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The pre-war intelligence on Iraq: Wrong or hyped by the Bush White House?

A statue of Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad on April 9, 2003. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/file)

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
— statement from the Trump transition team on Washington Post report that the CIA concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help Trump

Donald Trump’s staff dismissed U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia actively interfered in the presidential election by noting the flawed intelligence cited by the Bush administration in making the case for invading Iraq nearly 14 years ago.

An alternative perspective came from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who pinned the blame on the Bush White House for misrepresenting the intelligence.

Trump’s complaint about this semi-ancient history is a bit odd because a) the intelligence analysts who worked on Middle East WMDs are not going to be the same as analysts focused on Russian cyber-behavior; b) the intelligence collection for hacking in the United States by overseas powers would be different from assessing illicit weapons programs in the Middle East; and c) reforms were put in place after the Iraq War to make it harder for suspect intelligence to bubble up to the top ranks without careful scrutiny. (For instance, a new procedure required heads of intelligence agencies to vouch personally for the credibility of any of their own agency’s sources that are used in a major estimate.)

CIA briefers told senators in a closed-door briefing it was now “quite clear” that electing Trump was Russia’s goal, according to officials. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Moreover, the Bush administration appeared determined to attack Iraq for any number of reasons beyond suspicions of WMDs; officials simply seized on WMDs because they concluded that that represented the strongest case for an invasion. “For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on,” then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair in 2003.

But, in the interest of providing the historical record, what was the U.S. intelligence community’s record on Iraqi WMDs, and did the Bush administration hype the evidence?

The Facts

The short answer is that both played a role. There were serious problems in the intelligence, some of which were relegated to dissenting footnotes. But the Bush administration also chose to highlight aspects of the intelligence that helped make the administration’s case, while playing down others.

The clearest example of stretching the intelligence concerned Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaeda and by extension the 9/11 attacks, which were thin and nonexistent — but which the Bush administration (especially Vice President Cheney) suggested were deeply suspicious.

A 2008 Senate Intelligence Committee report, adopted in a bipartisan vote, that examined whether administration officials accurately portrayed the underlying intelligence was unsparing in its criticism of this aspect of the White House’s case for war. The 170-page report said such Iraq/al-Qaeda statements were “not substantiated by the intelligence,” adding that multiple CIA reports dismissed the claim that Iraq and al-Qaeda were cooperating partners – and that there was no intelligence information that supported administration statements that Iraq would provide weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda.

However, the Trump team kept its complaint isolated to intelligence findings that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In this case, the Senate report found that remarks by administration officials generally reflected the intelligence, but failed to convey “substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community.” In general, officials strongly suggested that WMD production was ongoing, reflecting “a higher degree of certainty than the intelligence judgments themselves.”

A key intelligence document before the war was an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, requested by Democrats before a vote to authorize the war.

Here are the findings on key weapons:

Nuclear weapons. Before the October 2002 NIE, some intelligence agencies assessed that the Iraqi government was reconstituting a nuclear weapons program, while others disagreed. The NIE reflected a majority view that it was being reconstituted but there were sharp dissents by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Department of Energy (which is the main source of nuclear weapons expertise in the U.S. government).

In particular, administration officials leaked to the New York Times that Iraq had obtained large quantities of aluminum tubes for use in the uranium enrichment project — though the Energy Department experts were convinced the tubes were poorly suited for such uses and instead were intended for artillery rockets.

After the invasion, officials discovered Iraq had basically ended its nuclear weapon program in 1991.

Conclusion: “Statements by the president, vice president, secretary of state and the national security advisor regarding a possible Iraqi nuclear weapons program were generally substantiated by the intelligence community, but did not convey the substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community.”

Biological weapons. The intelligence community consistently stated between the late 1990s and 2003 that Iraq retained biological warfare agents and the capability to produce more. However, there were intelligence gaps in Iraq’s biological weapons programs, made explicit in the October 2002 NIE, which policymakers did not discuss.

After the war, officials discovered that Iraq had not conducted biological weapons production research since 1996. Iraq could have re-established an elementary program within weeks, but no indications were found that Iraq intended to do so.

Conclusion: “Statements in the major speeches analyzed, as well as additional statements, regarding Iraq’s possession of biological agents, weapons, production capability and use of mobile biological laboratories were substantiated by intelligence information.”

Chemical weapons. The October NIE said that Iraq retained between 100 and 500 metric tons of chemical weapons. The intelligence community assessed that Hussein wanted to have chemical weapons capability and that Iraq was seeking to hide its capability in its dual-use chemical industry. However, intelligence assessments clearly stated that analysts could not confirm that production was ongoing.

After the war, officials could find no caches of chemical weapons munitions and only a handful of pre-1991 chemical munitions. There was no credible evidence that Iraq resumed its chemical weapons program after 1991.

Conclusion: “Statements in the major speeches analyzed, as well as additional statements, regarding Iraq’s possession of chemical weapons were substantiated by intelligence information. Statements by the president and vice president prior to the October 2002 NIE … did not [reflect] the intelligence community’s uncertainties as to whether such production was ongoing.”

Paul R. Pillar, who was national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia between 2000 and 2005 and worked on the 2002 NIE, acknowledged there were serious problems in the intelligence, particularly how it was presented to policymakers.

“The intelligence analysis and specifically that much-noticed 2002 estimate on Iraqi weapons programs was faulty,” he said. “Its judgments turned out to be sound on some particular topics (such as missile programs) but erroneous on others. Even if the available fragmentary evidence pointed to some of the postulated weapons programs, the estimate should have stressed, more than it did, how fragmentary and inconclusive most of the evidence was and how much the judgments were more a matter of analytical inference than of hard evidence.”

But Pillar also said that “the Bush administration certainly did embrace intelligence that made its case and ignored (or actively disparaged) intelligence that undercut its case.” He noted that one of the few members of Congress who actually read the 2002 NIE, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, “voted against the war resolution, explaining later that his reading of the document, filled with dissents and caveats, convinced him that the case about Iraqi weapons programs was weak.”

At one point before the war, CIA Director George Tenet warned the White House not to use sketchy intelligence about Iraqi purchases of uranium in Africa – but the White House inserted it into a presidential speech anyway, much to its later embarrassment.

Pillar added that intelligence analysis on other aspects of an invasion, such as what would happen in Iraq and the region after Hussein was overthrown, turned out to be largely correct, even though it made for gloomy reading. “The actual situation that ensued in Iraq beginning in 2003 was far closer to the picture that the intelligence community painted than it was to the administration’s much rosier scenario of democracy breaking out and U.S. troops being greeted with flowers upon arrival and quickly being able to go home,” he said.

“Does the CIA get everything right? Absolutely not,” said former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, who regularly briefed Bush, during an interview on CBS This Morning. “Was Iraq WMD one of our biggest failures? Yes. But the CIA gets most things right.” Morell said the CIA tracks how its judgments stand up over time and “when you look at those averages — it’s a fielding percentage, not a batting average — it’s very, very high.”

The Bottom Line

Neither Trump nor Pelosi gets this correct. The intelligence community’s assessments on Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and programs turned out to be woefully wrong, largely because analysts believed that Iraq had kept on a path of building its programs rather than largely abandoning them after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Thus the stockpiles theoretically got larger as time went on.

But at the same time, Bush administration officials often hyped the intelligence that supported their policy goals – while ignoring or playing down dissents or caveats from within the intelligence community. The intelligence was used for political purposes, to build public support for a war that might have been launched no matter what intelligence analysts had said about the prospect of finding WMDs in Iraq.

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