Blogs

Iraq’s WMD and the Test of Reasonableness

John Rentoul

usleave 300x200 Iraqs WMD and the Test of ReasonablenessCross-post by Mugwump.

This 9,000-word article looks at why intelligence services around the world were so sure that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2003. I re-post it here because it is an impressive piece of work, bringing together evidence from a wide range of sources.

Photo of soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division boarding a C-17 transport plane to depart from Iraq at Camp Adder, now known as Imam Ali Base, 17 December 2011: Getty

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 War explains 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.

Failing to Rebut the Presumption (2002-3)

To start with what UNMOVIC (the team that went into to replace UNSCOM) thought, 3 weeks prior to the invasion, they released a report of ‘Unresolved Disarmament Issues.’ This report is carefully worded and has its limits. The team was essentially trying to prove that Iraq did not have WMD left over – i.e., trying to prove a negative in the face of a very strong presumption. Here’s what they said:

Scuds: [Iraq claimed it used] 14 Scud-B missiles as targets in a missile interception project. While such use is supported by some documentation contained in the so-called Scud files, it is questionable whether Iraq would have really used, what were at that time, valuable operational assets in the pursuit of such a project. It cannot be excluded that Iraq retained a certain numbers of the missilesMoreover, the lack of documentation to support the destruction of a significant amount of Scud-B liquid propellant, and the fact that approximately 50 warheads were not accounted for among the remnants of unilateral destruction, suggest that these items may have been retained for a proscribed missile force. After investigating Iraq’s statement that, due to the limited storage lifetime, the propellants would now be useless, UNMOVIC has assessed that the propellants would in fact still be usable and would therefore need to be verified as destroyed  (p.23-4)

SA-2 Missile Technology: Of particular concern is the limited amount of documentary evidence concerning the activities at Al Sadiq. Questions arise as to why this work was not declared to UNSCOM… based on the knowledge UNMOVIC presently has on these projects, they can be considered as initial steps towards the development of an indigenous liquid propellant engine capability (p.29)

Scud-type biological and chemical weapons: UNSCOM verified the destruction of 73 to 75 of the 75 special warheads that Iraq declared, a number of discrepancies and questions remain, which raise doubts about the accounting of the special warheads, including the total number produced…. uncertainty remains concerning the types and numbers of chemical and biological agents it filled into the special warheads. The finding of degradation products related to nerve agents, on some warhead remnants suggests that its declaration may not be complete. [Note too that UNMOVIC says that because a physical test contradicted Iraq’s assertion of WMD destruction, ‘it would be logical to assume that some missiles and associated propellant might also have been retained.’] (p.42-43)

R400 and R400A (BWs and CWs): Some fragments [found in 2003] had a black stripe and there was evidence on some fragments of an epoxy coating, both indicative of biological agent-filled bomb… As it has proved impossible to verify the production and destruction details of R-400 bombs, UNMOVIC cannot discount the possibility that some CW and BW filled R-400 bombs remain in Iraq

Chemical munitions: Iraq still had significant stocks of conventional 122-mm warheads and 155-mm projectiles similar to those previously modified for use with chemical agents. Iraq’s industries appear fully capable of modifying these conventional munitions for use with chemical agents as well as the indigenous production of most or all of their components (p.55)

Anthrax: Iraq declared that the decision to destroy bulk BW agent unilaterally was made in early July 1991, and the actual destruction of the agent was said to have been carried out at Al Hakam in July/August 1991. However, it seems improbable that the bulk agent that had been deployed out in the field would have been returned to Al Hakam for destruction in July 1991… [It] seems highly probable that the destruction of bulk agent, including anthrax, stated by Iraq to be at Al Hakam in July/August 1991, did not occur… Based on all the available evidence, the strong presumption is that about 10,000 litres of anthrax was not destroyed and may still exist (p.97-8).

Wheat smut: Iraq’s account of wheat smut is inadequately supported by documentation; the quantity of agent produced, consumed and destroyed cannot be confirmed. At the same time, if infected wheat spikes had been retained from production in 1988, it is uncertain whether the spores would now be viable… Iraq’s capability to produce this anti-crop agent has not diminished. UNMOVIC is especially concerned with the broader question of Iraq’s intentions with regard to biological agents that could be used as economic weapons. (p.108-9).

Undeclared BW-agents: Iraq has not declared that it produced such [TSB] organisms. It is therefore a matter of concern that Iraq had obtained bulk quanties of such media. In this regard, it is noted that the declared destruction of the Brucella isolate which was acquired in 1986 was not supported by evidence, which adds to the concern surrounding the accounting for TSB (p.117)

These extended extracts from the UNMOVIC report show what UN weapons inspectors thought prior to the invasion. They speak of unaccounted WMD and a clear interest and programme in maintaining CWs and BWs. Hans Blix’s statement is even more stark (which probably explains why Tony Blair quotes his 27 January 2003 statement at length in A Journey). Here are some of his statements:

13,000 chemical bombs were dropped by the Iraqi Air Force between 1983 and 1988, while Iraq has declared that 19,500 bombs were consumed during this period. Thus, there is a discrepancy of 6,500 bombs… Iraq has declared that it produced about 8,500 litres of this biological warfare agent [anthrax], which it states it unilaterally destroyed in the summer of 1991. Iraq has provided little evidence for this production and no convincing evidence for its destruction. There are strong indications that Iraq produced more anthrax than it declared, and that at least some of this was retained after the declared destruction date…

Blix’s statements are significant because of his subsequent activism against the Iraq War. At the time, though, his statements about Iraq WMD were as fear-inducing as a statement from the Bush administration. For all the failures of Western representation (which I will discuss below), given Saddam’s previous use of WMD, given his concealment, given the reasonable presumption and given this report it was reasonable to conclude that Iraq had WMD. There was also a flow of reliable information which seemed to reinforce the view that Saddam had WMD.

One example given by Woods et al in their Foreign Affairs article is worth mentioning – it is why I asked the reader to recall the wording of the document showing that the regime sent out an order to conceal and clear WMD. In 2002, the U.S

…intercepted a message between two Iraqi Republican Guard Corps commanders discussing the removal of the words “nerve agents” from “the wireless instructions,” or learned of instructions to “search the area surrounding the headquarters camp and [the unit] for any chemical agents, make sure the area is free of chemical containers, and write a report on it,” U.S. analysts viewed this information through the prism of a decade of prior deceit. They had no way of knowing that this time the information reflected the regime’s attempt to ensure it was in compliance with UN resolutions.

