Over the course of the last year, it has become increasingly apparent that the United States invaded a country the size of California based in part on a misunderstanding. Popular support for the war in Iraq was based in large part on the belief that Iraq was gathering weapons of mass destruction, which itself was based largely on U.S. intelligence reports. Although different people had different reasons to support the war, many thought we needed to go in to Iraq to make sure that Saddam didn’t pass off a nuke to Al-Qaeda.
According to this 500-page report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (check out the 30-page summary of conclusions here), it turns out that the intelligence agencies were kinda off on that whole WMD thing. The report is quite damning, and suggests that our intelligence agencies failed us in a most remarkable way. Of course, it may turn out that Saddam was doing more than we now realize; it may also be true that the war in Iraq would have happened even without the intelligence failures. But at this point it looks at least plausible that “but for” the intelligence errors, no war would have occurred.
It’s easy for the importance of this to get lost in the politics of the moment. For opponents of the Bush Administration, the intelligence failures are a sign of Bush’s incompetence (and another reason to vote against Bush). For Bush supporters, they are old news that matter less than what to do now that we are in Iraq (and provide no reason to vote against Bush). But I wonder: short-term politics aside, what are the long-term implications of the intelligence errors on the American psyche? I don’t know the answer; I’m afraid that this is more a question-asking post than a question-answering post. But I wonder if the intelligence errors will have a ripple effect in future years on how people interact with and respond to the government in areas far removed from intelligence agencies and warfare. Many people placed their trust in the intelligence agencies to get it right, and it looks like they didn’t. I wonder if we will begin to see changes in areas of law and culture that are based directly or indirectly on whether the American people trust their government. Maybe we won’t; perhaps people are happy to just forget about the errors and move on. But it seems plausible to me that the remarkable importance of the errors will lead to some unexpected consequences over the long term.