Politics & Policy

“Dead Wrong”? Not So Quick.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor in Spanish Cuba, taking down over 250 sailors. In March, a naval court of inquiry began an investigation, and after 18 days of proceedings, including examining the wreck, hearing from specialists, and interviewing survivors and witnesses, court determined that the USS Maine had been sunk by a mine. All the experts agreed. The court also said it could not fix blame for the mine. One anonymous source blamed Spain. An ultimatum soon followed, and within weeks the two countries were at war. Main combat operations ended in three months, but an insurgency continued in the Philippines for four years, resulting in an additional 4,200 dead Americans. But the question remained: Did Spain blow up the Maine? In 1911 a War Department investigation posited that an internal explosion that set off the magazines caused the sinking. This raised a ruckus, and the Navy Department insisted that the cause was an external mine. A joint Army-Navy board eventually affirmed the original explanation, but since then the accident theory has gained acceptance. So does that discredit the entire war? When the issue resurfaced in 1911 the Washington Post opined, “Whatever may have been the cause of the wreck of the battleship Maine, whether an exterior or interior explosion, the people of the United States may reflect with a clean conscience that this was but one of the many causes of the Spanish American war. …At any rate the war has been fought and is over.”

I thought about this in relation to the release of the 600-page report from the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. There is a lot to learn from it. The commissioners employed a very straightforward methodology, comparing prewar intelligence reports and estimates with information obtained during and after the war, looking for gaps, as well as successes, and figuring out how we got it wrong or right. The latter half of the report discusses needed reforms in the intelligence community, and does so in a more sophisticated way than the higher profile 9/11 Commission Report. The continuing salience of the WMD issue requires renewed attention to strengthening intelligence capabilities. Not surprisingly, the report’s first section ends with a discussion of the two most prominent WMD threats, Iran and North Korea. Of course, the analysis does not benefit from documents showing the true extent of their weapons programs–no “post conflict” with them yet. Moreover, the findings in those sections are classified. But it shows that the commissioners were seized of the issue and their focus was forward, not backward.

The report was wide ranging, looking at a variety of current and former WMD threats, including Libya and various terrorist groups. One intriguing intelligence failure cited in the report was misestimation of al Qaeda’s WMD program–that is, it was taken too lightly. The report states that analysts failed to note how strongly bin Laden to acquire and use radiological weapons, and underestimated the scope of the active bioweapons program. Al Qaeda was more dangerous than we thought.

However, the Iraq chapter made the headlines. The WMD intelligence that supported the war rationale was “dead wrong.” We now get to enjoy another round of the press and other critics flogging the administration. Progress in Iraq be damned, since a large-scale functional WMD program wasn’t discovered the war was illegitimate. A Washington Post poll released March 15 showed 53 percent now believing the war was not worth fighting (down from 56 percent in December). Of course, like the war with Spain there were other reasons for the conflict, primarily three–human rights, international aggression, and Iraqi links to terrorism. In 2003, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz said that the decision to emphasize WMDs over these other factors was a political call. The WMD issue allowed the U.N. to be invoked more easily. Of course, one could also have used enforcement of the Oil-for-Food provisions in UNSCR 1360 as a rational for intervention, and that would have been hailed a great victory since it turned out the corruption in that program was much greater than anticipated (it was suggested here in November 2001). But the intelligence community said they had the goods, and the WMD argument moved forward.

Ultimately the Iraq Survey Group did not find as much evidence of WMD programs as expected. But note–the same Post poll cited above found that 56 percent of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein had WMDs before the war that have not been found. The Fall 2004 Duelfer report concluded that Saddam had intended to reconstitute his WMD program after sanctions were lifted, and desired to maintain the expertise necessary to do so. And it is still fair to ask, if Saddam was not trying to acquire WMDs, what was he doing? The Duelfer report notes the following changes in Iraq’s Military Industrialization Commission (MIC), Saddam’s secret organization in charge of WMD development, in the years leading up to the war:

Between 1996 and 2002, the overall MIC budget increased over forty-fold from ID 15.5 billion to ID 700 billion. By 2003 it had grown to ID 1 trillion. MIC’s hard currency allocations in 2002 amounted to approximately $364 million. MIC sponsorship of technical research projects at Iraqi universities skyrocketed from about 40 projects in 1997 to 3,200 in 2002. MIC workforce expanded by fifty percent in three years, from 42,000 employees in 1999 to 63,000 in 2002.

So the MIC enjoyed a budget increase from fifteen billion to one trillion Dinars over seven years for nothing? MIC technical research projects increased 80-fold for no particular reason? Then there was the very well-chronicled systematic deception campaign that U.N. inspectors encountered every time they went into Iraq. In more than one case inspectors would pull up to a site and be halted; surveillance would pick up vehicles being loaded in the back and hurrying away; inspectors would then be allowed in. What was being carted away so quickly? If nothing was there, what was going on? One theory behind the deception campaign was that it was itself a deception–it was not so much that Saddam had something to hide, but rather he wanted to make us think he had something to hide in order to deter us from attacking him. That rationale was clearly too clever by half if true, at least judging by the results. (It is better to act like North Korea and say you have nuclear weapons whether you do or not.)

But I don’t buy that explanation. The deception campaign was too systematic, too thorough, in ways that went well beyond what would be necessary simply to generate suspicion. This activity continued during and after the war when it would make no difference. One case in point–an exploitation team went to check out an apartment in an otherwise unexceptional residential area that was allegedly being used as a WMD site. They arrived to find the apartment stripped. The floor tiles were missing, the walls cleaned, the plumbing fixtures gone, the pipes under the floors ripped out. This was not the result of looting–the apartment had been sanitized, disinfected. How many such sites could there have been in Iraq? Were they all found and checked? Strains of biological organisms that could be weaponized were found in a scientist’s home refrigerator–how much such dispersal took place? Not to mention allegations that critical nuclear and chemical program components were taken to Syria, Iran, or Russia.

There is no doubt that the intelligence system needs reform to help it fulfill its role in providing strategic information necessary to support high-level policymakers. That is the most significant aspect of the new report. Maybe the WMD war rationale will be like the sinking of the Maine, always open to debate. It would be easiest to agree with the Post that whatever the answer Americans “may reflect with a clean conscience that this was but one of the many causes” of the war in Iraq. And it is worth remembering Secretary Rumsfeld’s aphorism, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.


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