David Kay, the recently retired head of the Iraq Survey Group, makes dramatic claims about Iraq’s weapons programs, including “we were all wrong.” But does he have the necessary basis to do so? Kay was only in Iraq for six months, and he left because ISG personnel were being diverted to the counter-insurgency effort. Thus, even that limited period was not fully productive. Nonetheless, Kay claims that Iraq had no substantial quantities of proscribed weapons or agents, even in the run-up to the war. That material was pretty much destroyed in the latter half of the 1990s, he claims.
Yet the ousted regime was notoriously skilled at “Denial and Deception.” Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, has suggested an alternative explanation for the inability to find those weapons. "The system of hiding, of concealment was very sophisticated in Iraq,” according to Zebari. In fact, he believes that some weapons could still be found.
Indeed, our previous experience with Iraq suggests that Zebari may be right. Until 1995, practically everyone underestimated the extent of Iraq’s proscribed weapons programs extant after the 1991 Gulf War. The prevailing assumption was that most of that material had been destroyed in the extensive bombing campaign that preceded the ground war and that UNSCOM (the UN Special Commission, charged with supervising the destruction of Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons and missiles) was slowly mopping up what remained after the war.
Then, in August 1995, Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamil, who was in charge of those programs, defected to Jordan. The Iraqis panicked and revealed to UNSCOM that all the weapons programs prohibited to them by UN Resolution 687 were much larger and more advanced than they had previously acknowledged. (Former Clinton administration official Kenneth Pollack is simply wrong in his Atlantic Monthly article, quoted approvingly by the editors of the New York Times in dating the heightened concern about those weapons to the late1990s—thereby letting both the Clinton administration and himself off the hook for long turning a blind eye to the danger those WMDs posed. As late as January 1999, Pollack vehemently argued that the “containment” of Iraq was an effective policy.
Following Kamil’s defection, the Iraqis claimed the material they acknowledged producing had also been destroyed, but the Iraqis provided no documentation to corroborate that claim. UNSCOM attempted to do so through interviews of Iraqi personnel, but that proved no more satisfactory. UNSCOM concluded that the material remained in Iraq. UNSCOM’s concerns were reflected in its October 11, 1995, report, the first such report issued after Kamil’s defection, as well as all subsequent reports.
The real expertise regarding Iraq’s weapons program lies not with U.S. intelligence agencies, but with UNSCOM, which was responsible for dealing with those programs from 1991 until early 2000, when it was dissolved in the face of Iraq’s intransigence and replaced by UNMOVIC, a much weaker organization. UNSCOM’s work was regularly presented to the Security Council and had to withstand the scrutiny of that body, including Iraq’s friends there. Moreover, it was regularly evaluated by outside teams.
The ISG has spent far less time on this issue than UNSCOM; its personnel are far less knowledgeable; and it has certainly not opened its findings to outside vetting. The ISG consists almost entirely of US, British, and Australian intelligence. Of the 1,200 individuals initially sent to Iraq (many in support positions), few were truly knowledgeable. A significant number of former UNSCOM people were supposed to be part of the ISG, but at the last minute they were scrapped. In the end, as one former UNSCOM official estimated, perhaps five to ten individuals in the ISG were truly informed about Iraq’s weapons programs.
Apparently, the intelligence agencies wanted the glory of finding Iraq’s weapons themselves. With rare exceptions, the ISG only began to admit UNSCOM personnel in the fall of 2003, as the ISG ran into troubles. Moreover, as there was extra hazard pay for the work, some managers in the intelligence community sent themselves, rather than their more expert staff.
Most noteworthy, perhaps, was the lack of biological expertise within the ISG. Only one individual had experience in that regard, Hamish Killip, a British citizen, one of the few UNSCOM personnel to make it onto the ISG early on. But Killip’s expertise was munitions, rather than the biological agents themselves.
The Iraqi regime made the greatest effort to hide its biological program, which, until the end, as Richard Butler, UNSCOM’s last chairman, explained, was a “black hole.” Considering the extreme nature of the biological threat, the ISG’s lack of knowledgeable individuals in this field was a serious omission.
To get results quickly, the ISG focused on interviewing Iraqi scientists, rather than, for example, plowing through the tons of documents in its possession. Initially, the scientists were told that if they co-operated, their prison terms would be reduced. Not much of an incentive, as, clearly, another option was to stonewall and face no prison term whatsoever.
The ISG claims the scientists were given every reason to work with it, so, presumably, that position changed. Nonetheless, there may well be reasons why Iraqi scientists would not tell what they know. Perhaps, their activities, if known, would prompt genuine outrage and even a revocation of whatever had been promised them; UNSCOM suspected the regime engaged in the human testing of biological weapons. Maybe full confessions would lead to the conclusion that Iraqi scientists had produced the military grade anthrax sent to U.S. senators soon after the 9/11 attacks—or to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office this week.
The scientists may simply prefer to live the rest of their lives in Iraq, rather than as exiles in the West. And some Iraqis who gave the United States information about Iraq’s weapons were assassinated afterwards. While Saddam Hussein remained at large—he was not captured until December 13—the uncertainty about his whereabouts and possible return to power had an intimidating effect on the scientists, as the ISG has itself acknowledged. And even now, some key figures, like Dr. Germs (Rihab Taha) are not talking.
Indeed, one former senior UNSCOM official observed that the ISG has gotten less out of the scientists than they had previously admitted to UNSCOM. He also noted the difficulties of getting information from them. If they wanted to please you, they might tell you want you wanted to hear, and the inverse was also true. UNSCOM used to spend hours in those interviews, asking the most picayune questions.
Finally, Kay himself reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October that considerable effort was made after the war to conceal Iraq’s weapons activities. As Kay explained:
"We have been faced with a systematic sanitization of documentary and computer evidence in a wide range of offices, laboratories, and companies suspected of WMD work. The pattern of these efforts to erase evidence—hard drives destroyed, specific files burned, equipment cleaned of all traces of use—are ones of deliberate, rather than random, acts."
If there was no significant illicit activity, why was such an effort made to destroy evidence?
It is not even clear that Kay has the right to speak as he has since stepping down. One experienced Washington insider suggested the White House mishandled his resignation. The resignation, and the reasons for it, should have been announced. Kay’s successor should then have assumed responsibility for speaking on behalf of the ISG.
To be sure, the ISG’s work is of at least some value. Minimally, very extensive steps were taken to hide all traces of Iraq’s weapons programs. But it is premature to reach the conclusions that Kay has articulated. No one can legitimately claim that the ISG’s work is superior to UNSCOM’s or that it renders invalid UNSCOM’s judgments, which, in turn, provided the basis for the pre-war estimates of the U.S. intelligence community.
President George W. Bush has ordered an investigation into U.S. intelligence on several rogue regimes, including Iraq, and their weapons programs. That is all for the good, but it does not mean that on the war’s eve, Saddam did not possess significant unconventional capabilities that justified the war. Even a modest, but sophisticated, biological weapons cache would have represented an imminent, intolerable danger (which even Kay suggests was a distinct possibility). Moreover, the investigation into U.S. intelligence should keep an open mind to the possibility that the work of the ISG—the first time since 1991 that the U.S. intelligence community has rendered judgments on Iraq’s weapons independent of UNSCOM—represents, in fact, the greatest U.S. intelligence failure on this issue since that time.
Laurie Mylroie is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department tried to stop the War on Terror. She can be reached through www.benadorassociates.com