Stuart Cohen, who chaired the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate upon which most of the WMD angle to the Iraq War was based, believes that there are a number of myths about how intelligence in general works and, in particular, with respect to this particular issue. Among them:

Myth: We mistook rapid mobilization programs for actual weapons. Even with “only” rapid mobilization capabilities, Hussein would have been able to produce and stockpile such weapons in the run-up to a crisis, with little risk of being caught. There is practically no difference in threat between the two.

Myth: The NIE asserted that there were large WMD stockpiles and because we haven’t found them, then Baghdad had no WMD. We judged that Iraq probably possessed 100 to 500 metric tons of CW munitions fill. One hundred metric tons would fit in a back yard swimming pool; five hundred could be hidden in a small warehouse. We made no assessment of the size of Iraq’s biological weapons holdings, but a biological weapon can be carried in a small container. Lastly, despite considerable progress the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) is a long way from finishing its work.

We do not know whether the ISG ultimately will be able to find physical evidence of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons or learn the status of its WMD programs and its nuclear ambitions. Regime-directed destruction of evidence pertaining to WMD already has affected the ISG’s work. Iraqis who have been willing to talk to U.S. intelligence officers are in great danger; some have been killed. And finally, finding physically small but extraordinarily lethal weapons in a country that is larger than the state of California would be a daunting task even under far more hospitable circumstances.

Confronting allegations about the quality of the U.S. intelligence performance have forced senior intelligence officials to spend much of their time looking backward. I worry about the opportunities lost because of this preoccupation, but also that analysts laboring under a barrage of allegations will become more and more disinclined to make judgments that go beyond ironclad evidence — a scarce commodity in our business. If this is allowed to happen, the nation will be poorly served and ultimately much less secure. Fundamentally, the intelligence community increasingly will be in danger of not connecting the dots until the dots have become a straight line.

The search for WMD cannot and should not be about the reputation of U.S. intelligence. Men and women from across the intelligence community continue to focus on this issue because finding and securing weapons and the know-how that supported Iraq’s WMD programs before they fall into the wrong hands is vital to our national security. If we eventually are proved wrong — that is, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and the WMD programs were dormant or abandoned — the American people will be told the truth; we would have it no other way.

An interesting argument, although I’m not sold on the conclusion. If, in fact, the reports of Iraqi WMD were fantastically overestimated, we surely need to fix the problem so that it doesn’t happen again. There’s a difference between a zero tolerance policy regarding failure–which would indeed chill bold analysis–and a total tolerance policy. One would think a balance could be found.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JC says:

    I think that the NIE was produced only after the decision to go to war, and then only after repeated requests from Senators, shows a complete breakdown of process. Not really a solid foundation for his plaintive arguments to rest upon.

  2. Paul says:


    I know you have openly said you will lie to harm George Bush. And I know you often do not actually read what you comment on. But I feel obligated to quote the first line of the article as written by the gentleman who was the chairmen of the NIE.

    “The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 2002 concerning…”

    Now IN FAIRNESS to you.. You never said the NIE was produced after the decision to go to war. (which happened the following year)

    You said you THINK it was produced.

    So technically you were neither incorrect or lying.

    I’m quite sure you believe that. Just as you believe the war was about oil, the people of Iraq were better off with Saddam, Clinton really never had sex with that woman and he obviously never inhaled.

    You continued delusions have ceased to be met by my skepticism. I now understand you believe all these things.

    But do me a favor… If you want to share your delusions, might I suggest you get a therapist and quit trying to pass them off as fact.

    It really wears quite thin.


  3. Andy says:

    “If we eventually are proved wrong — that is, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and the WMD programs were dormant or abandoned — the American people will be told the truth; we would have it no other way.”

    That is, of course, very reassuring for the American people. But not quite so reassuring for the families of Iraqi’s who are currently residing six feet under.

  4. Kathy K says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton actually did not inhale. It was a common way back in those days to avoid getting high while signifying that you weren’t a ‘nark’. (Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did inhale either.)

  5. Paul says:

    Sure Andy (er JC) you are right… We should have left Saddam in power. No Iraqis would be dead with Saddam in power. RIght?

    You are apparently to ignorant to figure out that Saddam killed far more of his own people just to hold his power than the whole war did. By his own admission he killed 36,000 kids per year under the age of 5. (By his numbers)

    And you think we should have left this mad man in power?

    To agree with that means you think the killing of children should have continued. That is freaking sick.

    Grow up and smell the coffee.

  6. Jem says:

    NIEs are often generated in response to ongoing policy debates–and this is as it should be. Putting these estimates together is a significant amount of work and you wouldn’t want personnel building an NIE on the (limited) prospects for conflict between Zimbabwe and Botswana while the leaders of the executive and legislative branches of government are worried about a developing crisis in Rwanda and Burundi. In short, OF COURSE the NIE was generated because the situation in Iraq was a major issue–that’s what you have the NIE process for!

    Also, it’s unrealistic to expect the Intelligence Community to have excellent access to a society where even suspected treachery is punished by death for the official involved and dozens of members of their extended family. In the real world, you get contradictory information from your various sources (remember, the “target” is not passive and sometimes releases information–some real, some not–selectively to see what makes its way to the US and thus figure out who is “leaking” information). And technical means give you indications of what’s going on–like the decontamination vehicle Secretary Powell included in his presentation, which is a special-built Soviet vehicle assigned to their chemical troops: were the Iraqis using them for the same purpose? Difficult to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt, but it was shown outside a bunker at a known (by the UN as well as every foreign intelligence service that could fog a mirror) chemical weapons production facility.

    Hey, guys (JC, et al.), if this stuff were easy, we could hire you to do it and wouldn’t need to spend time and money training the people who do it now.

    Having said that, I’d say that examining which assumptions don’t prove founded (and, to the extent possible, why the assumptions didn’t hold) is exactly what some of the senior officials in the Intelligence Community should be doing. I suspect that some of them are–but the results of that sort of internal review will more likely be observed in the training given to analysts than in the various newspapers and other public sources. That, too, is as it should be–the short-term political game going on over the BUSH LIED! meme has no place in the actual conduct of US intelligence operations.