What would a reasonable person conclude from this intercept? Would they have rebutted the presumption that Iraq had a WMD programme and was continuing in its attempts to conceal it? I think the answer is clear. It wasn’t just intercepts and inspectors that fuelled the presumption – it was other Iraqi actors too. This is just one of the examples of the bits of evidence that supported the presumption:

Rihab Rashid Taha (a senior Iraqi scientist) was asked about the unaccounted for anthrax listed in Blix’s reports – she failed to provide inspectors with any useful answers. After the war, the same microbiologist confessed to dumping the lethal bacteria close to Saddam’s palaces…. The deception, in other words, was understandably misread, but it was unfortunately the most plausible (risk averse) interpretation in light of a decade of deception (Harvey, p.259)

Reasonableness

Without relying on a single British dossier or U.S briefing, it is clear there was a reasonable case that Iraq maintained WMD; clear chemical and biological agents and an active programme for pursuing further WMD. It is why there was such wide acceptance that there was WMD. Kenneth Pollack summarises the phenomenal level of consensus:

Somewhat remarkably, given how adamantly Germany would oppose the war, the German Federal Intelligence Service held the bleakest view of all, arguing that Iraq might be able to build a nuclear weapon within three years. Israel, Russia, Britain, China, and even France held positions similar to that of the United States.

Pollack makes clear that the view of Iraqi WMD was widespread amongst governments. Most surprisingly, it was widespread amongst officials in Saddam’s regime. Woods et al note that ‘a number of senior Iraqi officials in coalition custody continued to believe it possible that Iraq still possessed a WMD capability hidden away somewhere.’ Why did they believe this? For the same reason that I did, the UNSCOM inspectors that Pollack mentions and essentially everyone believed:

Coalition interviewers discovered that this belief was based on the fact that Iraq had possessed and used WMD in the past and might need them again; on the plausibility of secret, compartmentalized WMD programs existing given how the Iraqi regime worked; and on the fact that so many Western governments believed such programs existed.

It’s a conclusion was littered throughout independent reports from reputable think tanks:

In September 2002, the independent, London-based think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), published a dossier providing a thorough published guide to the consensus view of  the period. It described the toxic materials still unaccounted for, and then moved on to the more speculative area concerning what had happened since 1998. It was possible, but not proven, that production of both biological and chemical weapons had resumed (A Choice of Enemies, p.413)

In the next section I will go through several prominent examples of how intelligence is alleged (and was in fact) used unreasonably – but these examples don’t move away from one stark conclusion. This conclusion that that Iraq had WMD – despite being completely wrong – was a completely reasonable one. Through the prism of the presumption, the continual reports coming from various sources, Saddam’s miscalculations and policy there could not have been a different conclusion. Even if you ignored this mistakes laid out in the next section (for reasons both above and below), you’d still come out with the same conclusion. Its why we had this near-consensus. As Robert Jervis states in Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and Iraq War:

while there were not only errors but correctable ones and that analysis could and should have been better, the result would have been to make the intelligence assessments less certain rather than to reach a fundamentally different conclusion… A responsible judgment could not have been that the programs had ceased (p.124, p.155)

There is even a good bulk of academic opinion which holds that it was reasonable to conclude Iraq had WMD written post war.[2] This shows the limits of intelligence rather than the incompetence of intelligence agencies.[3] To give one example which shows the limits of intelligence (even when actors are not deliberately deceiving as Saddam was):[4] when President Obama was deciding to authorise the operation against Bin Laden, he asked different intelligence agencies for their assessment on whether Bin Laden was inside the Abbotobad compound. Here is how The Guardian reported the Deputy Director of the CIA’s response:

“Mr President, if we had a human source who had told us directly that Bin Laden was living in that compound, I still wouldn’t be above 60%.” Morell said he had spent a lot of time on both questions – WMDs and Abbottabad. “And I’m telling you, the case for WMDs wasn’t just stronger, it was much stronger.”

The intelligence mistakes in the CIA, clearly, didn’t stop in 2003 – and they are unlikely to stop because of how reasonable these judgments can be despite being so wrong. This should be apparent from everything from the intelligence about Al Qaeda striking the U.S prior to the 9/11 attacks to the Israeli strike on the USS Liberty. For reasons that will be laid out in the Part 3, this conclusion should not make us reluctant when facing threats like Saddam.

There is another conclusion that follows from all of the above: there was no point in waiting for more inspections. Saddam’s two miscalculations means that even when we had troops knocking on his door, he didn’t think we were serious. And because he didn’t think we were serious even when the war began, he continued his policy of strategic ambiguity. There is also the technical issue that Saddam simply could notprove that he had abandoned his WMD programme:

… there was no way for Blix to establish the truth, because the proof he needed (and the evidence UNSCR 1441 demanded) no longer existed – the documents inspectors required for proof of compliance had long since been destroyed, ironically because Saddam was motivated by the ongoing threat of sanctions to remove all evidence of WMD programs, including proof that he had already destroyed proscribed weapons (Harvey, p.152)

Indeed, as should be apparent from the fact it was reasonable to conclude that Saddam had WMD anything he did do to reveal the remnants of his WMD programme would have been insufficient: he would have had to have shown us WMD stocks that did not exist. Clearly, he could not have done this – part of the reason why war was inevitable.  

Unreasonableness, Intelligence and WMD

The reason I wanted to write this section is because neither side in the debate seems to address each other. My view is that those angry about the pre-invasion presentation of the intelligence have a point – but simply that it wouldn’t have changed the conclusions and, as will be apparent from Part 3, the justifiable rationale for the war. But that doesn’t excuse the errors of both the Blair and Bush administrations: politicians should be entirely transparent, balanced (not prosecutorial) and they should be held to standards of evidence.[5] What follows is overwhelmingly a summary of incompetence, not deception. Rather than liars, a better analogy would be those acting for the prosecution – they were over-zealous in their case that Saddam had WMD and it showed in their presentation (this is more a result of status and confirmation bias than deliberate deception). The Senate Intelligence Senate Committee went through the claims of Bush administration officials and found, in relation to WMD, their statements matched the available evidence but were conveyed as beyond doubt where there were dissents.[6]

The United States: Beyond the National Intelligence Estimate

U.S claims about Iraq’s relationship with Al Qaeda are an example of this zeal in making a case for war. It is now clear there was no significant relationship – but it was also quite clear at the time. Three claims were made to support this link – all were weak. First, that al-Zarqawi was in Iraq with the regime’s support and was collaborating with the regime. As Freedman points out, Zarqawi’s group was, at that time, ‘unaffiliated and largely based in the Kurdish north’ (A Choice of Enemies, p.407). Second, that the 9/11 ring leader Mohammed Atta met up with Iraqi security officials in 2001. This was not considered credible by the FBI or the CIA (Pfiffner, p.27) and yet Cheney still said the meeting was ‘pretty well confirmed.’ The Joint Intelligence Committee completely rejected any cooperation between the two. Third, it was based on evidence obtained by torture of al-Libi (which probably didn’t vex members of the Bush administration but definitely was not credible).[7] As the New York Times reported

While he made some statements about Iraq and Al Qaeda when in American custody, the officials said, it was not until after he was handed over to Egypt that he made the most specific assertions, which were later used by the Bush administration as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons.

