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The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Controversy Persists Over Failure to Find Iraqi WMD
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Paul Kerr

More than one year after U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq with the announced intention to rid that country of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the failure to find such nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons continues to stir controversy in the United States and overseas.

The debate was fueled in March by the publication of “Disarming Iraq,” Hans Blix’s insider account which details the back-room diplomacy leading up to the onset of the war. Blix, the former executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), charged that U.S. officials ignored UN weapons inspectors’ pre-invasion reports that there was no evidence that Iraq possessed WMD or had reconstituted its weapons programs.

Despite the inspectors’ reports, Bush administration officials “wanted to come to the conclusion that there were weapons” in Iraq, Blix told NBC’s Today show March 15. Blix’s depiction of the U.S. attitude toward Iraq’s unaccounted-for weapons is consistent with U.S. officials’ professed skepticism about the efficacy of UN weapons inspections, as well as with previous statements from administration officials indicating that the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States lowered their tolerance for the perceived risk of Iraqi WMD acquisition. (See ACT, January/February 2004 and April 2003.)

David Kay, former top adviser to the U.S.-led search effort, and Blix have argued that Iraq destroyed its weapons stockpiles during the 1990s—a claim bolstered by a Feb. 27 UNMOVIC report indicating that almost no weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq after 1994.

Blix pointed out in a March 15 FOX News interview that the uncertainty about Iraq’s suspected WMD stemmed from its failure to account for those weapons destroyed outside the presence of UN inspectors. Baghdad had still not accounted for these weapons as of the invasion. Rather than admitting uncertainty, however, U.S. and British officials simply counted any unaccounted-for weapons or related materials as weapons that actually existed. (See ACT, March 2004.)

In a March 5 interview with Arms Control Today, Kay attributed this belief to Iraq’s past noncompliance and deception of weapons inspectors, which had encouraged U.S. and British officials to assume the worst about its behavior. Nevertheless, Kay said that Saddam Hussein’s regime likely did not offer proof of the weapons’ destruction for two reasons. The first is that some were destroyed during the “chaos” following the 1991 Persian Gulf War and its war with Iran during the 1980s. The second is that Iraqi officials were “embarrassed to admit” to some of the methods used to destroy the weapons. For example, Iraq disposed of “biological agents in ways that were…dangerous to the health of people in Baghdad” he said.

Beyond an ingrained mindset, Blix and Kay have blamed poor coalition intelligence for their inaccurate assessments of Iraq’s arsenal of unconventional weapons. Blix said in a March 16 CNN interview that his inspectors received useful coalition intelligence on only three occasions, arguing that U.S. and British reliance on defectors as intelligence sources likely accounted for the divergence between the U.S. and UN assessments of Iraq’s weapons activities. The UN inspectors did not use defectors as sources, he added.

CIA director George Tenet acknowledged in February that some U.S. intelligence came from defectors who were sometimes unreliable. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also stated in a March 5 speech that these human sources “were apparently less reliable than the [intelligence community] thought” and suggested that “other potential intelligence sources [indicating that Iraq had no WMD programs] may have been dismissed.”

Intelligence Controversy

As investigations into U.S. intelligence on Iraq continue, increased attention has been focused on the role of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) for Policy in disseminating raw intelligence about Iraqi WMD to senior administration officials. Former OSD staff member Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Karen Kwiatkowski wrote in a March 10 article for Salon magazine that personnel in the office had a close relationship with Iraqi defectors and produced “talking points” for briefing more senior administration officials that included information at variance with U.S. intelligence on Iraq’s suspected weapons programs.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith said in a recently-released June 2003 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) that he had tasked some OSD staff with reviewing existing intelligence concerning terrorist networks. Feith stated in a press briefing that same month that these staff members found “linkages between Iraq and al Qaeda” and also “looked at” WMD. Additionally, Feith’s letter revealed that OSD personnel briefed staff from the National Security Council and Office of the Vice President on their findings regarding Iraq’s suspected links to terrorists. Tenet told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 9 that he was unaware such a briefing had taken place.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence announced in February that they would look into Feith’s efforts in their ongoing investigation into the intelligence controversy.

The OSD briefing is not the only time that administration officials have appeared to ignore the CIA’s judgments. For instance, Tenet told the committee that the CIA did not approve a Jan. 20, 2003, report to Congress signed by President George W. Bush which referenced Iraq’s “attempts to acquire uranium.” Although Tenet had succeeded in stopping several senior administration officials’ attempts to insert this reference into other presidential speeches, Bush still made the charge during his 2003 State of the Union address. Subsequent revelations have disproved this claim. (See ACT, September 2003.)

Reports that administration officials pressured intelligence analysts to alter their conclusions about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have also been controversial. In her March speech, Harman stated that “some analysts” who worked on the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iraq threat told her that they believed that the “decision to go to war had already been made [in the fall of 2002], and that their mindset was to advise military commanders” on the dangers of Iraqi battlefield WMD. Harman added that analysts’ belief that they “had to come down on one side or the other” on the question of Iraqi weapons generated “categorical statements” about Iraq’s weapons capabilities in the NIE. Cheney has acknowledged questioning intelligence analysts frequently but denies pressuring them.