The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq, dated July 7, 2004, provides a remarkably detailed account of information available to the intelligence community prior to the war in Iraq and how it was analyzed. The general impression it gives is one of unconscionable failure, due to the intelligence community’s very poor analysis of the information. Unfortunately, the magnitude and breadth of the Committee’s criticism shows a serious lack of understanding of the problems intelligence analysts face when making judgments based on incomplete, ambiguous, and potentially deceptive information.
This article applies insights from the psychology of intelligence analysis to help explain what went wrong and why. It also discusses broader questions not addressed in the SSCI report: What can we reasonably expect from intelligence analysis? And what methods and procedures are available to improve intelligence analysis?