Christopher Hitchens believed there was a connection on the basis of al-Zarqai’s presence – it’s open to some to take this as evidence that it wasn’t completely unreasonable to conclude there was an AQ-Iraq link. I do not take that view and am glad that my own government never made the link. But again, the fact there was reasonable evidence of low-level meetings between the two should discount evidence of deception.[8] There are two points that need to be made in relation to Iraq-AQ links. First, many confuse claims about 9/11’s impact on risk assessment and Iraq with claims of links between the two. Pfiffner (p.26), like many, is guilty of this. He quotes the following statement by Bush as an example of an ‘implied link’:

Some citizens wonder, ‘after 11 years of living with this [Saddam Hussein] problem, why do we need to confront it now?’ And there’s a reason. We have experienced the horror of September the 11th.

But Bush is not saying that 9/11 was linked to Iraq here. What he is saying is that the risk calculation after 9/11 changed. Bush explained his as not being able to trust tyrants with WMD which they could deliver to terrorists. The point was that common ideas of deterrence were no longer in play: threats had to be dealt with before they materialise (this will further be discussed in Part 3).[9] The second point to note about the Iraq-AQ links is that its prominence in run up to the war started to wane as people like Blair (and British officials) pushed for them to stop using that line of argument. Freedman notes this:

Yet while such suggestions [of an Iraq-AQ link] helped create a political climate in favor of war, they could not sustain international diplomacy. By the summer of 2002, it was apparent that there was no clinching evidence demonstrating a link with al Qaeda. Woodward reported Rice’s view that it would be impossible to get international support on Iraq’s human rights record, and the terrorism case seemed “weak or unprovable.”… With the terrorism issue, there was “the most disagreement within the bureaucracy.”… In September, after meeting Bush, Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien told reporters that when he asked about links between al Qaeda and Iraq, the president replied, “That is not the angle they’re exploring now. The angle they’re exploring is the production of weapons of mass destruction” (A Choice of Enemies, p.408-9).

This is largely unacknowledged. What the U.S produced in relation to weapons of mass destruction wasn’t that divergent from the consensus mentioned above. Nonetheless U.S intelligence agencies often disagreed about several aspects but the administration took whichever view which made the situation seem bad. The National Intelligence Estimate itself had several caveats[10]:

The dissenting views were highlighted in color and boxed text, not buried in footnotes as was the norm during the Cold War, and the dissents in this case were, as Tenet noted, ‘‘an unprecedented sixteen pages of the ninety-page NIE.’’ Tenet also pointed out that ‘‘the phrase “we do not know” appears some thirty times across ninety pages. The words “we know” appear in only three instances. (p.603-4)

The uncertainty was lost in public statements. But still, on the general question of WMD, rather than specific bits of evidence (like aluminium tubes or yellowcake from Niger), ‘Bush cannot be fairly blamed for using such widely accepted claims, even though little evidence of the weapons was found in Iraq after the war’ (Pfiffner, p.44). I am not going to handle the issue of biological and chemical weapons which I think I have handled sufficiently but will focus on what many anti-war activists consider to be the most egregious examples of deception. In relation to whether Saddam was pursuing a nuclear weapon, the NIE concluded that

we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them. Most agencies assess that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that UNSCOM inspectors departed–December 1998

It suggested that without fissile material, it would take at least 5 years to develop a weapon. With material from abroad, it would take at least 2 years. The British dossier (discussed below) said much the same in Feb 2002:

Although there is very little intelligence we continue to judge that Iraq is pursuing a nuclear weapons programme… Recent intelligence indicates that nuclear scientists were recalled to work on a nuclear programme in the autumn of 1998, but we do not know if large scale development work has yet recommenced. Procurement of dual-use items over the past few years could be used in a uranium enrichment programme…  while sanctions remain effective, Iraq cannot indigenously develop and produce nuclear weapons; if sanctions were removed or became ineffective, it would take at least five years to produce a nuclear weapon. This timescale would shorten [to one to two years] if fissile material was acquired from abroad

There is clear uncertainty in this extract – but despite the uncertainty, the JIC still concluded that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear programme. The IAEA a few months after the NIE was released stated that they had found ‘no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear related activities in Iraq’ (see here) – but this would not have been much comfort given the reasons explained above about concealment and Saddam’s motives. Take, again, one more example of Saddam’s miscalculation from The Bomb in My Garden, written by Mahdi Obeidi (an Iraqi scientist at the forefront of the nuclear programme):

A different order landed on my desk in early December 2002, shortly after the arrival of UN weapons inspectors. “move your documents from your offices to the basement.”… The regime had obviously panicked now that inspectors were fanning out across Iraq for the first time in four years.

How should this have been interpreted? Moreover, while there was a fixation on attempts by Saddam to obtain uranium from Africa (see below), this wasn’t the only thing. The JIC outlined six items which had no legitimate non-nuclear purpose which Iraq had apparently sought. There were several independent assessments (like that from IISS) which concluded much the same. Moreover, in a critical response to the Africa claim, Professor Dombey reveals something that shows why Iraq having a nuclear weaponsprogramme wasn’t an unreasonable claim: ‘Saddam was known by both Britain and the US to be sitting on a stockpile of 500 tonnes of uranium ore – so had no need to purchase any more.’ The fact that it was plausible that Saddam had reconstituted his nuclear weapons programme should speak volumes as this was the weakest of all WMD claims.

On the question of specifics of intelligence on nuclear weapons, there was arguably unreasonableness. The following statement made by Bush in the State of the Union took on the same significance in the U.S as the ’45 minutes’ claim took in the UK:

The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

The issue? The NIE stated that the status of the arrangement was ‘not known’ and there was a dissent which called said the claim was highly dubious (unlike the general issue of WMD) – which is why the British government was referenced. Condoleezza Rice stated that doubt was not ‘communicated to the President.’ Pfiffner is not generous at all to Rice in making this claim (there were series of conversations, memos etc., about taking the claim out) but it doesn’t seem that Rice’s claim is true at all. Bush in his memoir addresses the issue briefly:

In my 2003 State of the Union address, I had cited a British intelligence report that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger. The single sentence in my five-thousand-word speech was not a major point in the case against Saddam. The British stood by the intelligence… In July 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote a New York Times column alleging that the administration had ignored his skeptical findings when he traveled to Africa to investigate the Iraq-Niger connection. There were serious questions about the accuracy and thoroughness of Wilson’s report, but his charge became a prime talking point for critics of the war (Decision Points, p.103)

Much was made of the fact that alleged documents that showed an agreement between Niger and Iraq appeared to be forged. But two caveats have to be made: first, as is clear from Bush’s account, people were not persuaded by Wilson’s report. Indeed, ‘Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s [found] that those who read Ambassador Wilson’s reporting on his visit to Niger did not, in fact, see it as discrediting the reports of Iraqi interest in African uranium’ (Froscher, 2010, p.421). Moreover, the British assessment was not based on forged documents, it was based on several sources which the Butler Review found to be ‘well founded’ (p.123). Iraqi officials had gone to Niger in 1999 and they had previously attempted to buy uranium ore. Second, and more importantly, Froscher notes that

the supposed Iraqi interest in yellowcake was not a major factor in the IC’s assessment of the status of Iraq’s program. Prior to March 2003, when the key reports were shown to be forgeries, the IC downplayed them not so much because of doubts about their authenticity but because, even if true, they added little to the picture. The key issue, again, was not whether Iraq was interested in reconstituting its nuclear program – that was, at the time, taken as a given – but how close Iraq was to having the bomb (p.421).

