Even though Iraqis turned out in droves to vote in parliamentary elections, and even though the Obama administration prepares to withdraw the last combat forces from Iraq this summer, opponents of the Iraq war amazingly continue to propagate the myth that the Bush administration led the country to war based on fabricated intelligence. Over at Politics Daily, Pete Wehner has written a detailed rebuttal of this argument as part of an exchange with David Corn.
As someone who spent several years during the second term of the Bush administration working to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and analyzing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, I have a sense of what those in office in 2003 were going through as they reviewed the intelligence community’s assessments about Iraq. These policymakers were reviewing fragmented intelligence, but the intelligence clearly pointed to one conclusion – Iraq possessing ongoing weapons of mass destruction programs. As Wehner points out, policymakers in the Bush White House were not alone in their belief that Saddam possessed chemical and biological weapons and harbored nuclear ambitions. Numerous foreign leaders, as well as leading Democrats, such as Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton, reviewed the same intelligence and came to the same conclusions about Saddam’s activities.
These conclusions were based in large part on the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which infamously concluded that, “We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.” The NIE went on to reference an alternative view from the State Department intelligence office, but this office notoriously plays down the threats posed by states (such as Iraq) and it is not surprising that policymakers set aside their more cautious assessment given the preponderance of evidence on the other side.
Many of the leaks and charges of politicization of intelligence that occurred in the years following the invasion of Iraq came from a frustrated intelligence community that realized too late that some of its tradecraft was faulty, both in how intelligence was gathered and how intelligence was turned into analysis for policymakers. Unfortunately, despite the entire restructuring of the intelligence community and major changes at the CIA and other intelligence agencies, these problems have not been fully resolved. Most notably, the 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program effectively neutered the Bush administration’s ability to garner international support for its efforts to pressure Iran.
Now, with rumors that a rewrite is under way that will revisit the 2007 NIE’s conclusion that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, policymakers are once again forced to make difficult decisions based on uncertain information and an intelligence community that is often slow to admit mistakes. Beyond just setting the record straight, the Corn-Wehner exchange is worth reading because unless some real reforms of the intelligence community occur, there is a danger that we will find ourselves having the same debate in the years to come about the next colossal intelligence failure related to weapons of mass destruction.