When the army takes off its uniform
The same officials who forecasted definitively that the "ground will shake" when American troops reach Iraq and uncover weapons of mass destruction are today warning, with great internal conviction, that Arafat views himself as a latter-day Saladin, whose purpose is to drive the Jews from the Holy Land.
The learned conclusions drawn by Brigadier General (res.) Shlomo Brom, from the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, about the failure of Israel's intelligence officials to analyze correctly Iraq's nonconventional weapons capacity have all the advantages of hindsight. Here is a researcher playing the role of Monday morning quarterback: Tossing aside evaluations reached by military intelligence on the eve of America's attack on Saddam Hussein's regime, he embarrasses the intelligence experts. The threats they identified, Brom says, were overblown; the prodigal expenditures made as a result of the intelligence analysis were wasteful; the panic stirred among the public had no foundation in fact.
Despite the limits inherent in this sort of after-the-fact review of situations of uncertainty, Brom's report conveys a lesson that is worth considering whenever we examine events in the diplomatic-security sphere, particularly in relations with the Palestinians.
The same intelligence officials who were supposed to provide estimates of Iraq's nonconventional weapons capacity to the country's political leadership are the experts who convey evaluations regarding prevailing tendencies in the Palestinian Authority. These officials are cloaked by an aura of objective, nonpartisan expertise; they enjoy a reputation of professionalism, and are believed to deploy highly sophisticated means of keeping tabs on what's going on with the enemy. The very same officials who concluded emphatically that Saddam possessed chemical-biological weapons, and who even warned about the possible use of such weapons against Israel, warn today that Yasser Arafat's master plan is to destroy Israel. The same officials who forecasted definitively that the "ground will shake" when American troops reach Iraq and uncover weapons of mass destruction are today warning, with great internal conviction, that Arafat views himself as a latter-day Saladin, whose purpose is to drive the Jews from the Holy Land.
The layman assumes that such emphatic diagnoses of Arafat's aims are based upon wiretapped recordings, systematic analyses of his statements, and reliable leaks about his conversations with associates. The same measure of credence was in effect when people believed that intelligence estimates of the threat posed by Iraq had a solid evidentiary foundation; but it now turns out that these estimates about Iraq had no empirical basis. Rather than being founded on solid information, the estimates relied on probability and circumstantial evidence. This experience regarding Iraq raises questions about the empirical foundations of intelligence reports that purport to unveil Arafat's inner world, his aims, goals and hopes.
The civilian population, including cabinet members, has an instinctive tendency to view opinions proffered by intelligence experts as though they are holy writ delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. Such credence applies particularly to estimates conveyed by Israel Defense Forces intelligence experts; after all, an army uniform is thought to add to a man's stature and reliability. What we forget is that the IDF chief of staff and major generals are often politicians in army fatigues. Ehud Barak opposed the Oslo Accord while chief of staff, and then two or three years later took off his uniform and took up the struggle regarding the peace process in the political arena. As chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak gave the peace process the benefit of the doubt; then he crossed the line, and fought for his views as a civilian. Similar points could be made about Shaul Mofaz, Matan Vilnai and Amos Gilad (the latter being the man who in the last decade delivered military intelligence estimates about trends in the PA, and who was also largely responsible for shaping intelligence estimates about developments in Iraq).
The obvious deserves mention: There are no absolute truths, and there is no such thing as indisputable evidence. Academia, even in the pure sciences, today recognizes the relativity of facts and truth. Stereotypes, ideology, personal temperament, political interests and other facts exert a strong influence on intelligence estimates about any situation.
This point holds true in intelligence work, and it probably also applies to academic study of the intelligence community's performance. The moral of the story is that the most conclusive-sounding estimate should be met with skepticism, and also that ideology (more than any other factor) shapes intelligence positions.