An assessment of whether it was reasonable to conclude Iraq did seek yellowcake cannot be made without knowing more about the British intelligence – unless one takes the Butler Review at face value. But it really is not as simple as quoting dissents from Wilson and the lack of certainty with the NIE. What is reasonable to conclude, however, was that this was not key to the bottom line intelligence summary.

The other specific claim that created much controversy (about aluminium tubes) is more appropriately handled later but I will make one point. There were dissents but its far too easy, with hindsight, to say that the dissents should have been accepted. There are correctible mistakes in the bureaucracy and assessment in this particular mistake – but it should certainly downplay accusation of deception (if not unreasonableness) to note that the NIE did consider the tubes evidence of a nuclear programme. The charge was sufficiently serious that the weapons inspectors investigated the charge relentlessly (Obeidi ad Pitzer, p.187). The tubes, though not the right size for a nuclear purposes were of a high quality which fomented suspicions (Ibid, p.196). Ultimately it was the wrong conclusion and the presentation did not speak of any doubt but it should definitely downplay accusations of deception. And again, it was not pivotal in pre-war intelligence estimates (this should be apparent from the fact that the Department of Energy still conclude Saddam reconstituted a nuclear programme despite disagreeing with the tube story).

UK Intelligence: Blair’s Overreach

Critics of U.S and UK policy never seem to acknowledge the divergent views within American agencies or between officials. They also very rarely talk about the divergence in evidence between the U.S and UK. Which brings us to British intelligence assessments: the September dossier prepared by the British government on the basis of JIC intelligence was at the time considered fairly mundane[11] – a claim thatseems to have been accepted by Chilcot – except for the 45 minute issue. In the foreword, Tony Blair wrote Saddam’s ‘military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.’ The Butler Review was perfectly right to note that this claim should not have been made without reference to the type of weapons (p.156) – it was a reference to munitions, no missiles.

Blair subsequently said that he didn’t know that that the report referred to munitions rather than ballistic missiles – which is enough to suggest that the record should have been corrected. Blair has since tried to downplay the 45 minute claim by stating that

Of the 40,000 written parliamentary questions between September 2002 and the end of May 2003 when the BBC made their broadcast about it, only two asked about the forty-five-minutes issue. Of the 5,000 oral questions, none ever mentioned it. It was not discussed by anyone in the entire debate of 18 March 2003. So the idea we went to war because of this claim is truly fanciful (A Journey, Blair, p.)

He’s right and wrong. The idea that this particular claim was pivotal in the decision to go to war is fanciful. But he’s also wrong to downplay the fact that both the Joint Intelligence Committee and he acted with undue care by including it without reference to the type of weapon. Fortunately, Blair has said it would have been ‘better to correct it in light of the significance it later took on.’  Accusations that Blair lied should be seen as unreasonable in light of the near-consensus, the available evidence and the British government’s refusal to go along with the AQ-Saddam link and, quite simply, logic.

John Rentoul notes how such a conversation would have gone:

“I’ve got this brilliant plan for joining the American invasion of Iraq: we’ll say it’s all about weapons of mass destruction and when it turns out that there aren’t any, everyone will hate me for ever. How does that sound?” Great plan, they [i.e., the cabinet] all said, and made the necessary preparations.

Blair’s presentation of the evidence, however, was arguably prosecutorial at times. He stated in his foreword that it was ‘beyond doubt’ that Saddam continued to produce chemical and biological weapons. The JIC itself had described some evidence being ‘sporadic’ and ‘patchy’ and so it inevitably raises the question of why Blair stated it was ‘beyond doubt.’ Blair answered this question himself at the Iraq Inquiry:

Sir Lawrence Freedman: Given that [evidence was in some places described as patchy etc], was it wise to say that intelligence is ever beyond doubt? Wasn’t this setting yourself up for a higher standard of proof than it might be possible to 16 sustain?

Blair: I think what I said in the foreword was 18 that I believed it was beyond doubt..

Sir Lawrence Freedman: Beyond your doubt, but beyond anybody’s doubt?

Blair: If you — if I had taken, for example, 2 the words out of — even the 9 March 2002 or 3 the March 2002 JIC assessment, it said, “It was clear that …” Now, if I said, “It was clear that” in the foreword,  rather than “I believe, beyond doubt”, it would have had  the same impact.

The point was that the JIC still concluded that it was ‘clear that Saddam continues his programme.’ But I’m instinctively reluctant to accept that ‘beyond doubt’ is the same was ‘it is clear that…’ It may just be my profession that leads me to conclude that the two should not be conflated – but even a non-lawyer like Sir Lawrence Freedman notes that it does sound like a ‘higher standard of proof.’ Blair’s explanation should, however, discount accusations of deception but not unreasonableness. It is often funny that much of the academic literature which criticised Blair – attempts to do so by comparing his statements with JIC intelligence (which, as stated, concluded what the near-consensus had concluded).[12]

Reasons for Unreasonableness

This subsection aims to give an explanation for the correctable failures (i.e., not those which were reasonable to make and which can be explained by Saddam’s policy of denial and reasonable interpretation of reliable reports). The New York Times famously apologised for its coverage of the lead up – and in that they drew particular ire to Iraqi dissidents:

The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on “regime change” in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks… Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources.

The most famous of these dissidents was Curveball. He later admitted he lied and would do it again to The Guardian. It should be noted that The Guardian is wrong to suggest that Curveball ‘triggered’ the Iraq war or that the U.S was ‘duped.’ As Jervis notes, ‘the INC sources were discounted by the ICs, though not by the vice president’s office, the civilians in the Defense Department, and the media’ (Why Intelligence Fails,p.140). The Rob-Silberban Commission agreed noting that INC sources had ‘minimal impact on pre-war assessments’ (p.108). The intelligence community, then, did not have as many shortfalls – but the reliance on human intelligence by some did certainly cause significant overreach.

