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How did the intelligence agencies get their information so wrong on Iraq?

From Roland Watson in Washington

As pressure mounts for an inquiry, our correspondent sifts through the flawed surveillance that sent the US-led coalition into war

EXACTLY a year ago, President Bush used his State of the Union address to spell out the charges against Saddam Hussein. “The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary, he is deceiving,” he proclaimed to the world.
Twelve months on, after the deaths of more than 500 coalition troops and countless thousands of Iraqis, Mr Bush's two sentences were so nearly right, yet so wildly wrong. Saddam was not disarming, but that was because he had nothing to disarm. Rather than deceiving the world, it was he who was being deceived by his own scientists who had failed to build the weapons he craved.

For much of the intervening year both the Bush Administration and Tony Blair have counselled patience, insisting the WMD would turn up eventually, but this was the week that the White House finally admitted what had long ago become apparent — that the weapons it used to justify war do not exist. Mr Bush signalled the start of the retreat ten days ago when, in this year's State of the Union speech, he offered only a vague reference to “dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related activities”.

That was closely followed by Dick Cheney, the hawkish Vice-President, stating as he flew to the World Economic Forum in Davos, that “the jury is still out” on Iraqi WMD.

Then came the bombshell from David Kay. The head of the hunt for Iraq's arsenal for the past nine months resigned, saying he did not believe the WMD stockpiles existed.

In subsequent interviews Dr Kay said he believed Saddam had destroyed most of the weaponry after the 1991 Gulf War. “It turns out we were all wrong,” he declared in testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's National Security Adviser, completed the Administration's retreat, albeit in the most tortuous language.

“I think that what we have is evidence that there are differences between what we knew going in and what we found on the ground,” she said. There was no doubt “that we are going to need to go back and compare what we thought we would find with what we found”.

It was not a graceful climbdown. In its efforts to escape blame, the White House achieved stunning levels of chutzpah. Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, denied that the Administration had ever identified Saddam as an “imminent” threat.

He insisted it was the media, not the White House, that was responsible for any such impression. “I think some in the media have chosen to use the word ‘imminent'. Those were not words we used. We used, ‘grave and gathering' threat,” he said.

Saddam had grown increasingly divorced from reality, he said. Tariq Aziz, the former Deputy Prime Minister, told Dr Kay how Saddam would send him manuscripts of novels he was writing even as US forces were massing in the Gulf.

The charge that Mr Bush and Mr Blair led their countries into war on false pretences could not be more serious. But even as their justification for war crumbled, both were handed unexpected lifelines.

Dr Kay placed the blame squarely on intelligence failures. He said that had he been in Mr Bush's shoes he would have acted in the same way, and that there was no indication the Administration had brought undue political pressure to bear.

Indeed Mr Bush moved yesterday to portray himself as the injured party. “I want the American people to know that I, too, want to know the facts,” he said. “I want to be able to compare what the Iraq Survey Group has found with what we thought prior to going into Iraq.”

In Britain Lord Hutton, in his report on the death of David Kelly, likewise cleared Mr Blair of tampering with intelligence to improve the case for war, thereby suggesting that the intelligence was at fault.

The flawed intelligence was not just that of the CIA under Mr Bush, or of the intelligence agencies of countries such as Britain and Israel that supported the war. French and German intelligence also believed Saddam had WMD, as did President Clinton. Hans Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector, said last January that “Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance of the disarmament which was demanded of it ”.

So the question now becomes how could so many have been so wrong? Dr Kay provided his own considered answer. He told how, in his judgment, Iraq had all but abandoned its quest for large quantities of chemical or biological weapons after the 1991 Gulf War. Since then, an increasingly delusional Saddam had been duped by corrupt scientists who were both eager to please and to line their pockets. The regime was no longer in control. It was like a death spiral. Saddam was self-directing projects that were not vetted by anyone else. The scientists were able to fake programmes, he said.

He has also floated the theory that Saddam may himself have been behind the deception in order to maintain his status as the strongman of the Gulf region. In other words, he certainly was deceiving the rest of the world, but the deception was the precise opposite of what Washington and London thought it to be.

Both conclusions explain the absence of WMD, but not the extraordinary failure of the apparently credulous CIA and MI6.

Western intelligence apparently had too few people on the ground, and was relying to a dangerous degree on Iraqi defectors and exiles with their own reasons for encouraging a US invasion.

The intelligence operation was also hobbled by its reliance on satellite images. When Colin Powell made a forceful case to the UN Security Council last year, he presented pictures of lorries parked against buildings which he said were involved in WMD projects. It seems now that they were simply lorries parked against buildings.

The White House is for the moment resisting mounting pressure to hold an independent inquiry into the intelligence failure, despite Mr Bush's demand for the facts. John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, broke ranks yesterday and demanded that an independent commission take a sweeping look at recent intelligence failures.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has already drafted a report strongly critical of the CIA. There is also a report in the works on Capitol Hill about intelligence failures in the run-up to September 11. The last thing Mr Bush wants in an election year is for another such inquiry to spin out of his control.

Relations between the White House and the CIA are frayed. Last year's squabble about who was to blame for the false claims in Mr Bush's State of the Union speech that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger have left a sour taste. The CIA is also smarting over the claims that White House officials leaked the name of an agency spy to get back at her husband for criticising the war.

To make the CIA squirm under a public spotlight, and risk it leaking against Mr Bush in the run-up to November's presidential election, would be a huge risk. But there are also dangers for Mr Bush from inaction. A failure to order an investigation could be exploited by Democrats in the election campaign.

It was Mr Bush who described the threat from Saddam as “urgent”, Mr Cheney who called it “mortal” and Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, who said it was “immediate”.

For the moment Mr Bush has public opinion on his side. A Gallup poll this month showed that 56 per cent of Americans, when asked if the war had been a mistake, said “No”. In October, 55 per cent said that finding banned weapons was not necessary to judge the war a success.

US intelligence stands charged of relying on old and circumstantial material to build the case against Saddam.

After the September 11 attacks, American intelligence agencies may have been hyper-sensitive to potential dangers from Iraq. The Administration certainly was.

Intelligence committees on Capitol Hill believe that the CIA failed to consider at all the possibility that Saddam no longer had WMD. Indeed, a rushed intelligence update on Iraq in 2002 claimed that Saddam posed more of a threat than previous estimates.

Dr Kay's conclusions raise critical questions about the credibility of intelligence services around the world, but particularly in the US. And they challenge the coherence and realism of Mr Bush's signature doctrine of pre-emption, which relies on intelligence. The answers to both could affect the President's re-election chances.