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

June 11, 2003 Topic: Security Tags: BusinessIraq War

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.

Indeed, Iraq 's submission to the Security Council of a patently false December 2002 declaration, combined with an arrogant assertion that its WMD stockpiles were destroyed without any record of the fact, signaled Saddam's clear intention never to meet the obligations he undertook at the close of the Gulf War.  (The notion that Iraq 's totalitarian regime, obsessed as it was with controlling all aspects of public and private life, would have destroyed its WMD without generating some paperwork in the process is laughable.  After all, coalition forces have discovered rooms full of documentation detailing the Iraqis tortured and murdered by Saddam's regime.)  

Saddam refused to provide any reliable accounting of what happened to his WMD stockpiles, and this deception went on for years, despite the high cost of the international sanctions regime.  Even when he had numerous opportunities to dispel American anxiety about his WMD capabilities--through "arranged" defections or the use of favored French or Russian interlocutors (who could have been discretely given the kind of access to Iraq's facilities denied to the UN inspectors)--he declined (a point raised by Michael Schrage in The Washington Post).

Instead, a stream of Iraqi defectors and information gleaned from electronic intercepts and signal intelligence reinforced the conclusion that Iraq still maintained a substantial WMD capability.  This was fully borne out by the discoveries made by coalition forces that the Iraqi military establishment maintained elaborate chemical warfare-related paraphernalia, including protective gear, detoxification equipment and a stockpile of antidotes.

Ironically, although Saddam Hussein refused to present adequate proof that his WMD stockpile had been eliminated, it is entirely possible that they had been.  By the end of the 1990s, the value of WMD, from Saddam's perspective, was not necessarily in their potential use on the battlefield, but in the status such weapons gave him in the Arab world and in the potential deterrence value they produced vis-à-vis the United States and Israel .  At the same time, open and admitted defiance of UN resolutions, particularly Security Council Resolution No. 687 (which established a cease-fire in 1991), was not a part of his game plan.  Consequently, he may well have adopted a middle course-destroying much of his stockpile (while refusing to provide proof of this destruction) and maintaining the capacity to create chemical and biological weapons on a "just in time" basis, while pursuing additional research and development efforts.  This hypothesis may sound diabolically complicated.  However, there is precedent for just such a "strategic" gamble-Nikita Khrushchev's exploitation of what came to be known as the "missile gap." 

By the late 1950s, Khrushchev faced a difficult choice.  He could deploy a number of costly, inaccurate and vulnerable first generation ICBMs against the United States , or invest the USSR 's large, but not unlimited, resources in the development of more advanced missiles (with deployment many years in the future) and other, more reliable, strategic weapons systems that might actually move the nuclear balance in his favor.  Sensibly enough, he chose the latter.  However, to maintain the highest quality "deterrence" against the West and, even more to the point, to support the enhanced Soviet prestige necessary for an ambitious foreign policy, Khrushchev also engaged in an elaborate deception designed to make the West believe that Moscow had fielded strategically meaningful numbers of ICBMs.  The Soviet leader's public statements were supported by a carefully tailored intelligence disinformation campaign.

From Khrushchev's perspective, the entire plan worked like a charm.  The alleged "missile gap" between the United States and the USSR was seized upon by a young Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, to discredit the Eisenhower Administration and to defeat then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election.  Not only did the Soviet Union save billions of rubles, but Khrushchev now believed he could best the privileged youth in the White House, instead of the experienced anti-communist Nixon.  

In the end, however, he had been too clever by half. The deception was discovered through the use of U-2 surveillance flights and confirmed by intelligence provided by Colonel Oleg Penkovsky.  Khrushchev proceeded to place short and medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba to cover his bluster, leading Kennedy to show his mettle in October 1962.  Backing down from a confrontation the Soviet Union could not win, the humiliated Khrushchev was "retired" within two years.  

Although the details of Saddam's WMD deception were different, his basic strategic bluff was virtually identical to Khrushchev's gambit.  Having concluded in the aftermath of Desert Storm that the possession of a WMD arsenal was an indispensable guarantee of his regime's survival-but not wanting to repudiate openly ­ in the manner of Kim Jong-Il ­ his international obligations-he chose to continue to perfect his WMD systems, with a particular emphasis on the development of a nuclear capability.  While maintaining an elaborate deception about the existence of his deployed WMDs, Saddam could draw down their numbers, either by dismantlement or even outright destruction.

No amount of intelligence gathering or UN inspections could prove the negative.  Thus, the world was left with the impression that Saddam had WMD capabilities-but there was no "smoking gun." Certainly, there was nothing that could produce an  "Adlai Stevenson moment" (when President Kennedy's UN Ambassador was able, using U-2 generated photographs, actually to show Soviet missile sites in Cuba ).  

