James Woolsey, President Clinton’s first CIA Director, is trying to make sense of the Iraq WMD fiasco.

There was no substantial disagreement between the U.S. and other countries before the war about the likelihood–based on a history of deception–that Saddam Hussein retained weapons of mass destruction. Jacques Chirac warned last February about “the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq” and added “the international community is right . . . in having decided that Iraq should be disarmed.” David Kay has spoken of German and Russian intelligence reports that “painted a picture of Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction.” The Israelis procured gas masks for every citizen. If Saddam actually disposed of all his weapons and stocks of chemical and biological agent well before last year’s war began, many countries were deceived.

But we are now learning something further from Mr. Kay’s recent disclosures: that there were quite specific prewar indications of WMD–“reports of movement” of weapons themselves, of “weapons being assigned to specific units as well as specific locations.” This may explain the press reports that appeared in this newspaper and elsewhere late last year. Each captured Iraqi general being interrogated was convinced that, although his own unit had no chemical weapons, the units on his right and left flanks certainly did.

He then lists the various theories of what may have happened and is as baffled by all of them as I am.

I agree with his basic conclusion:

There is, however, an element of misjudgment within the White House that should be noted. A year ago September it set out a sound policy for the post-Cold War era of rogue dictatorships, terrorism and proliferation of WMD. It said, essentially, that if a terrible dictatorship has both WMD programs and ties to terrorists it may be a candidate for preventive war–in no small measure because such a regime may supply WMD to terrorists. But in the run-up to the war, instead of equally emphasizing the nature of Saddam’s regime, with its massive human-rights violations and its ties to terrorist groups, the administration focused almost exclusively on WMD, especially in Mr. Powell’s speech to the Security Council.

It has been suggested that bureaucratic compromises drove that decision–since WMD was the one issue all relevant agencies could agree on. But the history of murder, rape and torture by Saddam’s regime is one of the most extraordinary in human history. If one counts the Iranians who died in his war of aggression in the 1980s, he has killed two million people–about 10 times the number killed by Slobodan Milosovic, with whom the Clinton administration went to war twice in the 1990s on human-rights grounds.

And Iraq’s ties with terrorist groups in the ’90s are clear. Even if one focuses only on Iraqi ties to Abu Nidal and Ansar-al-Islam, the requirements of the administration’s policy would seem to be met. And in the fall of 2002, Mr. Tenet wrote to Congress outlining a decade of connections between Iraq and al Qaeda, including training in poisons, gases and explosives. There was no need to show that Iraq participated in 9/11 or even that it directed al Qaeda in any operations–describing occasional cooperation of the sort that is well chronicled was quite sufficient. The Baathists and al Qaeda were like two Mafia families–they hated, insulted and killed one another, but readily cooperated from time to time against a common enemy. Why not say so?

Such a three-part emphasis on human rights, terrorist ties and WMD programs would have been solidly in line with the president’s own explicit policy. A three-legged stool is more stable than a one-legged one, but for some reason the administration decided not to make all three parts of its case in justifying the decision to go to war. As a result, its very heavy emphasis on WMD to the exclusion of the other two bases of its strategy has left the administration vulnerable to the failure to find WMD stockpiles. Whoever caused that decision to be made may have succeeded in papering over some bureaucratic feuding, but reaped a political whirlwind.

The “some reason” that the WMD leg of the stool was overemphasized in relation to the others was the decision to try to gain UN approval for the war. An attrocious human rights record is rarely sufficient for that, given that regimes with attrocious human rights records have an equal vote with the democracies. So Bush and Powell staked their case on the 1991 Gulf War treaty and the series of UN resolutions ordering Saddam to disarm and render reports on that disarming, which were indeed violated repeatedly. Obviously, that gambit failed. This is quite ironic in that the administration’s “unilateralism” is decried by the same people are saying he lied about WMD. Neither charge is true, but the attempt to get token international cooperation–a UN sanctioned war would have looked remarkably like the one we fought in terms of force composition–caused an overreliance on the weakest part of the case.

Ted Gup is much harsher, noting that George Tenet’s tenure as DCI has been dismal:

See if this sounds familiar: The United States launches a cruise missile attack on a sovereign nation, claiming that it is in part retaliation for an unprovoked and bloody terrorist attack by Osama bin Laden and in part a preemptive strike against someone’s capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. In the aftermath, it turns out that the intelligence is faulty, that there is no hard evidence of any such weapons or their development. Lives are lost, foreign relations are strained, and the attack provides a bonanza for those recruiting terrorists. And oh, yes, before an audience of students and faculty at Georgetown University, CIA Director George Tenet defends the agency’s intelligence and analysis, refusing to admit error even when there is a consensus among those most knowledgeable that a mistake has been made.

