David Kay, who has led the U.S. government’s search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, probably knows more than anyone else alive about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal.
To be clear: Saddam had WMDs. He had chemical weapons that he used to massacre Kurds in villages like Halabja. He had biological weapons–he admitted that. He had a nuclear-weapons program and, at the end of the Gulf War, intelligence analysts found it was much further developed than they had believed.
In 1991, in exchange for a ceasefire, Saddam agreed to destroy for all his WMD and WMD programs–and to do so in a manner that could be verified by U.N. weapons inspectors. For 12 years he refused to meet that obligation.
In an interview with the London Telegraph over the weekend and in a separate interview with the New York Times on Monday, Dr. Kay tells us what he now believes Saddam did between the 1991 ceasefire and the U.S.-led effort to topple Saddam in 2003.
In essence, Dr. Kay concludes that while Saddam never ceased trying to build sophisticated WMDs, he probably did not succeed. But Saddam himself probably didn’t know that because his scientists were lying to him and stealing much of the money he gave them.
More specifically, Dr. Kay says it is clear Saddam was attempting to develop nuclear weapons as late as 2001, but his scientists never got as far as Iran did, nor as far as we now know–to our astonishment–that Libya did.
Dr. Kay adds that Saddam was actively working to produce a biological weapon using the poison ricin right up until the American invasion last spring.
But as the CIA underestimated Saddam’s nuclear-weapons program prior to 1991 and Libya’s nuclear program prior to this year, so the CIA overestimated Saddam’s progress toward developing and amassing WMDs prior to 2003. This, Dr. Kay believes, is the result of U.S. intelligence relying on satellites, electronic eavesdropping, exiles, and U.N. inspectors, and failing to put agents in place within the Baathist regime.
Some people will misrepresent the complex reality that Dr. Kay has described. Some people will say that Saddam never had WMD, had no intention to build them and was never a threat.
But Dr. Kay knows what his work shows. “We know that terrorists were passing through Iraq,” he says. “And now we know that there was little control over Iraq’s weapons capabilities. I think it shows that Iraq was a very dangerous place. The country had the technology, the ability to produce, and there were terrorist groups passing through the country–and no central control.”
Add that to the fact that Saddam was a brutal and genocidal dictator and it should be clear that the U.S.-led war against him was both just and necessary.
Where Saddam was concerned, the problem is not so much that some of what we thought we knew turns out to have been wrong. The problem is what we didn’t know and couldn’t find out. The policy dilemma was how much risk to tolerate, knowing that in the past we had decided to allow risks to mature–and that 9/11 had been a consequence of those decisions.