Two years after President Bush’s much bemoaned 2002 State of the Union address, the charges that he leveled against the “Axis of Evil” have been proven. As President Bush had alleged, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in violation of their international obligations. That Bush was justified in his public indictment of these states is rarely acknowledged. That in each case Bush was vindicated by an intelligence failure is insufficiently discussed.
In each “Axis of Evil” state, the successful concealment of WMD efforts went hand-in-hand with eluding detection by U.S. intelligence. The extent of deception in Iraq was so great that even after ten months of controlling the country, the U.S. has been unable to fully unravel and explain Saddam’s WMD programs. Back in January 2002, President Bush said that:
Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens–leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections–then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.
What we do know is that Saddam was adopting a WMD system that would have allowed him to play along with the U.N. inspectors so that he could have the sanctions lifted. Had he succeeded, Saddam would today be in a palace, not a prison. His sadistic sons would still be tormenting Iraqis with their complementary talents of torture and rape. The mass graves, which the U.N. never cared to search for, would have lain undisturbed. The hidden Iraqi WMD programs, instead of being a vast research project for the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, would now be emerging into the open to again threaten the lives of thousands.
There was a similar dual failure of intelligence and inspections in Iran. President Bush said in January 2002 that: “Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror.” Bush, like previous U.S. presidents, had worried that Iran would use its planned nuclear reactor at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, which is being built by Russian firms to make nuclear weapons. Unknown to President Bush, Iran had a covert program designed to evade U.S. attempts to slow the construction of Bushehr. Whereas Saddam’s Iraq and North Korea were able to turn their international isolation to advantage, Iran used its greater openness as a means of focusing attention on Bushehr, thereby turning the plant into a decoy.
While U.S. diplomats buttonholed their Russian counterparts about Bushehr, the more dangerous Iranian nuclear program was hidden from the outside world thanks to a well thought out policy of dispersing facilities. It was only in December 2002, nearly a year after President Bush’s speech that vague geographical information from an Iranian exile group allowed the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based think tank, to locate the Natanz uranium-enrichment plant. The revelation of Natanz, along with the Arak heavy-water plant, showed that Iran was wise to how U.S. intelligence monitoring and sanctions could thwart its overt nuclear programs and had instead found a clever way to defeat both while bringing the clerical regime to within three years of acquiring a nuclear weapon. As Secretary of State Colin Powell declared on March 9, 2003, following a visit to Iran by the IAEA: “Here we suddenly discover that Iran is much further along, with a far more robust nuclear weapons development program than anyone said it had.”
Iranian behavior since then illustrates the aggressiveness with which the Islamic republic is moving towards a nuclear-weapons option. Iran has been exposed as violating its nuclear commitments and has been demonstrated to have conned the IAEA for close to two decades. Under considerable diplomatic pressure, Iran has suspended actual enrichment of uranium, a vital process in bomb manufacturing. Yet Iran continues to buy the technology that it will need to enrich uranium and make nuclear weapons.
On the topic of North Korea, President Bush was more accurate than he or his advisers knew when he claimed that: “North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction.” Ill intent is easy to allege, especially when the suspect is the world’s last Stalinist state, it is the consequences of dishonesty that are more difficult to identify. In October 2002, the North Koreans, taking advantage of the growing focus on Iraq and gambling that the international response would be limited, admitted to visiting U.S. officials that they had a secondary, covert nuclear program in breach of their 1994 commitment to forsake a nuclear-weapons option.
The intelligence failure in the Axis of Evil was to a degree understandable. These states are extremely hard intelligence targets. The workings of their governments are shrouded in secrecy, protected by multiple, and sometimes competing, secret police forces and intelligence agencies. They are well aware of the remarkable U.S. capabilities in signals and electronic intelligence and they have done all that they can to neutralize this. As David Kay, the head of the ISG pointed, out on October 2, 2003, Iraq had “deception and denial built into each program.” As a result, Saddam’s Iraq, like Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, was to a degree intelligence proof.
Faced with the limits of what intelligence can tell us, the U.S. and its allies have only two options available for dealing with WMD proliferators. The U.S. can wait and hope that polite conversation, tea, and sympathy with the French foreign minister will change the minds of regimes that have poured great resources and effort into acquiring prohibited weapons. Or the U.S. can enforce international law and reverse the strategic gamble that these states have made, that WMDs will enable them to survive. Instead, the U.S. can hold up the example of Saddam Hussein to show that those who seek WMDs are signing their own death warrants. What we cannot do is to wait for our intelligence system to turn on the warning lights at the right time.
–Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.