Iraq's WMD Programs: Culling Hard Facts from Soft Myths
The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) has been dissected like no other product in the history of the US Intelligence Community. We have reexamined every phrase, line, sentence, judgment and alternative view in this 90-page document and have traced their genesis completely. I believed at the time the Estimate was approved for publication, and still believe now, that we were on solid ground in how we reached the judgments we made.
I remain 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. The four National Intelligence Officers who oversaw the production of the NIE had over 100 years' collective work experience on weapons of mass destruction issues, and the hundreds of men and women from across the US Intelligence Community who supported this effort had thousands of man-years invested in studying these issues.
Let me be clear: The NIE judged with high confidence that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of the 150 km limit imposed by the UN Security Council, and with moderate confidence that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. These judgments were essentially the same conclusions reached by the United Nations and by a wide array of intelligence services—friendly and unfriendly alike. The only government in the world that claimed that Iraq was not working on, and did not have, biological and chemical weapons or prohibited missile systems was in Baghdad. Moreover, in those cases where US intelligence agencies disagreed, particularly regarding whether Iraq was reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for its nuclear weapons program, the alternative views were spelled out in detail. Despite all of this, ten myths have been confused with facts in the current media frenzy. A hard look at the facts of the NIE should dispel some popular myths making the media circuit.
Myth #1: The Estimate favored going to war: Intelligence judgments, including NIEs, are policy neutral. We do not propose policies and the Estimate in no way sought to sway policymakers toward a particular course of action. We described what we judged were Saddam's WMD programs and capabilities and how and when he might use them and left it to policymakers, as we always do, to determine the appropriate course of action.
Myth #2: Analysts were pressured to change judgments to meet the needs of the Bush Administration: The judgments presented in the October 2002 NIE were based on data acquired and analyzed over fifteen years. Any changes in judgments over that period were based on new evidence, including clandestinely collected information that led to new analysis. Our judgments were presented to three different Administrations. And the principal participants in the production of the NIE from across the entire US Intelligence Community have sworn to Congress, under oath, that they were NOT pressured to change their views on Iraq WMD or to conform to Administration positions on this issue. In my particular case, I was able to swear under oath that not only had no one pressured me to take a particular view but that I had not pressured anyone else working on the Estimate to change or alter their reading of the intelligence information.
Myth #3: NIE judgments were news to Congress: Over the past fifteen years our assessments on Iraq WMD issues have been presented routinely to six different congressional committees including the two oversight committees, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. To the best of my knowledge, prior to this NIE, these committees never came back to us with a concern of bias or an assertion that we had gotten it wrong.
Myth #4: We buried divergent views and concealed uncertainties: Diverse agency views, particularly on whether Baghdad was reconstituting its uranium enrichment effort and as a subset of that, the purposes of attempted Iraqi aluminum tube purchases, were fully vetted during the coordination process. Alternative views presented by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the Department of State, the Office of Intelligence in the Department of Energy, and by the US Air Force were showcased in the National Intelligence Estimate and were acknowledged in unclassified papers on the subject. Moreover, suggestions that their alternative views were buried as footnotes in the text are wrong. All agencies were fully exposed to these alternative views, and the heads of those organizations blessed the wording and placement of their alternative views. Uncertainties were highlighted in the Key Judgments and throughout the main text. Any reader would have had to read only as far as the second paragraph of the Key Judgments to know that as we said: "We lacked specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD program."
Myth #5: Major NIE judgments were based on single sources: Overwhelmingly, major judgments in the NIE on WMD were based on multiple sources–often from human intelligence, satellite imagery, and communications intercepts. Not only is the allegation wrong, but it is also worth noting that it is not even a valid measure of the quality of intelligence performance. A single human source with direct access to a specific program and whose judgment and performance have proven reliable can provide the "crown jewels"; in the early 1960s Colonel Oleg Penkovskiy, who was then this country's only penetration of the Soviet high command, was just such a source. His information enabled President Kennedy to stare down a Soviet threat emanating from Cuba, and his information informed US intelligence analysis for more than two decades thereafter. In short, the charge is both wrong and meaningless.
Myth #6: We relied too much on United Nations reporting and were complacent after UN inspectors left in 1998: We never accepted UN reporting at face value. I know, because in the mid 1990s I was the coordinator for US intelligence support to UNSCOM and the IAEA. Their ability to see firsthand what was going on in Iraq, including inside facilities that we could only peer at from above, demanded that we pay attention to what they saw and that we support their efforts fully. Did we ever have all the information that we wanted or required? Of course not. Moreover, for virtually any critical intelligence issue that faces us the answer always will be "no." There is a reason that the October 2002 review of Iraq's WMD programs is called a National Intelligence ESTIMATE and not a National Intelligence FACTBOOK. On almost any issue of the day that we face, hard evidence will only take intelligence professionals so far. Our job is to fill in the gaps with informed analysis. And we sought to do that consistently and with vigor. The departure of UNSCOM inspectors in 1998 certainly did reduce our information about what was occurring in Iraq's WMD programs. But to say that we were blind after 1998 is wrong. Efforts to enhance collection were vigorous, creative, and productive. Intelligence collection after 1998, including information collected by friendly and allied intelligence services, painted a picture of Saddam's continuing efforts to develop WMD programs and weapons that reasonable people would have found compelling.
