Israeli Parliamentary Intelligence Probe Misses Focus

The usual reason for setting up independent inquiry commissions on the functioning or malfunctioning of national intelligence services in times of crisis is to close the books on troublesome dossiers that won’t fade out of the public limelight.
This rule applied to the Israeli Knesset Foreign Affairs Intelligence sub-committee probe that faulted Israel’s security services performance on Iraq and Libya in the open part of its report published Sunday, March 28. After hearing closed-door testimony from 70 witnesses in eight months, the panel headed by Likud MK Yuval Steinitz found that Israeli intelligence warnings about Iraq’s non-conventional weapons threat to the country were based on assessments and speculation, not fact.
The report stressed that the secret agencies did not deliberately mislead Israeli officials or attempt to distort the intelligence picture in order to emphasize the necessity of going to war. No one is therefore held to account personally. The government was judged to have acted reasonably in ordering the population to cover windows with plastic sheeting and open sealed gas mask kits – even at a replacement cost of millions of dollars.
But there is a second rule to keep in mind: such panels are of very limited usefulness, for two reasons:
1. Their conclusions and recommendations, directed primarily at calming the public, have little bearing on real intelligence work and are therefore rarely carried forward into practical steps.
2. No one seriously imagines that a counterintelligence agent or intelligence officer, whether retired or active, will ever level with any outside panel on all the secret information in his possession or even deliver a clear, unambiguous presentation.
Operating in a world portrayed aptly in genre literature as a “wilderness of mirrors” requires its analysts and department heads to assemble plausible mosaics for drawing the truth out of infinite sets of double and blurred images. That far from infallible skill is not required of politicians serving on inquiry panels.
It is not surprising that Israel’s Mossad and military intelligence service – Aman – are furious. They have never faced open criticism before. But they also rebut some of the points as being made more for the sake of settling personal accounts than to seriously scrutinize where Israel’s secret services got it wrong in the Iraq War.
A conflict of orientation and objectives stands out in some of the assertions appearing in the published section of the sub committee’s report, such as: “The military and political echelons are responsible for an intelligence foul-up regarding Iraq and Libya.” On Libya, the panel found Israeli intelligence wanting in failing to pick up on Muammar Qaddafi’s race for a nuclear weapon.
That criticism, at least, is simply refuted. debkafile‘s intelligence sources assert:
A. Israeli intelligence knew about Libya’s nuclear program in fine detail. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon twice – in 2002 and 2003 – warned of the danger of Libya beating Iran to a nuclear bomb. He would hardly have plucked this information out of thin air.
B. Israeli intelligence, according to information received in the past from debkafile‘s sources, knew quite a bit about the flow of Pakistani centrifuges for enriching uranium to Libya and Iran, and the transfer of Chinese and North Korean nuclear technology and scientific, engineering and technical manpower to Libya, including Iraqi nuclear scientists who were attached to the secret Libyan program.
C. So precise was the information reaching Israeli intelligence that when a newly- arrived nuclear scientist went shopping in Tripoli, Tel Aviv knew about it.
Where Israel’s secret services fell down was in not tumbling to the secret negotiations between Tripoli, Washington and London for dismantling Qaddafi’s WMD. It was a double slip-up because a number of Palestinians were involved in the transaction and their movements at least should have attracted notice.
This failure had a disastrous effect on Israeli policy-making. debkafile‘s sources reveal that Sharon learned too late that the Bush administration, which had used Israeli assistance for the Iraqi war, pushed Jerusalem aside when it came to Libya. Instead, Washington used British good offices to take certain Palestinian individuals aboard the secret Libyan project. Sharon’s moves might have been different had he known about this in time.
The Knesset subcommittee states: Israeli intelligence reacted too slowly to the 1998 exit of UN inspectors from Iraq and did not come up with fitting answers to this development.
This statement conceals more than it reveals. Israel, like most other countries, excepting Russia and China – each of which maintained a strong independent intelligence presence in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, relied on four intermediate sources to find out what was happening in the country:
1. UN inspectors who were willing to sell anything they picked up if the price was right. The fickleness of this source was exhibited by the former deputy UN chief inspector Scott Ritter when, just before the war, he suddenly went back on his previous determinations and declared Iraq innocent of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
2. Arab and other Middle East businessmen who regularly visited Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
3. Kurdish undercover bodies inside Iraq.
4. Clandestine Arab agencies operating in Iraq.
Israel may be presumed to have had access to all these four sources.
