The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 2002 concerning Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has been dissected like no other product in the history of the U.S. intelligence community. We have reexamined every phrase, line, sentence, judgment and alternative view in this 90-page document and have traced their genesis completely. I believed at the time the estimate was approved for publication and still believe now that we were on solid ground in reaching the judgments we did.
The NIE judged with high confidence that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and missiles with ranges in excess of the 150-kilometer limit imposed by the U.N. Security Council. It judged with moderate confidence that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. These were essentially the same conclusions reached by the United Nations and by a wide array of intelligence services -- friendly and unfriendly alike. Moreover, when U.S. intelligence agencies disagreed, particularly regarding whether Iraq was reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for its nuclear weapons program, alternative views were spelled out in detail. Despite all of this, a number of myths have been created that seem to have gained traction with the public. A hard look at the facts of the NIE should dispel these popular myths:
Myth: The NIE favored going to war. Intelligence judgments, including NIEs, are policy-neutral. We do not propose policies, and the estimate in no way sought to sway policymakers toward a particular course of action.
Myth: Analysts were pressured to change judgments to meet the needs of the Bush administration. The judgments presented in the October 2002 NIE were based on data acquired and analyzed over 15 years. Our judgments were presented to three different administrations and routinely to six congressional committees. And the principal participants in the production of the NIE from across the entire U.S. intelligence community have sworn to Congress, under oath, that they were not pressured to change their views or to conform to administration positions.
Myth: We buried divergent views and concealed uncertainties. Alternative views presented by intelligence officials at the Department of State, the Department of Energy and the U.S. Air Force were showcased in the NIE and were acknowledged in unclassified papers on the subject. Uncertainties were highlighted in the key judgments and throughout the text.
Myth: Major NIE judgments were based on single sources. Overwhelmingly, major judgments in the NIE on WMD issues were based on multiple sources -- often from human intelligence, satellite imagery and communications intercepts.
Myth: We were fooled on the Niger uranium story -- a major issue in the NIE. This was not one of the reasons underpinning our key judgment about nuclear reconstitution. In the body of the estimate, after noting that Iraq already had considerable low-enriched and other forms of uranium, enough to produce roughly 100 nuclear weapons, we included reference to reported Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from Niger with appropriate caveats, for the sake of completeness.
Myth: We overcompensated for having underestimated the WMD threat in 1991. The NIE noted that we had underestimated key aspects of Saddam Hussein's WMD efforts in the 1990s. We were not alone in that regard: the U.N. Special Commission missed Iraq's biological weapons program and the International Atomic Energy Agency underestimated Baghdad's progress on nuclear weapons development. In no case however, were any of the judgments "hyped" to compensate for earlier underestimates.
Myth: We mistook rapid mobilization programs for actual weapons. Even with "only" rapid mobilization capabilities, Hussein would have been able to produce and stockpile such weapons in the run-up to a crisis, with little risk of being caught. There is practically no difference in threat between the two.
Myth: The NIE asserted that there were large WMD stockpiles and because we haven't found them, then Baghdad had no WMD. We judged that Iraq probably possessed 100 to 500 metric tons of CW munitions fill. One hundred metric tons would fit in a back yard swimming pool; five hundred could be hidden in a small warehouse. We made no assessment of the size of Iraq's biological weapons holdings, but a biological weapon can be carried in a small container. Lastly, despite considerable progress the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) is a long way from finishing its work.
We do not know whether the ISG ultimately will be able to find physical evidence of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons or learn the status of its WMD programs and its nuclear ambitions. Regime-directed destruction of evidence pertaining to WMD already has affected the ISG's work. Iraqis who have been willing to talk to U.S. intelligence officers are in great danger; some have been killed. And finally, finding physically small but extraordinarily lethal weapons in a country that is larger than the state of California would be a daunting task even under far more hospitable circumstances.
Confronting allegations about the quality of the U.S. intelligence performance have forced senior intelligence officials to spend much of their time looking backward. I worry about the opportunities lost because of this preoccupation, but also that analysts laboring under a barrage of allegations will become more and more disinclined to make judgments that go beyond ironclad evidence -- a scarce commodity in our business. If this is allowed to happen, the nation will be poorly served and ultimately much less secure. Fundamentally, the intelligence community increasingly will be in danger of not connecting the dots until the dots have become a straight line.
The search for WMD cannot and should not be about the reputation of U.S. intelligence. Men and women from across the intelligence community continue to focus on this issue because finding and securing weapons and the know-how that supported Iraq's WMD programs before they fall into the wrong hands is vital to our national security. If we eventually are proved wrong -- that is, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and the WMD programs were dormant or abandoned -- the American people will be told the truth; we would have it no other way.
The writer, who has been with the CIA for 30 years, was acting chairman of the National Intelligence Council when the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was published.