February 11, 2004

February 11, 2004 | Commentary on

Those elusive WMD

Ever since the chief weapons inspector David Kay told the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 28 that he has despaired of finding Iraq's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the hunt has been on, not only for the still missing WMDs in Iraq, but for answers as to what on earth happened to our intelligence estimates. Mr. Kay is a credible and honorable man, and his conclusions carry weight. And when Secretary of State Colin Powell says that he might not have recommended going to war had he known a year ago what he knows now, that is pretty serious business.

This week, President Bush took the only reasonable course of action and accepted the need for a review of our intelligence capabilities, in order to find our what - if anything -- went wrong. The seven-member bipartisan Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction will produce its report in March of 2005, covering not just Iraq, but Afghanistan and Libya as well. (That's in addition to six already ongoing investigations, it should be noted.) The timing of the Commission's report is right; it takes the findings out of the realm of election year politics.

But, first of all, we should note that Mr. Kay also took extraordinary pains to clear the White House of any motives to deceive the American public or pressure intelligence analysts. This suggestion was posed to him by Sen. Ted Kennedy, to which Mr. Kay replied, "I deeply think that is a wrong explanation. And never - not in a single case - was the explanation, 'I was pressured to do this.' . . .At least to the analysts I dealt with, I did not come across a single one that felt it had been, in the military term, 'inappropriate command influence' that led them to take that position."

As will be recalled, there was a widespread consensus in the international intelligence community that the WMD existed. And in fact, they may still be found. Mr. Kay himself stated in his first report to Congress that Iraq has huge weapons arsenals, far from all of which have been searched for WMD. Two weeks ago, Mr. Kay said he thought that 85 percent of the stockpiles had been searched, but this estimate was rejected by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and others.

It is also possible we may yet find out where the weapons went. A truck trail reportedly leads to the Syrian border, and if Saddam was willing to send his air force to Iran during the Gulf War, he may also have been willing to ship his WMD to Syria for safekeeping.

Secondly, judging by what was found in terms of WMD programs according to Mr. Kay's first report, Saddam Hussein was clearly in violation of U.N. resolution 1441. Many of his programs were dormant but still existing, and among other things, Saddam's ballistic missile program was in direct violation. On Jan. 28, Mr. Kay took pains to reiterate this point.

Thirdly, it bears remembering that far more often U.S. intelligence has failed to detect existing threats than postulating non-existing ones. In Iraq alone, we failed to detect Saddam's nuclear program until one of his sons-in-law, defecting briefly to the West, revealed its existence. The same held true for his biological weapons program, which we also learned through a defector. Throughout the 1990s, the CIA expected an insurgency among Iraq's officer class to topple Saddam Hussein, which never happened, leaving the Clinton administration with an Iraq policy based on a faulty premise. We vastly underestimated the extent of Libya's nuclear program, and intelligence that has now caught up with Pakistan's proliferation activities with Iran and North Korea exceeds any previous estimate. (That we unraveled it now, of course, counts as a major success story.)

Fourthly, while U.S. intelligence may have lost credibility internationally, in the world of dictators, the military action may actually have increased U.S. standing. Libya's Muammar Kadhaffi did not lose many moments after the capture of Saddam Hussein before deciding to give up his extensive nuclear program.

Still, if we are to meet the threat of terrorism effectively, and sometimes use pre-emptive military action to do so, good intelligence is absolutely critical. While we don't want to tear up our intelligence agencies in search of answers that may be elusive, we do need to restore faith in our National Intelligence Estimates, on which the Iraq action was based. This exercise should not be about recrimination, though, but about how to make this country safer.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times