No Books Were Cooked

Mistakes were made in the lead-up to war in Iraq ten years ago. But fabricating intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to serve policy wasn’t one of them.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the decade since the invasion of Iraq, a number of arguments to explain the intelligence failure there are now accepted as gospel truth. Certainly, there were plenty of mistakes made then that should be avoided in the future. However, many of these arguments seem grounded in politics rather than reality.

One of the most obvious examples is the widely accepted statement that President George W. Bush lied about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles. But here’s the thing: If Bush knew that Saddam did not have such weapons, he would have been the only one — even Saddam wasn’t 100 percent certain about what resided in his stockpiles. In reaction to insistent U.S. and British statements about Iraq’s WMD, at an October 2002 Revolutionary Command Council meeting, Saddam asked his own staff whether they might know something he did not about residual WMD stocks.

The intelligence wasn’t cooked or slanted to make policymakers happy. It was just wrong. That made Bush mistaken — but it doesn’t make him a liar.

Intelligence agencies around the world erred in their assessments about Iraqi WMD. Some were more wrong than others. But the broadly held view by intelligence practitioners was that Saddam had capabilities that exceeded the limitations placed on him by the United Nations after the 1991 Gulf War. And in fact, Saddam was not fully compliant with the United Nations: He had ballistic missiles that exceeded permitted range limits and he had certainly had a long track record of blocking and deceiving U.N. weapons inspectors. His cooperation was always less than needed. But as it turned out, by 2002, the Iraqi president did not have militarily significant stocks of chemical or biological agents, and his nuclear program had been halted years earlier.

Given Saddam’s history, it wasn’t crazy for the intelligence community to believe that he would reconstitute his WMD programs. Consider these data points: In the 1980s, Saddam employed massive amounts chemical munitions to the front in his war with Iran. It saved Iraq (and his regime) from Iranian "human wave attacks." Later, in the 1991 Kuwait war, Saddam deployed and authorized the use of chemical and biological missiles and bombs, should the United States advance on Baghdad. It did not; Saddam believed his possession of WMD deterred President George H. W. Bush. So Saddam had two experiences where WMD saved him. That’s a pretty good incentive to hang on to as much of it as possible. And for years he did everything possible to do just that-as evidenced by his indisputable track record of lying and deception to U.N. inspectors from 1991 to 1997.  

The U.S. intelligence failures on Saddam’s WMD have been closely scrutinized for the past decade. Careful, fact-based examinations of the sources and methodologies that caused the intelligence community to serve up grossly wrong assessments highlighted a number of errors. One major flaw was that its analyses all revolved around a single hypothesis — that given Saddam’s track record with WMD, it only made sense that he would continue developing his chemical and nuclear program. With this fixed mindset, the intelligence community tended to see only evidence that supported this possibility. Alternative possibilities fell by the wayside. 

U.S. intelligence also fell victim to fabricators who told us what we expected to hear. Most infamously, a defector codenamed "Curveball" spun a very believable tale about mobile biological weapons labs. In a breach of good tradecraft, no one fully vetted this source. Perhaps worse, intelligence reports did not highlight for readers that the assessments were based on relatively few data points.

U.S. understanding of Iraq was also hindered by the fact that it had contacts with very few people who understood Saddam’s regime. The embassy had been closed for a decade. The number of Americans who had any contact with regime officials was very small so opportunities to understand regime perspectives were limited — much as they are today with Tehran and Pyongyang.

None of this is President Bush’s fault, however. In the context of the days after the 9/11 attacks, when concern over the next attack on the U.S. homeland was palpable, America’s tolerance for risk was dramatically lowered. There was no appetite for minimizing any threat that could repeat the trauma of the 9/11 attacks. Saddam was one of those threats.

The intelligence community also was right that Saddam hadn’t lost his desire for WMD. He stated clearly during our debriefings of him after his capture that he intended to recreate these capabilities once conditions permitted — that is, after sanctions were lifted.

It’s not the first time America’s spies have gotten a major intelligence call wrong. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser died, intelligence experts said that his successor, Anwar Sadat, would never last. He did. Intelligence assessments steadfastly stated that Egyptian troops would not breach Israel’s defenses at the Suez Canal in 1973. They did. Intelligence assessments are made on tough issues and usually with little solid information. Experienced policymakers know this.

Intelligence reports should not be the only basis for making decisions, and they were not for the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney was correct to meet directly with intelligence analysts — it’s a good way to get a feel for what they really know. High-ranking officials were also right to think they may know more than the analysts. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, had much more experience with Iraqis than the analysts. He met with Saddam personally. He had multiple meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

There were massive errors made in the run-up to the Iraq war. Some seemed even at the time to be avoidable. But the historical record doesn’t support today’s conventional wisdom: Bush did not lie. He made decisions based on incomplete and incorrect assessments. All presidents do this, and some decisions work out well and some do not.

The intelligence community has instituted internal reforms to avoid the kinds of errors evident in the Iraq WMD case. For example, they now regularly use teams to test contrary assessments, so-called "Red Teams." They also are much more fastidious on declaring the strength of the evidence underlying their judgments. And, the attention to vetting all sources has been amped up to avoid more "Curveballs." But other errors will inevitably be made in the future.

Intelligence analysts are obligated to come up with assessments and predictions even if there is little real data. The default reaction is to assume the other party will behave according to our logic. And so, assessments are made about how guys like North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un will act. The odds that such predictions are correct are small. Hopefully, Washington appreciates that in such cases "intelligence" is not really going to get you very far. You may be better off asking Dennis Rodman than some analyst sitting in a cubicle in Virginia.

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