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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Kay Revives Fracas Over U.S. Intelligence on Iraq
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Paul Kerr

The Bush administration is facing a formidable diplomatic and political challenge after a key official said that he expected any weapons hunt in Iraq will prove largely futile.

The CIA announced Jan. 23 that David Kay was stepping down as its adviser to the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the task force charged with coordinating the U.S.-led search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) after the U.S.-led invasion of that country in March 2003. The same day, Kay began a series of public discussions of his results, further fueling the ongoing controversy over the failures of prewar U.S. intelligence and the Bush administration to accurately portray the status of Iraq’s weapons programs.

Kay said that he did not expect the search to turn up any significant chemical or biological weapons stockpiles and that he believed Iraq destroyed its prohibited chemical and biological weapons produced before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, either unilaterally or under the supervision of UN weapons inspectors who worked in Iraq from 1991 until 1998. Iraq did not resume large-scale production after destroying these weapons, and there is no evidence that it reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, he said.

Kay’s claims run counter to public speculation by President George W. Bush and administration officials that Iraq may have destroyed or moved its prohibited weapons just prior to the invasion or that the weapons remain hidden. The administration has set up an independent commission to investigate the matter, but critics question whether it will address some of the most pressing questions about the intelligence, particularly whether the president and other senior officials distorted or manipulated the information they were provided by the intelligence agencies.

Administration officials continue to emphasize that the ISG must finish its work before any conclusions about Iraq’s weapons programs can be reached. Kay told the Senate Armed Services Committee Jan. 28 that “85 percent of the major elements of the Iraqi program are probably known” but that the investigation’s results likely will be clouded by “an unresolvable [sic] ambiguity” because post-invasion Iraqi looting and destruction ruined the chances of recovering important evidence. Former UN weapons inspector Charles Duelfer has replaced Kay.


The ISG’s resources are not entirely devoted to the weapons search. Kay said he stepped down in part because the ISG’s personnel were being diverted to tasks such as combating the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.

Intelligence Controversy Heats Up

Kay’s resignation and subsequent remarks have ramped up the nearly year-long debate over the inaccuracy of the administration’s unequivocal prewar statements that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program and possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Both flawed intelligence and officials’ misrepresentations of the intelligence data appear to be responsible.

Public opinion has shifted against the administration. In a Gallup poll taken in late January, 43 percent of those survied said they thought the Bush administration misled Americans about whether Iraq had WMD, up from 31 percent in a survey from May.

Kay told the Senate committee that U.S. intelligence collection efforts failed in Iraq because the intelligence community had grown reliant during the 1990s on information from UN weapons inspectors and failed to develop their own human intelligence sources. When inspectors were forced out in 1998 and that source of information of information disappeared, Kay said, intelligence analysts had to make judgments about Iraq’s weapons programs based on inadequate data. In particular, U.S. analysts were left to rely on foreign intelligence services, as well as on “national technical means,” such as satellite imagery and communications intercepts. Kay also pointed out that the intelligence community failed to understand the magnitude of Iraqi corruption, which led analysts to believe that Baghdad was more efficient at producing weapons than it actually was.

In a Feb. 5 speech at Georgetown University, CIA director George Tenet acknowledged that the intelligence analysis had been conditioned by Iraq’s past behavior. Specifically, the intelligence community believed Iraq was continuing to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as prohibited missiles, because Iraq had developed weapons in the past and failed to account for them. The United States also had communications intercepts and satellite photographs indicating that Iraq was producing and concealing prohibited weapons, he said. Tenet acknowledged that the United States did not have enough of its own human intelligence in Iraq and that it relied on sometimes unreliable sources, such as defectors, for information.

What Tenet did not discuss is that, in addition to sometimes erring in its judgments, the CIA also sometimes failed to inform the public about important internal disagreements regarding Iraq intelligence. In particular, the classified version of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)—the most recent on Iraq’s WMD programs—contained numerous qualifications and caveats, but the public version omitted many of these. For example, the public NIE stated that Iraq was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) “that most analysts believe probably is intended to deliver biological warfare agents” but did not note an Air Force assessment that stated the UAVs were probably for reconnaissance purposes.

