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.”

At least one raised a deeply troubling question—the claim that Saddam Hussein “has the wherewithal to develop smallpox.” Could the “wherewithal” be anything other than smallpox virus itself? Taken as a whole Powell’s speech was a vigorous and sustained account of Saddam Hussein’s ongoing efforts to defy the United Nations and obtain chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. “Should we take the risk that he will not someday use these weapons at a time…of his choosing?” Powell asked. “The United States will not and cannot run that risk to the American people.”

The invasion and occupation of Iraq have now taken place. American intelligence officers and weapons experts have had six months to scour Iraq for evidence of the dangers cited to justify a preemptive war. What have they found?

The answer has been dribbling out in news stories and semi-official statements since the fall of Baghdad in early April, but the first serious and systematic effort to describe the nuts and bolts of Iraqi WMD was released on October 2, when David Kay, a weapons expert appointed by George Tenet to run the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, testified before congressional intelligence committees. His report was simultaneously frank and defensive. “We have not yet found stocks of weapons,” he said, “but we are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapon stocks do not exist or that they existed before the war and our only task is to find where they have gone.” It is the first part of that sentence which answers the question whether Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States—no weapons found. The rest of the report is full of interesting detail about Iraqi science, industry, and technology but it contains not a single clear and unambiguous confirmation of any claim made by Colin Powell in his speech to the UN.


To place the reports side by side is instructive. Kay says nothing whatever about eleven of Powell’s twenty-nine claims, which we may take as a functional equivalent of “not found.” At the top of this list are the “100–500 tons of chemical weapons agent,” the sarin and mustard gas, the possible 25,000 liters of anthrax, the “few dozen” Scud missiles, the “wherewithal to develop smallpox.” Not found. The cars full of “key files” being driven around by Iraqi intelligence agents? Not found. The “warheads containing biological warfare agent…hidden in large groves of palm trees”? Not found. The hundreds of documents signed by Iraqi scientists putting them on notice that death would be the punishment for anyone who talked? Not found. The factory with thousands of centrifuges intended to produce fissionable material for atomic bombs with the telltale aluminum tubes? Not found.

It is difficult to convey the completeness of Kay’s failure to find just about anything Powell cited as a justification for war. What Kay did find seems paltry and tentative. According to Powell, “a source said that 1,600 death row prisoners were transferred in 1995 to a special unit for…[chemical and biological] experiments…. An eyewitness saw prisoners tied down to beds, experiments conducted on them, blood oozing around the victims’ mouths, and autopsies performed to confirm the effects.” Kay found nothing so dramatic—only “a prison laboratory network, possibly used in human testing of BW agents….” Possibly used? What happened to the 1,600 death row prisoners, the victims oozing blood, the autopsies? Powell said, “Iraq has produced [the nerve agent] VX and put it into weapons for delivery.” Kay cites a “key area” where Iraq “may have engaged in proscribed or undeclared activity…including research on a possible VX stabilizer….” Where are the actual “weapons for delivery”? Where is the actual VX? Not found.

In a few cases David Kay almost declares flatly that something isn’t there—for example, that Iraq has had no chemical weapons program since 1991. Not just the weapons are missing; there has been no programfor twelve years. But then Kay hedges. This conclusion, he writes, is based on “multiple sources with varied access and reliability”—in other words, they could be wrong, something might still turn up. At the UN Powell had displayed schematic drawings of “biological weapons factories on wheels,” adding that “we know that Iraq has at least seven of these…factories.” Kay says only that his Iraq Survey Group has “not yet been able to corroborate” the existence of any mobile factories. So it goes—no evidence backing Powell’s claim that Iraqi military units had been ordered to prepare for chemical warfare against invading armies; no evidence that “Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons….”

Did David Kay find anything that might be described as a weapon? Not really. The closest he came was to retrieve from the home of a scientist a single vial—a “reference strain”—of a biological organism which could be used to make a biological weapon, or ordinary botox. Of all the weapons cited by Powell in his UN speech only one was actually found—sixteen empty munitions discovered by the UN inspectors in a scrap heap. The CIA had at one time worried that there might be 30,000 more, but Kay failed to find them. The conclusion seems inescapable—on the eve of war, and probably for years beforehand, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, and it had no active program to build them.

Saddam’s weapons constituted half of the imminent threat that President Bush used to justify war; the other half was Saddam’s relationship with al-Qaeda and his willingness to give them weapons for deadly new attacks on the United States. David Kay’s writ did not include terrorism or al-Qaeda per se and his interim report includes nothing on the subject, but al-Qaeda’s history and operational style are the subject of another official document released in sanitized form last December—the six-hundred-plus-page report prepared by the House and Senate intelligence committees (the “Joint Inquiry”) on Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001. The most striking of the Joint Inquiry’s many findings is that the FBI knew a great deal about the hijackers but was unable “to connect the dots.”

