The failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq is forcing the Bush administration to defend itself against charges that it exaggerated the threat posed by former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, and two congressional committees have begun hearings on the administration’s interpretation of intelligence related to Iraq’s WMD.
The Bush administration’s chief rationale for invading Iraq was that it posed a near-term threat to the United States and countries in the Persian Gulf region. Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, the administration claimed, and might have used them or given them to terrorists. Vice President Dick Cheney stated in an August 26 speech that “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction” and said March 16 that Iraq has “reconstituted nuclear weapons.” In an October speech, President George W. Bush himself asserted that Baghdad “possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons,” and he repeated the claim two days before the invasion began.
UN weapons inspectors have long said that Iraq had never provided an adequate accounting of its prohibited weapons programs or convinced them that its weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed. But Hans Blix, who retired July 1 as executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), told Arms Control Today June 16 that he warned government officials not to equate unaccounted-for weapons with existing weapons.
Now, more than three months after coalition forces entered Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction have been found, leading critics to question the administration’s characterization of intelligence reports on Iraqi WMD and the imminence of the threat they posed. Greg Thielmann, who was director of the Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs Office in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research until retiring in September 2002, told Arms Control Today June 26 that senior administration officials made misleading statements about intelligence regarding Iraq. Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said June 25 that “administration officials rarely included the caveats and qualifiers attached to the Intelligence Community’s judgments” in their statements about Iraq’s weapons programs.
Press reports have suggested that intelligence analysts felt pressured by the White House to alter their assessments to conform with the administration’s beliefs about Iraqi WMD. The CIA and the Pentagon, however, have denied these allegations. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said in a May 30 statement that “the integrity of [the intelligence analysis] was maintained…and any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.”
Nevertheless, criticism of the administration’s use of intelligence has grown strong enough that Congress has decided to look into the matter. Initial calls by Democrats for a formal investigation were rebuffed, but both the House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting closed hearings as well as reviewing relevant intelligence documents. Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a June 22 appearance on Fox News Sunday that his committee would also conduct a public hearing and issue a report after the closed hearings. Harman stated June 25 that the House will hold public hearings as well.
The Administration’s Defense
Administration officials have dismissed the criticism, expressing confidence in the veracity of their prewar claims and offering several rebuttals, the starkest of which was Bush’s assertion that coalition forces had actually “found…banned weapons.” In a May 29 interview with Polish television, Bush said that forces had discovered two trailers that the CIA had identified as being part of a larger system for producing biological weapons. (See ACT, June 2003.) The CIA, however, reported in May that the trailers never actually produced any weapons. Additionally, a State Department memorandum written after the CIA’s public report raised doubts about whether the trailers were built to produce biological weapons, spokesman Richard Boucher said June 26.
The president has not repeated his claim but instead has subtly changed his language when discussing Iraq’s potential WMD. During a June 9 briefing, instead of maintaining that Iraq had proscribed weapons themselves, the president said only that Iraq “had a weapons program” and that the United States will “find out that they did have a weapons program.” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said June 17 that Bush uses the terms interchangeably. The president continues to believe that Iraq possessed prohibited weapons up until the invasion and that weapons will be found, he added.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, however, continues to draw a distinction between the two terms, stating during a June 24 press briefing that coalition forces will “find weapons or evidence of weapons programs.” In March, he stated that the United States knew where Iraq’s WMD were. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, argued during a June 4 hearing before the House International Relations Committee that Saddam Hussein’s “desire” to possess WMD, along with Iraq’s capability to produce them, was sufficient justification for military action.
Bush administration officials, such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, have also defended their judgment by citing prewar intelligence reports, such as the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). Not all of those estimates, however, support the unequivocal claims the administration made about Iraqi WMD.
The introductory section to the NIE, for example, stated that “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons.” However, the supporting explanation says only that Iraq has failed to fully account for past weapons production and is expanding its production capabilities.
A September 2002 British government report was more definitive in its judgment, stating that Iraq has “chemical and biological weapons…available, both from pre-Gulf War stocks and from recent production.” The report added, “The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so.” The supporting explanation asserted that Iraq retained some pre-Gulf War chemical weapons and had relevant delivery systems as well as production capabilities. It did not discuss specific weaponization efforts. (See ACT, July/August 2003.)
A recently declassified portion of a September 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency study, however, seems to directly contradict the administration’s contentions about Iraq’s chemical weapons program, stating that “there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons.” The study does say that Iraq “probably possesses [chemical weapons] agent in chemical munitions,” but it then concedes that the agency lacks “any direct information” for this claim and that Iraq’s ability to reconstitute a chemical weapons program presupposes “the absence of an international inspection regime.”
The administration’s assertion that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program appears to be its weakest claim. The NIE stated that “in the absence of inspections…most analysts assess that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear [weapons] program,” adding that Iraq “may have acquired uranium enrichment capabilities” to produce a nuclear weapon. But the British report, while concurring that Iraq was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, added that Iraq could not produce a nuclear weapon “while [UN] sanctions remain effective.”
The legitimacy of the two chief pieces of evidence the administration provided of an ongoing Iraqi nuclear program was undermined significantly before the war even began. During his January State of the Union address, Bush claimed that Iraq was attempting to procure high-strength aluminum tubes to manufacture centrifuges for a uranium enrichment program and that Iraq was trying to procure uranium from Africa.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said in March that Iraq was probably using the aluminum tubes for rocket production and that it was “highly unlikely” that Baghdad could have used them for centrifuges. ElBaradei also said in March that the documents which provided the basis for the claim that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium were forgeries, and Rice acknowledged June 8 that the information had been “mistaken.” Press reports have also indicated that the administration’s own analysis had refuted its claims about the aluminum tubes and imported African uranium before the war began.
The Bush administration has also argued that the international community shared its judgment that Iraq possessed prohibited weapons. During a June 2 press briefing, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that UN Security Council Resolution 1441 “started out with the proposition that Iraq…had weapons of mass destruction.” Although the resolution stated that Iraq had obstructed weapons inspectors and failed to account for its weapons and related facilities, it did not claim Iraq possessed prohibited weapons.