Behind the shock of the lightning capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq, discussion in the United States has focused both on who is responsible and what the insurgents’ victory means for Iraq and the Middle East. These are important discussions, but it is equally imperative for lawmakers and military and intelligence professionals to begin another discussion: About the sheer and utter intelligence failure that led the United States and Iraq to be caught by surprise.
While many understood the withdrawal—begun by George W. Bush and completed by Barack Obama—to be premature and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, strategists sympathetic to their strategy assured that the United States could prevent terror from over the horizon, combing formidable intelligence assets with drones and manned aircraft and even special forces stationed in neighboring countries or offshore on American ships. The events in Mosul show this to be a lie. ISIS blindsided the United States, and neither the Pentagon nor the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has yet to say how this occurred.
The reason for the initial intelligence failure in Iraq regarding weapons of mass destruction is known: Saddam not only bluffed the world, but also his generals. The issue wasn’t Ahmed Chalabi (to be precise, most of the faulty intelligence actually came from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which was under the umbrella of the Iraqi National Congress) but rather the fact that when either the Defense Intelligence Agency or CIA debriefed defectors, they found that they were not knowingly being deceptive: most believed what they said. Intercepts corroborated their stories because Saddam’s generals actually believed that the Baathist regime had, if not built certain capabilities, then acquired them from elsewhere. Saddam’s pre-Desert Storm deception also colored analysis and completed the trifecta.
The failure to predict ISIS’s actions may not be as sexy in the political debate—it can’t cheaply be blamed on Bush—but its ultimate impact in the region could be just as great. It’s one thing to miss a vanload of terrorists. It’s quite another to miss an army, which is basically how ISIS coordinated. Nor was the seizure of Mosul simply the result of a group even al-Qaeda deems too extreme. Former Baathists—seemingly the same ones whom David Petraeus tried to co-opt when he presided over Mosul—coordinated with ISIS.
There are a couple possibilities of what happened. Either disparate groups of Baathists, Islamists, and others antagonistic to Iraq communicated extensively without any penetration by Western intelligence, or, as with the lead-up to 9/11, some elements of U.S. intelligence did pick up word of the looming attack but such information failed to be shared and accepted by supervisors. Either way, as the United States increasingly seeks to defend its interests from over the horizon, it behooves both the White House and Congress to understand just how this latest intelligence failure occurred.