The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

Mini Teaser: The CIA’s estimate of WMD in Iraq is in the spotlight, but it was their assessments of post-Saddam Iraq that were dead-on and deserve attention. David Ignatius highlighted Paul Pillar’s story of how the agency

by Author(s): Paul R. Pillar

WHAT COMES to mind when someone mentions intelligence and the Iraq War? Why, of course, the intelligence estimate on Iraqi unconventional weapons programs-excoriated in a 500-page report that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued with much fanfare in July 2004, further torn apart in another 500-page report by a White House-appointed commission, and scorned and vilified ever since.

But the estimate on weapons was one of only three classified, community-coordinated assessments about Iraq that the intelligence community produced in the months prior to the war. Don't feel bad if you missed the other two, which addressed the principal challenges that Iraq would present during the first several years after Saddam's removal and the likely repercussions of regime change in Iraq on the surrounding region. After being kept under wraps (except for a few leaks) for over four years, the Senate committee quietly released redacted versions of those assessments on its website on a Friday as Americans were beginning their Memorial Day weekend.

The Bush Administration had not requested any of the three assessments. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee asked for the weapons estimate, which was rushed to completion before Congress voted on the resolution endorsing the war. I initiated the other two assessments and also supervised their drafting and coordination. My responsibilities at the time as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia concerned analysis of political, economic and social issues in those regions. Although the first duty of any intelligence officer is to respond to policymakers' requests, the duties also include anticipating policymakers' future needs. With the administration's determination to go to war already painfully clear in 2002, I undertook these assessments to help policymakers, and those charged with executing their decisions, make sense of what they would be getting into after Saddam was gone.

The origin of these assessments was not advertised in the documents themselves. Although self-initiated analysis is an important and major part of the intelligence community's work, responsiveness to policymakers' requests tends to be seen as a more respectable measure of the community's relevance and worth. Fulfilling a request also helps to avoid mischievous accusations that intelligence officers are going out of their way to poke sticks in policymakers' eyes. So a common practice with self-initiated assessments-certainly for those of us on the National Intelligence Council (nic)-was to solicit the interest of a policy office and its agreement to be listed on the document as the customer of record. For the assessments on Iraq, the State Department's Policy Planning Staff agreed to fill this role.

We worked on the assessments with no delusions. Our analysis was unlikely to derail the policy train. Even when we began our work, the administration was rushing headlong into war. Our more modest hopes were to provide useful insights to those in Baghdad and Washington who would face the extremely difficult task of managing the ensuing mess. Ultimately, the assessments received broad distribution at both senior and working levels, and there was no good reason they could not or should not have influenced the basic decision to go to war.

What We Knew

ANYONE WHO paid any attention to the assessments should have had grave doubts about that decision. The first "key judgment" of the assessment on challenges in post-Saddam Iraq was that the greatest difficulty would be building a stable and representative political system-a process that would be "long, difficult, and probably turbulent", amid an authoritarian political culture that does not foster liberalism or democracy. The next judgment was that any post-Saddam authority would face a "deeply divided society with significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict with each other unless an occupying force prevented them from doing so." This prospect was based on the incompatible goals of Sunni Arabs facing the loss of their long-standing privileged position, Shi‘a seeking power commensurate with their majority status and Kurds intent on securing control over oil resources in northern Iraq.

The third judgment was that notwithstanding Iraq's oil, the country's economic options would be "few and narrow", with economic reconstruction requiring measures akin to a Marshall Plan. The fourth judgment spoke of the major outside assistance that would be required to meet humanitarian needs, with a refugee problem and civil strife combining to strain Iraq's already inadequate public services. And in direct contradiction to U.S. goals, the final judgment, which addressed foreign and security policies over the horizon, noted that Iraq's threat perceptions and self-image as a regional power would, without the right security guarantees, revive its interest in WMD. Making matters worse, the more immediate security challenge would be Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups operating from Iraqi territory if Baghdad were unable to exert control over the countryside.

