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At the end of November, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency published a rare detailed document rejecting the severe criticism that was leveled at it for failing in its evaluation ahead of the war in Iraq and for biasing its appraisal in order to help the administration justify the war. The statement emphasized that the CIA continues to believe its evaluation ahead of the war rested on solid ground, that there was no logical basis for a different evaluation and that the search in Iraq, which will take a long time, must be completed before people reach a final conclusion.

The main criticism about the evaluation of Iraqi capability is aimed at the American and British intelligence communities. More recently, though, similar criticism has been launched at the evaluation of Israeli intelligence in the pre-war period. According to that evaluation, Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons, as well as a small number of missiles and launches that it had kept concealed since before the Gulf War; that Iraq has a few warplanes and perhaps even RPVs (pilotless aircraft) that could try to attack Israel with chemical and biological weapons; and the probability that Iraq would attack Israel with conventional, or even nonconventional, weapons was low but could not be entirely ruled out.

If it turns out, at the end of the examination in Iraq, that there are no weapons of mass destruction, it will be possible to argue that on the face of it the Israeli - and the American and British - intelligence services failed, as their evaluations about Iraq's capabilities and its behavior proved to be incorrect. However, such a conclusion will be superficial and partial, because it refers only to the final result. It does not take into account the way the evaluation was built, the use that was made of the information that was available to the intelligence service, and the considerations and reasoning that underlaid the formulation of the appraisal. A deeper examination has to address the question of whether intelligence made professional, balanced use of the information it had in its possession, and whether it would have been more correct to adopt an alternative evaluation.

To begin with, over the years Saddam Hussein created a clear impression that he was striving relentlessly to make Iraq the leading power in the region, and that the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction was a central element of his project. That image was reinforced by the vast investments Iraq made in building up a large army, its efforts to come up with a broad range of nonconventional weapons systems, and its invasion of two of its neighbors. From the 1990s, the evaluation that Saddam would continue on his path was justified. His efforts to conceal his activity in the nonconventional realm, despite the heavy price paid in the form of Iraqi distress, indicated he had something to hide.

Second, the point of departure of the intelligence evaluation was solid. There was no doubt that until 1991 Iraq had missiles and chemical weapons - which it had made use of - and that until 1995 it had biological weapons. Since there was a serious suspicion, which was reinforced by UN inspectors, that Iraq had afterward been able to conceal some of these weapons, and since it had already been proved it was capable of manufacturing them, it was reasonable to believe it possessed a certain nonconventional capability. Further contributing to this evaluation was the fact that in the four years before the war Iraq was free of intrusive inspection.

Third, the situation of the information in regard to Iraq's drive for weapons of mass destruction was problematic. The intelligence services in the West had many signs attesting to the Iraqi activity, but they apparently had no hard information making it possible to present an unequivocal picture of this project. Despite the problematic nature of the information, no real doubts apparently arose about the credibility of the intelligence assessment. There were two reasons for this: reports by the inspectors, who examined some of the sites in Iraq and who were considered relatively objective, stated explicitly that Iraq retained a biological combat capability and left a concrete possibility that Iraq had succeeded in concealing some chemical weapons and missiles. Nor was there apparently any concrete information that pointed to the opposite possibility: that Iraq did not have chemical, biological and missile capability, and that Saddam had stopped his attempts to obtain such weapons.

Fourth, conceptions tend by their nature to solidify and persist, and do not change quickly. The evaluation of Iraqi capability was built in the course of years by many hands, and the best intelligence services in the West shared and nourished the evaluation - as it nourished them, as well. A change in a hard evaluation of this kind could develop if solid contradictory information were obtained, which would generate doubts about its foundation. However, no such information existed.

In these conditions of uncertainty, intelligence did the right thing. Despite the problematic nature of the information, and in light of an absence of concrete contradictory information, the correct and responsible professional approach was to evaluate that Iraq possessed certain nonconventional capabilities and a limited ability to launch missiles at Israel. From the point of view of relying on the information and of its logical basis, an alternative evaluation would have been far less justified. We should consider what Israeli intelligence would have looked like if its evaluation had been that Iraq did not have these capabilities, and they had then been discovered after the war - which might yet happen.

This evaluation did not leave room for ignoring the scenario that Saddam would fire a number of missiles at Israel, even if this was a low probability. An evaluation of this kind points, in proper proportions, to a dangerous possibility which, had it been realized, would have exacted a high price - and it cannot be interpreted as being a product of cowardice or excessive caution. The alternative - to presuppose that the danger of an Iraqi attack was nonexistent - appears, even in retrospect, both irresponsible and an unnecessary gamble.

Dr. Ephraim Kam is deputy head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University