Tuesday, July 20, 2004

How we got it so wrong in Iraq


Earlier this year, I testified before two investigative bodies -- the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Butler Commission -- responsible for probing the massive failure of, respectively, the American and British intelligence services to properly assess the status of Iraq's ethereal weapons of mass destruction programs. The alleged existence of those programs was the foundation of the justification for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Senate committee issued its report July 9; the Butler Commission did the same on Wednesday. Both are harshly critical, with the primary focus of blame falling on the analytical arms of both nations' intelligence services, which are accused of grossly exaggerating and misrepresenting available data on Iraq's WMD capability. This lapse was real, and the negative impact on the integrity of the free world's most prominent intelligence services -- the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency in the United States, and Great Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, or MI-6, and Defense Intelligence Staff -- will take years to ascertain, and even more time to repair.

Both the Senate committee and the Butler Commission appear to take pains to underscore their shared findings that the failures of intelligence regarding Iraq's missing WMD rest largely with the analysts and intelligence collection managers, on both sides of the Atlantic, who forgot that their job as intelligence professionals was not to tell their bosses what they wanted to hear, but rather what the facts were, regardless of the political consequences.

Pointing a critical finger at these analysts and managers is fair; limiting the scope of criticism to these failures is not. Both President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair seem to be given a free pass by these investigations, which purport to have found no direct evidence of efforts by either the White House or 10 Downing Street to "cook" the intelligence on Iraq's WMD.

As I testified before both panels, looking for such a direct link was likely to prove futile. The issue, I noted, was much more complicated, involving years of advocacy in both the United States and Great Britain for regime change in Baghdad that had permeated all levels of government, corrupting formulation of sound policy with a "group think" conclusion that Saddam Hussein was a threat. Anything that could facilitate his removal became accepted, regardless of its veracity.

This "group think" approach can be traced to early 1995, when MI-6, working with the CIA's London station, put forward Iyad Allawi, now Iraq's prime minister, but then the head of an expatriate opposition movement known as the Iraqi National Alliance, as a viable vehicle for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Throughout 1995 and into the early summer of 1996, the CIA and MI-6 worked with Allawi's alliance to cobble together a coup d'etat from within Saddam's inner circle. Saddam's security services uncovered the plot and liquidated those involved.

At the same time the coup attempt was being planned, United Nations weapons inspectors were making remarkable progress in accounting for Iraq's weapons programs. In July 1995, about the same time the CIA and MI-6 embraced Allawi's alliance, the Iraqi government, under pressure from the U.N. inspectors, finally disclosed its biological weapons program.

In August 1995, Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, defected to Jordan, and told the U.N., CIA and MI-6 that all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed in the summer of 1991 under his direct orders. The Iraqi government, in response to Hussein Kamal's defection, turned over hundreds of thousands of hitherto undisclosed documents about their proscribed WMD programs, confirming data already known to the U.N. inspectors, and filling in many gaps.

While the U.N. was not in a position to verify total compliance by Iraq regarding its obligation to disarm, these dramatic events, combined with Iraq's cooperation in establishing the most intrusive, technologically advanced on-site inspection regime in the history of arms control, gave the U.N. confidence that 90 to 95 percent of Iraq's WMD could be verifiably accounted for, and that in the face of effective monitoring inspections, the likelihood of the unaccounted-for WMD remaining in viable form was slim.

The effort to disarm Iraq was shifting from a search for hidden capability to a less threatening accounting problem. For advocates of regime change who needed the specter of a defiant (and dangerous) Saddam, this was not acceptable.

The attempted 1996 coup, and subsequent regime change activities, were not undertaken by renegade intelligence operatives, but rather as an extension of official (albeit secret) policy objectives approved by then-President Clinton and Blair, and made known to their respective legislative oversight bodies.

Both the Senate committee and the Butler Commission are heavily populated by personnel who were party to implementation of the regime change policy. Both are aware of efforts undertaken by their respective intelligence services to use the U.N. weapons inspection process not as a vehicle of disarmament, but as a tool for intelligence collection supportive of regime change. Those activities were not mandated by the Security Council and destroyed the integrity of the inspection-led disarmament effort.

The unwillingness of the American and British governments to capitalize on the dramatic breakthroughs regarding the disarmament of Iraq between July 1995 and July 1996 only underscores the reality that, when it came to the fate of Saddam's government, the outcome had been preordained. There was never an intention to allow a finding of Iraqi compliance concerning its disarmament obligation, even if one was warranted. Saddam was to be removed from power, and WMD were always viewed by the policymakers as the excuse for doing so.

The failure of either the Senate committee or the Butler Commission to recognize the role that the policy of regime change had in corrupting the analytical efforts of U.S. and British intelligence services means that not only will it be more difficult to achieve meaningful reform in these services, but more importantly, the general public will continue to remain largely ignorant of the true scope of failure regarding Iraq policy.

For representative democracies like the United States and Great Britain, with service members currently operating in harm's way inside Iraq, this is unacceptable


First published: Sunday, July 18, 2004


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