Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Euphoric Recall

President Bush's supporters, advocates and apologists are quick to paint a picture most favorable for their champion - as partisans in a political context are wont to do. In some areas, they have been quite successful in passing this portrait off as reality. One such sketch, that has become a sort of conventional wisdom, is the one that portrays a general consensus before the invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein had vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, including biological agents, chemical agents, and the most horrific of all, nuclear weapons. Talking heads, pundits, politicians and lay commenters alike utter these phrases as if they were incontrovertible fact. Just as the sky is blue, or that the sun rises in the east.

But is it so? Was the world unanimous in its estimation of Saddam's WMD capacity? A closer examination of what was known before the invasion reveals a decidedly less uniform opinion than many inside the Bush administration would have us believe. This might not come as a shock to many of you who have remained agnostic about such certainty, but since this meme is creeping toward annointment in the shrine of truth, I thought it would be a good time to re-examine some of the evidence. In doing so, I will rely heavily on
a report which many of you might be familiar with entitled WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications - which details what U.S. and international intelligence communities understood about Iraq's weapons programs before the war - prepared by Joseph Cirincione and the non-partisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Much to the benefit of the public, the authors of this report saw fit to distill many of the conclusions in a series of informative tables which compare, side by side, the various assessments of the U.S. intelligence community before and after the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the position of the various United Nations' intelligence apparatuses, the statements by Bush administration officials, and the evidence as it was known as of the time the report was written (since that time, the conclusions in the report have been corroborated by the subsequent findings with the exception of the discovery of a small number of decades' old shells containing sarin gas).

When viewing the evidence in such a format, a few trends begin to emerge. First, there is a sharp divergence within the U.S. intelligence community itself, which occurs upon the completion of the October 2002 NIE. Before that NIE, the U.S. intelligence community was less unequivocal about Iraq's capacity. Doubts and qualifications were prevalent, and in some cases (especially regarding the nuclear programs) the conclusions were actually that Iraq did not have any active infrastructure. The October 2002 Estimate changes all that. Agnosticism converts to certainty, doubts are reversed and become positive assessments, and speculation is transformed into firm conclusions.

This overnight metamorphosis has led to much speculation and suspicion on the part of impartial observers. After all, what changed in October 2002? Why did the prognostications of the prior decade suddenly reverse course in so many ways, gravitating to the most dire predictions of Iraq's capacity. What methodology changed for the preparation of the October 2002 Estimate? Was there a sudden influx of erstwhile unknown, yet reliable, evidence that turned the tide? According to the authors of the report:

The dramatic shift between prior intelligence assessments and the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), together with the creation of an independent intelligence entity at the Pentagon and other steps, suggest that the intelligence community began to be unduly influenced by policymakers' views sometime in 2002.
This would seem to suggest that the much ballyhooed reforms in the intelligence community should have at least as much to do with ensuring that the intelligence gatherers and analyzers are free from political influence, as in improving and enhancing intelligence gathering capacity itself. I remain incredulous that the appointment of a partisan figure like Porter Goss will achieve these goals. It is likely to have the opposite effect. But that is the subject of another discussion.

In retrospect, it is clear that the pre-October 2002 intelligence gathering was closer to the actual state of affairs. In addition, as gleaned from the charts prepared by the Carnegie group, the pre-October 2002 assessments were more in line with the United Nations' appraisal, which, despite what some have suggested, remained quite doubtful about Saddam's WMD capacity, up and until inspectors left in March of 2003. While the United Nations did not espouse a position that Iraq did not have any WMD capacity or material, they were almost always more realistic and accurate about their doubts than the October 2002 NIE.

The other key trend made evident by the charts is that the statements and positions emanating from the Bush administration were even more conclusory and definitive than the October 2002 NIE - which itself marked a definitive shift from international intelligence assessments and prior U.S. intelligence reports. Bush administration officials consistently elided any and all dissenting opinions, both in the world at large, and those appearing in the NIE itself. Most notably, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) went on record with several dissenting views in the NIE, but when Bush administration officials spoke of the conclusions of the intelligence community, they actually suggested that no such dissent existed.

For example, as laid out in this
chart of Key NIE Dissents, the INR concluded in the NIE that "[t]he activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." INR added: "Lacking persuasive evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program, INR is unwilling to speculate that such an effort began soon after the departure of UN inspectors."

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concurred in this judgment, concluding that there was "no indication of resumed nuclear activities . . . nor any indication of nuclear-related prohibited activities."

In this context, this assertion was made by Vice President Cheney:

"[W]e believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons" [March 2003]
And President Bush:

"The regime has the scientists and facilities to build nuclear weapons and is seeking the materials required to do so." [October 2002]

Several days later, President Bush asserted that Saddam Hussein "is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon." [October 2002]

"Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." [October 7, 2002]
And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with perhaps the most egregious example:

"We said they had a nuclear program. That was never any debate." [July 13, 2003 - emphasis added]
There was in fact a debate, and a spirited one. But if you listen to the Bush administration, you wouldn't know it. The Carnegie report, in its chart entitled
Summary Of Iraq's Nuclear Weapon Program, lays out an item by item comparison of the various claims regarding Iraq's nuclear program, and the positions of the various intelligence agencies and the Bush administration. The pattern is eerily similar.

The same progression of intelligence assessments and rhetoric concerning those appraisals held true for the conclusions regarding Iraq's chemical and biological arsenal, in addition to Iraq's missile capabilities, as laid out in the Carnegie group's charts entitled,
Summary Of Iraq's Chemical Weapon Program, Summary Of Iraq's Biological Weapon Program and Summary Of Iraq's Missile And Delivery System Programs.

For example, in September 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) issued a report that concluded: "There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons or where Iraq has - or will - establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities." The report also observed that "[a] substantial amount of Iraq's chemical warfare agents, precursors, munitions, and production equipment were destroyed between 1991 and 1998 as a result of Operation Desert Storm and UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission) actions." While the report assessed that Iraq "probably" retained some "CW agents," it warned that "we lack any direct information."

The United Nations echoed the DIA's assessment, which comported with the pre-October 2002 NIE view amongst most U.S. intelligence officials. Regardless of the doubts and uncertainties, the Bush administration took an unequivocal tone:

Vice President Cheney asserted:

"We know they have biological and chemical weapons." [March 17, 2003]

"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." [August 26, 2002]
Donald Rumsfeld stated:

"He has at this moment stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons." [Sept 18, 2002 - emphasis added]
Which made this apparent denial by Paul Wolfowitz appear disingenuous to say the least:

"We never said there were stockpiles." [Interview with Howard Arenstein, CBS Radio Mar. 16, 2004].
Now after the fact, in addition to attempts at revisionism like Wolfowitz's, the Bush administration and its supporters would have you believe that the certainty and consistency with which they spoke about WMDs before the invasion of Iraq was shared by the world's intelligence community. That is far from the case. Not only did several other countries' intelligence agencies, and the United Nations, disagree on several key points regarding the various aspects of Iraq's WMD programs, the U.S. intelligence community itself had several dissenting voices both before and after the transformative October 2002 NIE. In some areas, like chemical and biological capacity, there was more agreement than in others, like nuclear weapons, but even in the former two, there was much more disagreement and dissent than many contend.

The consensus was an illusion. The unanimity has been manufactured after the fact in order to cover for the errors in judgment. The document most relied on to justify the claims regarding Iraq's WMDs, the October 2002 NIE, was a product of political pressure and manipulation. As recall drifts into euphoric stages for certain political factions, it is imperative that we set the record straight.

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