Churchill, Bush, and the role of intelligence

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Intelligence is the meat and drink of a nation's foreign policy.

Good intelligence, especially the breaking of enemy codes, helped the United States and Great Britain win World War II. Conversely, the lack of accurate intelligence at critical moments was devastating to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan.

President Bush stepped before a joint session of Congress in January and uttered what the White House now admits was bad intelligence. His failure to confirm his facts may have misled the country and Congress. How serious this error will be for the nation, still taking casualties in Iraq, and for the president's political future, remains to be seen.

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The vital nature of intelligence to a nation's security can hardly be overstated. Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister in the 1940s, was so keen on intelligence that he spent hours every day poring over secret reports.

Churchill had seen the devastating effects of not getting it right. In 1934, while a Member of Parliament, he used private sources to assemble his own intelligence survey of German military rearmament. He warned Members that Germany, in violation of the World War I Versailles Treaty, had already "created a military air force which is now nearly two-thirds as strong as our present home defenSe air force." Further, by 1936 Germany would exceed British power in the air, he said.

Stanley Baldwin, the leader of the coalition government, immediately rose in Parliament to contradict Churchill. He quoted British intelligence that said even a year hence, Great Britain's air power would exceed Germany's by "nearly 50 percent."

To his horror, Baldwin later discovered that Churchill was right. The eventual delay in expanding British air strength encouraged Hitler's aggression in Europe, and worsened Germany's bombing campaign against Britons.

While Baldwin wasn't thrown out of office for his gaffe, Churchill never forgave him for putting the nation at risk. Years later, when asked to write a message of greeting on Baldwin's 80th birthday, Churchill growled: "I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been better for our country if he had never lived."

Such is the importance of getting intelligence right. Britain's current prime minister, Tony Blair, is being pummeled even harder than Mr. Bush over questionable intelligence work prior to the Iraq war. Maybe the British are remembering Baldwin.

Obviously, intelligence mistakes are made, no matter how hard leaders try to avoid them. But Churchill's work habits tell us something about what it takes to do the job.

During his first year as prime minister, Churchill got a steady stream of reports from Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee. The committee would debate internally, then reach conclusions.

Churchill was not content with this "collective wisdom," he writes in his memoirs. Rather than getting everything second hand, he "preferred to see the originals myself" - including reports direct from foreign agents and radio intercepts. He assigned Major Desmond Morton "to make a daily selection of tidbits, which I always read, thus forming my own opinion, sometimes at much earlier dates."

It was his reading of one raw intelligence intercept from the Germans that prompted Churchill to conclude in March 1941 that Hitler was planning to attack the Soviet Union in May or June. Churchill warned

Stalin, and the attack came on June 22. Despite the warning, Stalin left the USSR's air force exposed to surprise attack. The Germans destroyed much of it on the first day.

America has a mixed intelligence record.

Before World War II, the US had broken a key Japanese diplomatic code. Messages to the Japanese ambassador in Washington were being dencrypted by the US faster than the Japanese could do it at their embassy. Even with that edge, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was unable to give sufficient warning to US forces at Pearl Harbor.

Despite the Pearl Harbor intelligence failure, Polish, British, French, and eventually American intelligence agencies made huge strides in cracking German codes. Allied generals were often aware of German plans as soon as German officers in the field.

Hitler's forces made a number of intelligence blunders, including their failure to appreciate the power, speed, and maneuverability of the two main British fighter aircraft, the Spitfire and the Hurricane.

Another mistake was failing to destroy Britain's newly installed radar network. A story by British historian Len Deighton is illustrative. When a British fighter pilot was shot down and taken prisoner after chasing a Messerschmitt back into France, his German interrogator asked: "How is it you're always there when we come?"

The British pilot answered: "We have powerful binoculars and watch all the time." The Germans knew about the radar, but "didn't realize how much it meant to us," the pilot said.

Throughout the war, the Germans never did go after Britain's vital coastal radar in a major way, even though the tall towers made the units easy to spot.

Bad intelligence work, indeed.

John Dillin, now retired, was managing editor and a correspondent for more than 40 years for the Monitor.

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