The Iraq war’s damage to public trust in experts has consequences

US marines enter one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in 2003. Image: The Conversation.

The Iraq war’s damage to public trust in experts has consequences

Twenty years after the invasion of Iraq, politicians continue to repeat the errors of the past by taking information

The Iraq war’s damage to public trust in experts has consequences

US marines enter one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in 2003. Image: The Conversation.

The conflict taught the public valuable lessons about intelligence. A review by Lord Butler and the Chilcot inquiry that followed the war showed that intelligence is never certain. Intelligence agencies provide “best truths” to politicians, who then take decisions.

The Iraq war made secret intelligence a topic for discussion in homes across the world. A publicly accessible version of the intelligence picture was presented to the public by UK prime minister Tony Blair. This was a groundbreaking decision and one that defined Blair’s career.

ALSO READ: The IEJ: Covid grant should be increased to at least R413

The weaknesses in the intelligence dossiers, once exposed, also appeared to undermine public support for the conflict. In contrast, the public continued to strongly support the armed forces and particularly those injured and killed in action.

In parallel a public narrative developed that experts were often wrong, and politicians could not be trusted. The idea that experts are not to be trusted has become ever more repeated in recent years, through the Brexit debates and governmental responses to the pandemic.

However, the failings in the communication and use of intelligence data does not mean security services were to blame for the war.


True, some of the vulnerabilities in western intelligence reporting seemed farcical when exposed to public scrutiny. The information from an informant known as Curveball – an Iraqi expatriate – was used by the US in making the case for war in the UK, despite German and British reservations. Curveball’s information later emerged to be inaccurate.

But in other areas it appears intelligence services provided nuanced information and accurate warnings. For example, UK intelligence chiefs warned ministers that the conflict would increase the terrorist threat.

ALSO READ: National Shutdown: ALL airports OPEN in some good news

Others within defence intelligence warned that once the first phase of the conflict against regular Iraqi armed forces were complete that a long-running insurgency would follow. Commanders in the British army warned that without direct investment into the Iraqi city of Basra and surroundings that this area would become radicalised.

Some key assumptions around Iraq’s chemical weapons programme were clearly unhelpful. But the agencies were arguably also right to feel bruised that the blame for the war landed with them, when they had no way of changing government policy.

The rise of conspiracy theories

The leaks and publication of intelligence related to Iraq brought with them the era of the armchair expert and the conspiracy theorist. Many academics argued that this openness in intelligence would produce a mature public debate. But the weaknesses in the intelligence undermined the idea that governments are a source of truth.

Deep dive investigations and conspiracies have surrounded the death of biological weapons expert and UK government advisor David Kelly in 2003. Kelly’s untimely death has been the subject of official and unofficial investigations and spurred a cottage industry in speculation.

ALSO READ: Gloria Bosman was more than a South African jazz vocalist

Kelly died after he was publicly revealed to be a confidential source for BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan’s assertion that part of the government’s intelligence dossier on “weapons of mass destruction” was fabricated. His death was officially ruled a suicide.

This was confirmed by the Hutton inquiry and again by a later inquiry by the attorney general. But public suspicion about Kelly’s death persist with books and a TV drama .

British involvement in war

More broadly, Iraq resulted in a loss in public support for British involvement in war, which was seemingly conditional on how people viewed the purpose of the conflict and prospects of victory.

This view will in part be shaped by their trust in the initial intelligence and in whether they believe governments tell the truth. As debates around the pandemic have shown, once trust has gone it is hard to get back.

ALSO READ: Uganda anti-LGBTIQ+ bill: Museveni calls gay people “deviants”

Intelligence agencies did change the way they operate in response to criticisms over Iraq. Agencies spent more time and resource on ensuring they had more evidence for their claims and were more careful with wording claims. This was a necessary change for the intelligence community, but did not address how politicians use intelligence. Without that change, the world is still vulnerable to misread and misunderstood intelligence assessments.

Article by: Robert M. Dover. Professor of Intelligence and National Security, University of Hull

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.