Intelligence, Politics, and the Iraq War

WMD: Intelligence Tested

David Kay
Former weapons inspector David Kay: "We were all wrong." (Photo: Joyce Naltchayan/AFP-Getty Images).

On Feb. 2, George W. Bush, under pressure, was obliged to announce that he would name an independent commission to investigate the intelligence material that formed the basis for the war on Iraq. The following day, his closest comrade in arms, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, announced that he, too, wanted to examine the intelligence “that we received and whether it was accurate or not.”

This last may be the understatement of the year. The awful truth was finally exposed when the head of the United States’ own weapons inspection team in Iraq, David Kay, resigned after 10 months of intense but unsuccessful hunting for Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. There were, to put it bluntly, none, and Kay announced soberly that “everyone” had been wrong before the war. This has made the war’s supporters moderate their once absolutely confident statements.

On Feb. 3, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went so far as to say that he might not have supported the invasion of Iraq if he had known that the country had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. “I don’t know,” he admitted in an interview with The Washington Post, and added: “The absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus.”

There was no shortage of critics when Bush and Blair laid out what was supposed to be proof that Saddam Hussein constituted an immediate threat to world peace. Never before have intelligence reports been so thoroughly dissected, and seldom has criticism played such a large role in the international debate. The head of the United Nations’ own weapons inspectors, Hans Blix, almost begged to be given a few months to check the evidence but was dismissed with something resembling contempt.

Ten months after the fall of Baghdad, it is clear that what was supposed to justify the war has not been found. Now the fight has begun over who was responsible. Or, as CIA veteran Melvin Goodman put it: “Did the intelligence shape policy, or did the policy shape intelligence?” Greg Thielmann, who was formerly a member of the U.S. State Department’s intelligence division, put it this way: “Everyone knew that the White House was deaf to any information that would not substantiate its charges….The White House was never searching for the truth; it was searching for arguments to make the case for war.”

In an interview with the British newspaper The Independent, Thielmann said, “We read more or less the same papers. The way the political leadership of the United States and Great Britain explained the intelligence information to their peoples was not a correct reflection of what their intelligence agencies said. Iraq did not constitute an immediate threat, either to its neighbors or to the United States and Great Britain.”

The accusations are crushing and demand to be taken seriously. We know from previous experience that the quality of much intelligence about Iraq was wretched. Reports from Iraqi defectors and/or exiles were accepted uncritically, and through them a picture was built up of an Iraqi despot both armed to the teeth and in league with Osama bin Laden. 

Even last summer, an internal CIA investigation reported that the organization lacked current information on the supposed weapons of mass destruction and was basing its reports on data almost 10 years old. Intelligence reports on a supposed purchase of uranium from the African country Niger were based on falsified documents, a fact that was known even before President Bush used this “evidence” so effectively in his most important speech before the war started.

Tony Blair’s story is not much better. One of the intelligence reports the British prime minister brandished with great confidence was revealed to have come from an old student thesis, while Blair’s dramatic claim that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes was
founded on highly uncertain evidence. These claims, too, have also since been discovered to be utter nonsense.

Reliable intelligence is crucial to making the right political decisions. That is why what has now occurred is painful for the intelligence agencies and dangerous for the politicians. There have been scarcely any previous examples of  heads of state so actively and openly using intelligence reports in their arguments for the necessity of going to war. And now it appears that the information that was meant to convince the world community was not accurate. On the contrary: It painted a counterfeit image of reality, one that led many—including Norwegian politicians who believed what the Americans said—to be duped.

Most serious, however, are the many indications that the American and British leaders were aware of what they were doing. Few observers doubt that both Blair and Bush did not want to lend their ears to those who advocated against the war. Therefore, all information that did not support the decision to go to war was set aside. That was how the grand illusion was created.

This is destructive of both the political process and the use of intelligence data. After this it will be almost impossible for heads of state to bring out intelligence reports in support of important political decisions. For good reason, the documents will be suspected of being of poor quality—or of being abused for political reasons.