Document of the Week: The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on WMDs in Iraq

The Iraq intelligence debacle casts a shadow over the U.S. assessment of a threat from Iran.

The whisper campaign about the Iranian threat is underway, and it feels all too familiar to many diplomats, lawmakers, and national security experts.

Over the past week, Trump administration officials have cited intelligence pointing to an Iranian threat against U.S. forces in the Middle East. A U.S. official cited unconfirmed information linking Iran to an attack against four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, in the Strait of Hormuz, heightening public concerns about Iranian aggression.

It may be too early to judge the veracity of the U.S. claims. But for national security experts, lawmakers, and foreign dignitaries who remember the run-up to the Iraq War more than a decade and a half ago, the intelligence leaks come with a warning label. “We are all having deja vu all over again,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association.

For our Document of the Week, we are posting the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which was concluded less than five months before the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The document’s serious errors in warning of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs that, in fact, did not exist highlighted deep flaws in U.S. intelligence reporting and exposed the tendency of senior officials in the George W. Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and now-National Security Advisor John Bolton, who served as U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security at the time, to downplay or ignore facts that challenged their suspicions.

“The United States strongly suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of more than three years of no UN inspections to improve all phases of its offensive BW [biological weapons] program,” Bolton claimed in May 2002. “Iraq also has developed, produced, and stockpiled chemical weapons, and has shown a continuing interest in developing nuclear weapons and longer range missiles.”

A partial declassified version of the report, published in March 2015 by the journalist Jason Leopold, showed that U.S. intelligence got a lot of critical conclusions wrong. They claimed that Iraq maintained a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq didn’t. They described the existence of a fleet of mobile chemical and biological weapons labs, as well as drones, that could be used in chemical weapons attacks. Not true. They also claimed that Iraq had been reconstituting its chemical weapons program and would be in a position to fire nuclear weapons by 2007 or 2008. It was not until after the United States invaded Iraq that the Iraq Survey Group, which was led by a former United Nations weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, delivered the definitive judgment: Iraq had essentially shuttered its weapons of mass destruction after the first Gulf War more than a decade earlier.

The report also includes rampant speculation that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might have felt sufficiently threatened that he would have resorted to aligning itself with the Islamist terrorist organization al Qaeda. The report documented “reliable clandestine reporting” of meetings between senior Iraqi officials and al Qaeda operatives since the early 1990s and accounts of dozens of other direct or indirect meeting from “less reliable clandestine.” The alleged link between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime played a central role in selling the war to the American public. The links turned out to be wildly exaggerated: “[T]o date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship,” the 9/11 Commission concluded in 2004.

The basis for U.S. nuclear claims were based on an assessment by most U.S. intelligence agencies that Iraq’s aggressive efforts to obtain dual-use equipment—including high-strength aluminum tubes—provided “compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad’s nuclear weapons program.” The report included critical dissents from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Department of Energy, which employed the government’s top nuclear scientists. They raised doubts about the administration’s claim that Iraq was acquiring aluminum tubes for a centrifuge rotor, a critical part in a nuclear plant. The Department of Energy believed that the tubes were being used for the construction of artillery rockets. But senior Bush administration officials ignored the experts. In a Sept. 8, 2002, interview with CNN, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice claimed erroneously that the tubes were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs.”

There were others casting doubt. In January 2003, Mohamed ElBaradei, then the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told me that two months of intensive inspections in Iraq, including visits to eight facilities linked by the United States and United Kingdom to an alleged nuclear weapons program, turned up no evidence to support those claims.

In building a case against Iran, it certainly doesn’t help that the White House has generally been so loose with the truth. In its latest tally, the Washington Post’s Fact Check counted 10,000 false or misleading statements by President Donald Trump since he took office in early 2017. But it may be Trump himself, having campaigned on a pledge to keep American service members out of foreign wars, who slows the march towards a U.S. confrontation with Iran. The president recently informed his acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he has no desire to start a war with Iran, according to a report in the New York Times.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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