Myth # 7: We were fooled on the Niger "yellowcake" story—a major issue in the NIE: This was not one of the reasons underpinning our Key Judgment about nuclear reconstitution. In the body of the Estimate, after noting that Iraq had considerable low-enriched and other forms of uranium already in country—enough to produce roughly 100 nuclear weapons—we included the Niger issue with appropriate caveats, for the sake of completeness. Mentioning, with appropriate caveats, even unconfirmed reporting is standard practice in NIEs and other intelligence assessments; it helps consumers of the assessment understand the full range of possibly relevant intelligence.
Myth #8: We overcompensated for having underestimated the WMD threat in 1991: Our judgments were based on the evidence we acquired and the analysis we produced over a 15-year period. The NIE noted that we had underestimated key aspects of Saddam's WMD efforts in the 1990s. We were not alone in that regard: UNSCOM missed Iraq's BW program and the IAEA underestimated Baghdad's progress on nuclear weapons development. But, what we learned from the past was the difficulty we have had in detecting key Iraqi WMD activities. Consequently, the Estimate specified what we knew and what we believed but also warned policymakers that we might have underestimated important aspects of Saddam's program. But in no case were any of the judgments "hyped" to compensate for earlier underestimates.
Myth #9: We mistook rapid mobilization programs for actual weapons: There is practically no difference in threat between a standing chemical and biological weapons capability and one that could be mobilized quickly with little chance of detection. The Estimate acknowledged that Saddam was seeking rapid mobilization capabilities that he could invigorate on short notice. Those who find such programs to be less of a threat than actual weapons should understand that Iraqi denial and deception activities virtually would have ensured our inability to detect the activation of such efforts. Even with "only" rapid mobilization capabilities, Saddam would have been able to achieve production and stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons in the midst of a crisis, and the Intelligence Community would have had little, if any, chance of detecting this activity, particularly in the case of BW. In the case of chemical weapons, although we might have detected indicators of mobilization activity, we would have been hard pressed to accurately interpret such evidence. Those who conclude that no threat existed because actual weapons have not yet been found do not understand the significance posed by biological and chemical warfare programs in the hands of tyrants.
Myth #10: The NIE asserted that there were "large WMD stockpiles" and because we haven't found them, Baghdad had no WMD: From experience gained at the end of Desert Storm more than ten years ago, it was clear to us and should have been clear to our critics, that finding WMD in the aftermath of a conflict wouldn't be easy. We judged that Iraq probably possessed one hundred to five hundred metric tons of CW munitions fill. One hundred metric tons would fit in a backyard swimming pool; five hundred could be hidden in a small warehouse. We made no assessment of the size of Iraq's biological weapons holdings but a biological weapon can be carried in a small container. (And of course, we judged that Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon.) When the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), led by David Kay, issued its interim report in October, acknowledging that it had not found chemical or biological weapons, the inspectors had then visited only ten of the 130 major ammunition depots in Iraq; these ammunition dumps are huge, sometimes five miles by five miles on a side. Two depots alone are roughly the size of Manhattan. It is worth recalling that after Desert Storm, US forces unknowingly destroyed over 1,000 rounds of chemical-filled munitions at a facility called Al Kamissiyah. Baghdad sometimes had special markings for chemical and biological munitions and sometimes did not. In short, much remains to be done in the hunt for Iraq's WMD.
We do not know whether the ISG ultimately will be able to find physical evidence of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons or confirm the status of its WMD programs and its nuclear ambitions. The purposeful, apparently regime-directed, destruction of evidence pertaining to WMD from one end of Iraq to the other, which began even before the Coalition occupied Baghdad, and has continued since then, already has affected the ISG's work. Moreover, Iraqis who have been willing to talk to US intelligence officers are in great danger. Many have been threatened; some have been killed. The denial and deception efforts directed by the extraordinarily brutal, but very competent Iraqi Intelligence Services, which matured through ten years of inspections by various UN agencies, remain a formidable challenge. And finally, finding physically small but extraordinarily lethal weapons in a country that is larger than the state of California would be a daunting task even under far more hospitable circumstances. But now that we have our own eyes on the ground, David Kay and the ISG must be allowed to complete their work and other collection efforts we have under way also must be allowed to run their course. And even then, it will be necessary to integrate all the new information with intelligence and analyses produced over the past fifteen years before we can determine the status of Iraq's WMD efforts prior to the war.
Allegations about the quality of the US intelligence performance and the need to confront these charges have forced senior intelligence officials throughout US Intelligence to spend much of their time looking backwards. I worry about the opportunity costs of this sort of preoccupation, but I also worry that analysts laboring under a barrage of allegations will become more and more disinclined to make judgments that go beyond ironclad evidence—a scarce commodity in our business. If this is allowed to happen, the Nation will be poorly served by its Intelligence Community and ultimately much less secure. Fundamentally, the Intelligence Community increasingly will be in danger of not connecting the dots until the dots have become a straight line.
We must keep in mind that the search for WMD cannot and should not be about the reputation of US Intelligence or even just about finding weapons. At its core, men and women from across the Intelligence Community continue to focus on this issue because understanding the extent of Iraq's WMD efforts and finding and securing weapons and all of the key elements that make up Baghdad's WMD programs— before they fall into the wrong hands—is vital to our national security. If we eventually are proven wrong—that is, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and the WMD programs were dormant or abandoned—the American people will be told the truth; we would have it no other way.
Stu Cohen is an intelligence professional with 30 years of service in the CIA. He was acting Chairman of the National Intelligence Council when the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction was published.