Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2004 / 18 Shevat, 5764
Fixing what's broken
President Bush and Tony Blair in London are caught in a political firestorm over the conclusion of the head of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, that there are no significant inventories of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq and virtually no programs to create them. Why did Bush and Blair tell us otherwise? The short answer is that this is what they were advised by their respective intelligence services. Independent inquiries into the prewar performance of those services have been authorized in both countries. But even before the inquiries begin, the suspicion was noised about that the intelligence agencies must have been pressured to say what they did so as to give Bush and Blair a case for making war.
Utter nonsense. The warnings that Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing WMD predated Bush's inauguration and therefore could hardly be attributed to political pressure from him, any more than similar assessments by German, French, British, Russian, and Chinese intelligence agencies could be attributed to their political masters. Both David Kay and CIA Director George Tenet say they know of no such pressure. Clearly, the CIA has suffered a blow to its credibility, but when one looks at the context, the conclusion the agency reached is eminently reasonable. Consider these facts:
Only after the first Gulf War did we learn that Saddam was less than two years away from having usable nuclear weapons.
Only after his son-in-law defected in the mid-1990s did we learn about Saddam's biological weapons programs.
When the United Nations-led inspectors were ejected from Iraq in 1998, they assumed that the huge stockpiles of unaccounted WMD still existed.
Unanswered questions. What other assumptions could the intelligence analysts have made? If Saddam had destroyed his banned weapons or decided to give them up, why didn't he report it to the very agency that could have vindicated him? Why didn't he change his behavior toward the U.N. inspectors? Why, instead, did he prevent the U.N. inspectors from going where they wanted to go and seeing what they wanted to see? Why did his rhetoric continue to underscore his commitment to possessing WMD as part of his vision of Iraq as the dominant power in the region and in the Arab world?
Kay has speculated that Saddam continued to believe that he had WMD, as did most senior members of the Iraqi military complex, because his own generals and scientists lied to him about the programs. How could the CIA conclude that the Iraqis were just deceiving one another, along with everybody else even deceiving Saddam himself in a country where he had such absolute power and where even minor infractions were punishable by death?
Finally, there was no concrete evidence pointing to the opposite possibility, that Iraq possessed no chemical and biological capabilities, no missiles, and that Saddam had stopped trying to acquire them. Everything Saddam did gave the impression that he had something to hide, including his willingness to sacrifice over $100 billion of oil revenues and live with a regime of punishing sanctions. His push to end the U.N. inspections suggested he was attempting to free himself from supervision in order to accelerate his efforts to acquire WMD. Add to this the fact that he was not only an evil tyrant but also a reckless gambler, instinctively aggressive, operating with an intelligence of the outside world drawn almost entirely from sycophants and courtiers afraid to tell him the truth.
Let's not forget our history. We underestimated the Soviet nuclear program in 1949, China's in 1964, India's in 1974, and Iraq's in 1991. The list goes on: North Korea in 1994, Iraq again in 1995, India in 1998, Pakistan in 1998, North Korea in 2002, and Iran and Libya last year. The point is that without solid evidence to the contrary, it was virtually impossible for the intelligence services to come to conclusions any different from the ones that they did.
But that's not to excuse their mistakes. President Bush's commission must not only find out what went wrong over Iraq but also suggest how our intelligence services might be better organized to prevent future miscalculations. Let's not forget the price we paid for slashing the CIA budget in the mid-1990s, when the agency was allowed to recruit only 25 field agents a year. The CIA, under Tenet, did well after 9/11, when it used additional funds to establish alliances with foreign intelligence services with access to Arabic-speaking field agents.
But recalibrating a globe-spanning intelligence service won't be easy. The CIA must have the resources it needs to protect the nation. Fighting terrorism is too much a question of life and death to be left in the hands of politicians.
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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman