Glenn Reynold's wants bloggers to revisit the issue of the intelligence picture before Operation Iraqi Freedom, otherwise known as the invasion of Iraq, which took place in March, 2003.
The topic? Pre-war military intelligence--what was known going into the war in Iraq, who knew it, and more importantly, what should we have known that we didn't? To participate, write a blog post on this topic, and send the link to email@example.com.
This is the proper question to ask if the object were to identify shortcomings in the intelligence process, identify shortcomings and those responsible for them and to find a way to avoid future mistakes. But it is probably not the question many want to ask. The political version of Glenn Reynold's question is 'how many versions of pre-war intelligence on Iraq existed; and which version was fed to whom?' The issue of pre-OIF intelligence is intimately intertwined with a whole host of current issues, including the Scooter Libby indictment, and Representative John Murtha's call to immediately withdraw US troops from Iraq.
"The US cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home," said Representative John Murtha, a retired Marine colonel and the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees defense spending.
Murtha is widely regarded as one of his party's top voices on military issues.
Murtha's remarks followed a string of sharp attacks by US President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney against critics of their Iraq-war policy and handling of prewar intelligence.
The entire assertion that 'Bush lied, people died' doesn't work if there was a single pre-war consensus Iraq intelligence estimate which unhappily turned out to be wrong, in whole or in part. It only works if there were two versions, one of which was fed to the public and to government officials like John Murtha, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry (which 'misled' them into voting for OIF) and another which was kept secret within the inner circles of the Bush administration, which showed OIF to be unjustified. The Washington Post, in an article by Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus, touches upon, but does not entirely pursue this key question. The article notes that President Bush recently asked why, when "more than 100 Democrats in the House and the Senate, who had access to the same intelligence, voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power" they should now accuse him of misleading them into a war. This is essentially an assertion that only one consensus version of pre-war intelligence existed. Milbank and Pincus go on to suggest there may have been more than one version.
But Bush and his aides had access to much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the administration to provide the material. And the commissions cited by officials, though concluding that the administration did not pressure intelligence analysts to change their conclusions, were not authorized to determine whether the administration exaggerated or distorted those conclusions.
Milbank and Pincus do say that some of the misunderstanding may have been due to Congressional laziness.
The lawmakers are partly to blame for their ignorance. Congress was entitled to view the 92-page National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq before the October 2002 vote. But, as The Washington Post reported last year, no more than six senators and a handful of House members read beyond the five-page executive summary.
Yet it's fair to say that one reason why the pre-war intelligence estimate that Saddam Hussein constituted a national security threat to the US did not elicit more scrutiny was because the view had been held for years. Milbank and Pincus noted that President Clinton ordered Iraq bombed on four days in 1998 based on a Congressional authorization to defend "against the continuing threat by Iraq". Although a Bush-administration ground invasion of Iraq was a far more serious step than a Clinton cruise missile barrage it was based on the same general narrative -- a narrative which had been accepted for years. Nor was the US alone in holding this view; the idea that Saddam Hussein constituted a threat to international security was shared by Britain and even the United Nations. Neither the regime of sanctions, weapons inspections, No-Fly Zones nor anything else makes any sense except in the context of a consensus that Saddam Hussein constituted some sort of threat. On that subject there was simply one version.
But it was a story with two variants, respecting the magnitude and imminence of the Hussein threat. Both are presented in a PDF compiled by the Washington Post. (See an equivalent HTML version from FAS here.) The first is represented by the State Department's Intelligence and Research Assessment, which believed that although Iraq's WMD programs were extant, they were not far advanced.
"The Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research (INR ) believes that Saddam continues to want nuclear weapons and that available evidence indicates that Baghdad is pursuing at least a limited effort to maintain and acquire nuclear weapon-related capabilities. The activities we have detected do not, however, add up a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq may be doing so, but INR considers the available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment. Lacking persuasive evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program INR is unwilling to speculate that such an effort began soon after the departure of UN inspectors or to project a timeline for the completion of activities it does not now see happening. AS a result, INR is unable to predict when Iraq could acquire a nuclear device or weapon."
The majority view in the National Intelligence Estimate (see the same PDF) was that Saddam's WMD programs (whose existence had been accepted by INR, albeit at on a limited scale) were much further advanced:
"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. ...