But while the Joint Inquiry naturally focused on this failure, it also stressed the major change in the terrorist threat that took place when the state-sponsored terrorism of the 1980s gave way to the decentralized, international, and self-sustaining terrorist cells loosely organized by Osama bin Laden in the virtual network called al-Qaeda. This finding collided head-on with an article of faith in the White House. There Vice President Dick Cheney and other high officials believed that Palestinian terrorists would quickly fade away without clandestine support from Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and insisted that al-Qaeda, too, must depend on secret state sponsors. In a speech in Washington last October, Paul Wolfowitz, principal deputy of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said, “Remember, now the dangers we’re talking about are not 3,000 dead Americans a day, but 30,000 or 300,000, or even—God forbid—3 million.” Wolfowitz went on to claim that the CIA had collected solid

facts about a decade of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda, facts about training of al-Qaeda people, including in chemical and biological weapons, and facts about providing sanctuary for al-Qaeda people, including senior al-Qaeda people, including in Baghdad…. We’re trying to lay out the facts as best we can. We’re laying them out precisely and accurately. And I believe those facts more than justify the concern the President has expressed, that this regime is too dangerous to be left with the world’s most dangerous weapons in its hands.

The President in his State of the Union message last January insisted “that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda,” and Powell at the UN a week later added further details. He cited “a foreign security service” as the source of information that Osama bin Laden met with “a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Khartoum” in 1996. At about the same time, according to “one of Saddam’s former intelligence chiefs in Europe,” Iraq provided training to al-Qaeda in document forgery, and after September 11 it gave refuge and medical treatment to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, who had various links to al-Qaeda, had helped to establish a “poison and explosive training center camp” in northern Iraq, and was telephoned by a jubilant terrorist shortly after the fatal shooting in Jordan of an American official last October.

The Joint Inquiry’s report stressed the comings and goings of the September 11 plotters, noting that they “became radicalized in Germany, held meetings in Malaysia, and received funds channeled through the United Arab Emirates.” Among the countries where al-Qaeda sought help or haven were Yemen, Malaysia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Spain, Bosnia, Chechnya, Morocco, Thailand, the Philippines, Dubai, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and the United States. In some of these countries al-Qaeda was deeply planted; others were simply ports of convenience—places to hold meetings, raise money, and recruit activists.

But conspicuously missing from the Joint Inquiry’s list of nations that supported al-Qaeda is Iraq; indeed its name rarely appears in the six hundred– plus pages of the report, and then only in passing concerning matters in doubt. In the first instance, the CIA director reminds the Joint Inquiry that one of the September 11 plotters, Mohamed Atta, “may have traveled…to meet an Iraqi intelligence officer, although we are still working to corroborate this.” The report also tells us that in February 1999 the CIA was told that “Iraq had formed a suicide pilot unit that it planned to use against British and US forces”—a claim that the agency dismissed as “highly unlikely and probably disinformation.” With that Iraq drops from sight. What happened to the terrorist Zarqawi, the poison-making camp in northern Iraq, the “decade of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda,” the “training,” the “aid,” the “support,” and above all the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction given to terrorists for future attacks on America—the heart of the imminent danger that justified war?

These awkward rhetorical questions might be extended indefinitely, but the answer is always the same. In the six months since the President declared an end to major combat in Iraq not a single one of the factual claims about Iraqi weapons and links to al-Qaeda has been robustly confirmed, and in most cases there has been no confirmation of any kind whatever.

The administration has still not backed away from its frequent public claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction on the eve of war, and that they will still be found. But in the four months before war, the CIA had failed to tell the UN inspectors where they might find any banned weapon. In other words, the CIA and the White House both knew they did not know where the banned weapons were. In effect, Saddam’s arsenal was entirely notional.

The administration’s justification for war was not merely flawed or imperfect—it was wrong in almost every detail, and completely wrong at the heart. There was no imminent danger—indeed there was no distant danger. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction to give to al-Qaeda or anyone else. How is it possible then that the United States Congress allowed itself to be convinced to believe in this nonexistent danger, and to authorize in advance a war for which there was no justification?


