The 2003 “pre-emptive” war against Iraq has been lauded by its proponents as a new model to address growing dangers posed by “rogue” states with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). To this day, senior U.S. officials such as Undersecretary of State John Bolton insist that the war was necessary because “the international regime that tried to enforce restrictions on Iraq obviously didn’t succeed.” Or did it?
A far different story has emerged than the one told by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Although Iraq clearly failed to fully comply with UN disarmament mandates, by March 2003 it was apparent from the work of the UN inspectors that Iraq did not retain weapons of mass destruction that could pose an urgent threat. Years of intrusive UN inspections had dismantled the bulk of Iraq’s unconventional arsenal and effectively contained what remained of its WMD capabilities.
Meanwhile, U.S. and British intelligence did not uncover reliable, new information about Iraqi WMD activity to justify the abandonment of inspections. Nevertheless, senior U.S. and British leaders systematically misrepresented earlier national intelligence assessments in order to exaggerate the Iraqi threat and cast doubt on the utility of inspections. Over the last few weeks, each of their key charges has been discredited.
An ongoing public inquiry in the United Kingdom has shown that the September 2003 British claim that Iraq could “deploy some WMD within 45 minutes” was based on questionable single-source intelligence and was included over the objections of some British intelligence analysts. To date, no chemical or biological weapons have been uncovered.
In Washington, a similar pattern of deception occurred. National Security Council officials repeatedly ignored high-level CIA and State Department objections to the charge that Iraq was seeking processed uranium for weapons from Africa. As a result, the discredited uranium allegation was not only repeated in Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address but in numerous other prewar statements and op-eds by top officials.
Another contested U.S. claim was that Iraq sought high-strength aluminum tubes for enriching uranium. In a classified October 2002 intelligence estimate, however, State and Energy Department intelligence agencies dismissed that interpretation as “highly dubious.” Nevertheless, Bush and his cabinet repeated the claim without qualification. When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigated the claim and found that the tubes probably were for rockets, U.S. officials questioned the IAEA’s credibility.
The administration also charged that Iraq had unmanned aircraft “probably intended to deliver biological warfare agent” and could be used to carry out attacks on U.S. cities. The Air Force intelligence office, however, disagreed, saying that the small aircraft were for reconnaissance. Fresh evidence from Iraq now supports the Air Force assessment.
Another major U.S. charge was that Iraq had mobile facilities to produce biological weapons agents. In April and May, the United States discovered two mobile labs, and claimed they were used for bioweapons agent production. But the Defense Intelligence Agency now indicates the trailers were used to produce hydrogen for weather balloons.
A defensive White House might be hoping that the U.S. Iraq Survey Group will discover new proof of prewar WMD programs. Such findings would not alter the fact that the administration’s most dramatic claims about unconventional Iraqi weapons were wrong. The key question before the war was not whether Iraq had WMD programs in the past. Rather, did Iraq have active programs or weapons posing an imminent threat?
Taken together, the evidence shows that after a decade of inspections and sanctions, Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was dormant. Its chemical and biological weapons programs, while illegal and potentially dangerous, were probably geared to support rapid production capabilities rather than maintaining active stockpiles.
Intelligence is meant to inform government decision-making, not to be invoked or discarded selectively to justify predetermined political decisions. The conduct of the Bush and Blair administrations on Iraq has severely damaged the credibility of their governments, their intelligence assessments, and their leadership on other global issues.
The Iraq episode underscores the fact that international weapons monitoring and inspections are vital to augment limited national intelligence capabilities and provide an objective, factual basis for collective international enforcement of the nonproliferation regime. As the United States faces the next round of WMD proliferation challenges, it cannot afford to abandon its first and best line of defense against global WMD dangers: intrusive inspections and the arms control rules and institutions that make them possible.