28 November 2003
WMD Programs: Culling Hard Facts from Soft Myths
The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's Weapons
of Mass Destruction (WMD) has been dissected like no other product in
the history of the US Intelligence Community. We have reexamined every
phrase, line, sentence, judgment and alternative view in this 90-page
document and have traced their genesis completely. I believed at the
time the Estimate was approved for publication, and still believe now,
that we were on solid ground in how we reached the judgments we made.
I remain convinced that no reasonable person could have viewed the
totality of the information that the Intelligence Community had at its
disposalliterally millions of pagesand reached any conclusions
or alternative views that were profoundly different from those that
we reached. The four National Intelligence Officers who oversaw the
production of the NIE had over 100 years' collective work experience
on weapons of mass destruction issues, and the hundreds of men and women
from across the US Intelligence Community who supported this effort
had thousands of man-years invested in studying these issues.
Let me be clear: The NIE judged with high confidence that Iraq had
chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess
of the 150 km limit imposed by the UN Security Council, and with moderate
confidence that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. These
judgments were essentially the same conclusions reached by the United
Nations and by a wide array of intelligence servicesfriendly and
unfriendly alike. The only government in the world that claimed that
Iraq was not working on, and did not have, biological and chemical weapons
or prohibited missile systems was in Baghdad. Moreover, in those cases
where US intelligence agencies disagreed, particularly regarding whether
Iraq was reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for its nuclear
weapons program, the alternative views were spelled out in detail.
Despite all of this, ten myths have been confused with facts in the
current media frenzy. A hard look at the facts of the NIE should dispel
some popular myths making the media circuit.
Myth #1: The Estimate favored going to war: Intelligence judgments,
including NIEs, are policy neutral. We do not propose policies and
the Estimate in no way sought to sway policymakers toward a particular
course of action. We described what we judged were Saddam's WMD programs
and capabilities and how and when he might use them and left it to policymakers,
as we always do, to determine the appropriate course of action.
Myth #2: Analysts were pressured to change judgments to meet the
needs of the Bush Administration: The judgments presented in the
October 2002 NIE were based on data acquired and analyzed over fifteen
years. Any changes in judgments over that period were based on new
evidence, including clandestinely collected information that led to
new analysis. Our judgments were presented to three different Administrations.
And the principal participants in the production of the NIE from across
the entire US Intelligence Community have sworn to Congress, under oath,
that they were NOT pressured to change their views on Iraq WMD or to
conform to Administration positions on this issue. In my particular
case, I was able to swear under oath that not only had no one pressured
me to take a particular view but that I had not pressured anyone else
working on the Estimate to change or alter their reading of the intelligence
Myth #3: NIE judgments were news to Congress: Over the past
fifteen years our assessments on Iraq WMD issues have been presented
routinely to six different congressional committees including the two
oversight committees, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and
the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. To the best of
my knowledge, prior to this NIE, these committees never came back to
us with a concern of bias or an assertion that we had gotten it wrong.
Myth #4: We buried divergent views and concealed uncertainties:
Diverse agency views, particularly on whether Baghdad was reconstituting
its uranium enrichment effort and as a subset of that, the purposes
of attempted Iraqi aluminum tube purchases, were fully vetted during
the coordination process. Alternative views presented by the Bureau
of Intelligence and Research at the Department of State, the Office
of Intelligence in the Department of Energy, and by the US Air Force
were showcased in the National Intelligence Estimate and
were acknowledged in unclassified papers on the subject. Moreover,
suggestions that their alternative views were buried as footnotes in
the text are wrong. All agencies were fully exposed to these alternative
views, and the heads of those organizations blessed the wording and
placement of their alternative views. Uncertainties were highlighted
in the Key Judgments and throughout the main text. Any reader would
have had to read only as far as the second paragraph of the Key Judgments
to know that as we said: "We lacked specific information on many
key aspects of Iraq's WMD program."