The Israel inquiry panel did not grasp that what they were dealing with was not a straight yes or no on whether or not Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons or the up to 150 long-range missiles postulated by Israeli intelligence when the United States went to war. Nor was it the certitude of Israel’s secret services conclusions. There was and remains a cloud of obfuscation yet to be pierced. It started with the trafficking in WMD intelligence for high stakes practiced by leading lights in Baghdad including Saddam himself and his two sons. There is no knowing up until the present day whose hand controlled Saddam’s prohibited arsenal or whether it was deployable.
At least three enigmas viewed with hindsight could have misled the most competent secret service.
In the early days of the war, Iraqi forces fired 60 missiles at Kuwait from the Faw Peninsula. When that strip of land was captured, every last missile launcher had vanished. Before the war, UN chief inspector Hans Blix reported to the Security Council that Iraq possessed 14 mobile Scud missile launchers – 30 percent more than Saddam commanded in Gulf War One, when he fired them at Tel Aviv and Saudi Arabia. Those launchers have never been seen to this day.
In December 2002, US, Turkish and Israeli intelligence picked up signs that Saddam had brought his Tupolev-16 bombers and Sukhoi-24 bomber-fighters out of hiding. Instructions to the pilots were recorded to exercise bombing sorties at ranges of 1,000 km, meaning either Israel or Saudi Arabia.
That air fleet of which there are credible records has disappeared as though by magic.
All the various branches of Israeli intelligence were fully informed of the long convoys of trucks carrying tanker loads of Iraqi WMD into Syria from January 10 – or thereabouts, to March 10. Their information came from Israeli spy planes and its surveillance satellite. It did not specify who organized the transfer, who took delivery on the Syrian side of the border or whether Saddam or either of his sons were in control of the outflow that ultimately robbed his regime of its second-strike cross-border option and emasculated Iraq’s military defensive capabilities.
What the Knesset panel did not ask is why the Israeli government, after coming into possession of this intelligence, did not secretly approach Washington and propose a joint clandestine operation to attack and destroy the convoys – even by means of an Israeli air strike.
There are two answers::
A. Sharon promised President George W. Bush that Israel would stay out of the military side of the Iraq War, unless specifically invited to take part by the US president.
B. Bush preferred to see all unconventional weapons removed from Iraq in order to keep US and British invasion troops out of harm’s way.
In actual fact, Israel, whose policy makers and generals were not sure that the Bush administration’s calculations were well-advised, pointed out to officials in Washington that even after its removal to Syria, there was no guarantee that the non-conventional arsenal would not be shipped back at a crucial point in the war. They recalled Israel’s bad experience in the first Gulf War. Iraq rained Scud missiles on Saudi Arabia, Israel and Saudi-based US forces near the Jordanian frontier and overnight pulled the launchers into Jordan out of reach of air strikes, with the full assent of Jordan’s late King Hussein.
Bush decided not to act on this advice. In the end, nothing relating to Saddam’s arsenal turned out as expected. Things might have been different if Bush or the Israeli prime minister had heeded the veiled warning that came from the Russian minister in a telephone call to George Bush on March 6, two weeks before US drove into Iraq. What Putin said, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed on March 14, was: “The same people who ambushed you (US) in Mogadishu and Srbrenica are now lying in wait for you again both in the Security Council and later in Iraq.”
Maybe if Bush had watched his step as Putin advised him to do – or let Israel strike the convoys heading into Syria, he might have been saved his mock-search for WMD under tables at the last annual dinner for American newspaper editors.
Maybe if Sharon had not waited for a green light from Washington but in the higher interests of national security bombed the trucks heading into Syria, he might not have been faced in March 2004 with the need to send helicopters over Gaza City to eliminate the Hamas leader. In other circumstances, even Sharon’s disengagement proposals, which no one wants to hear, might never have been born.
And at least two parliamentary inquiry commissions – in Washington and Jerusalem – might not have come into being and shown how counter-constructively politics and intelligence mix in the public domain.

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