Aside from reliance on human intelligence by some and being over-zealous in presentation, there were a series of bureaucratic inefficiencies which lead to correctable mistakes. Take the example of the aluminium tubes that were purchased but obtained by the U.S. The NIE concluded (i) Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons programme and (ii) the aluminium tubes were evidence of this – but the State Department and the Department of Energy dissented (the DoE only dissented on the latter claim). Jervis explains how correctable mistakes compounded the intelligence failure (I make no apologies for quoting Jervis at length):

Immediately after gaining access to the tubes, the lead CIA analyst concluded that they were designed for a centrifuge. Since he had a background in the enrichment industry, his opinion carried great weight. His superiors were then quick not only to endorse his conclusions but to convey them to policymakers, and even put them into the PDB, before other agencies had a chance to analyze the material and reach a different verdict. Although the NIE acknowledged the disagreement and uncertainties, CIA could not easily give up its established position. The effect of this error was magnified by the fact that the DCI was the head of the CIA as well as the IC. In the latter capacity he was supposed to arbitrate differences among the intelligence agencies, but as director of CIA, Tenet was closer to CIA analysts than to those from other parts of the IC. The dissents from INR and DOE therefore received less of a hearing than they might have in a similar situation today, when there is a Director of National Intelligence. Indeed, it appears that Tenet did not even know that there was a dispute until the NIE was being written… Furthermore, the communication channels within DOE were clogged, in part because segments of it were scattered around the country, and the views of their experts were not always well represented at high-level meetings (Why Intelligence Fails, p.142-3)

Betts gives another example of these bureaucratic mistakes[13]

When the NIE was being done, Curveball’s allegations about BW programs appeared to be corroborated by three other sources, but one later recanted, and another had already been branded a fabricator by the Defense Intelligence Agency in May of 2002. Nevertheless, owing to bureaucratic miscommunication, allegations about biological weapons programs from that source still found their way into the October 2002 NIE (Betts, p.602)

These are both correctable mistakes, inherent in centralised structures and bureaucracy, not evidence of deception or even cognitive biases. Some in the academic literature (Pfiffner is just one example) have tried to conclude that many intelligence failures were a result of politicisation (i.e., political pressure or direction). This is thoroughly unconvincing.[14] As Jervis notes, Tennet rebuked Bush for his mishandling of the evidence – this would only have been necessary had the intelligence agencies not given the administration exactly what it wanted (p.132). After extensive interview with people involved in the U.S intelligence community he found very little evidence of politicisation (p.133). And that’s not particularly surprising, the CIA pushed back against Saddam-9/11 links, forecasts about the post-invasion phase despite ‘administration statements to the contrary, repeated inquiries and challenges that can only be interpreted as pressure.’  But more importantly

[First] it appears that the belief that Iraq had an active WMD programs was held by all intelligence services, even of those countries that opposed the war. While this does not mean that U.S and UK ICs were not affected by political atmosphere, it does show that they did not need political pressure to reach their conclusions

[Second] positions taken by… different parts of the American IC also casts doubt on the politicization thesis. The State Departments INR was the most skeptical member of the community about nuclear weapons and Air Force intelligence dissented on the UAVs y yet State and Defence were the two most policy-oriented agencies. The Department of Energy (DOE) dissented on the aluminium tubes, and there is no evidence that political pressure was exerted (p.134)

There were many correctable failures: specificity was lost in presentation as a result of cognitive biases, bureaucratic mistakes and reliance on faulty human intelligence. In some cases, politicians ended up making exaggerated claims because they did not understand the nature of the intelligence (like Blair’s 45 minute claim). But as I stated above, this would not have made a difference to general conclusions that made up the near-consensus in the intelligence community (and confirmed by subsequent academic opinion).[15] Jervis brings these two elements together well when he shows the effect of specific evidence against the effect of the reasonable presumptions that led to general conclusions:

This makes sense of the exchange in which Bush reacted to CIA’s presentation of what could be declassified to convince the public that Saddam was developing WMD by asking if “this is the best we’ve got” and receiving Tenet’s infamous reply, “Why, it’s a slam-dunk!” Bush was focusing on the specific evidence he had just heard; Tenet was moved by the plausibility of the entire picture (p.155)

As Harvey notes, in debates in Congress the issue of faulty intelligence was raised prior to the war. ‘The disagreement between the CIA and Department of Energy (DOE) over the relevance of aluminium tubes was also raised’ but ‘these distorted intelligence items were marginal to the larger WMD picture and threat’ (Harvey, p.149). Both Jervis and Harvey conclude

…even if there had been no errors in analytic tradecraft I believe that the best-supported conclusion was that Saddam was actively pursuing all kinds of WMD, and probably had some on hand. The judgment should have been expressed with much less certainty, the limitations on direct evidence should have been stressed, and the grounds for reaching the assessments should have been explicated. But while it would be nice to believe that better analysis would have led to a fundamentally different conclusion, I do not think this is the case (Jervis, p.42)

Even if I haven’t convinced you that this was necessarily the case for every claim made by U.S and UK officials, I hope I have shown that the overwhelming bulk of faulty intelligence was either reasonably concluded or not a result of deception. More importantly, most of the specific evidence that people found problematic really had no major impact on the overall evidence or justification for war. But importantly, its perfectly reasonable to be angry at the lack of nuance, the lack of understanding and the lack of caution exercised by U.S and UK officials.

Post-war intelligence

For reasons that will become apparent in Part 3, the issue of whether Iraq had WMD is not as fundamental as commonly claimed to the defensible rationale for the liberation of Iraq. Iraqi intention and future capability is just as important. From the post-war intelligence reports, there can be no doubt of Iraq’s intention:

Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability—which was essentially destroyed in 1991—after sanctions were removed and Iraq’s economy stabilized, but probably with a different mix of capabilities to that which previously existed. Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability—in an incremental fashion, irrespective of international pressure and the resulting economic risks… In Saddam’s view, WMD helped to save the Regime multiple times… his lieutenants understood WMD revival was his goal from their long association with Saddam and his infrequent, but firm, verbal comments and directions to them… (Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor Report on Iraq’s WMD, Vol. 1)

This was the conclusion of the Iraq Survey Group. The Iraq Survey Group is littered with examples of how Saddam was serious about getting WMD (including prior to the war) and uncovered activities UNMOVIC was not aware of:

Imad Husayn ‘Ali Al ‘Ani, closely tied to Iraq’s VX program, alleged that Saddam had been looking for chemical weapons scientists in 2000 to begin production in a second location… Purported design work done in 2000 on ballistic and land attack cruise missiles with ranges extending to 1000 km suggests interest in long-range delivery systems… M16 was planning to produce several CW agents including sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard, and Sarin (Ibid).

They found that Operation Desert Fox (a small scale operation undertaken by the U.S and UK in 1998) significantly weakened their nuclear programme. It would be interesting to ask those against the Iraq war whether they would have authorised the operation. Sanctions also played a role in weakening the WMD capability but as they note sanctions were weakening:

By 2000-2001, Saddam had managed to mitigate many of the effects of sanctions and undermine their international support. Iraq was within striking distance of a de facto end to the sanctions regime, both in terms of oil exports and the trade embargo, by the end of 1999 (Ibid).

