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.