Be Reasonable: Intelligence on Iraqi WMD

This is a cross-post by Mugwump

This is just part of a much longer post which you can read in full here

Reasonableness, Intelligence and WMD
Establishing the Presumption (1991-98)
The best way to explain the substantial part of what was reasonable to conclude at the time is through explaining how the global intelligence community got it wrong. First, its important to emphasise that Saddam’s lack of compliance with the UN inspection regime meant that there was a default position: we knew that Saddam had WMD. We knew that he had used them and so when the UNSCOM inspectors left, we didn’t think differently. The presumption, then, in the face of concealment was that Iraq continued to have WMD. Kenneth Pollack in The Atlantic in his essay ‘Spies, Lies and Weapons’ documents several very telling examples of concealment which exposed Iraq’s WMD programme – and thus fomented mistrust. The first was the discovery of a document which UNSCOM found

The facility was instructed to remove evidence of the true activities at the facility, evacuate documents to hide sites, make physical alterations to the site to hide its true purpose, develop cover stories, and conduct mock inspections to prepare for UN inspectors

I would ask that a reader remember the words used here very carefully. A second example was Hussein Kemal (Saddam’s son-in-law) and what he said about the WMD programme when he defected. He alleged that Saddam maintained a programme, he gave examples of sites – and UNSCOM found them too. Saddam was forced to admit that he had a biological weapons site after evidence came out. Lieutenant General Amer al-Saadi said ‘Iraq had made a political decision to conceal it.’ To really stress the point, this is how UNMOVIC summarised a series of Saddam’s machinations:

a number of discrepancies and questions remain, which raise doubts about the accounting of the special warheads, including the total number [of chemical and biological Scud-type weapons] produced: statements by some senior Iraqi officials that Iraq had possessed 75 chemical and 25 biological Scud-type warheads; the finding that, at a minimum, 16 to 30 structural rings remain unaccounted for; Iraq’s numerous changes to its declarations on these matters; Iraq’s admitted action taken to mislead UNSCOM on the location and number of special warheads; the physical evidence which conflicts with Iraq’s account of its destruction of biological warheads; and the fact that no remnants of biological warheads were found by UNSCOM until after Iraq’s admission in 1995 that it had had an offensive biological weapons programme (‘Unresolved Disarmament Issues,’ UNMOVIC, March 6 2003)

This is just in relation to Scud-type chemical and biological weapons. It is just the tip of the ice berg for the post-Gulf War perfidy that Saddam was part of. This continued right up until the end of the war (see example from The Bomb in My Garden below). The concealment in the 1990s continued to have a huge impact on weapons inspectors. Pollack recounts:

In the late spring of 2002 I participated in a Washington meeting about Iraqi WMD. Those present included nearly twenty former inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the force established in 1991 to oversee the elimination of WMD in Iraq. One of the senior people put a question to the group: Did anyone in the room doubt that Iraq was currently operating a secret centrifuge plant? No one did.

This was also the opinion of Hans Blix who said that between 1991-1998 the concealment meant there was ‘no confidence’ that the proscribed items had been done away with. Before moving from the backdrop to what the evidence at the time actually said one further point should be stated. This was not merely a reasonable response to what Saddam was doing but it was a calculated decision by Saddam not just from 1991-1998 but until the very end. Frank P Harvey in his tremendous Explaining the Iraq Warexplains how this ‘strategic ambiguity’ was a policy of the regime.

After Saddam was captured, George Piro, an FBI agent conducted in-depth interviews with Saddam. Here is a telling extract from Harvey:

Piro: Why would you say something that suggests Iraq has WMD stocks when, as you say, you had been trying to convince the UN Security Council that Iraq had complied?Hussein:  Mister George. You in America do not see the world that confronts Iraq. I must defend the Arab nation against the Persians and Israelis. The Persians have attacked regularly. They send missiles and infiltrations against us. If they believe we are weak, they will attack. And it is well known that both the Israelis and Persians have nuclear bombs and chemical bombs and the biological weapons

Saddam’s use of this ambiguity – to keep both Iran and the U.S/UK away was a miscalculation on his part that relied on two elements. First, he ‘mistakenly believed Tehran was a bigger threat to his regime than Washington or London.’ He told Piro that ‘he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions of the United States for his refusal to allow UN inspectors back into Iraq’ (p.249). Indeed, pretty much for the entire sanctions regime, Saddam didn’t remove his men from the Iranian border. Israel was also a factor in Saddam’s miscalculation. According to Ali Hassan al-Majid (better known as ‘Chemical Ali’)

Saddam was asked about the weapons during a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Command Council. He replied that Iraq did not have WMD but flatly rejected a suggestion that the regime remove all doubts to the contrary, going on to explain that such a declaration might encourage the Israelis to attack (p.251)

Second, he also misunderstood how serious the U.S and UK were about his WMD programme. From interviewing Saddam, Piro states that ‘he thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998 under Operation Desert Fox [i.e. limited air strikes] … He survived that once, (so) he was willing to accept that type of attack.’ Most shockingly, according to the Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a mere few weeks before the invasion, Saddam didn’t think the U.S would use ground forces (p.254).[1] This was, perversely, a result of the anti-war sentiment in the Security Council – particularly France and Russia. Aziz says that Saddam believed that they would have his back and this would stop U.S/UK action. Saddam’s delusions about the U.S and UK and how seriously they took things didn’t stop when troops were finally used:

During the first ten days of the war, Iraq asked Russia, France, and China not to support cease-fire initiatives because Saddam believed such moves would legitimize the coalition’s presence in Iraq… As late as March 30, Saddam thought that his strategy was working and that the coalition offensive was grinding to a halt (Woods et al, Foreign Affairs)

Thus was the context: a reasonable presumption left over from the UNSCOM days – compounded by Saddam’s policy of concealment and strategic ambiguity. The failure to see this context doesn’t necessarily impede seeing what the near-consensus view was, but it certainly makes it easier to explain. Those who focus on Western intelligence failures (of which there are many) but do not talk about Saddam’s policy and miscalculation miss an important part of the puzzle of how we got it so wrong.

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