I will expand on the erosion of sanctions and containment in Part 3. Of course the Iraq Survey Group also did not find ‘evidence that Saddam Husayn possessed WMD stocks in 2003.’ There are many on the right who like peddle stories of a limited amount of WMD being found. And there is a very small grain of truth in this:

It is not literally true that no WMD were found in Iraq. After 2003, according to a U.S. Army report, ‘‘approximately 500 weapons munitions which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent’’ were discovered. These were decaying remnants of pre-1991 stockpiles, found in scattered ‘‘small numbers,’’ not the types maintained in operational condition that were expected (Betts, p.597)

Neoconservative blogger Kyle Orton draws attention to two cables revealed by Wikileaks which indicate mustard gas was found (see here and here). But this really is getting the overstating the discoveries: the intelligence indicated stocks, it indicated more than a few non-operational remnants. Which brings me to another post-war rationalisation used by a few people on the fringe. Again, here’s Kyle Orton:

James Clapper said “that he believed that material from [Saddam's] illicit weapons program had been transported into Syria“. There was certainly some heavy traffic into Syria during the invasion… Whether we will ever know the answer is doubtful—though opening the archives of the Assad regime might be helpful—but those who say there were “no WMDs” in Iraq are wrong twice: they refuse to acknowledge what actually was found [i.e., remnants referred to above] and show a distinct lack of interest about what wasn’t

This line of argument is misleading. Yes, there should be some investigation into but to make the conclusion that Orton does is rash. This is because the Iraq Survey Group concluded that

Based on the evidence available at present, ISG judged that it was unlikely that an official transfer of WMD material from Iraq to Syria took place. However, ISG was unable to rule out unofficial movement of limited WMD-related materials (Addendum to the Comprehensive Report, p.1).

The key words in this extract are ‘unlikely’ in the first sentence and ‘limited’ in the second. Kyle has told me that he accepts that the view that arms were shipped is a ‘fringey one and it is not one [he] particularly subscribe[s] to’ but I think there’s certainly a problem in giving these theories undue credence. The Israelis seems quite keen on this idea but they have not produced an iota of evidence for their claims. Aside from the lack of evidence of any such movement (let alone whether the movement was of stocks of WMD), the conclusions above should caution against accepting the claim: Saddam did not expect an invasion, he did not expect to lose control of his regime. His miscalculation meant that he had no reason to transfer his supposed WMD.[16]

Selected Bibliography

R. K. Betts, ‘Two Faces of Intelligence Failure: September 11 and Iraq’s Missing WMD’, Political Science Quarterly, Volume 122, Issue 4, 585
M. Fitzgerald and R. N. Lebow, ‘Iraq: The Mother of all intelligence failures’, Intelligence and National Security, Volume 21, Issue No. 5, 884
L. Freedman, A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, Public Affairs (2008)
T. Froscher, ‘Indispensable Intelligence and Inevitable Failures’, Nonproliferation Review, Volume 17, Issue No.2, 419
R. Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and Iraq War, Cornell University Press (2010)
F. P. Harvey, Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence, Cambridge University Press (2011)
C. Kaufmann, ‘Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas’, International Security, Vol. 29, No. 1, 5
J. N. L. Morrison, ‘British Intelligence Failures in Iraq’, Intelligence and National Security, Volume 26, Issue No. 4, 509
M. Obeidi and K. Pitzer, The Bomb in My Garden: The Secrets of Saddam’s Nuclear Mastermind, John Wiley and Sons (2004)
J Pfiffner, ‘Did President Bush Mislead the Country in His Arguments for War with Iraq?’ Presidential Studies Quarterly, Volume 34, Issue 1, 25
K Pollack, ‘Spies, Lies and Weapons’, The Atlantic (January 2004) available at <https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/2004/01/pollack.htm>
K. Woods, J. Lacey and W. Murray, ‘Saddam’s Delusions’, Foreign Affairs (May 2006) available at <http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/61701/kevin-woods-james-lacey-and-williamson-murray/saddams-delusions>

Dossiers and Intelligence:

Lord Butler, ‘Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction’ available at <http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Politics/documents/2004/07/14/butler.pdf>
Iraq Survey Group, ‘Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor Report on Iraq’s WMD’, Vol 1 available at < http://www.foia.cia.gov/sites/default/files/document_conversions/89801/DOC_0001156395.pdf>______________ ‘Addenda to the Comprehensive Report’ available at <https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/addenda.pdf>
Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government available at <http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/02/uk_dossier_on_iraq/pdf/iraqdossier.pdf>
National Intelligence Estimate (2002) available at <http://fas.org/irp/cia/product/iraq-wmd-nie.pdf>
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, ‘Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information’ available at <http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/080605/phase2a.pdf>
UNMOVIC, ‘Unresolved Disarmament Issues’ available athttp://www.un.org/depts/unmovic/documents/UNMOVIC%20UDI%20Working%20Document%206%20March%2003.pdf>


[1] Saddam was not alone in thinking this, Harvey (2011) says those in his inner circle thought “war would last only a few days and look very much like 1998, with air strikes, military operations and ground troops, if any, focused  primarily in the south of Iraq” (p.254)


[2] Thomas Graham Jr. and Keith A. Hansen, Preventing Catastrophe: The Use and Misuse of Intelligence in Efforts to Halt the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, see a summary by Froscher (2010): “They judge that it was reasonable to conclude, as had nearly all other observers at the time, that Saddam was still pursuing WMD” (p.420-1) Harvey (2011): “The result was a widespread international consensus in 2003 that Saddam retained proscribed weapons – again, this was the only reasonable interpretation of a decade of intelligence on the regime’s behaviour” (p.197). Jervis (2010): “the most reasonable assessment would have been that Iraq probably (but not certainly) had active and broadly based WMD programs and small stockpile of chemical and perhaps biological weapons” (p.155, see also the quotes throughout this post from p.124 and p.134). Betts (2008): “Although the bottom-line analytic conclusion was wrong and the caveats were insufficient, in the absence of adequate collection, it was the proper estimate to make from the evidence then available. No responsible analyst could have concluded in 2002 that Iraq did not have concealed stocks of chemical and biological weapons” (p.598). Pfiffner (2004): “The administration’s inference that Saddam Hussein was continuing his previous weapons programs was not an unreasonable conclusion, one that was shared by intelligence agencies in other countries” (p.44). Two examples of past claims: Freedman (2008): “Whereas the discussion of the terrorist link was deeply controversial, that was not the case with the assumption that Iraq had stocks of WMD and was engaged in an active process of deception” (p.410). Hans Blix told the Iraq Inquiry that “I, like most people at the time, felt that Iraq retains weapons of mass destruction” (p.30 of his testimony available here: http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/51945/20100727-blix-final.pdf)


[3] To emphasise what should be apparent: this is not a condemnation of the intelligence services but a point about the limitations of intelligence. The intelligence services are vital in stopping terror, a fact that I have pointed out again and again is the fact that MI5 has successfully managed to stop several attacks. Even more specifically, British intelligence was pretty much spot on in relation to other countries in proliferation. Cf. Betts, p.605: “The Butler Report investigated all proliferation-related intelligence projects, including those related to Libya, Iran, North Korea, and the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan, as well as Iraq. These other intelligence projects were more or less successful, which made the Iraq case ‘‘one failure against four successes. Hence, it was viewed as a failure due to Iraq-specific factors that somehow tripped up an otherwise effective system,’’ not as evidence of thorough breakdown.” But, see also Mount and Mongomerty (2014,Intelligence and National Security, Volume 29, Issue 3, 357): “This paper seeks to catalogue and evaluate the intelligence work surrounding 16 of the 25 states that are thought to have pursued nuclear weapons and to provide a framework for evaluating the causes of distorted intelligence estimates of nuclear proliferation…. We find that the US has overestimated nuclear programs much more frequently than it has underestimated or correctly estimated them.”


