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Intelligence Failure or Political Malfeasance?

Insights: Pundits will spend years deciding why leaders were so wrong about Iraq's weapons

by Lois Ember
March 15, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 11

During the long rollout to the preemptive strike against Iraq, President George W. Bush and his top officials unleashed an insistent drumroll of dire predictions and claims. Despite postwar comments from the President and his armchair warriors, the bedrock rationale for invading Iraq was Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and the "grave and gathering threat" they posed to the U.S.

Now a year after the war, Hussein has been deposed. Iraq is in chaos. And no chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons have been found.

So, were Iraq's weapons programs all blue smoke and mirrors? Probably, says David A. Kay, who until January was the chief inspector of the CIA-directed Iraq Survey Group.

Kay accepted the CIA position firmly believing that Iraq had these weapons. Yet in his January testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he effectively knocked over the house of cards erected by the Bush Administration.

In blunt, forthright language, Kay told the committee that Hussein most likely had no arsenal of unconventional weapons ready to be deployed. Repeat: No weapons ready to be fired in 45 minutes, as President Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair had declared before the war.

Kay also testified that Iraq had taken no significant steps to build nuclear weapons after the 1991 Gulf War. He said he had uncovered no proof that Iraq had used aluminum tubes to enrich uranium, as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the UN last February. Nor had he evidence that trucks fitted with lab equipment were designed to make bioweapons, as Vice President Dick Cheney had asserted.

Instead of shoring up White House prewar claims, Kay supported--no, vindicated--UN weapons inspectors and UN economic sanctions.

During his testimony, Kay took pains to deflect the blame for overestimating--critics would say exaggerating, distorting, manipulating, or lying about--Iraq's weapons capabilities from President Bush to the intelligence community. He has said he saw no evidence that Administration officials pressured intelligence analysts to tailor their findings to preconceived ends. But he accepts that this is a "serious charge that deserves investigation."

No question: The U.S. intelligence failure was of massive proportion and will be investigated by a presidentially appointed commission. Even in the absence of this inquiry, there is strong evidence that Bush officials shaded the information given to them, willfully overlooking nuances and caveats, and ignoring warnings advanced by various intelligence agencies.

Experts in the Energy Department cautioned the White House that the aluminum tubes cited as being used to enrich uranium were, in fact, not suitable for that purpose. This warning was ignored.

Defense Intelligence Agency analysts concluded that the often-touted mobile labs were not bioweapons factories but were outfitted for making hydrogen for weather balloons. This conclusion was ignored.

Air Force intelligence analysts determined that Iraq was using unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance, not for delivering chemical or biological weapons. This, too, was ignored.

State Department analysts fingered claims that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa as bogus. This information was ignored even--maybe especially--after the International Atomic Energy Agency unequivocally dismissed it before the war.

Kay's statement that "we all got it wrong" doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Some analysts got it right, but their views--which discredited or disputed claims of Iraq's nefarious activities--were ultimately ignored.

So if it wasn't a total failure of intelligence that led us to war, what did? The kindest explanation is a gross oversimplification of the intelligence made available to Bush and his key aides to reinforce a previously made decision to wage war.

This behavior broaches active deception but falls short of lying. Some Administration critics, however, view it as an act of profound malfeasance that likely will be raised in the upcoming presidential election.

A LINGERING QUESTION is why, until recently, some intelligence analysts and UN inspectors privately were so convinced that Hussein had these weapons. Part of the answer lies in the UN's inability to construct a mass balance of Hussein's weapons--what one UN official calls "unaccounted-for stuff." And part lies in Iraq's refusal to permit inspectors access to certain sites or to requested documents.

Why did Hussein not cooperate more with the UN to avert war and save his regime? Some believe that he didn't want to be seen as having been castrated by the UN. Others believe that he made a serious tactical error, badly miscalculating U.S. intentions. Still others light on regional politics--especially Iraq's rivalry with Iran--as his motivation: The specter of unconventional weapons offered him a deterrent against attack. Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, who directed the UN's first group of weapons inspectors, says these phantom weapons sustained Hussein's "Nebuchadnezzar complex." He viewed himself as the protector of the Arabs against the Persians.

Or, simply, Hussein may have acted the way he did to hide activities proscribed by UN resolutions. Iraq carried out a number of these activities.

Whatever the answer, UN inspectors should be allowed back into Iraq to finish their work, to compile a lessons-learned document that can be used to stem the further spread of dangerous weapons. At the very least, UN inspectors have the experience and expertise that give them a leg up on the Iraq Survey Group in finding--if any exist--some of those weapons the Bush Administration claimed Hussein had.



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