths and limitations of the major intelligence sources available, and their use by the US to make their case against Iraq, the overall reliability of Powell’s speech is limited.

While mentioning a great number of sources, none were validated or corroborated. With the imagery intelligence he presented, for example, based on satellite pictures of building facilities, Powell asserted these housed chemical munitions and other types of illegal activities. Yet, there was no way of knowing what was really inside (i.e. having a human source not only claiming, but proving what was inside). Instead, scenarios were built on assumptions from testimonials from human sources saying they had witnessed or been directly involved in the activities inside those facilities. Satellite imagery requires expert interpretation, but Powell himself also interpreted elements such as weapons capabilities (which are difficult to confirm from external images) and intentions (by saying that the images proved Iraq’s continuing policy of concealment).

Human sources presented a challenge too. Those who defected were likely tempted to give whatever information, whether or not it was verified, to get a new identity or asylum. HUMINT can be, but also arguably one of the least reliable sources since people will often pass on false information to receive what they want. Corroborating testimonies are difficult, and the US seemed to have accepted these without rigorous verification.

In general, Powell failed in the most basic and important element: source validation. No system was apparently used to measure the reliability of sources, although the US produces a large number of intelligence products prepared in detail for policymakers in many different areas on a daily basis. By not showing how sources were used, for what specific purposes, and their reliability, the US was unsuccessful in garnering support for a UN Resolution legitimizing an invasion to oust Saddam Hussein’s regime.

* Originally written in February 2011

[1] Washington Post (2003) ‘A Policy of Evasion and Deception’, February 5.

[2] Lowenthal, M. (2008) Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, CQ Press 4th edition: Washington, D.C.