Can the C.I.A. Really Be That Bad?
There are three main issues to consider. Did Iraq possess chemical and biological weapons in the period just before the American-led invasion? Had it reconstituted its nuclear weapons program? And did it have meaningful, operational links to Al Qaeda?
As we have been learning over the past 15 months, and as the Senate report has just reconfirmed, the intelligence community indeed did get its answers to the first two questions wrong. But it clearly got the third right. Moreover, on the vital matter of chemical and biological agents, the agencies’ overall assessments were entirely reasonable. Yes, with the advantage of hindsight and complete access to Iraqi territory we now know they were largely wrong. But we did not have such hindsight or access in 2002 and early 2003.
Let’s face it, it would have taken an overwhelming body of evidence for any reasonable person in 2002 to think that Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of chemical and biological agents. Admittedly, the intelligence community was too quick to believe the Iraqi exiles who told stories about mobile biological weapons laboratories and the like. But the basic facts still suggested strongly that Iraq had plenty of weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations and most European and Middle Eastern intelligence outfits had the same incorrect beliefs as our agencies, for the same understandable reasons. Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons in war and against his own people in the 1980’s. For more than a decade after the Persian Gulf war, he obstructed international inspectors’ efforts to find and destroy such weapons, ensuring that United Nations sanctions that cost his country more than $100 billion would remain in place. He had his underlings confront the inspectors on several occasions in ways that led to military strikes against his security organizations. It certainly looked as if he valued chemical and biological agents a great deal, and was prepared to do a lot to hold onto them.
This is certainly correct. Indeed, aside from persistent rumors of materials having been smuggled to Syria and elsewhere, we still don’t know what happened to Saddam’s chemical stockpiles.
As for the supposed links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, the available evidence points strongly to one conclusion, the same conclusion that the intelligence community consistently reached: the Bush administration’s frequent insinuations that Saddam Hussein may have had an active collaboration with Al Qaeda, perhaps even assisting the 9/11 hijackers in some way, are without foundation. The intelligence community clearly stated this throughout the debate over Iraq. Even when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was talking about “bulletproof” evidence of strong linkages in the summer and fall of 2002, the intelligence community demurred Ã¢€” within the halls of the executive branch and in public.
As I’ve argued repeatedly, it’s simply untrue that Saddam didn’t have significant connections with al Qaeda. More importantly, he had long been an active supporter of jihadist groups, most notably HAMAS, well before al Qaeda even existed.
But before we excoriate the work of our intelligence analysts Ã¢€” demoralizing their ranks and discouraging recruits from joining organizations that are being slammed by the right as well as the left Ã¢€” we need to take a deep breath. Intelligence is a difficult craft, and getting things wrong is an occupational hazard, not necessarily a sign of negligence or incompetence.
Agreed. It’s perfectly reasonable to conduct after-action assessments and try to fix problems. There are many. But leaders need to also keep in mind the nature of the business.