The Bush administration’s reluctant agreement to appoint a commission to review intelligence about Iraq’s alleged stocks of weapons of mass destruction says as much about President Bush and electoral politics as it does about judgments regarding an "imminent threat" that apparently did not exist.
There are already concerns about the independence of the commission, since the President plans to appoint all its members. The commission’s credibility will no doubt be challenged as it deliberates during this election year. And the decision to give the commission a broad mandate that goes beyond Iraq and WMD will push aside the key questions: what was the president told and did he listen?
A closer reading of former chief weapons inspector David Kay’s testimony shows how the administration dismissed doubts about crucial evidence; politicized intelligence findings; and magnified threats that it had to know were suspect.
Consider the following excerpts from Dr. Kay’s testimony that did not make headlines:
"…in fact, the U.N. inspection process achieved quite a bit."
The return of U.N. inspectors in late 2002 should have enabled the intelligence community to reconstruct an accurate picture of what had happened in Iraq in the four years since inspectors were expelled. But the administration failed to give the U.N. and IAEA sufficient time to do a revised baseline. And when inspection results were reported under Security Council Resolution 1441, no one in the White House really listened to doubts expressed by Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei that Iraq retained significant chemical or biological capabilities or had effectively reconstituted its nuclear program.
Disregarding these findings was as much a political decision as it was a failure of intelligence analysts to challenge the administration’s assumptions for war in light of the U.N. findings.
"…an imminent threat is a political judgment."
Administration claims that it never used the word "imminent" are disingenuous. The imagery used by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that "we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" was dramatic and its meaning unmistakable. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted that “we know where the weapons of mass destruction are.” Even before Dr. Kay’s statement, the administration was already backpedaling from its claims that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed a mortal threat to the United States, and tried to shift the focus to Saddam Hussein himself. Their new argument: the Iraqi people are free. The world is better off without Saddam. The rest is details. In fact, the Kay revelation undercuts the legitimacy of the U.S. occupation and handicaps U.S. credibility as we try to intercede in other proliferation cases.
"If there are only a few dots connected, maybe they don’t belong connected."
The administration was correct in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, to recognize the potentially lethal combination of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. However, the White House has never offered a satisfactory explanation as to why Iraq was a greater threat than North Korea. Dr. Kay himself placed North Korea well ahead of Iraq on the danger scale, calling Iraq a "gathering, serious threat" while he labeled North Korea – which exported nuclear or missile technology to Iran, Iraq and Libya – an "existing threat."
What elevated removing Saddam from a second order problem to a strategic imperative was the desire to carry out President Bush’s new policy of preventive war. In fact, intelligence judgments about Iraq changed very little between the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Intelligence is much more art than science. For every satellite photo that definitively reveals the deployment of strategic missiles, as with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, there is a Kumchang-ri, where the North Koreans had vast underground tunnels that made it virtually impossible to either substantiate suspicions of cheating or totally alleviate concerns, even with inspections.
The real problem, as Dr. Kay alluded to in his testimony, is the fact that the intelligence community has consistently underestimated proliferation threats going back to the Cuban missile crisis. Revelations regarding Libya and Pakistan have revealed a global underground nuclear technology network that evaded existing international controls. We have also discovered that Iran’s nuclear efforts were further advanced than previously thought.
Ironically, disputes with all the countries mentioned by Dr. Kay – Iran, Libya, North Korea or Cuba – are being dealt with or were resolved through diplomacy, the very course that President Bush rejected for Iraq. During the Cuban missile crisis, President John Kennedy relied on skilled diplomacy to eliminate the threat, ensuring along the way that the rest of the world understood what we were doing and why. His actions increased the relative strength of the United States both within the hemisphere and around the world. A decisive, but limited military intervention translated into a clear geostrategic victory. The Soviet Union was forced to back down. Nikita Khrushchev never recovered.
In contrast, the Bush administration’s willingness to manipulate intelligence to prosecute the war against Iraq has led to a loss of legitimacy and has impeded our efforts to get others to join us in the fight against terrorism.
There is no doubt that we need a forward-looking analysis of what the United States and the international community must do to keep deadly unconventional materials, technology and know-how from reaching terrorist networks.
But the best analysis and intelligence in the world cannot overcome presidential failure to level with the American people. And that is something that no commission can fix.
P.J. Crowley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a retired Air Force colonel and served on the National Security Council staff and in the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.