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Our Basic Instincts Were Sound

From the February 1, 2004 Los Angeles Times: What the Kay report means.

11:00 PM, Feb 1, 2004 • By GARY SCHMITT
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IF DAVID KAY is right about what his weapons inspection teams have found--or rather not found--in Iraq, it's clear the Bush administration was wrong about Iraq's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, says there are no large chemical and biological stockpiles likely to be found, and that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program had been literally buried. While he also concluded that Iraq had been aggressively moving to develop longer-range ballistic missiles, had kept its biological-weapons research program alive and tried to restart its nuclear program in 2001, the overall picture is far from the robust set of WMD programs suggested by one senior administration official after another in the year leading up to the war.

Critics of the war and the administration have been quick to use Kay's statements as evidence that the White House jury-rigged intelligence estimates to support its policy of getting rid of Hussein, and hyped what intelligence there was on Iraq's programs. But the Bush administration relied on virtually the same intelligence estimates that the Clinton administration used during the U.N.-inspection crisis in late 1997. As far as hype goes, it would be hard for anyone to beat then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's appearance on national television, holding up a five-pound sack of sugar and announcing that a similar amount of Iraqi produced anthrax was enough to kill half the population of Washington.

So, who is at fault? Right now, it looks like U.S. intelligence simply didn't do its job. Not that the job was easy; Iraq was a virtual police state, and Hussein was adept at uncovering plots against him and hiding his own plans. Remember, after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, we were surprised to discover that Iraq's nuclear weapons program was just months from producing a bomb--not the five to 10 years that U.S. intelligence had thought. The reality is we had no high-level Iraqi spies who could tell us what was going on; moreover, Hussein appears to have been good at feeding false information through double agents and our high-tech collection systems. With no new information of note, it is no surprise that the analytic side of the intelligence community--a bureaucracy like any bureaucracy, with its own inertia--didn't change what it thought about these programs from what it had learned in the early 1990s.

It now appears that Hussein believed that by destroying his chemical and biological stockpiles and not rebuilding major weapons-production sites, he could keep U.N. weapons inspectors from finding anything significant and ease out of sanctions. Once the inspectors were gone and the sanctions eliminated, he could then use the smaller seed programs he had covertly maintained to rebuild and restock his WMD arsenal. Meanwhile, he hoped to deter the U.S. from a military invasion by feeding us disinformation that he still retained a deadly chemical-weapons capability. Obviously, it was a strategy that was too clever by half. And it was a strategy about which we had too few clues.

One result of this missed estimate of the Iraqi threat has been calls for the administration to rethink not only its assessment of the threat posed by the combination of weapons proliferation, rogue states and global terrorism but also the possibility of taking preemptive military action to address this threat. Can the U.S. employ such an option, with all the political and strategic risks it entails, when the intelligence it rests on seems so shaky?

The answer is not so clear. Although it appears the intelligence community overestimated the WMD threat posed by Hussein's Iraq, it is equally true that U.S. intelligence recently underestimated the nuclear weapons programs of two other rogue states, Iran and Libya. Both countries had programs further along and more sophisticated than either the U.S. or its allies knew. Based on these three cases--and a history of previously underestimating WMD programs in Pakistan, India, North Korea and, yes, Iraq--the lack of solid intelligence may mean we have more to worry about in the future, not less. What is becoming clear as we unravel both the Iranian and Libyan programs, with their webs of covert foreign suppliers, is how difficult it is to contain proliferation. It is premature to think that military preemption can be taken off the table completely.