2003 November 19 Wednesday
Iraq, Weapons Of Mass Destruction, And The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas have written an article about Cheney's influence on Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq.

One such moment came at the end of the first gulf war in 1991. Cheney was secretary of Defense, and arms inspectors visiting defeated Iraq had discovered that Saddam Hussein was much closer to building a nuclear weapon than anyone had realized. Why, Cheney wondered aloud to his aides, had a steady stream of U.S. intelligence experts beaten a path to his door before the war to say that the Iraqis were at least five to 10 years away from building a bomb? Years later, in meetings of the second President Bush's war cabinet, Cheney would return again and again to the question of how Saddam could create an entire hidden nuclear program without the CIA's knowing much, if anything, about it.

The surprising nature of this discovery has been overshadowed by the far smaller finds of WMD evidence at the end of Gulf War II. If Saddam Hussein had been pursuing a bigger nuclear weapons development effort in the late 1990s would the US government have known? Or is there simply a limitation on how much the US can know about what is going in a regime such as Hussein's short of actually invading the place?

One can always play monday morning quarterback and point to all sorts of errors after the fact. Also, before the fact there will be people lining up with so many different estimates of the activities of, say, Iraq or North Korea or some other rather closed and secretive society that someone after the fact will be able to claim that they are right. But if public statements of various European government leaders and even some former Clinton Administration officials (e.g. Kenneth Pollack) are anything to go by the Bush Administration was not alone in its assessment that Saddam's Iraq had a substantial WMD development effort in the late 90s and later.

The troubling thing about all this is that my guess pre-war was that Iraq's WMD programs were smaller than Iran's or North Korea's. Now that so much criticism has come down on the Bush Administration about their Iraq WMD predictions the Bushies find themselves in the position of being seen as the boy that cried wolf. But the story from Aesop's fable is being ignored by partisans intent on scoring points against the Bushies: the wolf eventually came.

Update: A New York Times report underscores the extent to which the CIA is becoming more skeptical in its viewing of evidence of biological and chemical weapons programs.

As an example of the danger of supposition, a second official cited Iraq, saying the absence of evidence that Iraq had destroyed its chemical and biological weapons appeared to have been interpreted by intelligence agencies as evidence that it still possessed them.


Even though officials said changes were not being made as a direct result of the Iraq experience, the emerging conclusions seem to reflect fresh caution by intelligence analysts, whose prewar certainty that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons has been cast in doubt by the failure of American investigators to find any evidence of Iraqi stockpiles.

When attempting to puzzle out what is happening in closed secretive societies there is always going to be a fair amount of uncertainty. The danger is that the admission of uncertainty in intelligence estimates will become a justification for inaction until the threat has become much greater.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 November 19 10:35 AM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control


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