Think the subject is Iraq? Think again. It was October 1999, and the subject was the 1998 U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, after the terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Then, as now, Georgetown was Tenet’s venue of choice, friendly ground where he could speak without fear of being held answerable to the press and the U.S. public. “We were not wrong,” Tenet insisted, defending the agency’s targeting of Khartoum even as one of his most senior deputies privately expressed doubts amid a growing consensus that the agency had been flat-out wrong.


The CIA is fond of proclaiming that only its mistakes are made public, while its triumphs go unheralded. It is a common mantra invoked by the public affairs folks at Langley, one conveniently impossible to prove. But what is clear is that the CIA does not own up to its mistakes, except those so spectacular and public that not even the agency can deny or defend them with a straight face. (Among these one may count the bombing of the Chinese embassy during the Yugoslav air war, the failure to call India’s testing of an A-bomb, and the 16 words slipped into the president’s State of the Union address about the illusory purchase of uranium ore from Niger for Iraq’s ballyhooed nuclear weapons program.) But the reality is that the CIA — shielded by layers of secrecy, girded by political sensitivities and licensed by deferential oversight committees — has been free to write its own history.

Of course, the nature of secret intelligence is that it is, well, secret. As Woolsey notes, to the extent that this was an intelligence failure–and so far it least, it sure looks like one to me–it was a universal one, extending beyond the CIA to agencies around the world.

Jonathan Rauch comes closest to my own view on this one:

Yes, Saddam’s missile program was a violation — one of many — of his commitments to the United Nations. Yes, he retained scientists who knew how to kill thousands. Yes, he is a very bad man whom everyone is well rid of. But it is useless to maintain that the apparent absence of any major stocks of biological or chemical weapons, and of a viable nuclear bomb program, is anything less than a severe embarrassment for advocates of the war. Me included.

Like many Americans, I was a gradual, and never altogether enthusiastic, convert to the war. I wondered if it would divert attention and resources from other fronts. I worried about the bloodshed and the occupation. Above all, I thought containment seemed to have worked.

In the end, I was swayed by two factors. One was France. When the issue became one of American credibility in the face of a concerted foreign campaign to take the United States down a peg or two, it became important to show that America means business where its security is concerned.

Even that, however, would not have tipped me but for the other factor. People whom I trusted — the president, the secretary of State, the British prime minister, many others — said that containment had already failed as far as chemical and biological weapons were concerned. Nukes, they said, might not be far down the road. Better to react too soon than too late.

Kay’s finding, if it holds up, does not make Saddam a nicer man or his regime’s record any better, but it does make objectively undeniable the fact that, at the time when America chose war, containment was working. The premise on which I supported the war was wrong.


So it is time to admit that the war was premised on a mistake. Had I known then what I know now, I would have opposed it. Next question: Does that mean the war itself was a mistake? Yes. But it was a special kind of mistake: a justified mistake.

A policeman shoots a robber who has killed in the past and who brandishes what seems to be a gun. The gun turns out to be a cellphone. The policeman expects a thorough investigation (and ought to cooperate). In the end, if he is exonerated, it is not because he made no mistake but because his mistake was justified. Reasonable people, facing uncertainty, would have thought they saw a gun.

George W. Bush and the CIA thought they saw a gun. So did French President Jacques Chirac, who last February warned of Iraq’s “probable possession of weapons of mass destruction.” So did Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor, who last February said, “My personal belief is that Saddam may well possess anthrax and chemical weapons. That being the case, he must be disarmed.”

If reasonable people thought Saddam possessed forbidden weapons, that was because Saddam sought to give the impression that he possessed them. He may have believed he possessed them. (His fearful and corrupt scientists, Kay hypothesized, may have been running a sham weapons program.) For four years after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq successfully hid its chemical weapons program. When a defector blew the whistle, weapons inspectors were stunned at the extent of Saddam’s deception. The Iraqis responded not by coming clean but by redoubling their efforts to obstruct and intimidate — for example, interfering with inspectors’ helicopter flights and, at one point, firing a grenade into their headquarters. No one could have failed to conclude that Saddam was hiding the truth. [links omitted]

I would note, too, that this has a much happier outcome than a robber killed by a mistaken cop. While I continue to be skeptical that we’ll manage to turn Iraq into a Western-style democracy any time soon, ridding the world of Saddam Hussein and his sons is a very good thing, indeed. Could I have been convinced that it was worth a war, at the cost of 500 plus American soldiers, to achieve that outcome in the absence of the WMD argument? It’s hard to say. I didn’t support the Bosnia and Kosovo interventions in the 1990s, although in hindsight they turned out to be worthwhile given the low cost. But in the post-9/11 era, I’m more easily persuadable of the value in aggressive action to take out hostile regimes.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Democracy, Iraq War, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. jen says:

    James, I pinged the wrong trackback. You might want to delete the one on this post. Sorry!

