We Weren’t All Wrong
Scott Ritter was a UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991–1998. He is the author of Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America (Context Books, 2003).
Washington—“We were all wrong,” David Kay, the Bush administration’s top weapons sleuth in Iraq, recently told members of Congress after acknowledging that there were probably no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and contradicting President Bush’s pre-war claims to the contrary.
Despite the deaths of more than 525 American service members in Iraq, David Kay insisted that the blame for the failure to find the expected weapons lies not with the president and his administration—which had relentlessly pushed for war—but rather with the United States intelligence community, which had, according to Kay, provided inaccurate assessments.
The Kay remarks appear to be an attempt to spin potentially damaging data to the president’s political advantage. President Bush’s decision to create an “independent commission” to investigate the intelligence failure reinforces this suspicion, since such a commission would only be given the mandate to examine intelligence data, and not the policies and decision-making processes that made use of that data. More disturbing, the proposed commission’s findings would be delayed until late fall, after the November 2004 presidential election.
The fact is, regardless of the findings of any commission, not everyone was wrong. I, for one, wasn’t, having done my level best to demand facts from the Bush administration to back up its unsustained allegations regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and, failing that, speaking out and writing in as many forums as possible to educate the public in the US and around the world about the looming danger of war based upon a hyped-up threat.
In this I was not alone. Rolf Ekeus, the former executive chairman of the United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq, acknowledged that under his direction, Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” as early as 1996. Hans Blix, who headed UN weapons inspections in Iraq in the months before the invasion, stated in March 2003 that his inspectors had found no evidence of either WMD or WMD-related programs in Iraq. And officials familiar with Iraq, like Ambassador Joseph Wilson and State Department intelligence analyst Greg Theilmann, exposed the unsubstantiated nature of the Bush administration’s claims regarding Iraq’s nuclear capability.
There was an answer to the riddle surrounding Iraq’s WMD, and there was no need to resort to war. Despite the riddle’s composition—consisting as it does of layer upon layer of deceit and obfuscation—there were enough basic elements of truth and substantive fact about the final disposition of Saddam Hussein’s secret weapons programs to reveal the answer. Sadly, however, it seems that those assigned the task of solving the riddle had no predisposition to do so.
Moreover, President Bush’s decision to limit the scope of any inquiry into intelligence matters is absurd, for it effectively blocks any critique of his administration’s use (or abuse) of such intelligence. Remember, his administration was talking of war with Iraq in 2002, long before the director of the Central Intelligence Agency prepared a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the defining document on a particular area of the world or specified threat.
According to a classified Department of Defense “after-action report” on Iraq titled “Operation Iraqi Freedom Strategic Lessons Learned,” a copy of which was obtained by the Washington Times in September 2003, “President Bush approved the overall war strategy for Iraq in August last year.” The specific date cited was Aug. 29, 2002, when Bush approved the goals, objectives and strategy for Iraq. “That was eight months before the first bomb was dropped and six months before he asked the UN Security Council for a war mandate that he never received,” the Washington Times noted.
The CIA did eventually produce an NIE for Iraq, but only in October 2002, after the president had already decided on war. The very title of the NIE, “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” is reflective of a predisposition of analysis that was not backed up by either the facts available at the time or the passage of time.
Stu Cohen, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, wrote in a statement published on the CIA Web site on Nov. 28, 2003, that the CIA’s October 2002 NIE “judged with high confidence that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles in excess of the 150-kilometer limit imposed by the UN Security Council...these judgments were essentially the same conclusions reached by the UN and a wide array of intelligence services—friendly and unfriendly alike.’’
Cohen noted that the October 2002 Iraq NIE was policy-neutral—meaning that it did not propose a policy that mitigated for or against going to war with Iraq. He also stated that no one who worked on the NIE had been pressured by the White House to change judgments presented in the NIE.
But Cohen is fundamentally wrong in his assertions. The fact that a major policy decision like war with Iraq was made without the benefit of an NIE is, in and of itself, policy manipulation. Judgments—even those as poor as the ones reﬂected in the Iraq NIE—do not have to be changed to be manipulated. The withholding of judgment through a tardy release of a critical NIE is likewise manipulation.
I worked with Cohen on numerous occasions during that time frame and consider him a reasonable man. So I had to wonder when this intelligence professional, confronted with the totality of the failure of the CIA to accurately assess the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD, writes that he was “convinced that no reasonable person could have viewed the totality of the information that the Intelligence Community had at its disposal—literally millions of pages—and reached any conclusions or alternative views that were profoundly different from those that we reached.”
I consider myself to be a reasonable person. Like Cohen and the intelligence professionals who prepared the October 2002 Iraq NIE, I was intimately familiar with vast quantities of intelligence data, collected from around the world by numerous foreign intelligence services (including the CIA), and on the ground in Iraq by UN weapons inspectors, at least up until the time of my resignation from UNSCOM in August 1998. Based on this experience, I was asked by Arms Control Today, the respected journal of the Arms Control Association, to write a piece on the status of disarmament regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
That article, “The Case for Iraq’s Qualitative Disarmament,” was published in June 2000 and received wide media coverage. The intelligence communities of the US and Great Britain, however, dismissed its conclusions. But my finding that “because of the work carried out by UNSCOM, it can be fairly stated that Iraq was qualitatively disarmed at the time inspectors were withdrawn [in December 1998]” was an accurate assessment of the disarmament of Iraq’s WMD capabilities, much more so than the CIA’s 2002 NIE or any corresponding analysis carried out by British intelligence services.
I am not alone in my analytical differences. Ray McGovern, who heads the nonprofit Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, or VIPS, also takes umbrage at Cohen’s “no reasonable person” assertion. “Had [Cohen] taken the trouble to read the op-eds and other issuances of VIPS members over the past two years,” McGovern said recently, he would have seen that “our writings consistently contained conclusions and alternative views that were indeed profoundly different—even without having had access to what Stu calls the ‘totality of the information.’ And Stu never indicated he thought us not ‘reasonable’—at least back when many of us worked with him at CIA.”
The fact is, McGovern and I, and the scores of intelligence professionals, retired or still in service, who studied Iraq and its WMD capabilities, are reasonable men. We got it right. The Bush administration, in its rush toward war, ignored our advice and the body of factual data we used, and instead relied on rumor, speculation, exaggeration and falsification to mislead the American people and their elected representatives into supporting a war that is rapidly turning into a quagmire. We knew the truth about Iraq’s WMD.
Sadly, no one listened.