The inability to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction will go down as one of the greatest intelligence failures in American history. However, critical information provided by Iraqis and foreign governments was not acted upon or placed into the right hands. This additional failure is a reminder that the Intelligence Community is still broken. A series of high-level meetings were held on February 10-12, 2004, involving officials from the U.S., U.K., and Ukraine. Attendees of these meetings included Deputy Undersecretary of Defense John A. Shaw, director of MI6 Richard Dearlove, the head of the Ukrainian SBU intelligence service Ihor Smeshko, among others. As discussed in Shadow Warriors by Kenneth Timmerman, Smeshko and the other Ukrainians informed the U.S. and British governments that Iraq’s WMD had been sent outside of the country with Russian assistance. The information included the dates and locations of meetings to plan the operation, and even names of the Russian Spetsnaz officers involved. Shaw also worked with a British solider of fortune who ran an intelligence network in the region, and had tracked the movement of WMDs to Syria and Lebanon.
The information provided by this network substantiated the information provided by the Ukrainians. Ion Pacepa, the former head of Romanian intelligence during the Cold War, has also provided information supporting these allegations, saying he had personal knowledge of a Soviet plan called “Operation Sarindar” where the Russians would cleanse an ally, such as Iraq, of traces of illicit activity if threatened with Western attack. The plan’s purpose was to deny the West of any evidence incriminating the Russian ally, as well as to wipe Russia’s own fingerprints off of the state’s illegal activity. The presence of Russian advisors in Iraq shortly before the invasion, some of whom received medals from Saddam Hussein, indicates this plan was activated.
It should also be mentioned that Dave Gaubatz, a special agent with the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, was the first civilian federal agent deployed to Iraq and he said that he saw intelligence that “suggested that some WMD had been moved to Syria with the help of Russian intelligence.” Iraqis also told him that there was a Russian presence in the country before the war.
According to Timmerman, Smeshko expressed his frustration that the CIA station chief in Kiev was not cooperative when he tried to pass along the intelligence. Shaw described similar resistance from members of the Intelligence Community who tried to discredit his sources. This sort of opposition may indicate that the information did not survive the inter-agency battles long enough to reach the highest policy-makers.
On February 24, I went to see a talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia by Charles Duelfer, the leader of the Iraq Survey Group, who was promoting his new book, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq. The ISG had been assembled in 2003 to search for weapons of mass destruction, ultimately concluding that no stockpiles of such arms existed at the time of the invasion. Duelfer stated emphatically that he was “convinced” that no Iraqi WMD had made its way to Syria, although he admitted there were some “loose ends” remaining on the issue.
During the question-and-answer session, I asked Duelfer if he had seen any information passed to the United States by the Ukrainian government about Iraq’s WMDs going to Syria and Russian involvement in the transfer. He responded by saying that he had seen no such information. In a follow-up email interview, he said “This does not mean…that it was not passed on to ISG [Iraq Survey Group].” The fact that the head of the WMD search was not given specific intelligence provided by a foreign government is a stunning intelligence failure itself, casting doubt upon the efficiency of the Intelligence Community.
Duelfer has confirmed that the Russians had a presence in Iraq and had fingerprints to hide. He says that the Russians were assisting Saddam Hussein’s illegal ballistic missile program, which Duelfer notes was a violation of the United Nations, and had a strong relationship with his regime.
“Russians were present in Iraq for many activities….Russian officials regularly met with Iraqi officials…Russian KGB officers were in regular contact with the regime at very senior levels…Russian businessmen were all over Baghdad tryng to secure a variety of deals. And of course Russians, including very senior Russians, were in receipt of lucrative oil allocations under the UN Oil-for-Food Program,” Duelfer said in my interview with him. He also noted that, to the best of his knowledge, Russia did not investigate any of the officials involved in the scandal.
At the Philadelphia event, Duelfer also told me that he did not believe Iraq sent WMD to Syria. He cited the testimony of Naji Sabri, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, in particular.
“I knew him very well, and I had been authorized to make his life a lot better, or a lot worse,” he told me, adding that as foreign minister, he’d handle any such dealings with Syria. However, in his book, Duelfer says that Sabri had nothing to do with any WMD programs at any time. “His statements on WMD from an intelligence perspective would have been irrelevant,” Duelfer writes.
Additional information was also not evaluated. General Georges Sada, the former second-in-command of the Iraqi Air Force. In his 2006 book, Saddam's Secrets, Sada writes that he knows two Iraqi pilots who flew WMDs into Syria over the summer of 2002. Sada also said there was a ground shipment that followed later on. Nizar Najoef, a Syrian journalist who defected to France, told De Telegraaf on January 5, 2004 that his sources inside Syria identified the three locations where Iraq’s WMD had been shipped to.
“I did not interview the pilots nor did I speak with the Syrian journalist you mentioned,” Duelfer said. “We were inundated with WMD reports and could not investigate them all...To narrow the problem, we investigated those people and places we knew would have either been involved or aware of regime WMD activities.”
The fact that no such individuals disclosed such a transfer is part of the reason Duelfer doubts that anything was transferred out of the country. “Someone among the people we interviewed would have described this,” he said. However, Don Bordenkircher, who served as the nation director of jail and prison operations in Iraq for two years, told me that he spoke to about 40 Iraqis, either military personnel or civilians assigned to the military, who discussed the movement of WMDs to Syria and Lebanon, some of whom claimed to having actually been involved.
Until the information provided by people like Smeshko and Sada is followed-up on and evaluated, the truth about Iraq’s WMD can not be certain. Even Duelfer leaves a little window of possibility open that such a transfer occurred, with his final report saying that the investigation into the possibility could not be completed due to the security situation. He also discusses reports of Iraqi truck drivers working for a company connected to Uday Hussein transporting “sensitive” cargo into Syria shortly before the war began in his book, which he described to me as the “loose ends” that remain.
Duelfer can not be faulted for the Intelligence Community’s failure to provide him with the information given by the Ukrainians, and it does not detract from his book, which should serve as a textbook for intelligence analysts in training. The implications of this failure, however, are greater than the question of whether Iraq possessed WMD materials, as it still remains quite possible that the information provided about a movement to Syria is false. The fact that such data, of the most sensitive nature, would not be passed to the appropriate authorities strongly indicates that the Intelligence Community is still severely flawed, leaving open a frightening vulnerability for the United States.