Sir Brian Urquhart Interview (2004): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The United Nations After 9/11: Conversation with Sir Brian Urquhart, Former Under Secretary General of the United Nations; February 23, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

Page 6 of 6


I want to touch on one more topic, and then we'll open the floor to questions, and that is the problem of intelligence. Brian is writing a review essay for the New York Review of Books. It's coming out soon, in which he's going to review the Hans Blix book, which he just talked about, and also the Hutton report, which is the report of the British justice appointed by the British Prime Minister to reach a conclusion about whether the Blair government had "sexed-up" the report on Iraq's WMDs, a controversy that led to the suicide of a government scientist there. Let me ask this: Do political leaders really want to use intelligence to understand the situation they're confronted with, or do they invariably want to use intelligence to confirm the conclusion that they've already reached before they look at the data?

This is a rather new situation. In this last situation over Iraq, both Tony Blair and President Bush dogmatically stated that they were going into Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which were a threat, not just to his neighbors, but to the United States. We had Condoleezza Rice saying, "We don't want to learn first about them when we see the mushroom cloud." This is the worst kind of junky rhetoric.

So both leaders were very anxious to have intelligence which backed them up, which is the wrong way round, it seems to me. Intelligence should come first. It nearly ruined Tony Blair's career. If you read the British intelligence dossier of September 2003, which is what this was all about, which was the one that said that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (mostly chemical and biological), which could be operational within 45 minutes, it sounds very weird. But Tony Blair asserted this over and over again as a fact. And then it was picked up by Bush, with a lot of other junk from that dossier. If you read that dossier today, it's like a fantasy, a bad joke. Nothing in it is true. But this was the "intelligence" they wanted.

What I've said in the New York Review piece is this: suppose Tony Blair had been desperately anxious to avoid participating in the adventure in Iraq, which he was being urged to do by his friend George Bush. Would the intelligence in the dossier be anything like what actually appeared in it? Of course it wouldn't.

The president informed us all the other day that he's a "war president." Well, if he's a war president, presumably we're at war, and it's wartime. In wartime, intelligence is a matter of life and death, it's what either preserves or kills soldiers, and civilians as well. It is not something that you monkey around with. It cannot be manipulated. You cannot go to the intelligence services and tell them, "This is the answer we want. We've said this. Now please provide the intelligence to support it." That is very dangerous, especially if we're going to go in for preventive operations again. Of all forms of war, preventive wars desperately need the right intelligence, or you're going to do again what unfortunately we managed to do with one of the nastiest governments in the world, Saddam Hussein's, which is to get it completely wrong.

The question is: What is the role of Intelligence? Is it supposed to be propaganda, or is it something on which governments can base policy? I would like to see that discussed much more. For you who are young and may go into the military services, intelligence is desperately important. It's what saves the lives of soldiers and airman and sailors. It's not something to be fooled around with by a bunch of ambitious politicians.

I can't help mentioning the first piece that you wrote in the New York Review of Books about twenty-five years ago about an incident in World War II. I want to touch on that for a minute. You were an intelligence officer in the British paratroopers at the end of the war. The story that we're about to relate is told in the movie A Bridge Too Far. Let's talk a little about that and the lesson you learned from that. As an intelligence officer you tried to alert the military leadership to a problem with a plan, and they didn't listen. Tell us a little about it.

This was really the opposite situation from what you have today. Nobody paid any attention to the intelligence. This was the end of World War II, September 1944 -- at least, it was supposed to be the end of the war. The British and American and Canadian troops had captured Paris and Brussels, and they were stuck on something called the Albert Canal, which is just on the borders of Belgium and Holland. Nothing very much was happening; the Germans were refitting.

Montgomery, the British general, was very jealous of Patton. In the movie Patton, there's a wonderful episode which caused much of this jealousy. In Sicily, Montgomery announced he was going to take Palermo. He had a victory parade, and Patton's soldiers were sitting in the bleachers politely applauding. Montgomery never forgot it. Then much the same thing happened again after D-Day -- Patton broke out of the battle line and did this armored cavalry charge right down through France, while poor Montgomery was still fighting the Germans in the D-Day zone.

