Here is my next column for the Charlottesville Observer.
Speaking at the University of Virgnia’s Miller Center on May 4, David Kay detailed lessons learned and unlearned from the search for Weapons of Mass destruction in Iraq. Dr. Kay was special advisor to the Director of Central Intelligence and UN’s Chief Nuclear Weapons Inspector.
In 1991, after the first Gulf War, the inspection team went to Iraq and found some surprises. US intelligence knew that Iraq had used mustard gas against the Kurds and Iranians but did not know that it had produced VX, a nerve agent. It knew Iraq had a nuclear weapons program but did not know that the program was close to developing an actual weapon. The biological weapons program was both larger and more through than suspected.
The team was in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. During these seven years Iraq put up numerous obstacles and engaged in extensive deception.
The fact that Iraq had weapons development programs – a point on which every European intelligence service agreed – led to the assumption that it also had weapons and was preparing to use them.
With this as background, Kay summarized what intelligence found after the war:
• Iraq had continued its programs by importing banned goods, many of them from Europe.
• Research and development programs chemical and biological weapons continued.
• Active efforts to develop delivery systems continued. With foreign assistance, Iraq attempted to extend the range of its missiles beyond the allowed 75 miles.
• Research and development programs did not lead to production of WMD in large numbers after 1998.
• Because of the chaotic way in which the war ended, there are a number of irresolvable ambiguities: there will always be the possibility that a few weapons were hidden by Iraqi forces.
Kay then asked, why did we get it wrong and what does that tell us about the future? There were three reasons for our failure.
First, there was Iraq’s continuing deceptive behavior. After the war, this deception was uncovered when Iraqi officials said that they did not disclose to UN inspectors for fear of Saddam. He destroyed the weapons on the theory that they were too easy for UN inspectors to discover.
Saddam did not simply throw doors open to Hans Blix and the UN inspection team, because he wanted his own people to continue fear him. Belief in the existence of WMD served as a deterrent to the Kurds and Shiites, as well as Iraqi neighbors. Saddam also feared his own military. He wanted them to believe that Iraq still had WMD. Some of them might have mounted a coup if they had sensed that he capitulated to the west. This was confirmed in post-war interrogations when senior officers all reported that other units still had WMD, even though their own unit did not.
The second reason for intelligence failure stems from Pearl Harbor. Since 1945, US intelligence has been dedicated to the task of preventing surprise attacks. During the cold war, when the West faced a massive threat, intelligence became very skilled at using technological means to count numbers of weapons and assess Soviet military capabilities. Analysts were less skilled at understanding the Soviet viewpoint and assessing intentions. This led to intelligence failures, including the Cuba missile crises, and failure to predict the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and invasion of Afghanistan. Technology also enabled the intelligence community to lessen its dependence on human sources. Spies, as Kay said, are not “eagle scouts” and are likely to engage in behavior that is repugnant.
Until 1998, this lack of human sources was not a major problem because UN inspectors were in Iraq. After 1998 defectors were the sole source of information. Kay said that the information from the defectors was so good that US intelligence should have been suspicious. These governments denied us direct access to the defectors and provided incomplete information. When Colin Powell testified about the mobile biological agent vans, he was relying on information from a single source. These vans brought fear to intelligence analysts because they meant that every truck in Iraq could be a source of biological agents. This would have made it impossible to be certain that there were no agent production facilities remaining.
The Iraqi émigré community, and the defectors, understood that they and the US shared a common, vital interest: eliminating Saddam and installing a new regime. They also understood that the US would be more likely to go to war if it was convinced that Iraq had an arsenal of WMD.
Third, intelligence failed because “we connected the dots” without continuing to “collect more dots”. This was important because Iraqi behavior – active attempts to deceive and conceal WMD information continued. This led to failure to recognize that motives for the behavior had changed. Saddam continued to deceive even after he had most of the weapons destroyed. He did this not to hide the weapons, but to maintain deterrence by concealing a weakness.
During the cold war, our ability to understand the Soviet viewpoint and intentions continuously improved. After Sputnik, the government funded extensive education programs in science and technology. Universities developed major programs in Soviet and eastern European studies. Major newspapers had correspondents in Moscow. As a result, the country had a broad and deep knowledge base concerning Soviet behavior and intentions.
In contrast, the knowledge base of Arabic languages, Islam and the Middle East is shallow. Given the lack of human intelligence sources and an understanding the Arabic viewpoint, surprise is almost inevitable.
Kay was asked about corruption in the oil for food program and diversion of funds from food to Saddam’s palaces. He said that he had a team of forensic accountants from the IRS working for him. When they explained the pattern of Iraqi deception to him it was the only time in his life that he ever felt like “hugging an IRS agent – a highly unnatural act.” Asked why the press and public had not paid more attention to this, he responded that the case was so complex and difficult that it would make “Enron seem like kindergarten accounting.”
In his book, Bob Woodward pointed out that the President challenged the Director of Central Intelligence saying that the WMD argument was a weak case. George Tenet’s answer that the case was a “slam dunk” brought this comment: we should not trust “short Greeks using basketball metaphors”
Kay closed with two additional points, both personally important to him.
Wars aren’t won by intelligence but by blood and treasure of young men and women. What intelligence can do is help to prevent wars. Improved intelligence is, therefore, vital.
The phrase “war on poverty, drugs, or terror is a bad metaphor. It leads to misdiagnosis of the problem and the attempt to solve problems by application of force when other solutions are needed.