2003 June 29 Sunday
On Inspections And Intelligence About Iraq WMD Efforts

Stephen F. Hayes, writing for The Weekly Standard argues that intelligence work is an inherently error prone process and that expectations for the accuracy of the intelligence on Iraq in the run-up to the war have been unrealistic.

What's more, the intelligence community "consensus" on Iraq has often been deeply flawed.

There was consensus within the American intelligence community that Saddam Hussein would not start a war with Iran in 1980. He did. There was consensus within the American intelligence community ten years later that Saddam Hussein would not invade Kuwait. He did. There was a consensus that Saddam Hussein would not have a nuclear weapon for several years. We learned after the Gulf War ended that he had been just a year away from acquiring one. There was a consensus within the American intelligence community that Saddam Hussein, having been "contained" by U.N. weapons inspectors, would not attempt to avenge his humiliating 1991 defeat. He did, with the attempted assassination of former President Bush 18 months later. There was consensus within the American intelligence community that a secular Saddam would never reach out to Islamic fundamentalists. He did.

This is an important point. The invasion of Iraq had to be based more on a combination of Saddam Hussein's known track record and known motives than on an exact picture of what was transpiring in Iraq with regard to development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the months leading up to the war. There are limits to what intelligence agencies can discover. US and other Western intelligence agencies have been wrong about Iraq in the past by repeatedly underestimating what he was willing and able to do. Given this track record and given the inherent limits on the picture that can be built up from intelligence gathering it was imprudent to assume that Saddam was doing no more than what could be conclusively proved.

Also, it bears repeating: there were other reasons to conduct the war. One really big one was to reduce our reliance on Saudi Arabia and to put us in a stronger bargaining position from which to pressure the Saudi princes to reform their country to make its population less willing and able to become terrorists and to fund terrorists. We couldn't do that as long as we needed Saudi oil and Saudi bases to police Saddam's regime. This is now changing. The US is drawing down forces in Saudi Arabia, has bases in Iraq, and is building up the Iraqi oil production capacity. The Saudis are now far more vulnerable to pressure from Washington DC.

Another important reason for invading Iraq was that the continuation of sanctions was hurting the Iraqi people and costing the US in the eyes of Arab and world opinion. Our alternatives to war were becoming increasingly unattractive. We could have dropped sanctions and let Saddam pursue WMD development at a faster rate. But even many war critics state that they did not want Iraq to develop WMD. We could have continued with sanctions and effectively let him continue with WMD at a slower rate. But that would have left the Iraqi people to suffer under his rule and guess who much of the world would have blamed for the results?

Writing for Slate Fred Kaplan draws parallels between inaccuracies of intelligence assessments of Iraqi activities and with those of Cold War adversaries such as the Soviet Union.

In this sense, Rumsfeld and company saw themselves as something like a district attorney who twists the facts a bit to "frame a guilty man"—or like Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, who admitted in his memoirs that, while pushing for a massive U.S. arms buildup against what he saw as a grave Soviet threat, he made his points "clearer than truth."

What Kaplan fails to mention is the downside of guessing wrong in the opposite direction. Underestimates of enemy intentions and capabilities have cost the United States more than overestimates (e.g. remember the people who thought the Japanese would never attack Pearl Harbor). We are faced with a similar problem today with regard to North Korea. What is the regime up to? Does it have any nuclear weapons yet? If so, how many? We do not know. In fact, even after invading Iraq and occupying it for over 2 months our picture of the history of WMD development in Iraq is still very fragmentary. The folks who are now confident that Bush Administration overstated the extent of Iraqi WMD development activities have by no means proven their case.

Richard Spertzel, formerly head of the biological weapons inspections effort for Unscom in Iraq, says one reason more progress has not been made in finding signs of WMD in Iraq is that the inspectors sent so far have lacked relevant skills and experience.

The next iteration of the coalition inspectors was supposed to have a number of inspectors that had extensive experience in Iraq and has been so misrepresented in the media. I was asked in February to propose a list of Unscom experienced biological inspectors (a so-called A team) that had multiple inspection trips to Iraq. These were to be from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. In March, after the concept was approved, I was asked to contact those on my list to assure they were willing and able to devote the time. All but one agreed to the deployment. None of the individuals on that list ever made it to Iraq.

Spertzel says the methods of handling and interrogation of the Iraqi weapons scientist have been disrespectful and counterproductive. He thinks the appointment of David Kay to take over the investigation will lead to improvements in the quality of the investigation and he expects to see major discoveries about the state of the Iraqi WMD efforts as a result of these improvements.

I think it is still premature to judge the state of WMD development in Iraq. I also think that a lot of the partisan critics of the war are presenting their own set of distortions of what the Bush Administration said, what was known, and why the war was fought. At this point the race for the White House in 2004 has become a much bigger force in the political debates than considerations of national security or sincere worries about the quality or integrity of US intelligence agencies.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 June 29 02:18 PM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control


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