A "virtual" WMD strategy could also enable Saddam to wait out the sanctions/inspections regime, which, by the late 1990s, was already beginning to break down, with claims (by France among others) that the innocent Iraqi people were suffering more than the guilty Saddam regime.  There is no indication that those who have been critical of "regime change" as the most effective means for dealing with the threat posed by Saddam would have had the bureaucratic and political staying power of sustaining for years and even decades a policy of de facto international trusteeship, enforced by weapons inspectors, to be imposed over Iraq (as well as on other WMD-aspiring, rogue regimes).  The notion that Western democracies can indefinitely sustain such a policy is inherently implausible.

Not even a long-term inspection strategy could have stopped the full panoply of WMD-related activities.  As was persuasively argued some months ago by the National Security Advisor, Condolezza Rice, experience amassed during the "de-nuclearization" of such countries as South Africa and Ukraine demonstrates that a prerequisite to a successful nuclear disarmament is a willing host regime that is prepared to give the international community an unrestricted access to its facilities and weapons installations and adopt a wide-range of confidence building measures.  A rogue regime that is playing a shell game with inspectors can never be disarmed with any degree of confidence.  Significantly, this concern was well recognized by the UN weapons inspectors; neither Hans Blix, nor any of his predecessors, have ever claimed that they were confident of their ability to disarm Iraq fully of its WMD.

Finally, the sanctions/inspections approach ignores the lessons and logic of strategy.   By the late 1990s, Saddam could have concluded that the West would not sustain a long-term policy of quarantining Iraq . Therefore, to the extent that Saddam felt confident about his ability to control the timing of events (to be the initiator, rather than the victim, of any renewed military operations), to reconstitute his arsenal quickly when needed and, in the interim, to derive an acceptable deterrence quality from a virtual arsenal, retaining a small WMD stockpile was, arguably, not an optional strategic choice for Iraq.  It did not provide a substantial enough warfighting capability, yet posed an ever-present risk of detection--it would have been difficult to conceal an accident akin to the one that took place in Chelyabinsk in the Urals in 1979, when an accidental release of anthrax killed scores of people (and confirmed the existence of the Soviet bioweapons program despite the Kremlin's denials).

Moreover, it is far from clear that a "just-in-time" approach to WMD deployment is any less dangerous, from the Anglo-American perspective, than possession of a WMD stockpile.  At least with respect to chemical and biological agents, the most important assets appear to be the availability of suitable expertise and the necessary industrial base.  A rogue state, capable of reconstituting its WMD arsenal at a time of its own choosing, poses as much of a threat as a regime with the WMD forces in being, and this may well explain why Saddam felt comfortable drawing down his WMD levels.  Certainly, the recent discovery of mobile biological labs, and of various "dual-use" production facilities, indicate that Saddam Hussein was fully cognizant of the manufacturing flexibility of such weapons, and that he was determined to protect his WMD capabilities, making at least a portion of them difficult to detect and, therefore, less vulnerable to attack.  

Finally, an Iraqi just-in-time strategy would have been even more dangerous to the United States because of the possibility that it would share either existing WMD, or technical expertise, with a terrorist group.  In fact, under the "paradoxical" logic of strategy, a rogue regime which has adopted a virtual arsenal approach, while disclaiming its intent to field WMDs, might well feel that it has more plausible deniability and, therefore, would actually be more likely to transfer WMDs to a third party.  There is even a possibility that Iraq may have combined its WMD-related efforts with other rogue regimes ( Syria in particular) and intended to develop a "distributed" arsenal, which would have been more difficult to both detect and target.

When the totality of this evidence is fairly considered, the administration's overall assessment of the threat posed by Iraq 's WMD program remains fully justified.  Significantly, Iraq's failure to avail itself of the one last chance to disarm, offered by Resolution 1441, coming as it did on he heels of 10 years worth of sanctions and 16 successive Security Council resolutions, properly convinced the Administration that Saddam would never give up his WMD program, no matter what economic and diplomatic pressure was brought to bear upon him.  Therefore, the policy choice to effect a "regime change" was both consistent with the administration's reasonable prospective assessments of Saddam's WMD program and constituted the only effective way of dealing with this threat.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey are partners in the Washington , D.C. , office of Baker & Hostetler LLP. Both of them served in the Justice Department during the Reagan and Bush Sr., Administrations. David Rivkin is also Visiting Fellow at the Nixon Center .  This essay is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe on May 19, 2003 .