The principal obstacle to answering this question lies in plain sight—the immense consequences of the mistake. President Bush and other high administration officials now routinely speak of the worldwide hunt for al-Qaeda and the fighting in Iraq interchangeably as “the war against terror,” but the battle killing an American sol-dier every day or two has a simpler character—the United States is trying to secure its conquest of Iraq and Iraqis are resisting. Wars of occupation are ugly and hard to win but easy to drag out, and none of those responsible for getting the United States planted in Iraq—men like Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz, who conceived the strategy; George Tenet and other high officials of the CIA, who chose and presented the evidence to justify war; or President Bush, who ordered it—will be quick to admit they made a mistake. Whether as many as 51 percent of American voters will agree that it had to be done—or only 49 percent—is something we will learn a year from now. But however that vote goes the United States is certain to pay a debilitating price for the conquest of Iraq for a generation, and the argument over the cause of the disaster is sure to be long and bitter. The first round in this contest is already taking shape inside the Senate Intelligence Committee, where the majority is drafting a critique that blames the “mistake” on the CIA, while the minority argues that equally to blame were the marching orders coming out of the White House.

The two sides will never agree, but they are both right. The administration could never have convinced Congress of its argument for war without the mystique of secret intelligence to lend gravity to its case; and the CIA would never have made so much of so little if George Tenet had not been a willing member of the President’s team. The problem is structural, not personal. Presidents can fire directors they don’t like, and the CIA has no other customer. The big mistakes all come when presidents don’t listen, or let it be known what they want to hear. The CIA is as serious, as prudent, as honest as the presidents for whom it works—never more. Directors deliver what is wanted, or depart.

When the White House was embarrassed last summer by its reckless insertion of the Niger yellowcake story in the President’s State of the Union speech, it was George Tenet who stepped in and took the blame. He didn’t write the speech, approve the speech, or even read the speech before it was delivered, but the Niger yellowcake story was poisoned, it was based on fabricated documents, it was dangerously close to the Oval Office—so Tenet took the blame, and the analysts who knew better held their tongues.

The problem is the one-customer CIA and the mutual temptations of master and servant—the president’s temptation to control what we “know” about the world, and thereby command assent for what he wants to do; the CIA director’s temptation to be confirmed in his position at the president’s side. It is not that CIA directors are all slaves and toadies; but if they don’t establish a close working relationship with the White House, someone else soon gets the chance. Other intelligence organizations have intervening masters—the FBI answers to the attorney general, the Defense Intelligence Agency to the secretary of defense, and so on, but the CIA answers directly and only to the president. Once that is understood the mechanics of skewed intelligence all fall into place.

There is little mystery how the CIA could have put together a fat dossier of evidence that Saddam Hussein was actively seeking weapons of mass destruction. Analysts call it “cherry picking”—rummaging through the agency’s vast inventory of reports received to find nuggets of fact or allegation that suggest Iraq has bought this, or sought that, or built or smuggled or hidden something else. Last October the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate on “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction” provided Congress with about one hundred pages of evidence and argument, most of it still classified. In a bow to candor the agency specified just how much confidence it had in its “Key Judgments”—high confidence in some, moderate to low in others. It had high confidence in four—that Iraq “is continuing, and in some areas expanding,” its programs for WMD; that “we are not detecting portions of these weapons programs,” meaning it could be worse than we think; that Iraq “possesses…chemical and biological weapons”; and that Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in a year if it had fissionable material. The agency expressed low confidence in its ability to know when or if Saddam Hussein would use WMD or provide weapons to al-Qaeda.

It now appears that it would have taken Iraq much longer than a year to make a nuclear weapon, even if the fissionable material were available, and the other judgments have so far turned out to be completely wrong as well, something we now know from David Kay’s interim report. This raises the question what sort of “evidence” was cited in the NIE and how it was marshaled into the CIA’s “Key Judgments.” Continued faith in the President demands a verdict of honest error and George Tenet accordingly has defended the integrity of CIA analysts. But the distortion of evidence—the honest “mistake” the White House needs—always takes place at the upper end of the estimating process, where raw facts are turned into the language of a finding or key judgment. It is not the authors of the final draft who can, or will, explain where the reasoning went astray, but the analysts and collectors deep within the agency who are steeped in their specialties and can read the missing facts as easily as those that are known. At that level it would be all but impossible for the analysts to turn a substantial question on its head and get it 180 degrees wrong.

The activity required for a nation to build and deploy weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, is large and difficult to conceal. The fact that none has been found suggests that the evidence must have been thin. To me it seems likely that the WMD analysts recognized that the evidence was paltry, concluded the activity was low, and were unsure how to explain it. Left on their own the analysts would have walked gingerly all around the mystery of Iraq’s nuclear program, couching their findings in well-hedged paragraphs full of that special verb form we might call the intelligence conditional—things that may, might, or could be the case. We can be sure it was not the analysts who leaped to conclusions and gave the estimate writers their language—dictating the high confidence about all sorts of things that were not so.

