A Misleading Headline
"U.S. War Plan Leaked by Iraqis to Russian Ambassador," screams the headline at ABCNews.com. The network's investigative unit has been combing through some of the Saddam documents, and publishing summaries on their webset. One document, written sometime before 5 March 2003, is a hand-written summary of a meeting between Iraqi officials and Russia's top envoy to Baghdad. During that meeting, the Russian ambassador reportedly provided detailed information on the U.S.-led military forces that was preparing to invade Iraq.
"The first document (CMPC-2003-001950) is a handwritten account of a meeting with the Russian ambassador that details his description of the composition, size, location and type of U.S. military forces arrayed in the Gulf and Jordan. The document includes the exact numbers of tanks, armored vehicles, different types of aircraft, missiles, helicopters, aircraft carriers, and other forces, and also includes their exact locations. The ambassador also described the positions of two Special Forces units."
The document raises an interesting question: was the information provided by the ambassador an actual copy of U.S. war plans, or (more likely) a summary of Russian intelligence information on the disposition of Allied forces in/around Iraq. We should hope it was the latter, and not the former. If Moscow had a copy of our war plans before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, then (obviously), we have serious security problem at the upper levels of government, and other operational plans may have been compromised as well.
On the other hand, a Russian prediction of U.S. military actions (based on intelligence assessments of our forces in theater), does not compromise a security breach, or the disclosure of war plans. It took months for the U.S. and its coalition parnters to assemble the forces required to topple Saddam Hussein. This build-up was carefully monitored by the Russian intelligence services, and Moscow shared the information with some of its client states and allies. Based on the number of troops, tank and aircraft arriving in theater, Russian intel analysts could easily divine potential military options, which could be passed to Saddam.
From our perspective, it's a little hard to hide 200,000+ troops in the Kuwaiti desert, and quite frankly, we weren't exactly trying to conceal our intentions. In the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, we wanted to show Saddam that we had the courage of our convictions, and were assembling a force capable of toppling his regime. We were well aware of the intelligence sharing arrangement between Moscow and Baghdad, and we probably wanted the Russians to image our forces in the desert, hoping that they would share the information in Saddam. In return, we hoped that the growing threat on his southern border might convince Saddam to give up. It was a forlorn hope, as we subsequently discovered.
And that raises another critical point about what Saddam did in the days leading up to Iraqi Freedom. Intelligence information takes on its greatest value when it's acted upon, leading to changes in governmental policies or military force deployments. Saddam did nothing with the information provided by the Russians, believing that his friends in Moscow, Beijing, Paris (and elsewhere) would bail him out in the UNSC, and prevent a U.S.-led invasion.
It's also worth noting that this wasn't the first time Saddam dismissed information on U.S. military plans. In early 1991, the Russians offered a similar pitch, detailing American preparations for Desert Storm. Saddam also ignored that data, convinced that the U.S. lacked the will to actually liberate Kuwait, and crush his military forces. In both cases, Saddam ignored intelligence information, at his own peril.
This episode reminds us that adversaries (or nations that aid potential adversaries) have the ability to track deployments of U.S. forces, and share that information with the bad guys. Iran, for example, has shown an increased interest in overhead imagery in recent years, and there are plenty of suppliers who can provide information on our military capabilities and dispositions. Operations Security (OPSEC) has always been a weak line for the U.S. military, and we need to re-double our efforts in that area. Even when we're trying to send a signal, there's no point in tipping our whole hand. Was that the case in 2003? Without looking at the Russian data, I can't say. But it's clear that Moscow assembled a large amount of intel information on our military movements and activities leading up to the war, data which can be readily shared with Tehran, Pyongyang, Damascus, and other potential U.S. adversaries. In the aftermath of Iraqi Freedom, I'm guessing that the Russian information has been received more warmly in those captials than it was in Baghdad.