These were not selected pieces of bad news. They were the main points, expressed in a summary section of less than two pages (at the front of a 38-page assessment), that intelligence community analysts believed would be most descriptive of post-Saddam Iraq.

The larger assessment did not venture a prediction on how Iraqis would regard coalition forces when they first invaded, but it did assess what would shape Iraqi attitudes after the first few weeks or months. Those attitudes would depend above all on the coalition's performance in providing security, stability and basic public services. Insofar as it failed to provide them-which unfortunately has been the case-Iraqis' traditional antipathy toward foreign occupation would manifest itself in hostility toward the latest invaders.

The assessment about regional repercussions concluded that the war would give a region-wide boost to political Islam, including its extremist variants. Any violence in Iraq would serve as a magnet for extremists elsewhere in the region. Al-Qaeda would exploit the conflict. The regional assessment also noted that even if the experiment in politically reconstructing Iraq were successful, there would not be (with the possible exception of Iran) the hoped-for "democratic domino" effect; political and economic reform in other regional countries would continue to face significant obstacles and would be influenced chiefly by conditions within those countries.

The overall implication of these assessments for the advisability of launching the expedition was summed up by one of my colleagues on the nic as the papers were undergoing final review. As he said, no one who accepted and reflected upon the assessments' conclusions could possibly think the war was a good idea. Quite so, and that would be true even if one accepted the judgments in the weapons estimate.

Used and Abused

THE JUDGEMENTS of the two assessments did not influence policy on Iraq because the war-makers consistently and assiduously tuned out all types of expert and professional input (except when it suited their purposes). That same deaf ear also ignored the State Department's comprehensive study addressing many of the same post-Saddam Iraq issues. It was exhibited as well in the slapping down of the Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, when he offered a military judgment before the war about the number of troops needed to pacify Iraq-Shinseki estimated "several hundred thousand"; the recent surge has brought U.S. troop strength to just over 160,000.

A related pattern was the absence of any identifiable process for making the decision to go to war-at least no process visible at the time, or even now, despite the work of able investigative journalists. There was no meeting, no policy-options paper, no showdown in the Situation Room when the wisdom of going to war was debated or the decision to do so made. And this meant scant opportunity to inject judgments, invited or uninvited, that should have been central to the decision.

The military solicited important input from the intelligence community in its war-planning. But at the policy level, the administration excluded the intelligence community from playing the traditional, proper, accepted role of intelligence, which is to provide reporting and analysis to inform policy decisions yet to be made.

On Iraq, the Bush Administration instead used the intelligence community to provide material to sell the public a foregone conclusion. Lost amid all the brouhaha over the weapons-related intelligence has been any appreciation of how fundamentally different this function is from the traditional and proper one. Lost as well has been any sense of the relative importance of different issues underlying the decision. The weapons estimate has received enormous attention, but the issues addressed in the other assessments-which spoke directly to the instability, conflict, and black hole for blood and treasure that for the past four years we have come to know as Iraq-turned out to be far more important, and should have been at least as important all along.

The estimate on Iraqi weapons programs did not drive the administration's decision to launch the expedition. Not only had the administration never requested it, as the White House later admitted, neither the president nor the national security advisor even read it (nor did most members of Congress). The administration had firmly established its public line about Iraqi weapons programs-with the vice president in particular going beyond what the intelligence community ever said in any of its products-before the estimate was even initiated. The estimate, flawed though it was, assessed that Iraq probably was still years away from any nuclear-weapons capability. Most important, the presumption of active Iraqi unconventional weapons programs simply did not equate with a need to go to war, despite the administration's tremendous rhetorical effort intoning frightening visions of mushroom clouds and dictators passing weapons to terrorists. The administration's not launching wars against the other members of its "axis of evil", despite broad agreement that they had more advanced nuclear programs than Iraq did, is one indication of the war's less-than-pressing nature. Another is the fact that many thoughtful people, both at home and abroad, who shared the misperceptions about active Iraqi weapons programs nonetheless opposed the war, some vociferously so, in favor of other ways of dealing with Saddam.

Essay Types: Essay