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March 7, 2018
Commission Slams WMD Intelligence

Paul Kerr

A White House-appointed commission March 31 offered a scathing account of U.S. intelligence failures prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Additionally, it acknowledged that U.S. intelligence is not much better on other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, such as those of North Korea and Iran. The report also contains a series of recommendations for improvement.

In a letter and accompanying report to President George W. Bush, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction stated that the intelligence community was “dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments” concerning Iraq’s suspected chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. Former Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.) and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman chaired the commission, which was established by Bush in February 2004.

In addition to Iraq, the report includes case studies of the intelligence community’s assessments of Libya’s and al Qaeda’s WMD activities. The commission also evaluated U.S. intelligence capabilities with regard to several other countries.

For example, the report notes that the United States lacks sufficient intelligence regarding Russia’s and China’s “nuclear arsenals and emerging capabilities,” which “pose a challenge” to Washington.

The more than 600-page unclassified version of the report also indicates that the intelligence community lacks “critical information” about Iran’s and North Korea’s WMD programs, but the relevant sections are classified.

Case Studies


The report adds little new information to previous reports from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the task force charged with coordinating the U.S.-led post-war search for Iraqi prohibited weapons.

An October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated that Baghdad possessed chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. An NIE is supposed to be the intelligence community’s most authoritative assessment of a given subject.

These assessments were inaccurate. The ISG reported in September 2004 that Iraq neither possessed chemical or biological weapons, nor had it restarted its nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs before the invasion. (See ACT, November 2004.) An April 25 addendum to the report did not change these conclusions.

International weapons inspectors reported prior to the invasion that they had not found any evidence that Iraq either had WMD stockpiles or had reconstituted its related programs. They had not been able to account, however, for the disposition of some of Iraq’s previous chemical and biological weapons, as well as some related materials.

The commission attributes the inaccurate U.S. pre-war assessments to deficiencies in intelligence gathering, such as a lack of useful human intelligence and reliance on unreliable Iraqi defectors. The Senate Intelligence Committee articulated similar conclusions in a report issued this past summer. (See ACT, September 2004.)

The commission’s report also echoes the committee’s finding that the intelligence assessments were skewed by a presumption within the community that Iraq was concealing prohibited weapons. This presumption, reinforced by Iraq’s past efforts to conceal its WMD programs from UN inspectors, led analysts to dismiss evidence that Iraq did not possess illicit weapons.

The report’s evaluation of the evidence underlying the assessments largely recapitulates the committee’s work, but there are some new details, such as an extensive discussion regarding the intelligence community’s reliance on an unreliable defector for much of its information regarding Iraq’s biological weapons program.

The commission did not examine policymakers’ use of the intelligence. This issue has been particularly controversial because administration officials, including the president, made definitive public statements regarding Iraq’s suspected weapons that appeared to be unsupported by the NIE, which contained numerous qualifiers and caveats.

The report does provide a glimpse of some policymakers’ thoughts regarding the Iraq weapons issue. Carl Ford, former assistant secretary of state for Intelligence and Research (INR), told the commission that, prior to the invasion, he discussed with “senior administration officials” the possibility that Baghdad had not reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. Ford raised the issue because INR analysts doubted that Iraq had done so. INR had dissented from the assessment in the NIE.

The commission also addressed whether policymakers put pressure on intelligence analysts to influence their judgments. The commission “found no evidence” of such pressure, the report says, but adds that “intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom.”

Perhaps providing an illustrative example of this environment, a Department of Energy intelligence analyst told the commission that the department supported the NIE’s judgment regarding Iraq’s nuclear weapons program because it “didn’t want to come out before the war and say [Iraq] wasn’t reconstituting.”

Additionally, three Democratic senators had previously claimed in a supplement to the Senate committee’s 2004 report that administration officials pressured analysts, for example, by “repetitively tasking” them to “revise their analytical judgments.”

The Senate committee is conducting another investigation into intelligence activities conducted by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Senior policymakers in the department are suspected of using intelligence gathered and analyzed outside conventional channels.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC’s Meet the Press April 10 that Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith bypassed the CIA and gave flawed intelligence supplied by Iraqi exiles “directly to the White House.”

Feith has acknowledged that OSD staff members tasked with reviewing intelligence concerning Iraq briefed staff from the National Security Council and the Office of the Vice President on their findings regarding Iraq’s suspected links to terrorists. A former senior Department of State official told Arms Control Today April 27 that OSD aides’ conclusions were more alarmist than the intelligence community’s, but said he was unsure how much policymakers were influenced by these views.

The Senate committee is also investigating whether policymakers’ public statements concerning the Iraqi threat were supported by intelligence. (See ACT, April 2005.)


By contrast, the commission terms the intelligence community’s performance regarding Libya a “success story.” Tripoli announced in December 2003 that it would dismantle its nuclear and chemical weapons programs as well as its longer-range missiles. Libya also agreed to allow U.S. and British officials, as well as relevant international organizations, to verify its pledge.

According to the commission, assessments of these programs were largely accurate but still contained some errors. For example, the intelligence community judged correctly that Libya was pursuing a uranium-enrichment program, but it somewhat overestimated the country’s ability to produce nuclear weapons. The CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency had estimated that Libya could develop enough fissile material for a nuclear warhead as soon as 2007, the report says, noting that the CIA qualified this assessment.

