What’s Missing?

Elisa D. Harris and Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

October 5, 2003

Last week, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq reported that, like his U.N counterparts before the war, he had not uncovered Iraqi stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or active weapons production efforts inside the country. David Kay and the 1,400 members of his investigative team may yet find the weapons stocks the Bush administration said were sure to be there. But such discoveries are increasingly unlikely.

The gap between President Bush’s warnings and Kay’s preliminary findings raises at least three important questions as the United States shapes its policy toward the weapons programs of North Korea, Iran and other countries: How reliable is U.S. intelligence on foreign weapons programs? Can sanctions and inspections play a useful role in containing the threat from such programs? And are pre-emptive attacks the most effective way to deal with such threats?

In making their case for the Iraq war, administration officials clearly exaggerated some of the intelligence community’s judgments. But it is also clear now that many of these judgments were themselves deeply flawed.

Consider the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons capabilities, which was the key document the Bush administration used to support its case for war and which was supposed to provide a consensus judgment of the main U.S. intelligence agencies. Its main conclusions — especially the selective portions declassified last October — left no room for doubt. “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons,” it stated. Most intelligence agencies, moreover, believed that “Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.”

The facts have yet to bear out these stark conclusions. In his report, Kay said there was no evidence that “Iraq took significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material.”

We now know that the information the intelligence community used to underpin its contrary judgment — including Baghdad’s attempts to procure raw uranium from Africa and high-strength aluminum tubes for a centrifuge enrichment program for nuclear weapons — was inaccurate, just as some intelligence agencies had suggested when the intelligence report was being drafted.

Then there is the matter of Iraq’s purported mobile biological weapons production plants, which were a central element in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s indictment of Iraq before the U.N. Security Council in February.

When U.S. forces in Iraq found a pair of trucks that looked like those Powell had talked about, Bush proclaimed that “we found the weapons of mass destruction.” Last week, Kay said that he could not corroborate claims that these vehicles were bioweapons labs. Experts from the Defense Intelligence Agency have concluded that they were probably used for making hydrogen for artillery weather balloons.

Another example of flawed intelligence involves the drones that were said to have been developed for delivering chemical or biological agents. “We’re concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the U.S.,” Bush warned about the pilotless planes last fall. But when American experts inspected the drones after the war, they discovered that the drones lacked the range and capacity for dispersing meaningful quantities of lethal agents.

Kay says the experts have been told that the drones were to be used for surveillance or as decoys, but that he considers this an open question.

As it turns out, Air Force analysts had argued privately a year ago that the drones were more suitable for surveillance than weapons delivery. But as often happened, that minority view within the intelligence community was downplayed in favor of a more threatening interpretation.

The failure so far to substantiate the weapons allegations — despite CIA Director George Tenet’s assurance to Congress in February that “we will find caches of weapons of mass destruction, absolutely” — has led many to question how the intelligence community arrived at its flawed assessment.

It turns out that after U.N. inspectors left Iraq in 1998, after more than seven years of inspection and monitoring work, intelligence agencies were able to glean little new information on Iraq’s weapons programs.

“There were pieces of new information, but not a lot of hard information,” said Richard Kerr, a former deputy director of the CIA who led an internal CIA investigation of the Iraqi intelligence this summer. “So the products that dealt with WMD were based heavily on analysis drawn out of that earlier period.”

This statement reflects the intelligence community’s longstanding practice of accepting past assessments of foreign weapons programs unless there is proof that their status has changed. As the leaders of the House intelligence committee wrote after reviewing the 19 volumes of data on which the October 2002 intelligence report was based: “The absence of proof that chemical and biological weapons and their related development programs had been destroyed was considered proof that they continued to exist.”

It is often necessary to base military preparations on worst-case analyses such as this. But profound decisions about going to war should be based on more accurate information.

The inability of Kay’s team to find weapons stockpiles or active production programs in Iraq also raises important questions about the administration’s dismissal of international sanctions and inspections as a tool for containing weapons programs.

“Nothing to date has restrained him from his pursuit of these weapons — not economic sanctions, not isolation from the civilized world, not even cruise missile strikes on his military facilities,” Bush asserted in his January 2003 State of the Union address.

Bush made those statements despite intelligence reports suggesting that inspections and sanctions had worked. One British report, released in September 2002, reiterated an earlier assessment that U.N. sanctions “were hindering the import of crucial goods for the production of fissile material.” As long as effective sanctions remained in place, British intelligence had judged in early 2002, “Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon.”

A September 2002 report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that while there was no reliable information that Iraq was producing chemical weapons, Iraq could reconstitute its chemical weapons program “in the absence of an international inspection regime.”

The DIA assessment, which did not become public until after the war, has been affirmed by the Kay report, which said, “Iraq’s large-scale capability to develop, produce, and fill new CW [chemical weapons] munitions was reduced — if not entirely destroyed — during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Fox, 13 years of U.N. sanctions and U.N. inspections.”

Even before Kay and his team set foot in Iraq, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) had reached similar conclusions about whether Iraq was producing prohibited weapons.

Earlier this year, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, reported that after 237 inspections over three months, “no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program” had been found. Hans Blix’s UNMOVIC inspectors also found no smoking gun in the 731 inspections they conducted.

Dismissive attitude

The Bush administration dismissed the IAEA and UNMOVIC findings, viewing them as proof that Saddam was effectively deceiving the inspectors. “We know that based on intelligence that he has been very, very good at hiding these kinds of efforts,” Vice President Dick Cheney said on “Meet the Press” in March. “He has had years to get good at it, and we know he’s been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has in fact reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. ElBaradei, frankly, is wrong.”

Kay did find that Iraq maintained the personnel, equipment and materials for prohibited weapons programs, and may have had plans to use these dual-use capabilities to acquire new weapons once international inspectors were gone — in violation of U.N. resolutions. But rather than bolstering the administration’s case that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat, the Kay report has underscored the utility of international sanctions and inspections in containing efforts by countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

If the Iraq experience to date calls into question U.S. intelligence capabilities yet validates sanctions and international weapons inspections, what does this say about how America should assess other potential threats, including the possible development of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran?

Problems with pre-emption

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush has argued that the traditional policies of deterrence and containment, which served us well for many years, were obsolete: Tyrants seeking access to technologies of mass destruction could not be trusted to live up to agreements they signed; inspectors were bound to be deceived by cat-and-mouse games perfected by those they were inspecting. America, therefore, had no choice but to act before it was too late.

This was the essence of Bush’s case for preventive war. There may be future instances when the pre-emptive use of force is necessary — in cases when an attack is imminent, there is information of a possible terrorist strike, or all other attempts to deal with a threat have been exhausted.

Bush, though, has gone further, as the embrace of pre-emption in his administration’s September 2002 National Security Strategy paper makes clear. He has turned a tool of last resort into a guiding doctrine of American foreign policy. Yet, without accurate intelligence, worst-case analysis could lead us to strike pre-emptively against those we consider a threat.

And if striking first becomes the primary tool of our foreign policy, we will have weakened the many other tools — diplomacy, sanctions, inspections — that could make the resort to force unnecessary in the first place.