Myth #5: Major NIE judgments were based on single sources:
Overwhelmingly, major judgments in the NIE on WMD were based on multiple
sourcesoften from human intelligence, satellite imagery, and communications
intercepts. Not only is the allegation wrong, but it is also worth
noting that it is not even a valid measure of the quality of intelligence
performance. A single human source with direct access to a specific
program and whose judgment and performance have proven reliable can
provide the "crown jewels"; in the early 1960s Colonel Oleg
Penkovskiy, who was then this country's only penetration of the Soviet
high command, was just such a source. His information enabled President
Kennedy to stare down a Soviet threat emanating from Cuba, and his information
informed US intelligence analysis for more than two decades thereafter.
In short, the charge is both wrong and meaningless.
Myth #6: We relied too much on United Nations reporting and were
complacent after UN inspectors left in 1998: We never accepted
UN reporting at face value. I know, because in the mid 1990s I was the
coordinator for US intelligence support to UNSCOM and the IAEA. Their
ability to see firsthand what was going on in Iraq, including inside
facilities that we could only peer at from above, demanded that we pay
attention to what they saw and that we support their efforts fully.
Did we ever have all the information that we wanted or required? Of
course not. Moreover, for virtually any critical intelligence issue
that faces us the answer always will be "no." There is a
reason that the October 2002 review of Iraq's WMD programs is called
a National Intelligence ESTIMATE and not a National Intelligence FACTBOOK.
On almost any issue of the day that we face, hard evidence will only
take intelligence professionals so far. Our job is to fill in the gaps
with informed analysis. And we sought to do that consistently and with
vigor. The departure of UNSCOM inspectors in 1998 certainly did reduce
our information about what was occurring in Iraq's WMD programs. But
to say that we were blind after 1998 is wrong. Efforts to enhance collection
were vigorous, creative, and productive. Intelligence collection after
1998, including information collected by friendly and allied intelligence
services, painted a picture of Saddam's continuing efforts to develop
WMD programs and weapons that reasonable people would have found compelling.
Myth # 7: We were fooled on the Niger "yellowcake" storya
major issue in the NIE: This was not one of the reasons
underpinning our Key Judgment about nuclear reconstitution. In the
body of the Estimate, after noting that Iraq had considerable low-enriched
and other forms of uranium already in countryenough
to produce roughly 100 nuclear weaponswe included the Niger issue
with appropriate caveats, for the sake of completeness. Mentioning,
with appropriate caveats, even unconfirmed reporting is standard practice
in NIEs and other intelligence assessments; it helps consumers of the
assessment understand the full range of possibly relevant intelligence.
Myth #8: We overcompensated for having underestimated the WMD threat
in 1991: Our judgments were based on the evidence we acquired and
the analysis we produced over a 15-year period. The NIE noted that
we had underestimated key aspects of Saddam's WMD efforts in the 1990s.
We were not alone in that regard: UNSCOM missed Iraq's BW program and
the IAEA underestimated Baghdad's progress on nuclear weapons development.
But, what we learned from the past was the difficulty we have had in
detecting key Iraqi WMD activities. Consequently, the Estimate specified
what we knew and what we believed but also warned policymakers that
we might have underestimated important aspects of Saddam's program.
But in no case were any of the judgments "hyped" to compensate
for earlier underestimates.
Myth #9: We mistook rapid mobilization programs for actual weapons:
There is practically no difference in threat between a standing chemical
and biological weapons capability and one that could be mobilized quickly
with little chance of detection. The Estimate acknowledged that Saddam
was seeking rapid mobilization capabilities that he could invigorate
on short notice. Those who find such programs to be less of a threat
than actual weapons should understand that Iraqi denial and deception
activities virtually would have ensured our inability to detect the
activation of such efforts. Even with "only" rapid mobilization
capabilities, Saddam would have been able to achieve production and
stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons in the midst of a crisis,
and the Intelligence Community would have had little, if any, chance
of detecting this activity, particularly in the case of BW. In the
case of chemical weapons, although we might have detected indicators
of mobilization activity, we would have been hard pressed to accurately
interpret such evidence. Those who conclude that no threat existed
because actual weapons have not yet been found do not understand the
significance posed by biological and chemical warfare programs in the
hands of tyrants.
Myth #10: The NIE asserted that there were "large WMD stockpiles"
and because we haven't found them, Baghdad had no WMD: From experience
gained at the end of Desert Storm more than ten years ago, it was clear
to us and should have been clear to our critics, that finding WMD in
the aftermath of a conflict wouldn't be easy. We judged that Iraq probably
possessed one hundred to five hundred metric tons of CW munitions fill.
One hundred metric tons would fit in a backyard swimming pool; five
hundred could be hidden in a small warehouse. We made no assessment
of the size of Iraq's biological weapons holdings but a biological weapon
can be carried in a small container. (And of course, we judged that
Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon.) When the Iraq Survey Group (ISG),
led by David Kay, issued its interim report in October, acknowledging
that it had not found chemical or biological weapons, the inspectors
had then visited only ten of the 130 major ammunition depots in Iraq;
these ammunition dumps are huge, sometimes five miles by five miles
on a side. Two depots alone are roughly the size of Manhattan. It
is worth recalling that after Desert Storm, US forces unknowingly
destroyed over 1,000 rounds of chemical-filled munitions at a facility
called Al Kamissiyah. Baghdad sometimes had special markings for chemical
and biological munitions and sometimes did not. In short, much remains
to be done in the hunt for Iraq's WMD.
We do not know whether the ISG ultimately will be able to find physical
evidence of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons or confirm the status
of its WMD programs and its nuclear ambitions. The purposeful, apparently
regime-directed, destruction of evidence pertaining to WMD from one
end of Iraq to the other, which began even before the Coalition occupied
Baghdad, and has continued since then, already has affected the ISG's
work. Moreover, Iraqis who have been willing to talk to US intelligence
officers are in great danger. Many have been threatened; some have
been killed. The denial and deception efforts directed by the extraordinarily
brutal, but very competent Iraqi Intelligence Services, which matured
through ten years of inspections by various UN agencies, remain a formidable
challenge. And finally, finding physically small but extraordinarily
lethal weapons in a country that is larger than the state of California
would be a daunting task even under far more hospitable circumstances.
But now that we have our own eyes on the ground, David Kay and the ISG
must be allowed to complete their work and other collection efforts
we have under way also must be allowed to run their course. And even
then, it will be necessary to integrate all the new information with
intelligence and analyses produced over the past fifteen years before
we can determine the status of Iraq's WMD efforts prior to the war.
Allegations about the quality of the US intelligence performance and
the need to confront these charges have forced senior intelligence officials
throughout US Intelligence to spend much of their time looking backwards.
I worry about the opportunity costs of this sort of preoccupation, but
I also worry that analysts laboring under a barrage of allegations will
become more and more disinclined to make judgments that go beyond ironclad
evidencea scarce commodity in our business. If this is allowed
to happen, the Nation will be poorly served by its Intelligence Community
and ultimately much less secure. Fundamentally, the Intelligence
Community increasingly will be in danger of not connecting the dots
until the dots have become a straight line.
We must keep in mind that the search for WMD cannot and should not
be about the reputation of US Intelligence or even just about finding
weapons. At its core, men and women from across the Intelligence Community
continue to focus on this issue because understanding the extent of
Iraq's WMD efforts and finding and securing weapons and all of the key
elements that make up Baghdad's WMD programs before they
fall into the wrong handsis vital to our national security.
If we eventually are proven wrongthat is, that there were no weapons
of mass destruction and the WMD programs were dormant or abandonedthe
American people will be told the truth; we would have it no other way.
Stu Cohen is an intelligence professional with 30 years of service
in the CIA. He was acting Chairman of the National Intelligence Council
when the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's Weapons of Mass
Destruction was published.