[4] Bush gives one interesting example of an intelligence failure in his memoirs. Bush recalls: “Mr. President,” George [Tenet, Director of the CIA] said, “we think we have a chance to kill Saddam Hussein.” They had received intelligence that Saddam was hiding out in a complex called Dora Farms. Bush ordered strikes against the complex. He goes on to say “A witness had seen a man who resembled Saddam being carried out of the rubble at Dora Farms. But as the days passed, the reports changed. The operation was a harbinger of things to come. Our intent was right. The pilots performed bravely. But the intelligence was wrong” (Decision Points, p.254)


[5] Cf. Pfiffner p.45: “The issue here is not whether the war with Iraq was wise; whether it was a wise war will become clear only with the passage of years. At issue here is a matter of democratic leadership. Citizens must trust the president because they do not have all of the information that he has. If the president misrepresents the nature of crucial information, he undermines the democratic bonds between citizens and president upon which this polity is based.”


[6] Select Committee on Intelligence, ‘Whether Public Statements Regardiing Iraq by U.S Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information’. The conclusion is overwhelmingly that the President and other officials generally conveyed what intelligence stated at the time. This conclusion should be reinforced by the fact that the dissents (at the back of the report) are fairly convincing.


[7] The intelligence community had already noted that al-Libi was an unreliable source. There was some doubt in the CIA as to what was true. In the extremely critical documentary ‘Hubris’ by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (based on the bookHubris), Phillip Mudd is quoted as saying ‘he said two different things at two different times. We will tell the policy consumers.. both stories, you choose to believe what you choose to believe but I don’t know which ones accurate.’ This, again, should downplay accusations of deception but certainly not unreasonableness. Incidentally, the whole documentary is misleading because it argues that the reliance on unreasonable information was a primary driver of the intelligence – it selectively quotes dissents with hindsight and ignores the predominant evidence. This idea should be considered untenable for the reasons this post gives. Just to give two examples of how bad Hubris is – they quote a memo of a meeting between Tommy Franks and Rumsfeld. The memo has a section called ‘how start?’ – the documentary considers this to be ‘what would the pretext be?’ – in reality, the memo was not “creating” a pretext, it clearly assumes existence of WMD (the first bullet point was “Focus on WMD” and the document listed practical concerns like how to stop “movement of WMD”). Most significantly, under the options for “building momentum for regime change” it has several options and significantly it states “might not have to go all the way [to regime change].”  There is nothing sinister about the memo. Second, as Maddow states the NIE showed that the “evidence was wrong” it freezes on a extract which says Iraq “does not have nuclear weapons” – a claim the administration never made. See here for the full memo: <http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show-16>


[8] Intelligence (accepted by the British as well) indicated there were low-level meetings in the 90s; this was confirmed in post-war intelligence reports based on documents from Saddam’s regime. See, for example this DIA report which found that ‘Saddam collaborated with known Al Qaeda affiliates and a wider constellation of Islamist terror groups’ – report available at NY Sunhttp://www.nysun.com/foreign/report-details-saddams-terrorist-ties/72906/> There was also dodgy information circulating, most famously Laurie Mylroie’s Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America. This was a shoddy book but when the cognitive biases were in operation, her allegation that Saddam was behind almost every terrorist act in the 90s had force. This is entirely consistent with Richard Dearlove’s (Director of MI6) assertion in the Downing Street Memos that ‘the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy’ – he was referring to the AQ-Saddam link. In a particularly shoddy article which should be disproved by this article, Fitzgerald and Lebow (2007) use this statement as evidence that the motivation of the U.S had nothing to do with WMD (i.e., they incorrectly interpret it as a statement about WMD generally rather than cognitive biases working on the AQ-Saddam link).  Finally, see the footnote above about what the CIA stated.


[9] Cf. Blair’s remarks to the Iraq Inquiry: “if September 11 hadn’t happened, our assessment of the risk of allowing Saddam any possibility of him reconstituting his programmes would not have been the same… Here is what changed for me the whole calculus of risk… The point about this act in New York was that, had9 they been able to kill even more people than those 3,000, they would have, and so, after that time, my view was you could not take risks with this issue at all, and one dimension of it, because we were advised, obviously, that these people would use chemical or biological weapons or a nuclear device, if they could get hold of them–that completely changed our assessment of where the risks for security lay… from September 11 onwards– we obviously had to deal with Afghanistan, but from that moment, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Iraq, the machinery, as you know, of AQ Khan, who was the former Pakistani nuclear scientist and who had been engaged in illicit activities and in distributing this material, all of25 this had to be brought to an end” available at <http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/45139/20100129-blair-final.pdf>


[10] Again, see n.2, and see also Betts (2008): “With the benefit of hindsight, one might argue that the strictly correct estimate in 2002 should have been that the intelligence community simply did not know whether Iraq retained WMD or programs to obtain WMD. That would have been intellectually valid but would have abdicated the responsibility to provide the best support possible to the policy process” (p.604)


[11] The Butler Review quotes the Today Programme, BBC Radio 4: “Well to be honest it’s not that kind of document. It’s,it’s actually rather sensibly cautious and measured in tone on the whole” – see p.127: – in the footnotes, it goes on to say “Some Editors noted that the ‘45 minute’ story attracted attention because it was of itself an eyecatching item in a document containing much that was either not new or rather technical in nature.” The reason that it was considered to ‘mundane’ and ‘measured’ was the near-consensus on the view that Iraq had WMD.


[12] For an example, see J. N. L. Morrison, ‘British Intelligence Failures in Iraq’, Intelligence and National Security, Volume 26, Issue No. 4, p.515: While the dossier itself was a fair summary of the JIC’s conclusions over the years, the Executive Summary painted an over-stark picture, while the Prime Minister’s foreword went completely over the top.


[13] A further example of this is given by the Butler Review: “even taking into account the difficulty of recruiting and running reliable agents on Iraqi issues, we conclude that part of the reason for the serious doubt being cast over a high proportion of human intelligence reports on Iraq arises from weaknesses in the effective application by SIS of its validation procedures and their proper resourcing…”


[14] Cf. Select Committee on Intelligence, ‘Whether Public Statements Regardiing Iraq by U.S Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information’, Conclusions point patently against such an interpretation.


