Failure Is an Option

The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction has at last released its full report, detailing intelligence gathering leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

The report answers a number of important questions about the invasion of Iraq.

Q: How wrong was U.S. intelligence about Iraq?

The harm done to American credibility by our all too public intelligence failings in Iraq will take years to undo. If there is good news it is this: without actually suffering a massive nuclear or biological attack, we have learned how badly the Intelligence Community can fail in struggling to understand the most important threats we face.

The Iraq Survey Group concluded that Iraq had not tried to reconstitute a capability to produce nuclear weapons after 1991

The ISG [Iraq Survey Group] also found no evidence that Iraq had taken steps to advance its pre-1991 work in nuclear weapons design and development.

Contrary to the Intelligence Community’s pre-war assessments, the ISG’s post-war investigations concluded that Iraq had unilaterally destroyed its biological weapons stocks and probably destroyed its remaining holdings of bulk BW agent in 1991 and 1992.

Iraq did not have CW [chemical weapon] stockpiles; it was not producing CW agent; and its chemical infrastructure was in far worse shape than the Intelligence Community believed.

By 2002, the [Intelligence] Community assessed that “Iraqi military morale and battlefield cohesion [were] more fragile today than in 1991.”

A: Very, very wrong indeed. Every aspect of the WMD case in Iraq- nuclear, chemical, and biological- was fatally flawed, based on a small number of pieces of data, many of which were suspect.

The nuclear weapons allegations were based entirely on reported attempts to acquire aluminum tubes on the world market, and uranium from Nigeria. The aluminum tube claim has been shown by the ISG to have been entirely spurious; the tubes were for a conventional, declared rocket program, and the intelligence community had all the information needed to make that determination prior to the war. U.S. and international entities with experience in studying nuclear weapons proliferation concluded, correctly, that the tubes were ill-suited to the creation of a uranium centrifuge system, but were perfectly suited to conventional rocketry applications. Other U.S. agencies elected to ignore this information, and rely instead on a grotesquely flawed investigation by National Ground Intelligence Center that indicated that the tubes were ‘unsuited’ to rocketry applications based on the fact that, while essentially identical to tubes already used in Iraqi rockets, they were built to slightly higher tolerances and cost seventeen dollars a piece. The Nigeria allegations were based on forged documents, which the CIA uncovered as soon as it examined them in detail- six months after it had acquired them, and long after it had presented them as fact.

Biological weapons capabilities- most prominently the ‘mobile WMD labs’ presented by Colin Powell to the U.N.- were assessed based almost entirely on evidence taken from a single source, an Iraqi emigre with the promising codename ‘Curveball’. Curveball was never interviewed directly by the CIA until after the war had begun. The foreign intelligence agency holding his leash observed that he was much less interested in providing information once his immigration status was secured, and that he showed up drunk or hung over to interviews that had been scheduled weeks or months in advance. Intelligence agents failed to check his credentials, and didn’t learn until after the war had begun that Curveball was fired from a government job, had not been present at the locations that he had described, and may have been fabricating facts based on information that was available from open sources (i.e, given a few hours with a few biology textbooks and a few supply house catalogs, most individuals with a decent background in biology might be able to describe a ‘mobile lab’ like the one that Curveball presented to intelligence agencies- in fact, I think the Hardy Boys had a similar setup at one point).

Information about chemical weapons capabilities was derived largely from looking at aerial pictures of trucks. Too many pictures of trucks, it would seem. See below.

Q: Did political pressure play a role in this massive intelligence screw-up?

Similarly, a former senior intelligence officer remarked in November 2004 that DOE’s [Department of Energy] position had “made sense politically but not substantively.”

In fact, the DOE intelligence analyst who participated in the coordination meetings for the NIE–while maintaining that there was no political pressure on DOE, direct or indirect, to agree with the reconstitution conclusion at the NIE coordination meeting–conceded to this Commission that “DOE didn’t want to come out before the war and say [Iraq] wasn’t reconstituting [its nuclear weapons program].”

Analysts skewed the analytical process by requiring proof that Iraq did not have WMD.

Analysts noted that the “impending war” influenced their approach to the pre-war assessments of Iraq’s WMD programs, particularly the October 2002 NIE.

The [CIA] Ombudsman noted that in his view, analysts on Iraq worked under more “pressure” than any other analysts in CIA’s history, in terms of their being required to produce so much, for so long, for such senior decision makers.

Neither analysts nor users were sufficiently open to being told that affirmative, specific evidence to support the assumption was, at best, uncertain in content or reliability.

Some analysts were affected by this “conventional wisdom” and the sense that challenges to it–or even refusals to find its confirmation–would not be welcome. For example, the National Intelligence Officer for Near East and South Asia described a “zeitgeist” or general “climate” of policymaker focus on Iraq’s WMD that permeated the analytical atmosphere. This “climate” was formed in part, the NIO claimed, by the gathering conviction among analysts that war with Iraq was inevitable by the time the NIE was being prepared.

