How Canada’s intelligence agencies helped keep the country out of the 2003 Iraq war

Canadian analysts had access to the same information about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction program as their American counterparts but came to different conclusions.

By: /
November 18, 2020
US President George W. Bush (R) sits with Canadian
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and U.S. President George W. Bush in September 2002. Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images

Canada’s decision to stay out of the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq was one of this country’s most significant foreign policy choices of the twenty-first century. On the eve of war, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien told the House of Commons that Canada would not join the conflict without a United Nations Security Council resolution. He later said he was not convinced Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which was America’s stated reason for going to war.

Events since the invasion have proven Chrétien’s suspicions well founded. American, British and other allied forces toppled the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein within weeks, but no weapons of mass destruction were found. Thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the war and subsequent insurgency, and today, almost two decades later, ripples from America’s decision to invade Iraq continue to shape the Middle East.

In the lead-up to the war, American President George W. Bush’s administration used intelligence reports to build domestic and international support for military action. Canada is a close ally of the United States. Both countries are members of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership that includes the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand and share information with each other. And yet Canadian intelligence analysts came to different conclusions concerning the threat posed by Iraq than did their American counterparts. The partial release of Canadian intelligence assessments on Iraq during 2002 and 2003 — along with interviews with many of those involved in producing these assessments — has now made it possible to explain why that was the case.

The main Canadian organization responsible for producing foreign intelligence assessments for senior levels of government is the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat in the Privy Council Office. Its work on Iraq was supported by analysts in the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The total number of analysts in these groups is quite small, especially compared with the much larger U.S. intelligence community.

Initially, the Bush administration sought to link Iraq with the 9/11 attacks and the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Canadian analysts were not convinced. Intelligence Assessment Secretariat and CSIS analysts had serious concerns about the quality of the evidence presented by some U.S. agencies that purported to establish this connection. Even in America, analysts pushed back against the claims of Iraqi links to al-Qaeda, and the administration’s public rhetoric increasingly focussed on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs.

At the end of August 2002, the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat took the lead in drafting and coordinating  an assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs that presented the Canadian intelligence community’s collective view of this critical subject. The paper assessed the full range of Iraq’s weapons programs, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles. It addressed two key questions: did Iraq have any weapons of mass destruction remaining from the period prior to the 1991 Gulf War, and was Baghdad currently reconstituting its weapons of mass destruction capabilities?

On the first question, analysts could not be absolutely certain that Baghdad had completely destroyed all of the weapons of mass destruction it possessed in 1991 but concluded that any remaining chemical agents or ballistic missiles could only potentially exist in very small quantities and would likely no longer be serviceable. The second question — whether Baghdad was reconstituting its weapons capabilities — got to the heart of the U.S. administration’s claims that Iraq was a growing threat to the world.

Analysts had doubts about the evidence being cited by America as proof of Iraqi nuclear activity. There was also a critical question of missing evidence: if Baghdad was actively seeking to reconstitute its nuclear program, it would require a much wider range of equipment and raw materials than the scattered items that the United States pointed to. Even with elaborate deception measures, it would be hard for Iraq to completely hide efforts to reconstitute a serious nuclear program. Similarly, analysts could see no convincing signs that Baghdad had restarted production of chemical weapons. Its testing of ballistic missiles was essentially within the limits allowed by UN resolutions. The critical issue of whether Iraq had an active biological weapons program was the most difficult question to deal with because biological production labs are potentially easier to hide. At the time, there was reporting to suggest that Iraq might have access to the smallpox virus; analysts therefore had to conclude that while there was no conclusive proof of a smallpox threat, it could not be completely discounted.

In producing this assessment on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction activities, analysts in Ottawa had access to a wide range of intelligence through Canada’s membership in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership. The extensive sharing of intelligence meant that Five Eyes analysts were largely working with the same body of information in trying to assess Iraq’s capabilities. It was differences in the analytical process and in the political climate in which analysts were working, rather than significant differences in information, that underlay the divergent interpretations of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

Analysts in Ottawa were well aware of the analytical disagreements taking place in the other Five Eyes countries over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and other issues, as well as the pressure exerted by senior officials in those countries on analysts to come up with specific conclusions to support the policy line. These disagreements and political influences were well documented in media reports and elsewhere. The knowledge that many allied analysts shared similar reservations about the quality of the information on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction gave Canadian analysts greater confidence that they were on the right track.

In subsequent months, Intelligence Assessment Secretariat analysts continued to review the flow of intelligence to see if there was any new information that would lead to a re-evaluation of their earlier conclusions on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. No credible intelligence emerged. The Intelligence Assessment Secretariat also provided senior officials with their appraisal of the public statements being made by U.S. officials on the subject of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and frequently had to point out that the available evidence did not support their claims.    

“The political environment in Canada at the time was quite different because the government did not seek to use Canadian intelligence assessments to build public support for its policies.”

Intelligence assessments crafted without political pressure

The political environment in Canada at the time was quite different because the government did not seek to use Canadian intelligence assessments to build public support for its policies. There was no pressure of any kind from government ministers or political aides to shape analytical conclusions to fit the government’s policy line. Nevertheless, there was a degree of behind-the-scenes bureaucratic push-back against the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat analysis on Iraq. Strikingly, this pressure sought to induce analysts to produce assessments more in line with the American view. Some policy officials and members of the Canadian intelligence community were concerned that the failure of Canada to support the U.S. action against Iraq — or even to take a different analytical line on the question of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction — would jeopardize Canada’s close military and intelligence relations with a vital ally. Critics questioned why they should accept the conclusions of the tiny Intelligence Assessment Secretariat rather than those of the U.S. intelligence community, with its vastly greater resources.    

Canadian officials were right to be worried that refusing to support the invasion of Iraq could endanger the vital flow of intelligence from America. In early 2003, after Canada formally announced that it would not join the U.S.-led military coalition, the amount of intelligence on Iraq received from America diminished substantially. However, the United States reversed this action several months later, when the problems with its pre-war intelligence had become more evident.

Based on this examination of Canadian assessments on Iraq, there are several likely explanations of why they largely proved to be more accurate than the U.S. analysis. The most notable difference in the Canadian case was the lack of any significant political or other outside pressure on assessment organizations to slant their analysis in a particular direction. Political pressures were not the only reason for the flawed analysis by the United States — analytical failures also played a key role — but political pressures exacerbated the problems in other areas and made it less likely that the normal mechanisms for correcting analytic errors would be employed.

Another important dissimilarity is that the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat analysis was influenced by a different set of assumptions and mind-sets. Many American analysts assumed that Baghdad was determined to reconstitute its weapons of mass destruction programs as soon as possible, based on their interpretation of Saddam’s motives, regime interests and Iraq’s past history of deception and concealment. Therefore, any perceived hint of weapons of mass destruction activity was seen as supporting this assumption, and the absence of evidence was attributed to effective concealment measures. In contrast, Intelligence Assessment Secretariat analysts assumed that Saddam still had a long-term ambition to rebuild Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction capacity but that other factors might lead him to at least temporarily suspend weapons of mass destruction efforts. Therefore Intelligence Assessment Secretariat analysts were willing to entertain the possibility that a lack of evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction activities could actually mean that the programs were not active, not just that they were effectively hidden. By keeping a more open mind on this question, Intelligence Assessment Secretariat analysts were able to review the available intelligence critically.

“The Canadian intelligence analysis on Iraq provides a vivid demonstration of the importance of having an independent capacity to produce assessments about the world to inform government policy.”

Enduring lessons 

The Canadian intelligence analysis on Iraq provides a vivid demonstration of the importance of having an independent capacity to produce assessments about the world to inform government policy. Canada benefits greatly from the vast quantity of intelligence it receives from its Five Eyes partners, but it is necessary to view this raw material through a Canadian lens and in light of Canadian interests. It is not always easy, however, to maintain an independent Canadian view, especially given the overwhelming influence of the American intelligence community. Ultimately, the only response that satisfies Canadian interests is to face up to the challenges of occasional disagreements with U.S. assessments through sound analytical tradecraft and maintaining an independent viewpoint. The objective is not to disagree with the United States as an automatic reflex, but to disagree when that is where the evidence leads. This requires analysts to maintain a skeptical and independent mindset and a rigourous approach to their analytical methodology. It also requires support from management for an independent Canadian view, even in situations when this might be bureaucratically or diplomatically uncomfortable. 

Alan Barnes published a more detailed account of Canadian intelligence assessments on Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion in the journal Intelligence and National Security.