BOTH ZEALOUS CRITICS and supporters of President Bush's war against Saddam seem finally to have agreed on one thing--the Central Intelligence Agency goofed. The president's own Iraq weapons sleuth, David Kay, now asserts that our intelligence on Iraq was simply wrong, that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction in 2003. This intelligence failure must be corrected, it is argued, lest we make fresh mistakes against the strategic weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. Hence, President Bush's announcement last week of a special panel to investigate our intelligence agencies' performance on Iraq.
Implicit in all this is a belief that our government cannot succeed in its fight against proliferation of WMD unless our information on other countries' covert weapons programs is dramatically improved. "Pristine intelligence--good, accurate intelligence--is a fundamental benchstone of any sort of policy of preemption to even be thought about," as David Kay said. This seems plausible. What serious policymaker would insist on getting less intelligence?
Ultimately, however, the clamor for more specific proliferation information is wrongheaded. Washington's problem isn't its sorry supply of good tactical intelligence on covert strategic weapons programs. Such intelligence has rarely been good and is unlikely to get much better. Instead, the challenge in nonproliferation has been the dearth of senior officials willing to respond to the generally sound strategic warnings our intelligence agencies produce years before any proliferation becomes a crisis. Far from heeding such warnings, policymakers often wish them away. This unwillingness to act on early intelligence warnings is the exact opposite of the problem everyone is now focusing on.
Our intelligence agencies have in fact never been very good at pinpointing specific proliferation activities. U.S. intelligence got cold-cocked by the Soviets' first nuclear test in 1949; by India's nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998; by Israel's nuclear weapons deception efforts in the 1960s; and by Iraq's, Iran's, Pakistan's, and North Korea's strategic weapons programs in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. All these tactical intelligence failures, though, were predictable. Unlike monitoring conventional arsenals--military forces that are hard to hide and rarely worrisome unless they're quite large--tracking small (but more deadly) covert missile, nuclear, biological, and chemical programs is highly prone to error. That's why the spread of these latter capabilities is a much greater threat than the acquisition of more common military systems.
Trying to fix this intelligence weakness--the presumed aim of the Iraq intelligence investigations--may not be a fool's errand, but it's unlikely to succeed. Certainly, by the time our intelligence agencies could ever prove they knew exactly what other nations had in the way of strategic weapons capabilities and identified precisely where these capabilities were, the only options left to reverse what they had discovered would be to bomb or bribe--extreme measures neither of which is very attractive.
Washington has long grappled with this truth. In some cases, it has done well. With Taiwan's, South Korea's, and Ukraine's nuclear weapons aspirations and the large-rocket ambitions of Argentina, Iraq, Egypt, and South Africa, U.S. officials chose to act upon receiving the earliest strategic intelligence warnings. None of these countries completed the programs it began; all were quietly nipped in the bud.
More often, though, U.S. officials have taken a more cowardly course, downplaying initial proliferation reports, especially when they involved nations Washington wanted to engage. Thus, U.S. officials were skeptical of the early intelligence that highlighted Israel's nuclear program in the 1960s, Iraq's and South Africa's nuclear weapons activities in the late 1970s, Pakistan's nuclear weapons efforts in the 1980s, and Iran's and North Korea's in the 1990s. Early evidence of China's, Russia's, and, more recently, Pakistan's illicit strategic assistance to these nations was similarly viewed with reservation.
This caution did little to encourage intelligence analysts tracking these proliferators. Thankfully, though, after 9/11, this reluctance receded: For the first time, a president publicly emphasized the desirability of acting against proliferators whenever and wherever practical. This helped put fighting proliferation back on the policy map, but it also had a downside: The increased interest in reporting proliferation developments focused attention on what little tactical information we had.
In the case of Iraq--a nation with a clear intent and history of acquiring and using strategic weapons capabilities and a persistent and annoying habit of openly defying U.N. inspections and dismantlement resolutions--policymakers and intelligence analysts leaned forward, emphasizing specifics that turned out to be wrong. Many of Saddam's strategic weapons capabilities, it now appears, were either dismantled in the early 1990s or bombed during Clinton's second term.
This gaffe is hardly good news, but it's not nearly as bad as Washington pundits are making it out to be. As they see it, the lesson to be learned (and, if we are not careful, to be driven home by the newly announced investigations) is that the United States must be more cautious in acting against proliferation, lest it repeat the Iraqi error. And what error was this? Attacking Saddam on the basis of insufficient proliferation intelligence.
Yet, surely, this was not our key mistake. Instead, it was waiting as long as we did to act against Saddam's strategic weapons ambitions and his hostility to us, the U.N., and his own population. We had abundant strategic intelligence on this, and had it for two decades or more, but we chose to ignore it. Instead, we actually supported Saddam financially and militarily and sent him the dual-use goods he needed to pursue his strategic weapons programs.
Had we taken a different course when the first intelligence reports emerged about his nuclear ambitions 25 years ago (and his subsequent military buildup), we might have been able to avoid not just one, but both wars we waged against him. The problem wasn't a lack of intelligence on Saddam's strategic weapons programs. It was a lack of will to use the sound strategic warnings we had.
Certainly, before investigations get underway and recommendations start flying to centralize our intelligence agencies further and spend ever more money on more layers of management and new sources of intelligence, we would do well to focus on our uneven use of accurate early warnings. In the end, knowledge of proliferation specifics is the least of our problems.
Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and editor with Patrick Clawson of "Checking Iran's Nuclear Ambitions" (Army War College, 2004).