Montgomery wanted to get back onto center stage and conceived a dotty plan, which was to take every parachute and glider unit in the allied forces, American and British, something like three-and-a-half divisions, and let them take the three bridges over the tributaries of the Rhine going through Holland, where the Rhine divides into three large rivers -- take the bridges over these rivers and let his forces pour through Holland into Germany and finish the war. The fact that they didn't have any logistics to do this seems not to have occurred to the general. They didn't have enough gas to get over the bridges, let alone anything else.

I was then twenty-four years old. I was the chief intelligence officer of the British Airborne Corps, which was two parachute divisions and a lot of special forces.It seemed to me a completely ludicrous plan. I became increasingly alarmed looking at the intelligence -- first of all, the anti-aircraft positions of the Germans. We were going to arrive in slow-flying transport planes, after all. And the British First Airborne Division, which is the one in the movie, was going to be on the northern river at Arnhem, on the wrong side of that river, and had to be relieved within four days if it was going to survive.

Nobody would listen. They even said, "Oh, no, no, no, the Germans are finished. It's just a matter of one more push." And, "We remember 1918, when the Germans collapsed, " and all this kind of thing. I said, "There's no evidence whatsoever that the Germans have stopped fighting. On the contrary, they're on the borders of Germany. Why would they stop fighting there?" The Germans forces had all taken a personal oath to Hitler, incidentally, which was not an oath to be taken lightly.

The Dutch Resistance discovered it first. The two best armored divisions in the German army in the west, the Ninth and Tenth SS Panzer Divisions -- the crack armored divisions of the Germans army -- had been beaten up in Normandy, and they were refitting just outside Arnhem, where the British division was going to drop. I said, "This is really terrible. You cannot drop lightly-armed parachutists on top of the two best armored divisions in the world." "No, no, no, you don't understand," they said, "They won't fight. This is going to go like clockwork."

Well, of course, it didn't. I was such a pain in the neck that I was sent away two days before we were due to take off. When the thing went wrong, I immediately got called back. I had a hell of a job getting there, because they were cut off, but anyhow there it was. Everybody was extremely polite, and they said, "Good to see you, old boy. You're looking great." And I said, "Well, what seems to be going on?'

I discovered then two things: one is that if soldiers want to do something which they think is going to be a glorious victory, no amount of good intelligence, once they've got going, will stop it. Another thing I discovered is that it's bad enough to be against something they all want to do, but if you turn out to be right, people hate you with a loathing which is beyond any belief.

I never spoke to anyone about this story for about thirty-five years. Montgomery wanted to finish the war with a brilliant coup under his command, and therefore ignored the intelligence. This Iraq war is the opposite, because the intelligence has been tailored to support fantastic reasons for going to war.

I want to read you what you wrote, because I think it's very relevant today, and we'll end on this last note. "The Arnhem tragedy had a deep and lasting effect on my attitude to life. Before it I had been trusting and relatively optimistic, with a self-confidence that was sometimes excessive. After it, I doubted everything, tended to distrust my own as well as other people's judgment, and became deeply skeptical about the behavior of leaders. I never again could quite be convinced that great enterprises would go as planned or turn out well, or that wisdom and principle were a match for vanity and ambition."

So that was a negative conclusion, probably justified. I want to know if you can leave us with an optimistic note in this conversation before we take questions from the floor?

You have to go on trying; that's the thing. Things seem to get easier as you get older. I don't know why that is. Or in my case, it seems to be so. But it is very important, particularly in public life, to hang onto a rigorous, analytical approach to the facts of the case and the information that is available, and not be swept away by some glorious but foolish idea -- we're going to establish democracy in the Middle East, for example. You can start talking about that when you've got the facts straight. It's a good idea to be skeptical about what politicians and other leaders say. Though, nowadays, generals are the ones who are cautious and the politicians who aren't.

Thank you, Brian.

© Copyright 2004, Regents of the University of California

To the Conversations page
To the Brian Urquhart page for more links.