Spies, Lies, and Weapons: What Went Wrong

How could we have been so far off in our estimates of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs? A leading Iraq expert and intelligence analyst in the Clinton Administration—whose book The Threatening Storm proved deeply influential in the run-up to the war—gives a detailed account of how and why we erred
More

Let's start with one truth: last March, when the United States and its coalition partners invaded Iraq, the American public and much of the rest of the world believed that after Saddam Hussein's regime sank, a vast flotsam of weapons of mass destruction would bob to the surface. That, of course, has not been the case. In the words of David Kay, the principal adviser to the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), an organization created late last spring to search for prohibited weaponry, "I think all of us who entered Iraq expected the job of actually discovering deployed weapons to be easier than it has turned out to be." Many people are now asking very reasonable questions about why they were misled.

Democrats have typically accused the Bush Administration of exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq in order to justify an unnecessary war. Republicans have typically claimed that the fault lay with the CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, which they say overestimated the threat from Iraq—a claim that carries the unlikely implication that Bush's team might not have opted for war if it had understood that Saddam was not as dangerous as he seemed.

Both sides appear to be at least partly right. The intelligence community did overestimate the scope and progress of Iraq's WMD programs, although not to the extent that many people believe. The Administration stretched those estimates to make a case not only for going to war but for doing so at once, rather than taking the time to build regional and international support for military action.

This issue has some personal relevance for me. I began my career as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA, where I saw an earlier generation of technical analysts mistakenly conclude that Saddam Hussein was much further away from having a nuclear weapon than the post-Gulf War inspections revealed. I later moved on to the National Security Council, where I served two tours, in 1995-1996 and 1999-2001. During the latter stint the intelligence community convinced me and the rest of the Clinton Administration that Saddam had reconstituted his WMD programs following the withdrawal of the UN inspectors, in 1998, and was only a matter of years away from having a nuclear weapon. In 2002 I wrote a book called Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, in which I argued that because all our other options had failed, the United States would ultimately have to go to war to remove Saddam before he acquired a functioning nuclear weapon. Thus it was with more than a little interest that I pondered the question of why we didn't find in Iraq what we were so certain we would.

What We Thought We Knew

The U.S. intelligence community's belief that Saddam was aggressively pursuing weapons of mass destruction pre-dated Bush's inauguration, and therefore cannot be attributed to political pressure. It was first advanced at the end of the 1990s, at a time when President Bill Clinton was trying to facilitate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and was hardly seeking assessments that the threat from Iraq was growing.

In congressional testimony in March of 2002 Robert Einhorn, Clinton's assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, summed up the intelligence community's conclusions about Iraq at the end of the Clinton Administration:

"How close is the peril of Iraqi WMD? Today, or at most within a few months, Iraq could launch missile attacks with chemical or biological weapons against its neighbors (albeit attacks that would be ragged, inaccurate, and limited in size). Within four or five years it could have the capability to threaten most of the Middle East and parts of Europe with missiles armed with nuclear weapons containing fissile material produced indigenously—and to threaten U.S. territory with such weapons delivered by nonconventional means, such as commercial shipping containers. If it managed to get its hands on sufficient quantities of already produced fissile material, these threats could arrive much sooner."

In October of 2002 the National Intelligence Council, the highest analytical body in the U.S. intelligence community, issued a classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMD, representing the consensus of the intelligence community. Although after the war some complained that the NIE had been a rush job, and that the NIC should have been more careful in its choice of language, in fact the report accurately reflected what intelligence analysts had been telling Clinton Administration officials like me for years in verbal briefings.

A declassified version of the 2002 NIE was released to the public in July of last year. Its principal conclusions:

  • "Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade." (The classified version of the NIE gave an estimate of five to seven years.)
  • "Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; most analysts assess [that] Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program."
  • "If Baghdad acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within a year ... Without such material from abroad, Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until the last half of the decade."
  • "Baghdad has begun renewed production of chemical warfare agents, probably including mustard, sarin, cyclosarin, and VX ... Saddam probably has stocked a few hundred metric tons of CW agents."
  • "All key aspects—R&D, production, and weaponization—of Iraq's offensive BW [biological warfare] program are active and most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf war ... Baghdad has established a large-scale, redundant, and concealed BW agent production capability, which includes mobile facilities; these facilities can evade detection, are highly survivable, and can exceed the production rates Iraq had prior to the Gulf war."

U.S. government analysts were not alone in these views. In the late spring of 2002 I participated in a Washington meeting about Iraqi WMD. Those present included nearly twenty former inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the force established in 1991 to oversee the elimination of WMD in Iraq. One of the senior people put a question to the group: Did anyone in the room doubt that Iraq was currently operating a secret centrifuge plant? No one did. Three people added that they believed Iraq was also operating a secret calutron plant (a facility for separating uranium isotopes).

Other nations' intelligence services were similarly aligned with U.S. views. Somewhat remarkably, given how adamantly Germany would oppose the war, the German Federal Intelligence Service held the bleakest view of all, arguing that Iraq might be able to build a nuclear weapon within three years. Israel, Russia, Britain, China, and even France held positions similar to that of the United States; France's President Jacques Chirac told Time magazine last February, "There is a problem—the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq. The international community is right ... in having decided Iraq should be disarmed." In sum, no one doubted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

What We Think We Know Now

But it appears that Iraq may not have had any actual weapons of mass destruction. A number of caveats are in order. We do not yet have a complete picture of Iraq's WMD programs. Initial U.S. efforts to seek out WMD caches were badly lacking: an American artillery unit that had too few people for the task and virtually no plan of action had been hastily assigned the mission. Not surprisingly, its efforts garnered little useful information. According to Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who was embedded with the unit, by mid-June—nearly two months after the end of major combat operations—the United States had interviewed only thirteen out of hundreds of Iraqi scientists. Documents relating to the programs are known to have been destroyed. Much of Iraq is yet to be explored; as David Kay, of the Iraq Survey Group, which took over the search for WMD in June, told Congress, only ten of Iraq's 130 major ammunition dumps had been thoroughly checked as of early October (the time of his testimony). Now that Saddam Hussein is in custody, it is possible that new information may be forthcoming, or that closemouthed Iraqis will offer fresh details.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Kenneth M. Pollack, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In