Be Patient, Keep Looking
Gary Schmitt
Los Angeles Times
June 8, 2003

In making the case to the American people and the world for going to war with Iraq, the Bush administration argued in part that it was justified because Saddam Hussein had defied the U.N. Security Council for 10 years and that he headed one of the world's bloodiest and most ruthless regimes.

But the core reason was that he possessed weapons of mass destruction and, when combined with his hatred of the United States, his history of aggression and his ties to terrorists, that made him too dangerous to leave in place after 9/11. But, to date, no weapons have been found, and the question is: Did the administration deceive Congress, the American people and allies in order to justify a war it wanted to wage for totally different reasons?

If it was a campaign of deception, it was one in which virtually the whole world was complicit. The administration was not alone in thinking Hussein had biological and chemical weapons. Clinton administration officials, congressional Democrats and Republicans, French officials, British officials, U.N. officials and virtually anyone with a serious intelligence capability -- all had said that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. And with good reason. Not only did Hussein use chemical weapons against Iran and his own people, but U.N. inspectors also documented his efforts to build nuclear weapons, weaponize biological agents and develop various means to deliver them. It was the United Nations, not the U.S., that first concluded that Iraq had produced thousands of liters of chemical and biological agents and never documented their destruction.

Even the French government, the most serious opponent to the Iraq war, accepted these facts. As French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin contended in October 2002: "The investigations carried out by the United Nations after the liberation of Kuwait revealed previously unsuspected nuclear and biological programs. They exposed flagrant concealment of these activities." What was needed was the "swift return of the inspectors and elimination of the weapons of mass destruction." Indeed, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which passed 15-0 last November, flatly stated that "Iraq has not provided an accurate, full, final, and complete disclosure ... of all aspects of its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles."

So, if there was near-universal agreement about the existence of Iraq's weapons programs, why can't the coalition teams find stocks of weapons today? Probably because Hussein destroyed them either before the U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq last December or, as one Iraqi scientist told occupation authorities, just before the war began.

With inspections coming, Hussein might have decided that it would be best to get rid of existing illicit weapon stocks; allow the inspectors (and the world) to tire of finding little or nothing; see them leave; and then reconstitute his arsenal by means of his still extant but covert production capabilities. He couldn't admit that he had destroyed them because he knew, from experience, that it would never be so simple. Once he had admitted to having these stocks, inspectors would have asked about the underlying programs that produced them -- a string Hussein couldn't allow to be pulled if he was to retain his capacity to build weapons.

Or, if Hussein destroyed the stocks in the weeks leading up to the war, he may have done so in the belief that conflict was likely and that if he used chemical or biological weapons against coalition forces, it would only solidify U.S. determination to take his regime down. Even the French said that if Hussein used such weapons, they would support the coalition effort. From a tactical point of view, the Iraqi leader might have calculated that using chemical or biological weapons would not have stopped American forces from advancing and, in turn, would have undermined a strategy of drawing out the conflict in the hope that world opinion, led by Paris, Berlin and Moscow, would eventually force an end to the war.

But are such explanations sufficient? No. The credibility of both President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will remain in question until coalition investigators have not only gotten to the bottom of the missing weapons but also, and more important, the weapons programs themselves. After all, it was the programs that posed the permanent threat; it was the programs -- even in the wake of destroyed stocks of weapons -- that could rapidly reconstitute those arsenals.

Here, patience is required. Hussein's regime had more than two decades of experience in hiding these programs from inspectors and the world's intelligence agencies.

Take but one example. Despite several years of intrusive inspections after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it was not until the 1995 defection of Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel Majid, that the extent of Iraq's biological weapons program was brought to light. Moreover, chemical and biological weapons programs are easily concealed because they require no huge infrastructure and can be intertwined with wholly legitimate commercial and scientific processes. This means that much of what we uncover will first require Iraqi scientists, engineers and former senior officials to come forward with information on the whereabouts of the various parts of the programs. Few will know the whole picture and, crucially, those who do are unlikely to talk until they are certain that Hussein and his henchmen are either dead or in prison.

Unfortunately, patience has been the first thing to go in the current controversy. Passing over the discovery of the mobile biological-weapons production plants, the accusations are flying fast and furious, here and abroad, that Blair and Bush manipulated intelligence over Iraq's weapons programs to suit their policy goal of getting rid of Hussein. It is certainly possible that intelligence assessments were politicized, but it is very unlikely. Does anyone really think that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, CIA Director George J. Tenet or, for that matter, almost any experienced Washington hand would not know that any serious attempt to rig intelligence conclusions would come back to bite them?

No, instead, what is being called politicization is likely the kind of hard questioning of intelligence one would hope policymakers would engage in, given their responsibilities on matters of war and peace. This is not the kind of questioning many intelligence analysts enjoy; they would prefer to be left alone in their quest (as the CIA's motto says) to "know the truth." But, as the history of distant and recent intelligence failures in this country shows, completing that quest is hardly a sure bet. It is useful to remember, for example, that most intelligence analysts in the late 1970s and early 1980s were quite skeptical that Moscow was linked to terrorist organizations then active in Europe and the Middle East. Once the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet archives were opened, the reality turned out to be much different. So, why wouldn't policymakers want to question and challenge intelligence assessments on, say, Baghdad's ties to particular terrorist organizations?

Intelligence products are not gospel, and they should not be treated as such. For most questions, intelligence assessments are a combination of some secret material and a whole lot of ordinary analysis. To make sense of the data, an analyst will have to pick and order the information using assumptions and methodologies any thoughtful policy analyst would normally use. This is not some arcane exercise. And there are good reasons to believe that any number of experienced policymakers will be as good at this as the intelligence official -- or better.

There is something else going on. Opponents of the war -- most of whom probably never had a good word to say about the CIA -- are rushing to defend "the sanctity" of the intelligence process in an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the war and call into question a president's judgment that, in the years ahead, "the community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now -- a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists." But since this was the assessment of President Clinton in a February 1998 speech at the Pentagon, Bush critics have a larger task in front of them than just going after the current administration.

There is no question that U.S. credibility is at stake in accounting for Iraq's weapons programs. Failure to find them would complicate a president's ability to rally support for taking action in similar situations in the future.

But like the conduct of the early days of the war itself, the fact that things have not turned out precisely as some might have predicted doesn't mean failure, incompetence or, worse, duplicity. It simply means we have been engaged in a struggle with a clever and deceptive enemy.