We judge that we are seeing only a portion of Iraq's WMD efforts, owing to Baghdad's vigorous denial and deception efforts. Revelations after the Gulf war starkly demonstrate the extensive efforts undertaken by Iraq to deny information. We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs."
... If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year. ... Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until 2007 to 2009
But the NIE could offer no definite view over whether or when Saddam would use any WMDs against the US. It said "We have low confidence in our ability to assess when Saddam would use WMD", but added it believed that "Saddam, if sufficiently desperate, might decide that only an organization such as al-Qa'ida--with worldwide reach and extensive terrorist infrastructure, and already engaged in a life-or-death struggle against the United States--could ... decide that the extreme step of assisting the Islamist terrorists in conducting a CBW attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."
It's fairly clear there was only one version of the general assessment of Saddam Hussein before OIF -- that he was a threat. There were, however, two variants respecting the degree and imminence of the danger that he represented. The first view was that Saddam, though mischievous, did not present a very imminent threat in 2003, though INR offered no estimate to when he might be. The second view was that Saddam Hussein might be able to build a nuclear weapon in the 2007-2009 timeframe. Interestingly, the NIE's most imminent Iraqi threat scenario did not involve nuclear weapons at all but possible assistance to a terrorist launched "CBW attack against the United States". Since chemical weapons are far more widely available than nuclear weapons, the danger of a CBW attack on America did not directly depend on Yellowcake in the Niger or centrifuge tubes, but simply on the availability of money and operational support that a hostile Iraqi regime might offer a terrorist organization. The seriousness of any Iraqi CBW threat to America was independent of it's nuclear weapons making capability; indeed it was only directly dependent on the character of the regime in Baghdad.
It's an article of journalistic faith now that OIF was all about WMDs and that generalization has covered a multitude of elisions. A close reading of the NIE suggests that the Saddam CBW threat was insensitive to which version of how advanced Saddam's fissile program was. In fact, one is tempted to conclude that in a larger sense, OIF itself was irrelevant to the threat of a state supported terrorist CBW threat against America; because for so long as a state, not necessarily Iraq, had the incentive to provide money and logistical support for a terrorist group intent on mounting such an attack the threat would remain undiminished.
If the objective of OIF were to forestall the emergence of a nuclear weapons capability among "rogue states", there is no getting around the fact that it has hardly affected the development of such weapons in Iran and North Korea. And if it's goal were to prevent chemical weapons from reaching terrorist hands -- weapons that are widely available on the arms black market -- the invasion would be useless as well. The only sense in which OIF would have diminished both the nuclear and chemical weapons threats to America was to the degree in which it succeeded in sending a deterrent signal to states considering supporting terrorist groups. This is the consideration which is not only explicitly missing from the pre-war intelligence estimates but largely absent from the subsequent discussion about whether "Bush lied and people died". The strange omission of geopolitical goals from the story of OIF will continue to have unfortunate results, because the measure of the war's success or failure never lay in its ability to neutralize atom bomb manufacturing facilities -- those are by all accounts operating day and night in North Korea -- but the degree to which it has deterred 'rogue states' from sponsoring terrorist organizations. If the Murtha resolution is any indication, what OIF has proved to every rogue state watching is that another OIF is unlikely to ever happen again. What started out as a demonstration of resolution intended to deter terrorist state supporters of terrorism has morphed into proof that all such demonstrations are hollow -- at least for now.
Although the pre-war intelligence estimates of Iraq now turn out to be inadequate in many ways, its principal defect was that it attempted to measure the wrong thing. It ought to have focused on the extent to which Iraqi Ba'athists and regional terror groups would have mounted a Lebanon or West Bank type defense; identified the key hurdles in creating a replacement Iraqi state; and specified the requirements necessary to win this campaign in an impressive and overwhelming manner in order to demonstrate to the rogue state audience what the consequences of aggression against the United States were. But this subject was verboten, and so instead intelligence spoke to the strategically irrelevant minutiae of Yellowcake and centrifuges, casting a wavering light, like the drunk searching for a lost coin in the story, not in the area where it would be found but in the only place he could shine a beam.