The capture of Saddam Hussein was a much-needed shot in the arm for American intelligence services. President Bush made special mention of our intelligence analysts in his address after the capture. Yet, as a onetime CIA analyst, I think it’s important to examine why this mission was so successful. In large part, it was because analysts were allowed to ignore many long-held beliefs about how intelligence is “supposed” to work.
For example, during the weeks before the capture, analysts worked alongside the military planners and special operations forces who seized Hussein. This is a break with the tradition of analysts keeping their distance from the players in the field so as to maintain their objectivity. (Recall the brouhaha when Vice President Dick Cheney was accused of intimidating analysts by meeting with them face-to-face to discuss Iraqi weapons programs.)
Similarly, intelligence workers developed new methods on the fly in their efforts to uncover Hussein’s support network. In trying to depict the links between members of Hussein’s enormous extended family, some analysts used a commercial software package long employed by law enforcement agents to analyze crime rings. The software helped them visualize non-obvious family relationships and eventually pinpoint the families in Tikrit who were hiding Hussein. Usually, organizations have to wait months or even years to develop or adapt a new tool or methodology—this time they were able to adapt an off-the-shelf product in just a few weeks.
Need more bodies to study a problem? No problem for the team hunting Saddam Hussein. To the public, this might seem only natural in such a high-priority mission. But according to the congressional inquiry into the 9/11 intelligence failure, the inability of the CIA to promptly reassign analysts to major new cases played a big role in Al Qaeda’s effectiveness.
And those hunting for Hussein overcame another problem that played a role in 9/11: the failure of intelligence organizations—CIA, National Security Council, FBI, and military intelligence—to share information because security rules prevented analysts from talking to one another. In this case, the agencies were on the same page, and press accounts suggest that the usual concerns about interagency turf and excessive preoccupation with secrecy were set aside.
In short, the hunt for Saddam Hussein was so important that it forced everyone to cut the red tape and adapt the rules to let our analysts show just how good they really are. If only the system always worked so well. In our new age of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and rogue states, we will need the agility to redirect an intelligence organization before an attack.
At the same time, the hunt for Hussein highlights some of our weaknesses. The search was conducted more like a police dragnet than a traditional intelligence investigation. Because our military controls Iraq, our personnel could roam the countryside freely, cordon off areas, and interrogate sources repeatedly, and no one had to be concerned about exposing his identity as an American.
However, in most countries that concern us today, we cannot operate this way. Iran and North Korea resemble the Iraq of a year ago—we have no official presence there. Because our intelligence officers rely mainly on official cover and get much of their information from cooperative foreign intelligence services, our network is weakest in countries where the American flag does not fly.
Meanwhile, our determination to focus so effectively on Hussein leads one to wonder about our efforts in other hot spots such as Pakistan. Do we have sufficient analysts on the job? Are we balancing the risks of losing an intelligence source with the benefits of sharing information?
Everyone involved in finding Saddam Hussein should pay close attention to the changes in strategy that allowed the achievement—such practices should be the routine, not the exception.