The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The passing of a truth-teller

David Kay testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in January 2004. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)
5 min

Bob Drogin, a former national security reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times, is the author of “Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War.”

On Jan. 28, 2004, David Kay sat alone at a polished table in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing room and publicly admitted what no U.S. official previously had said — that America had gone to war in Iraq based on egregiously bad intelligence.

“Let me begin by saying we were almost all wrong,” Kay began. “And I certainly include myself here. … Prior to the war, my view was that the best evidence that I had seen was that Iraq indeed had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out we were all wrong, probably, in my judgment. And that is most disturbing.”

With that, the quiet, unassuming Texan directly undercut President George W. Bush’s claims that Saddam Hussein’s vast arsenals of chemical, biological and perhaps nuclear weapons posed a direct threat to the United States and its allies, which of course had been the administration’s chief justification for taking the nation to war in Iraq in March 2003.

I was in the Senate hearing room that day and if Kay felt relieved, it didn’t show on his face. But it was a stunning admission. No one from the White House, nor anyone from the U.S. intelligence community, had previously conceded any errors in Iraq.

Kay’s testimony, based on his work as head of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, made him an outcast in official Washington. The CIA and the White House never forgave him for going public — or perhaps just for being right when they were wrong. He learned the hard way that speaking truth to power, a supposed American virtue, is rarely rewarded.

Kay faded so far from view that news organizations took more than a week to note his Aug. 13 death from cancer, at age 82.

To me, the self-effacing academic from tiny Winona, Tex., was an American hero. He deserved far more than the ignominy he endured for revealing the truth. His work in Washington dried up and, at one point, he told me he was shooting wedding photos in his forced retirement.

Those directly responsible for the United States’ tragedy in Iraq fared far better. George Tenet, who led the CIA during the 9/11 attacks and the run-up to war in Iraq — the worst intelligence failures in CIA history — was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy defense secretary and an avowed Iraq hawk, went on to lead the World Bank until he was felled by scandal. Other neocons who were cheerleaders for the war simply moved on.

I first met Kay after the 1991 Gulf War, when he led one of the U.N. teams hunting for nuclear, biological or chemical weapons in postwar Iraq. Stubborn in his ways, he once refused, despite a four-day standoff with Iraqi troops, to return evidence documenting illicit nuclear activities.

After that, he became a Washington “graybeard,” a think-tanker on weapons proliferation to whom the intelligence community would occasionally turn to help figure out what the United States’ enemies were up to.

After the March 2003 invasion of Iraq failed to find any weapons of mass destruction, or programs to produce them, Bush ordered the CIA to take over the hunt. Tenet quickly named Kay — an aide had seen Kay interviewed on TV — as head of the new Iraq Survey Group with the remit to find the missing WMDs.

But Kay was a political scientist, not a spy. He had never served in the military or been trained in espionage. He resented using his CIA-issued code name, “Buford S. Vincent.” And he refused the Pentagon’s request to wear military fatigues.

Over the next few months, Kay and his team of scientists, soldiers and spies in Baghdad investigated claim after claim of supposed nonconventional weapons, only to find the “intelligence” based on supposition and inference, not fact. He was distraught to realize that the United States had gone to war based on misjudgments and outright lies.

In late 2003, Kay flew back to Washington to confront Tenet and others with the hard truth. After 9/11, it was said, the CIA and other national security agencies had failed to connect the dots. In Iraq, Kay once told me, they made up the dots.

He was greeted as a heretic, a pariah. On earlier visits to CIA headquarters, he had been given a 7th-floor office down the hall from Tenet. Now, he was banished to a wing under construction, where his windowless room had neither a classified computer nor a secure phone. America’s chief weapons hunter heard about meetings on Iraq’s weapons after the fact, if at all. People avoided him in the halls. “I was contaminated, like Typhoid Mary,” he told me.

After a month, he quit. The CIA offered to let him stay on the payroll as a senior adviser. Kay told me they were trying to buy his silence, and that getting the facts out was more important. After he went public, one of Tenet’s aides bitterly told me Kay was a “traitor” because he had humiliated the CIA.

As the nation grapples with former president Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, it’s worth saluting David Kay for telling an unpopular truth — whatever the cost.