Democrats were also quick to point out that White House officials also made statements that were apparently unsupported by the intelligence in either the classified or unclassified versions of the NIE. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney stated in March 2003 that Iraq had “reconstituted” its nuclear weapons program even though the evidence the administration had been using to support this claim already had been widely discredited. (See ACT, September 2003.) Also in March, Bush maintained that Iraq continued to possess “chemical agents,” although a September 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency study stated that “there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons.” (See ACT, July/August 2003.) In addition, against the recommendation of the CIA, White House officials, including the president in his 2003 State of the Union address, claimed on several occasions that Iraq had attempted to acquire uranium from Africa. (See ACT, September 2003.)

Investigation Ordered

The Commission

On Feb. 7, President George W. Bush appointed seven members* of a bipartisan commission to investigate intelligence failures used to justify the Iraq war.

 

Chairs:

Charles S. Robb, former Democratic senator from Virginia
Laurence Silberman, retired
Republican judge

Other members:

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Lloyd Cutler, former White
House counsel
Patricia M. Wald, retired
Democratic judge
Richard C. Levin, president of
Yale University
Adm. William O. Studeman (Ret.), former CIA deputy director

Bush issued an executive order Feb. 6 establishing a commission to investigate U.S. intelligence capabilities to assess WMD threats. Although the commission’s task includes comparing U.S. prewar intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction with the ISG’s findings, there is no indication that it will examine U.S. officials’ public statements regarding Iraq’s weapons. The White House said the commission is “independent,” but the White House appointed the members. The commission’s report is due March 31, 2005.

Congressional investigations regarding Iraq intelligence have been underway for months, but none have made their conclusions public. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence circulated a draft of its investigation to other committee members Feb. 5. That investigation has focused on the quality of the intelligence community’s analysis on Iraq, but the committee announced Feb. 12 that it would expand the probe to examine whether administration officials’ statements were “substantiated by intelligence.” The committee will also investigate the intelligence activities of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, which reportedly provided raw intelligence to the White House indicating Iraq had illicit weapons.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith said in a June 2003 press briefing that his office’s effort “was not focused on Iraq” but stated that the Pentagon analysts found “linkages between Iraq and al Qaeda” and also “looked at” weapons of mass destruction.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is conducting its own investigation, but it is still unclear whether the committee has looked into the administration’s use of intelligence.

The Administration’s Defense

Although Bush concedes that much of the prewar U.S. intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons programs was inaccurate and that such weapons may not have existed, he continues to defend the invasion. In a Feb. 8 television interview, Bush said that his decision to invade was made “on the best intelligence possible,” and he reiterated Tenet’s reasoning for believing Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

However, UN inspectors who had resumed work in Iraq in November 2002 reported just before the invasion that there was no evidence that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction or had reconstituted its programs. (See ACT, April 2003.)

Nevertheless, Bush said Feb. 8 that the ISG’s findings prove Iraq had the “capacity to produce weapons,” and he restated his belief that the invasion was justified because the risk of Iraqi WMD acquisition was intolerable in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)

Kay’s findings, however, provide little support for this argument. Although Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the House International Relations Committee Feb. 11 that Iraq had “dual-use” factories that could rapidly produce illicit weapons, Kay told the Boston Globe Feb. 17 that Iraq did not have the ability to produce weapons on a large scale.

Kay reported in October 2003 that the ISG had discovered evidence of low-level, dual-use biological and nuclear research efforts and stated Feb. 5 that Iraq had conducted some chemical research as well. (See ACT, November 2003.)

Powell dismissed the role of UN inspectors and sanctions in a Feb. 2 interview with The Washington Post, asserting that “the inspectors were being deceived” and arguing that the “international community wouldn’t have kept constraining” Iraq.

Although the sanctions regime was weakening at the beginning of the Bush administration, that was not the case in March 2003. Several members of the UN Security Council proposed alternatives to invasion that would have augmented the inspections regime and continued sanctions. Additionally, UN Security Council resolutions required Iraq to allow UN monitoring to prevent future attempts at rearming.

Kay testified Jan. 28 that UN inspectors were more effective than he had previously thought but cautioned that Iraqi personnel had concealed material from the inspectors after they returned in 2002 that would likely not have been found.

Kay’s argument is difficult to assess. Demetrius Perricos, executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission told the Security Council in December that the inspectors were already aware of most of the information in Kay’s October report.