Yet one systemic problem within the Intelligence Community works to frustrate expressions of dissent. As the former Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research described the problem, the senior leadership of the Intelligence Community is faced with an inevitable conundrum–the head of the Intelligence Community must be close to the President in order for the intelligence product to have relevance, but such closeness also risks the loss of objectivity. When this balance tips too far toward the desire for the Intelligence Community to be “part of the [Administration] team,” analysts may be dissuaded from offering dissenting opinions.

Moreover, the analysts who raised concerns about the need for reassessments were not rewarded for having done so but were instead forced to leave WINPAC [the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Center]. One analyst, after presenting his case in late 2003 that Curveball had fabricated his reporting, was “read the riot act” by his office director, who accused him of “making waves” and being “biased.” The analyst told Commission staff that he was subsequently asked to leave WINPAC.

A: Despite the Comission’s hemming and hawing to the contrary, yes it did. The Commission largely bends over backwards to avoid assigning any responsibility for the intelligence failure anywhere except to the low-level analysts who were responsible for gathering information and passing it along to their superiors. Just about every error that occurred in the intelligence leading up to the war is ascribed to errors in ‘tradecraft’. In my opinion, this is little more than an extension of the ‘The buck stops at the lowest paygrade’ policy that the administration has applied to every failure throughout its tenure- be it Abu Ghraib or 9/11.

Despite repeated claims that politics played no role in changing how analysts assessed Iraqi intelligence (or, more often, the lack thereof), when read between the lines the report is rife with evidence that expectations from on high played as much role as failure down below.

  • Compressed schedules for producing critical intelligence reports
  • A pervasive awareness that intelligence was being gathered for a war that would take place no matter what was revealed
  • Individual analysts intimidated or punished for offering objections or alternate theories that conflicted with the conventional wisdom
  • Unwillingness on the part of at least one agency to reveal contradictory evidence in light of the administrations position on the war

The Commission’s claim that politics did not affect the conclusions drawn by the intelligence community seem to be based on the idea that there was no clear report of analysts being told to change their findings in response to political pressure. Fine. I’m certainly willing to believe that what transpired during the months leading to the invasion of Iraq was something other than Dick Cheney paying a visit to Langley to tell John Q. Analyst that black is white and that those really are the droids we’re looking for. The Commission also claims that the shortened schedule for producing the critical intelligence report on Iraq’s WMD capabilities did not play a factor in the eventual errors that were committed. Again, this seems reasonable. By most reports, what would have happened had the agencies been given more time to work on the report was not a fundamental change to the conclusions that the report drew, but rather a further synthesis and detailing of the information to be presented.

What the Commission does fault throughout the report is the failure by multiple agencies to convey to intelligence consumers (people like the President, the Cabinet, and members of the House and Senate) that the information that they were being provided with was subject to a great deal of uncertainty, that some of the sources were suspect, and that in general there was very little information on which to make a decision. In short, the intelligence reaching the President and other top officials lacked the caveats and qualifications necessary to demonstrate what was provable, what was suspect, and what was (essentially) speculation. These are exactly the sorts of errors that one would expect in a report produced under a tight schedule and under pressure to meet the expectations of top officials by reaching a particular finding.

It seems unlikely in the extreme that analysts would go so far as to entirely fabricate or fundamentally alter their findings in order to meet the expectations of their superiors, or the political figures to whom their superiors must answer. What seems more likely is that analysts, as well as the supervisors, directors, and officials collecting and summarizing their work, would tend to give credence to sources that reinforced what it had been ‘suggested’ that they would find, and tend to downplay or ignore sources that contradicted these assumptions. As evidence was passed up the chain from field-level analysts to higher and higher offices, qualifiers and uncertainties were dampened or removed, giving the impression of more comprehensive and reliable information than actually existed. The Commission is particularly critical of the reports that are given daily to the President, indicating that these reports may have been edited and tailored to match the un-nuanced and unqualified interests of the Chief Executive.

A tightened schedule for producing substantive intelligence is likely to have exacerbated these problems. In a crunch situation, you scramble for material, you fill in the broad strokes, and then you go back and fill in the details. It was these critical details- closer assessments of sources, qualifications and quantifications of the number and reliability of sources and information- that were missing from the intelligence produced by the Intelligence Community, and which ultimately turned speculative intelligence gathered from a small number of unreliable data points into rock-hard evidence from multiple highly-placed sources (as occurred in the Curveball fiasco).

In short, if analysts being dressed down and forced out of an intelligence agency for offering competing theories about a situation isn’t political influence, it’s hard to say what is.

Furthermore, while the Commission tip-toes around the issue, questions have to be asked about the responsibility of the ‘consumers’ of the intelligence produced by these agencies. While it’s not reasonable to expect that cabinet members and Senators will personally verify the veracity of every memo that they receive, in preparing the case for war a higher level of accountability and diligence must be expected. When information about the reliability of informants failed to appear in intelligence briefs, why weren’t the obvious questions asked about the reliability of the provided information? In the course of the Comission’s report, we hear several times about attempts by sacrificial lamb Colin Powell to verify the quality of the information he was being called upon to present to the United Nations. Powell’s quest ultimately failed because of reluctance on the part of the agencies to reveal the poor quality of their sources, and the Secretary wound up feeding the United Nations the same fairy story that Curveball had fed to his eager handlers. But where were similar efforts from the President, from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield, or from National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice?

Q: Were the U.N inspections and sanctions working?

According to the ISG, Saddam’s regime, under severe pressure from United Nations sanctions, reacted by unilaterally destroying its WMD stockpiles and halting work on its WMD programs.

But after initial [U.N] inspections proved much more thorough and intrusive than Baghdad had expected, Saddam became concerned. In order to prevent discovery of his still-hidden pre-1991 WMD programs, Saddam ordered Hussein Kamil to destroy large numbers of undeclared weapons and related materials in July 1991.

A: Yes. Throughout the report, the Commission repeats findings by the Iraq Survey Group that indicate that Iraq had no militarily significant stocks of WMD, nor significant capability to produce WMD, from 1991 on. Fearful that violations of their U.N. declarations would result in more regime-destabilizing sanctions, Saddam did the unthinkable and complied with the U.N. weapons resolutions.

Q: If there were no WMD, why did Saddam attempt to interfere with weapons inspections?

At the same time, in an attempt to project power–both domestically as well as against perceived regional threats such as Iran and Israel–Iraq chose to obfuscate whether it actually possessed WMD.

Moreover, even when there was nothing incriminating to hide, the Iraqis did not fully cooperate with the inspectors, judging that an effective United Nations inspection process would expose Iraq’s lack of WMD and therefore expose its vulnerability, especially vis-à-vis Iran.

Failing to conclude that Saddam had ended his banned weapons programs is one thing–not even considering it as a possibility is another.

A: Fear. Saddam Hussein was a brutal, fear-mongering dictator operating in one of the toughest and most dangerous regions in the world. Iraqi chemical weapons had played a significant role in defeating human wave tactics in the Iran war, and had been used to control minority uprisings in Iraq after the Gulf War. Iraq must have suspected, as the rest of the world did, that Iran was pursuing nuclear capabilities, and known that Israel already possessed them. In this environment, Saddam Hussein had every reason to cultivate the impression that Iraq intended to remain a player in the world of WMD’s.

During the period immediately following the Gulf War, Saddam was actually attempting to protect undeclared stocks of unconventional munitions- primarily chemical and biological weapons. In mid 1991, Saddam became concerned that these weapons were too much of a risk in the face of determined inspections and had them secretly destroyed. Saddam had no incentive to reveal or document the destruction of these weapons; acknowledging their existence would be an admission of violating the U.N.’s rulings, while publicizing their destruction would expose Iraqi vulnerability in the region, and would diminish Saddam’s personal prestige among Arab leaders and his own military. Much of Saddam’s mystique stemmed from his defiance of the West, and his willingness to resort to any tactic. The threat of unrevealed chem/bio weapons, or a nuclear weapons program, served both to enhance this mystique and to deter possible attacks from hostile nations- retaliation with chemical or biological weapons was widely feared when U.S. forces began the latest invasion of Iraq.

Ultimately, Saddam had every reason to try and first hide his weapons stockpiles, and then hide the fact of their destruction. Unfortunately, this meant that in later inspection rounds, when evidence of the hidden weapons was revealed, the Iraqi regime was unable to account for the fate of these stockpiled weapons. Hussein was trapped between two lies.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the single most embarrassing revelation in the Commission report?


Pre-war, analysts relied upon imagery to detect transshipment activity at suspected CW [chemical weapon] sites, and beginning in March 2002, analysts believed that they were seeing an “increase” in such activity. In reality, however, the “increase” in transshipment activity that analysts saw starting in March 2002 may have been due, at least in part, to an increased volume of imagery collected by U.S. satellites rather than to any increased activity by the Iraqis. To only somewhat oversimplify the matter, it wasn’t that the Iraqis were using Samarra trucks more often in 2002–it was that in 2002 the United States was taking more pictures of places where the Samarra trucks were being used.

In Conclusion:

  1. The case for war was built on a pack of lies, half-truths, and misunderstandings.
  2. Diplomatic intervention, weapons inspections, and sanctions were working in Iraq.
  3. The world community was right to view with suspicion the information that the United States presented about Iraq’s capability to create and deploy weapons of mass destruction.
  4. No official in the Bush administration has been held accountable for the failures in intelligence that lead to the war in Iraq. George Tenet, who may have been responsible for failing to pass on critical information about the unreliability of sources related to Iraqi WMD intelligence, was given the nation’s highest civilian honor when he retired.
  5. There’s no reason to think that the intelligence community today knows any more about countries that really do have nuclear weapons or other WMDs than it did in the past about Iraq not having them.
  6. The plan to invade Iraq preceded much of the intelligence that was gathered, rather than following from it.
  7. The Bush administration has opted for revisionism rather than responsibility, retroactively claiming that the case for the invasion of Iraq was made on the grounds of ‘freedom’ and ‘evil intent’, rather than the presence of weapons of mass destruction.
  8. 1,707 men and women have died in Iraq chasing a phantom. More than 10,000 Iraqi men, women, and children– and possibly as many as 100,000– have died because someone thought that phantom was in their backyard.

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