  2. BA says:

    Its sad to see that the “Bush said that Saddam tried to buy uranium in NIGERIA” lie has become so accepted that you don’t even call attention to it here.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I must have missed that one. Obviously, Niger.

  4. Paul says:

    Who died and made David Kay, Elvis?

    In the last two or three weeks thousands of words have been written about how we were obviously wrong because David Kay said so. I will grant he probably knows more about the situation than anyone around. However, does that make his opinions infallible? I don’t think so.

    Ironically, those thousands of stories all talk about how we trusted intelligence we should not have or something to that effect. Now we are putting complete and total faith in one man’s opinion. Further it is not an opinion based on fact. At best it can be said that Mr. Kay’s opinion is based on a lack of facts. I’ve always loved the phrase that, “an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Kay’s opinion is based on an absence of evidence.

    We if we collectively [and I’m throwing the dems and other countries in to] made the mistake of relying too much on certain evidence in the past I think it is even more obvious we are making the same mistake with Kay’s opinion 10 times over.

    The President is appointing a board and all these investigations are starting, all on one man’s opinion.

    All it will take is one tractor trailer to make all of that look goofy.

    I don’t know what was in Iraq or what might have happened to it. But I do know the whole country is treating one man’s speculation as though it were gospel. That is dumb. And it will quite probably bite us in the end.

  5. James Joyner says:


    As I say, I can’t figure out what happened to the WMD. We know Saddam had them at one point. But we’ve been there almost a year now and haven’t found them. The best guess is that they’re no longer there.

  6. Kate says:

    Has no one else noticed the irony that there is a 9-11 commission today scratching at what Condi Rice may have known by way of intelligence warnings and how this might have been acted upon (by pre-emptive action in Afghanistan, I presume)- to prevent the attacks?

    If there is one thing we can be certain of, there was significantly less evidence of an impending attack by jetliner than there was of the existance of WMD in Iraq.

    Another thing we can be certain of, is that had US forces clusterbombed Bin Laden in early September and removed the Taliban, there would have been no evidence found of Al Queda plans to hijack airliners substantive enough to satisfy the political opposition.

    So, someone explain to me how is it that
    there can be two investigations going on into criticisms of intelligence gathering that are so diametrically opposed in their definition of what constitutes intelligence failure?

    And why do you need a committee to answer questions a 9 year old with a stolen toy could answer?

    Really, if one were to give the owner of a pawn shop 6 months notice of an impending search warrant, no one in their right mind would expect to find stolen goods in the place.

    But when it comes to high stakes enterprises like banned weapons, we are to set simple reason aside and accept the notion that they were going to be left in neat rows in desert bunkers for the finding, and that because there were not there when we looked, that they obviously did not exist.

    Political schizophrenia.

  7. Paul says:

    James you hit my point squarely on the head.

    The best guess is that they’re no longer there.

    That is probably the best guess… However that has nothing to do with where they were the week (or day) before the war.

    We have 2 known facts.

    1) They were there.

    2) We can’t find them.

    #2 does not prove WHEN they were moved/destroyed. Heck, #2 doesn’t even prove they ain’t there.

    But David Kay comes out and says he thinks they were never there and all of a sudden the whole world jumps. Did he even give a plausible explanation where they went?

    It is funny… Nobody believes the combined intelligence units of 30 or 40 countries but a single guys makes a statement and the media takes it as gospel. That just triggers my B.S. detector.

  8. James Joyner says:


    I think pretty much everyone believed the intelligence; hardly anyone disputed that the WMD were there. But after a few months of not finding them, most people think we were wrong in thinking they were there at the time of the invasion. Kay’s statements just added momentum to that belief.

  9. bryan says:

    missed in all of kay’s comments is that he repeatedly said that the president was not at fault, and that he didn’t use “sexed up” intelligence for political gain.

    I somehow think that it doesn’t matter what we find in the next year, it will not satisfy those who want to get rid of Bush.

  10. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    Nothing will satisfy those who want to get rid of President Bush. Even if you found huge stockpiles of WMD in Iraq, conclusive evidence of Al Qaeada operations in Iraq focused on the 9-11 attack, or whatever, those who want Bush out will never be satisfied.

    Their actions may cement Republican hegemony for many years to come.

  11. Jim says:

    It is an interesting post: there are two sides (actually 3) sides to intelligence: that of the collections and on the opposite side those people who are dedicated to ensuring that those collections fail (Denial and deception). People have forgotten about how everytime the inspectors wanted to visit an area the regime did its best to harass them. People forgot about the fact that in the 90s, Hussein threw the inspectors out. Hussein attempted to mount one of the biggest blufs of his so-called carear. This bluff would have been effective until Sept 10, 2001. The next day changed the srategic situation and his bluff became a liability but that was soemething Saddam wouldn’t acknowledge and was shocked when the United States called that bluff. Libya learned a lesson.