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The Vanishing Case for War


The invasion and conquest of Iraq by the United States last spring was the result of what is probably the least ambiguous case of the misreading of secret intelligence information in American history. Whether it is even possible that a misreading so profound could yet be in some sense “a mistake” is a question to which I shall return. Going to war was not something we were forced to do and it certainly was not something we were asked to do. It was something we elected to do for reasons that have still not been fully explained.

The official argument for war, pressed in numerous speeches by President Bush and others, failed to convince most of the world that war against Iraq was necessary and just; it failed to soften the opposition to war by longtime allies like France and Germany; and it failed to persuade even a simple majority of the Security Council to vote for war despite immense pressure from Washington. The President’s argument was accepted only by the United States Congress, which voted to give him blanket authority to attack Iraq, and then kept silent during the worldwide debate that followed. The entire process—from the moment it became unmistakably clear that the President had decided to go to war in August 2002, until his announcement on May 1 that “major combat” was over—took about nine months, and it will stand for decades to come as an object lesson in secrecy and its hazards.

Any attempt to understand the war on Iraq must begin with the profound psychological shock caused by the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a reaction which can be traced to two factors—the complete lack of public warning before the attacks, and the apparent ease with which the attackers used four hijacked aircraft to kill thousands of people and to inflict billions of dollars’ worth of damage. Bad as those attacks were, high administration officials concluded that a still greater danger existed—the possibility that terrorists would arm themselves with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, something they could hope to acquire only from outlaw regimes. President Bush identified his candidates for this “axis of evil” in his first State of the Union message in 2002—North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.

In a September 2002 paper establishing the administration’s National Security Strategy, President Bush announced an aggressive new policy for dealing with this danger. The United States, he declared, “must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends…. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”

To justify preemptive war on Iraq the administration made three interlocking claims—that Iraq was actively developing weapons of mass destruction including nuclear bombs; that it had a secret working relationship with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network, which had been responsible for the attacks on September 11; and that the danger that Saddam Hussein would provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction was so grave that it amounted to an imminent threat.

There was nothing tentative or timorous about this argument; officials hammered home all three points for months. But at the same time President Bush had also pledged in a personal preamble to the National Security Strategy that any decision for war would be reached only after “using the best intelligence and proceeding with deliberation”—an implicit promise we are now in a position to judge. This exercise is not academic; understanding how secret intelligence information was used to justify war can help to answer two urgent questions—why Congress went along with so little argument, and how President Bush, if he should win a second term a year from now, might elect to deal with security threats posed by other “problem states” like Syria and Iran.

The American case for war begins with the fact of Iraqi weapons programs uncovered after the first Gulf War in 1991. Under the terms of the cease-fire that ended the fighting, UN inspectors over a period of years found and destroyed a wide range of munitions as well as ongoing programs for making chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. But in 1998, following years of obstruction by Saddam Hussein, the UN inspection teams left Iraq and in effect turned over the problem of monitoring Iraqi weapons development to American intelligence organizations. The UN strongly suspected, and the CIA believed, that Iraq still had large undetected stocks of banned weapons and ongoing programs to build more.

What the CIA learned in the years since 1998 has been kept largely secret, but beginning in the summer of 2002 President Bush and other officials began to speak often and loudly of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction as not merely a theoretical danger, but an established fact. Some claims were general—in Cincinnati in October 2002, for example, shortly before Congress voted in favor of a blank-check resolution authorizing war, President Bush said, “The Iraqi regime …possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism…. The danger is already significant, and it grows worse with time. If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today—and we do—does it make any sense for the world to wait…for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud?”

The force of the President’s Cincinnati speech depends on his flat assertion of certitude—we know; and on his use of the present tense—the regime possesses and produces; it is seeking; Saddam Hussein has. To counter these claims would require access to the same secret intelligence information provided to the President, but no one else has such access—what American intelligence organizations learn is all filtered through the CIA, which is part of the executive branch of the government, led by directors appointed by the president, answerable to the president. In theory the director of the CIA can and should reach his own independent judgment; but in fact no director of central intelligence can disagree with the White House and keep his job for long. What Congress knew came entirely from CIA officials who described the “Key Judgments” of a National Intelligence Estimate on “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” declassified in part last summer.

Continuing Programs” is both the title and the conclusion of the NIE, and it contains many flat claims no congressman would be able to question—the Iraqis “possess chemical warfare bulk fills” for missiles; biological warfare programs “are active and…are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War”; Iraq “has begun renewed production of mustard, sarin,” and other chemical weapons; the CIA believes that Iraq “started reconstituting” its program to build nuclear weapons in 1998 and, according to “a foreign government service,” had arranged to purchase “several tons of ‘pure uranium’ (probably yellowcake)” in Niger, referring to a kind of uranium ore that can be used to make fissionable material.

Many of these claims were also cited by President Bush in his State of the Union message to Congress last January with additional hard detail—Iraq might have 500 tons of chemical weapons, 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 30,000 prohibited bombs and warheads. The Niger yellowcake story also found its way into the President’s State of the Union message. “The British government,” Bush said, “has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” These sixteen words would return to haunt the White House after UN weapons specialists established that fabricated documents were the chief evidence for the claim. (The British continue to insist that they have other reasons for trusting the story, but have offered no evidence.)

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s nose for deceit was sharper than the President’s; when he delivered the American case for war at a meeting of the UN Security Council on February 5, only a week after the President’s State of the Union speech, he did not cite the yellowcake story, a fact that went unremarked at the time. Nor did Powell mention another claim often made by administration officials—that Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers on September 11, had secretly met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague. But Powell did include a great many other general and specific claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and on the truth of those claims the justification of the American invasion of Iraq must stand or fall.

Powell did not hedge or qualify his case. “My colleagues,” he said, “every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” Much had happened in the months since the President’s Cincinnati speech. The UN Security council had voted for a new round of inspections, UN teams had visited scores of weapons sites in Iraq without finding anything substantial, and Saddam Hussein’s government had released a 12,000-page report claiming that stocks of banned weapons had been destroyed, and prohibited weapons programs had been ended. This report had been roundly attacked for failing to back up Iraq’s claim that it had destroyed chemical and bacterial weapons with documents proving it had done so—a failure still unexplained. But Powell brushed all this aside as of no importance. “My…purpose today,” he said, “is to provide you with additional information, to share with you what the United States knows about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction…. I cannot tell you everything that we know, but what I can share with you…is deeply troubling.”

Supporting his claims, Powell said, were intercepted telephone conversations, satellite photos of weapons and weapons sites, interviews with defectors, and reports from friendly intelligence services. Some of Powell’s claims concerned specific weapons; others pointed to ongoing efforts to hide weapons from the UN inspectors who had returned to Iraq in November. Listing or counting the claims is not easy; a typical example cites Iraqi efforts to clean up weapons contamination “at close to thirty sites.” Another says Baghdad had dispersed “rocket launchers and warheads containing biological warfare agent…to various locations in western Iraq…hidden in large groves of palm trees.”

By my count, Powell made twenty-nine claims about Iraqi weapons, programs, behaviors, events, and munitions which at least in theory should have been verifiable once American forces had free run of the country. Some were explicit and concrete, like the claims that “Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent,” that Iraq “retains a covert force of up to a few dozen Scud-variant ballistic missiles,” or that “Iraq has illegally imported 380 SA-2 rocket engines.” A few are vague—the claim for example that “Iraqi intelligence agents” were driving around the countryside in cars full of “key files from military and scientific establishments.”

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