If the report of the Chilcot Inquiry1 castigates the intelligence service for its reliance on flawed human intelligence, it rather sidesteps what flawed IMINT or image intelligence was used to justify the claim that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction posed “a real and present threat” to world peace. Even so, it’s worth noting the testimony given by Carne Ross, who was First Secretary responsible for the Middle East at the UK Mission to the United Nations: ‘Aerial or satellite surveillance was unable to get under the roofs of Iraqi facilities. We therefore had to rely on inherently unreliable human sources (who, for obvious reasons, were prone to exaggerate).’
What we can say is that remotely sensed imagery purporting to reveal the threat was published in the media in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It rather begs the question: was the media equally gullible in reproducing this imagery – and the accompanying analyses – at face value?
It was something we questioned in our March 2003 issue following Colin Powell’s presentation of satellite imagery to the UN. Having sought the opinion of acknowledged remote sensing expert Bhupendra Jasani of King’s College London, it was, we argued, open to wide interpretation. “The evidence so far presented, coupled with mixed findings from the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, is sufficient for many in ‘Old Europe’ to remain sceptical and to fear the repercussions of rushing (or being pushed) into further conflict in the Middle East.” Our conclusion: “More hard evidence is needed to overcome the torrent of rhetoric, half-truths and transatlantic sniping that simply fuels public disquiet.”
Two months later, as Iraqis tasted the first fruits of ‘freedom’, we put pen to paper once more, noting the silence of the geospatial community on the issue – with a notable exception. A resolution adopted in March by the Association of American Geographers suggested, ‘A pre-emptive attack by the United States in Iraq without the backing of the international community could undermine global stability, heighten tensions in South West Asia and the Middle East, precipitate a humanitarian and environmental crisis in Iraq, and undermine US efforts to combat international terrorism.’ Prophetic?