Politics & Policy

The Wmd Scandal That Wasn’t

Bipartisan bad news.

The commission studying the intelligence failures that produced disastrously flawed estimates of Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities has finally produced its report, and it’s devastating. Not just for U.S. intelligence, which is portrayed as hapless and bungling, but for Bush critics who have vested so much in the argument that Bush officials pressured intelligence agencies to support the case for war.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is the epitome of this school of thought. The very morning the report was released she wrote that “political pressure was the father of conveniently botched intelligence,” and fingered Dick Cheney as the lead culprit. Cut to Page 50 of the WMD report: “The Commission found no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community’s prewar assessments of Iraq’s weapons programs.”

Bush critics have focused on the erroneous intelligence around Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. Suddenly–or so the conspiracy theory goes–the CIA and others began to say what President Bush wanted to hear about Saddam Hussein and nukes in 2002. But the crucial shift away from the belief that Saddam had no active nuclear program came in early 2001, back when Bush was essentially maintaining President Clinton’s Iraq policy. That’s when we learned that Saddam was attempting to acquire aluminum tubes that could be used for conventional rockets, or–much worse–for gas centrifuges for enriching uranium.

Various intelligence agencies disagree about the purpose of the tubes. The CIA and others argued that they were for uranium enrichment and that, therefore, Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear program. The Department of Energy thought the tubes were unlikely to be used in centrifuges. But even it concluded from other evidence that Saddam had a renewed nuclear program. Only the State Department dissented from the conclusion in the notorious October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that Baghdad had a program, but cautiously: “[the evidence] indicates, at most, a limited Iraqi nuclear reconstitution effort.”

On biological weapons (BW), there was a shift from saying that Iraq might have bioweapons to concluding that it definitely did. The dark influence of Cheney? No. The change began in 2000, when President Clinton was still in office. It was based on information from a (totally dishonest, as it turns out) source code-named Curveball. That year, the National Intelligence Estimate was updated to say: “New information suggests that Baghdad has expanded its offensive BW program by establishing a large-scale, redundant and concealed BW agent production capability.”

If there was a fundamental problem in how policymakers and intelligence officials interacted, it was that policymakers, again and again, were not made aware of the thinness and questionable reliability of much of the information about Iraq. In other words, intelligence agencies poorly served Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the hawks, not the other way around.

On the one hand, it is understandable that the intel was so fouled up. We assumed that Saddam had the worst intentions. If he wasn’t cooperating with the United Nations, he must have been developing something nasty. The report, over and over, says that these assumptions–crucial to all the analysis–had “a powerful air of common sense” and were “not unreasonable.” On the other hand, there were so many frank factual errors and sloppy practices in all this that former CIA head George Tenet should have his recently awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom revoked.

In its recommendations, the WMD commission makes some nods toward decentralization. This after Congress rushed to “reform” intelligence last year by centralizing it. If we undo that reform and pass another, will intelligence be doubly effective because it will have been “reformed” twice? Bureaucratic shuffling is beside the point. What is most important–and the WMD report usefully emphasizes this–is that we get more agents on the ground and that the people running U.S. intelligence be more imaginative and risk-taking.

That’s not easy. Would that the problem really were just getting Dick Cheney to butt out.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate


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