[15] Cf. Harvey (2011), p.152: “It is also true that in the interest of generating support for a policy the administration deemed essential, a more balanced and nuanced interpretation of the intelligence did not always emerge. But the balance in question was never between, on the one hand, the WMD case the administration was making and, on the other, some alternative, dissenting view that Saddam had nothing. Rather, the debate consisted of how much relative weight should be assigned to specific items, like operational links to Al-Qaeda or aluminum tubes, in the context of a general consensus that Saddam had, or was developing, some level of WMD. No one in the government (or international community) came close to making the argument that the regime was clean, for one simple reason – there was no way to arrive at that conclusion in the absence of UN inspectors, or in the absence of a UN inspections report defending that conclusion. Neither UNSCOM nor UNMOVIC ever came close to producing such a report”


[16] Cf. Kris Alexander, ‘No, Syria Doesn’t Have Saddam’s Chemical Weapons’, Wired available at <http://www.wired.com/2012/07/syria-iraq-wmd-meme/> : “If something moved — like, say a convoy of Winnebagos of Death heading for Syria — it could be detected and killed… Do you think anyone in the administration or the military would have turned down the chance to justify the war before it started?  Further, does anyone honestly think that if the Bush administration had good evidence that the material was somehow making its way into Syria, it wouldn’t have acted?”

Tagged in: , , , ,
  • LancashreLad

    In Mr Rentoul’s world it is reasonable to invade a country, dismantle the administrative infrastructure, put in a puppet government and then run away to allow terrorists / insurgents / freedom fighters / rebels / warring factions, to take over causing death and destruction on a scale rarely seen before.

    Why is this reasonable behaviour? Because although the people who brought about the apocalypse had a good idea that Saddam did not possess WMD (any whatsoever) but they thought he might like to get hold of it at some point in the future.

    In the real world the UN were successfully tackling the problem of Saddam’s desire to arm himself with WMD, the sanctions were working.

    What Mr Rentoul describes as reasonable, desirable and good; I describe as illegal and stupid.

  • JohnJustice

    I would rather go along with Mr Rentoul’s idea of what is reasonable on this one than someone who still believes that Dr Kelly was murdered.

  • LancashreLad

    I believe Dr Kelly’s suicide was covered up and wondered why.

    The first police officer who allegedly saw the body told a newspaper in 2010 that it was slumped against a tree, just as the search team who found the body a few minutes earlier have described the position of the body.

    About a half an hour later the ambulance crew arrived and they said the body was on its back, a great enough distance from a tree that the male paramedic was able to stand in the gap between the head of the body and a tree.

    The ambulance crew were on the scene for about 10 minutes, the first police officer told the Hutton inquiry that he left the scene when the ambulance crew arrived; that was a lie, he remained for nearly two more hours.

    In the time the first police officer said he wasn’t there but was, a FOI request revealed he was. several changes took place at the scene according to eyewitness reports.

    Eyewitness evidence says, after the ambulance crew departed several alterations to the scene were made.

    The body was moved again, 10 times more blood was added to the knee of Dr Kelly’s jeans than was witnessed in the morning, a similar amount of blood was added to the other knee but that had been “diluted”. A blood pool that was not present when the ambulance crew were present appeared in the afternoon where the female paramedic had been standing. Knife moved as was bottle of water after paramedic told the police it would not be free standing and not have fallen over, in the afternoon the water bottle had been moved further away from the body and propped against some branches,

    The first police officer misled the Hutton Inquiry about who he attended the scene with. The Attorney General wrote to the police and asked them to investigate the officer with regard to his 2010 revelation, they didn’t question him about the contradiction in the evidence he gave re the position of the body.

    That police officer lied to the Hutton inquiry, there is irrefutable proof of that. The suicide verdict depended on there being no evidence of 3rd party activity at the scene. There is overwhelming evidence of 3rd party activity at the scene that the police continue to refuse to investigate.

    The current Attorney General continues to mislead Parliament regarding the evidence of wholesale cover up by the police.

    JJ you prefer to take Mr Rentoul’s idea on what is reasonable rather than look at the facts, that says volumes about your judgement.

  • Pacificweather

    The conclusion states, “But importantly, its perfectly reasonable to be angry at the lack of nuance, the lack of understanding and the lack of caution exercised by U.S and UK officials.” In other words it is perfectly reasonable to believe the UK and US intelligence agencies did an extremely poor job. That is the test of reasonableness. Everything else is background information.

  • newfriendofed

    I think the deeper problem is whether ‘reasonable grounds’ is a sufficient rationale for something as consequential and unpredictable as war. When I think of wars I supported, I find that there were better than merely reasonable grounds. Think of the absurdity of claiming there were merely reasonable grounds for the U.S.going to war with Japan in World War 2. If asked whether it was ‘reasonable’ the appropriate reply is: Duh, they attacked Pearl Harbour. For war I would go with certainty as my ground. Of course one might object that there is no such thing as certainty. Here I would invoke Wittgenstein’s version of certainty: One can be certain when there seems almost no way to doubt. For example there is little room for doubt when they either attack you or are very clearly preparing to, e. g. troops on your border. Needless to say, 45 minutes from Cyprus leaves more than ample room for doubt.

  • JohnJustice

    Keep digging in the hole you have made for yourself. You have proved my point precisely.

  • JohnJustice

    Since Saddam was not providing the free access to inspectors required under several UN resolutions and which were a condition of the cease-fire negotiated at the end of the first Gulf War there could be no certainty on this matter. The only option left to make sure that Saddam no longer had WMD was to remove Saddam and look for ourselves. The breach of one of the key cease-fire conditions allowed this to be done by military means.

  • LancashreLad

    The “point” you made and subsequently proved to your satisfaction is presumably that because I believe Dr Kelly was murdered I must be wrong about the reasonableness of the Iraq war and therefore Mr Rentoul must be right.

    I’m not going to explain the error in your logic other than to say if I believed the Earth was ball shaped and Mr Rentoul thought it was flat, it doesn’t mean the Earth is flat.

    Facts are what is important, not the OSP / Rockingham use of bogus facts that were selected above the proven genuine facts.

    And the assertion that I believe Dr Kelly was murdered is wrong. He could have been and on the available evidence he probably was but there is an outside chance he died from natural causes.

    Why then, I hear you say, cover up a death by natural causes? But it hasn’t occurred to you “why cover up a suicide”? For cover up there certainly was.

    One possible scenario for covering up natural causes is Dr Kelly died from a cardiac arrest during an interrogation conducted by people with American accents. That would be a bit tricky to explain. I believe there are people who took part in the cover up who believe this to be the case, I don’t.

    There are two things that push me towards the murder scenario; evidence of premeditation and prescience.

    If you are rude to me again JJ I will post chapter and verse the evidence and Mr Rentoul will be cross.

  • porkfright

    And-being the intelligence agencies-we don’t know. and never will.

  • porkfright

    But the WMD are fundamental. And they have never been found. No amount of flim-flam can alter that fact, even if as many words as there are in Tolstoy’s “Collected Writings” were written about them.


Most viewed

Property search
Browse by area

Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter