Saddam, Nikita and Virtual Weapons of Mass Destruction:A Question of Threat Perception and Intelligence Assessment

The threat posed by Iraq's WMD programs was a key American justification for launching Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The threat posed by Iraq's WMD programs was a key American justification for launching Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Indeed, no one, including French, German and Russian leaders, disagreed that Saddam likely possessed WMD.  The sole question was how to go about ending this threat.  

When Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003 , there were high expectations that Saddam's entire WMD arsenal would soon be unearthed.  This has not happened and, although it may in the future ­ senior administration officials still express confidence that evidence of WMD programs will be eventually found ­ it seems increasingly unlikely that a substantial stockpile of chemical or biological weapons will be located.  This, in turn, has emboldened those pundits and politicians (both in the United States and Europe ) whose other assessments about the war (predictions of large numbers of civilian casualties, length and duration of the fighting) proved to be completely wrong.  The WMD issue permits gleeful attacks on the Anglo-American position, as well as the opportunity to impugn the credibility and integrity of both the Bush Administration and the Blair government.

The first set of arguments suggests that British and American officials "cooked the books."  Such claims featured prominently in the European media both before and during President Bush's recent trip to the G-8 meeting in Evian , France . The Daily Telegraph observed that "Tony Blair stands charged, in effect, with committing British troops on the basis of a lie."  ( June 2, 2003 ).  Meanwhile, Le Monde stated flatly that "what we are witnessing is probably one of the biggest state lies in years.  The U.S. was in fact bluffing when it published its documented proof . . . The weapons [of mass destruction] served only as a pretext."  ( May 30, 2003 ).

If this were true, then Blair and Bush are at the heart of an enormous conspiracy, involving dozens of current and former officials and institutions-including President Clinton, French, Russian and German leaders and intelligence services, UN inspectors and the UN itself.  Since most of them opposed the U.S. use of force against Iraq , their membership in the WMD conspiracy is all the more inexplicable.  Moreover, the precautions taken during the military campaign, which involved the use of detection and protective gear at no small cost to force efficiency and the tempo of operations, would have been an elaborate charade; a masquerade carried out before scores of embedded journalists.  All politicians are gamblers, but few have that kind of nerve.  The "cooking the books" thesis is, as they say in Texas , a dog that won't hunt.

Some, realizing the inherent implausibility of this thesis, have also proffered a typical Washington process­-type argument.  Specifically, they claim that an alleged cabal of hard-charging neo-conservative Pentagon officials "politicized" analytically pristine intelligence assessments developed by professional CIA analysts.  Yet, this argument is itself analytically dubious and suffers from historical amnesia.  To begin with, all intelligence products are politicized--they evolve within a particular policy context.  Having senior policy-makers interact with and even debate with intelligence analysts is indispensable for both the intelligence producers and consumers.  This dialogue becomes particularly intense in wartime and has been practiced with gusto by such renowned wartime statesmen as Lincoln and Churchill.  These two, at least, would have been bemused by claims their conduct amounted to an impermissible politicization of the intelligence process.

As far as the specific alleged WMD-related bureaucratic battles are concerned, there is nothing illegitimate about DOD and CIA debating intelligence matters--this is the normal way in which the U.S. intelligence community operates. Significantly, in the past, when dealing with such key military intelligence issues as the pace and the particulars of the 1970s Soviet missile buildup or the true size of Moscow's defense spending, the CIA was shown to have underestimated the problem and DOD's dissenting views proved to be correct.  Moreover, on occasion, going outside the normal institutional channels and creating a special ad hoc task force to deal with a particularly vexing intelligence problem has also proved a useful approach.  This was done, for example, in 1976, by the Ford Administration which created the so-called Team B to critically re-evaluate years of CIA's intelligence analyses of Soviet strategic forces and come up with new estimates.

A somewhat more charitable explanation some pundits have offered is that yet another massive intelligence failure has occurred in Washington , and that our entire intelligence apparatus must be reformed.  This discussion has quickly acquired all of the attributes of a classic Washington political/bureaucratic contretemps.  The CIA Director has issued a spirited public defense of both the substance of his agency's WMD-related assessments and the process by which they were created, and numerous inquiries have been promised both within the Executive Branch and Congress.  Although it is impossible to predict the ultimate conclusions of these ventures, the facts that they will all have to start with are clear, and they support the Anglo-American position.

This is because there is no question that, even after the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had a robust and diverse WMD program. Post-Desert Storm weapons inspections revealed the existence of a massive Iraqi stockpile of chemical and biological agents, a large portion of which was fully weaponized, as well as a mature nuclear weapons programs perhaps a year or two away from completion.  Although some of Iraq 's WMD stockpiles were destroyed by the time Saddam Hussein expelled the UN inspectors in 1998, the rest remained.