Of course this point goes to the heart of the controversy, and will not be surrendered easily. David Kay soon returns to his work with $600 million in new money and hundreds of additional inspectors, and we may expect the final report, when we get it, to be packed with arcane technical detail—the report writer’s way to shut out the general public and muffle the verdict. But we ought not to be distracted from the fact that ninety pages of doubtful “evidence” was the foundation for frightening but completely wrong “Key Judgments,” and that these wrong claims were taken as gospel by members of Congress authorizing the President to go to war.

Why senators and congressmen accepted the CIA’s findings is a question that demands explanation. They bought the story once, and might do it again. President Bush has warned both Syria and Iran to abandon their own programs to build weapons of mass destruction—warnings that closely follow in tone and wording those once directed at Iraq. Congress may soon find itself considering a new vote for war to meet threats and avoid dangers described by intelligence officials only in closed hearings. The key judgments, as before, will be laid out by the one-customer CIA; they will reflect the wishes and preconceptions of the White House; they will be based on evidence Congress will find it hard to judge; and there will be intense psychological pressure to accept what they are told, support the President, and stand fast against enemies.

The congressional vote for war last October was not unanimous—in the Senate the count was 77 to 23 in favor of war, in the House 296 to 133. Many senators and representatives argued that war was unnecessary or unwise or even wrong; some said the UN inspectors should be given more time, a few said they were not convinced the danger was imminent. But it seems that no one argued, or even suggested, what now appears to have been true—that Iraq was telling the truth in its 12,000-page report when it said it no longer had its banned weapons. Much more typical was the judgment of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who voted with multiple hesitations for the resolution but accepted the CIA’s “Key Judgments.” “This much is undisputed,” she said about Iraq’s ongoing programs for WMD, and she was right—it was undisputed. Senator John Kerry said much the same: “There is little question that Saddam Hussein wants… nuclear weapons.” That was the problem—too little question.

In their defense the credulous senators and representatives might argue that the UN inspectors had not yet resumed their work and they had no independent check of the CIA’s claims. But even after the inspections resumed last November, and the CIA conspicuously failed to provide the team with information that turned up actual weapons of any kind, the members of Congress who had voted the blank check held their peace. In the Senate a week after Powell’s speech to the UN Robert Byrd lamented this timid march to war. “There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war,” he said. “We stand passively mute…paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.”


Byrd blamed the emotion of the moment, and that is surely part of it; but for the bigger part I blame the insistence of the President that Iraq threatened America, the willingness of the CIA to create a strong case for war out of weak evidence, and the readiness of Congress to ignore its own doubts and go along. Their faith in the case for war confirms that something has been going on deep in the American psyche since the beginning of the cold war, a progressive withering of the skeptical faculty when “secret intelligence” is called in to buttress a president’s case for whatever he wants. The vote for war on Iraq was not unprecedented; forty years ago Congress voted for war in Vietnam in the Tonkin Gulf resolution, too timid to insist on time to weigh reports of an attack on American ships at sea—reports that were either plain wrong or misleading. Again and again throughout the cold war Congress voted billions for new weapons systems to meet hypothetical, exaggerated, or even imaginary threats—routinely backed up by evidence too secret to reveal.

Years of talk about sources and methods, spies and defectors, classified documents and code-word clearances, spy satellites and intercepted communications, have generated a mystique of secret intelligence that chills doubt and freezes debate. The result is a tiptoeing deference which treats classified information as not only requiring special handling, but deserving special respect. “As always,” George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee during the war resolution debate last fall, “our declassification efforts seek a balance between your need for unfettered debate and our need to protect sources and methods.” The committee might have balked and asked for a closer look, but did not. When Congress voted last October it seemed to have lost some fundamental equilibrium—as if caution itself were aid to an enemy. A Congress so easily manipulated has in effect surrendered its role, allowing presidents to do as they will.

“My colleagues,” Colin Powell said at the UN, “every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources…. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” But now, only six months later, we have ample reason to conclude that the intelligence wasn’t solid at all, there was no need for war, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist. This discovery ought to put the American people on constructive notice that the functioning of our democracy is threatened by the nexus of the White House and a too-pliant CIA—a closed loop of presidents who know what they want, intelligence chiefs willing to make the argument and classify the evidence, and members of Congress under their spell. The hazard in this mix shows itself early—when the briefers assure Congress that their high confidence rests firmly on evidence too secret to share.

November 5, 2003

This Issue

December 4, 2003