The report adds that Libya’s declarations revealed “some surprises that are discussed in the classified report,” but it does not elaborate.

The assessment that Libya had an ongoing biological weapons program appears to have been incorrect, but some doubt remains. According to the report, the United States judged since the early 1990s that Libya “maintained the desire for an offensive biological weapons program, and most [analysts] assessed that Libya was pursuing at least a small-scale research and development effort.” Beginning in the late 1990s, the intelligence community had additional evidence that Libya was revitalizing the program.

The commission did not offer any evidence that Libya had a biological weapons program. Indeed, the report concedes that Libya may not have had such a program, but it also asserts that Tripoli’s declarations “have failed to shed light on Tripoli’s plans and intentions for its biological program.”

Commission spokesperson Carl Kropf told Arms Control Today April 27 that there is a “discrepancy” between the information Libya has provided concerning its biological weapons efforts and previous U.S. intelligence judgments. “Specific information on this point remains classified,” he added.

The commission also notes that accurate U.S. intelligence, as well as the intelligence community’s penetration of a procurement network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan, aided considerably the efforts to persuade Libya to disarm.

Al Qaeda
Prior to the U.S.-led October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the intelligence community correctly assessed that al Qaeda had “limited ability” to use WMD “to inflict mass casualties,” the report says. However, information collected after the invasion revealed that the group’s biological weapons research and development efforts were more advanced than analysts had realized.

Saying al Qaeda’s biological weapons program “was further along…than pre-war intelligence indicated,” the report points to the group’s research concerning an unidentified biological agent. Al Qaeda also had an “extensive, well-organized” research program that operated for two years prior to the invasion, the report adds.

The intelligence community also judged prior to the war that al Qaeda was unlikely to possess either a nuclear weapon or the necessary fissile material to build one. The intelligence community did assess that a radiological weapon was “well within” al Qaeda’s capabilities but could not conclude whether the group had the nuclear material for such a weapon.

A radiological weapon uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material but lacks the destructive power of a nuclear weapon.

The intelligence community has since judged that there is “no credible information” that al Qaeda had obtained either fissile material or acquired a nuclear weapon, the report says.

Captured documents indicate, however, that al Qaeda has been interested in producing such a weapon. According to the report, al Qaeda “established contact with Pakistani scientists who discussed development of [explosive] nuclear devices.”

The commission also found that the intelligence community was correct in its pre-war assessments that al Qaeda had only rudimentary chemical weapons efforts underway, although “questions persist” regarding al Qaeda’s chemical and biological weapons programs.

The report contains an array of recommendations for improving the intelligence community’s performance. These proposals, most of which concern the newly established director of national intelligence (DNI), focus on organizational changes, as well as improving information sharing and intelligence gathering.

The report contains specific recommendations for combating WMD proliferation. For example, the commission recommends the creation of a National Counter-Proliferation Center (NCPC) to oversee intelligence on WMD across the intelligence community.

There are also several recommendations directed at combating biological weapons proliferation. The proposals focus on enhancing cooperation between biological sciences and intelligence communities, centralizing the analysis of relevant intelligence, and augmenting intelligence collection capabilities.

For example, the commission suggests creating a new office within the NCPC to coordinate and process intelligence regarding biological weapons. Additionally, the report contains several recommendations for strengthening the relationship between the intelligence community and entities such as the National Institutes of Health that have only recently become intelligence consumers.

To improve current intelligence-collection capabilities, the report calls for the establishment of an international regime to inspect relevant biological facilities. Presently, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) lacks a meaningful inspection provision, and the report notes that there is “little prospect in the near future” for such a regime. The United States played a significant role in ending negotiations on a BWC verification protocol in 2001 (see page 43).

The report endorses the use of U.S. regulations to collect intelligence on foreign entities with U.S. commercial ties, as well as to require such entities to adhere to strict U.S. biosafety standards to prevent proliferation.

The report also contains recommendations for improving the United State’s ability to interdict shipments of WMD-related materials. For example, the commission recommends forming a Counterproliferation Joint Interagency Task Force to plan, coordinate, and execute interdictions.

Such interdictions are the hallmark of the administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an effort to increase coordination and intelligence sharing in order to restrict trade in WMD, along with related materials and delivery vehicles.

To bolster these efforts further, the commission also recommends that the State Department conclude additional bilateral ship-boarding agreements in order to improve the intelligence community’s ability to track and locate ships. The United States has already entered into three such agreements as part of the PSI. Countries concluding these agreements allow U.S. officials to inspect ships flying their flags if the vessels are suspected of transporting WMD material or missiles and if they do not respond to a U.S. boarding request within an allotted time.

Moreover, the report argues that Washington should take additional steps to ensure that the agreements are structured to serve “intelligence purposes.” For example, the State Department could require ships and aircraft to declare their locations using various technologies, the report says, adding that ships’ failure to do so might “establish reasonable suspicion” to justify interdictions.

As for international weapons inspections, the report states that they will “remain an important counterproliferation tool,” adding that “designing effective inspection regimes will become all the more critical” because countries’ future WMD arsenals will likely be small and difficult to detect. Although the unclassified report only contains the discussion regarding biological weapons, Kropf indicated that the classified report contains a more extensive discussion. In addition, the report includes classified recommendations for improving export controls discussion about inspections.