In the absence of hard evidence, the intelligence analysts tended to fall back on the underlying assumptions they had begun with. Those assumptions included the belief that Saddam was determined to preserve his extant WMD capabilities and acquire new ones. And now there were no weapons inspectors to hinder him. The inspectors had also been a moderating influence on Western intelligence agencies; the information they provided, and the mere fact of their presence in Iraq, helped those agencies stick to reasonable suppositions and keep unsubstantiated fears at bay. After 1998 many analysts increasingly entertained worst-case scenarios—scenarios that gradually became mainstream estimates.
Another element that contributed to faulty assessments before the 2003 invasion was Iraqi rhetoric. Imagine that you were a CIA analyst in June of 2000 and heard Saddam make the following statement: "If the world tells us to abandon all our weapons and keep only swords, we will do that. We will destroy all the weapons, if they destroy their weapons. But if they keep a rifle and then tell me that I have the right to possess only a sword, then we would say no. As long as the rifle has become a means to defend our country against anybody who may have designs against it, then we will try our best to acquire the rifle." It would be very difficult not to interpret Saddam's remarks as an announcement that he intended to reconstitute his WMD programs.
The final element in the context for our pre-invasion analysis involved discrepancies between how much WMD material went into Iraq and how much Iraq could prove it had destroyed. Before the Gulf War (and to a certain extent afterward) Baghdad imported enormous quantities of equipment and raw materials for WMD. The UN inspectors, with remarkable diligence, obtained virtually all the import figures, either from the Iraqis or from their suppliers. They then asked the Iraqis to either produce the materials or account for their destruction. In many cases the Iraqis could not. The difference between what they had imported and what they could account for was seen as important evidence of an ambitious clandestine WMD program. These are the numbers—of bombs, of liters of precursor chemicals, and so on—that the world regularly heard Bush Administration officials intone during the run-up to the 2003 war.
In hindsight there are legitimate reasons to question these numbers. According to David Kay, a number of Iraqi sources have told the ISG that some of the material that was unaccounted for was diverted from the unilateral destructions that took place from 1991 to 1996. However, it is not clear whether or not any of that material was destroyed later. And it is likely that some of the discrepancies between UNSCOM and Iraqi figures are no more than the result of sloppiness. Saddam's Iraq was not exactly an efficient state, and many of his chief lieutenants were semi-literate thugs with no understanding of esoteric technical matters and little regard for how things should be done—their only concern was that Saddam's demands be met.
The Politics of Persuasion
The intelligence community's overestimation of Iraq's WMD capability is only part of the story of why we went to war last year. The other part involves how the Bush Administration handled the intelligence. Throughout the spring and fall of 2002 and well into 2003 I received numerous complaints from friends and colleagues in the intelligence community, and from people in the policy community, about precisely that. According to them, many Administration officials reacted strongly, negatively, and aggressively when presented with information or analysis that contradicted what they already believed about Iraq. Many of these officials believed that Saddam Hussein was the source of virtually all the problems in the Middle East and was an imminent danger to the United States because of his perceived possession of weapons of mass destruction and support of terrorism. Many also believed that CIA analysts tended to be left-leaning cultural relativists who consistently downplayed threats to the United States. They believed that the Agency, not the Administration, was biased, and that they were acting simply to correct that bias.