What We Didn't Learn From the Hunt for Iraq's Phantom Arsenal
Many Americans felt whiplash last week as they tried to work out what the U.S. government knows about Iran's nuclear ambitions. After months of war rumors, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell released a report from the intelligence community concluding that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- even though a similar assessment in 2005 had warned that Iran was determined to get the bomb.
Confused? Arthur Keller feels your pain. The veteran CIA case officer worked for the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA-led body that headed up the unsuccessful search for Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction in 2003-04. In the midst of hard questions about how intelligence is gathered, used and abused, Keller's experiences make for a cautionary fable. How did we blow it so badly in Iraq, and how could we be blowing it in Iran? To Keller, the answer lies in the shadowy world of human-intelligence collection.
By Arthur Keller
The hunt for WMD in Iraq was a deeply disturbing experience. The Iraq Survey Group was based in the huge Baghdad airport military zone south of the city. I spent two stints there, one after the U.S. invasion in 2003, the second in 2004. As ground troops in the intelligence war, we saw a series of missteps firsthand.
When I arrived in Baghdad, I was given a list of Iraqis who had supposedly worked on WMD programs and was told to interview as many of them as possible as quickly as possible. Not the best approach. "I can do the job quickly or well, but not both," I told my new boss. It's one thing to churn blindly through a list of contacts, but success takes time. To find out what Saddam Hussein really had, we needed to build personal relationships with the Iraqi officials in his program -- the bread and butter of espionage. Surprising as it may sound, the CIA teaches that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar: A source recruited by force will provide information only grudgingly, and he'll lie to you whenever he thinks he can, simply out of spite.
I knew that persuading someone involved in a banned WMD program to open up would take time. Interviewees had to believe that they would not go to prison, that their meetings with the CIA wouldn't get back to the insurgents and that being honest would not ruin their chances of getting jobs in the future. I decided to focus on a senior member of Iraq's Military Industrial Commission, a group of defense companies that had been involved in earlier Iraqi WMD programs. My meetings with this official consisted of a litany of complaints, but the CIA trains case officers to be relentlessly pleasant, even when it sticks in your craw. What annoyed me most was that he often had a point. "The Baath Party purge is a disaster," he'd tell me. "I know," I'd reply. "The disbanding of the Iraqi Army is a disaster." "I know." "We have no power, water or safety." "I know." And so on. It wasn't until the fourth meeting that real nuggets started coming. Still, I never paid him a dime. I think he just wanted to look a U.S. official in the eye and tell the truth about the mistakes the occupation government was making.
But Washington was not so patient. The political pressure from home was murderous. During a pre-invasion trip back to CIA headquarters, I listened to my boss describe the stress on Langley's WMD specialists: "Remember the movie 'Das Boot,' where the sub is so deep it's close to getting crushed from the pressure? That's HQ right now. We're going to hear some very weird stuff emanating from HQ because nobody under that kind of pressure thinks straight."
Many of the CIA officers sent to Iraq had no WMD or Iraq experience. I have since learned that CIA headquarters was ordered to supply a certain number of warm bodies, irrespective of their qualifications. Unfortunately, WMD expertise is years in the making, not something you can get from the back of a cereal box or even a few detailed briefing booklets.
Making everything worse, our security problems were legion. Traveling the airport road -- by far Iraq's most dangerous route -- into Baghdad was one hell of a commute. I was often greeted by the sight of columns of roiling, greasy black smoke, signs that a bomb had just gone off and, probably, that some American had just died a fiery death. I often wondered when it might be my turn.
To make matters worse, CIA officers were often sent to Baghdad (against official policy) without getting anti-ambush training. And the Iraq Survey Group was sometimes given armored vehicles that were ridiculously easy to identify, such as a canary-yellow armored Humvee that was a screaming invitation for an IED attack. During one particularly bad stretch in early 2004, the Iraq Survey Group lost an armored car for three weeks in a row to such attacks. The dearth of CIA fatalities was due far more to luck than to skill.
But for all these lapses, the CIA accomplished something of a mission impossible: proving a negative. In candid moments, most of the group's members had quietly acknowledged by late 2003 that Iraq had no banned weapons for us to find. But we kept searching for another year, until shortly after the November 2004 U.S. elections. Like a zombie, the group was kept alive long after it should have expired, seemingly because the only way to minimize the political damage of the truth was to let the White House announce, "Our teams are still looking for Hussein's arsenal." Given the perennial shortage of CIA case officers, the Bush administration's insistence on keeping the Iraq Survey Group open meant that other crucial work didn't get done. Someday, when an attack catches the CIA unawares, which politico will take responsibility for this dangerous diversion?
All of which brings us to the central question: What went so terribly wrong in Iraq, and could it happen again? The truth is that WMD programs -- Iraqi, Iranian or otherwise -- are very much alike. The scientists are allowed no contact with the outside world. Secret police monitor their phone calls and e-mails. In the trade, we call these "black" programs: They operate under a shroud of such secrecy that to outsiders they do not appear to exist.
So recruiting spies inside any black program is a near impossibility. Even so, when it came to Iraq, the CIA's cupboard was extraordinarily bare. By the late 1990s, Iraqis had a powerful aversion to working with the CIA, largely because of past U.S. misfires: the Kurdish revolt that President Richard Nixon spurned in the 1970s, the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings after Operation Desert Storm that President George H.W. Bush abandoned, the feckless Clinton-era attempts to foment yet another Kurdish rebellion.
Americans were quick to forget our historical betrayals in Iraq, but our Iraqi victims did not. The few Iraqis we did reach before the 2003 invasion were usually far too wary to risk talking to the CIA. This cumulative failure lay at the heart of our WMD intelligence problems. (Not that outsiders understood that; critics assumed that the CIA should somehow have been able magically to penetrate the innermost circles of the Iraqi police state.)
Our newspapers and TV screens have been filled for months with rumblings about war with Iran. The bombs now seem less likely to start flying, but the problem of penetrating closed regimes and terrorist networks isn't going anywhere. Let's just say you were an Iranian nuclear physicist back in 2003, working on a bomb program that you believed was immoral. Now look at the decades-long debacle of U.S. policy in Iraq. Will all those who want to volunteer to spy for the CIA raise their hands? Anyone? Anyone?
Arthur Keller is a former CIA case officer.