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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 75, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 75, January/February 2004

WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications

Alexis Orton and Joseph Cirincione

'On January 8, 2004, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a 107-page report, WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implication, authored by Jessica Mathews, George Perkovich, Joseph Cirincione and Alexis Orton. The report, available from the Carnegie website, distils a massive amount of data into side-by-side comparisons of pre-war intelligence, the official presentation of that intelligence, and what is now known about Iraq's programmes. The review concludes that senior administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq's programmes and recommends that an independent commission be established to establish a clearer picture of what the intelligence community knew and believed it knew about Iraq's weapons programmes prior to the war, and how administration officials used this intelligence. The study also recommends a United Nations review to determine the effectiveness of UN sanctions and inspections in containing Iraq's programme. Such investigations will allow the United States and the international community to press forward in addressing future proliferation crises in Iran, Libya, North Korea and beyond.

While Iraq's weapon programmes history and activities represented a long-term threat that could not be ignored, they did not pose a significant security threat to the United States, its allies, or the Middle East region. Former US investigator David Kay found no evidence that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear, chemical, or biological programmes. Kay found no evidence of Iraqi infrastructure that would even support renewed large-scale production or a "just in time" WMD capability. With regard to the chemical programme, which was considered the most likely to have continued, Kay said, "Multiple sources with varied access and reliability have told ISG that Iraq did not have a large, ongoing, centrally controlled CW programme after 1991. Information found to date suggests that Iraq's large-scale capability to develop, produce, and fill new CW munitions was reduced - if not entirely destroyed - during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Fox, 13 years of UN sanctions and UN inspections."

How did this happen? What were the intelligence community and administration errors? What potential reforms are possible? WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications examines these questions in detail, clarifies the record on Iraqi weapons programmes, and suggests changes in US and international policies and practice that could help repair many of the intelligence missteps of the Iraq war, and ultimately prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction in the future.

Intelligence Failures

Our report analyses the record on the threat assessment process and documents how the intelligence community's assessment of Iraq's weapons programmes changed over time. The intelligence failures in Iraq fall within three major patterns:

Prior to 2001, US intelligence had a generally accurate estimate of Iraq's nuclear and missile programmes but overestimated Iraq's chemical and biological capabilities. For example, the intelligence assessments were correct in their judgement that Iraq was pursuing a programme to develop longer-range missiles. However, many of the assessments judged incorrectly that Iraq had an active biological weapon programme.

The declassified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq reveals a dramatic shift between intelligence assessments prior to 2002 and the intelligence views as they were presented in the NIE. This shift appears to have occurred without additional evidence after inspectors departed in 1998. The unclassified intelligence reports to Congress from 1998 to early 2001 judge that Iraq had the capability to restart its chemical weapon programme within a few weeks or months. The NIE, however, concluded that Iraq had begun producing mustard gas, sarin, GF and VX, and estimated Iraq's stockpile between 100 and 500 metric tons of agent. In addition, the NIE said that most of this stockpile was produced in 2002.

Evidence increasingly indicates that the United Nations inspection teams - UNMOVIC and the IAEA - accurately assessed the state of Iraq's weapons programmes in 2002-2003. IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei told the United Nations in March 2003 that his teams did not find evidence that Iraq had resumed nuclear activity or attempted to import uranium or centrifuge parts, and that in general Iraq's nuclear infrastructure had deteriorated. Kay's latest statements confirm the IAEA's assessment. UN inspections and sanctions, together with US airstrikes, had effectively destroyed most of Iraq's programmes after 1991. In addition, UN inspectors appear to have provided the bulk of US on-the-ground intelligence prior to 1998.

Administration Failures

Beyond the intelligence failures noted above, the report finds that administration officials systematically misrepresented the Iraqi threat in four ways:

Administration officials conflated the three types of weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical, and biological - into the single expression "weapons of mass destruction". Although almost all officials and analysts are guilty of this error, this allowed the administration to combine the very high likelihood that Iraq had chemical weapons - which can kill hundreds to thousands - with the extremely low possibility that Iraq had nuclear weapons - which can kill millions - as one and the same threat. This dramatically altered cost-benefit discussions prior to the war.

Administration officials repeatedly suggested that Saddam Hussein would transfer WMD capabilities or weapons to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. This was a crucial linkage in the administration's case for war, because it created the sense of urgency to respond and effectively eliminated deterrence as a potential tool against Iraq. There were no intelligence findings to support this claim.

Administration officials routinely dropped caveats and uncertainty present in intelligence assessments. The NIE itself, having shifted significantly from earlier assessments, contained over 40 distinct caveats that were usually dropped by administration officials. For example, Vice President Cheney said he knew "with absolute certainty" that Iraq was procuring materials for a nuclear enrichment programme. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN Security Council that there was "no doubt" Iraq had chemical weapons. It is now known that the intelligence assessments were far less certain.

Administration officials misrepresented the findings made by UN inspectors. On October 7, 2002, President Bush delivered a major address on Iraq's weapons. Bush said that "the regime was forced to admit that it had produced more than 30,000 litres of anthrax and other deadly agents. The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount. This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons..." UN inspectors did not reach this conclusion; the inspectors had said that Iraq had enough growth medium that could be used to produce more anthrax than it had declared. The inspectors did not assert that Iraq actually had produced additional anthrax. In addition, administration officials ridiculed UN inspectors' findings in 2002-2003, casting doubt on the inspectors' ability to uncover the extent of Iraqi programmes.

Our report makes several additional findings, including:

  • Iraq's nuclear programme had been suspended for many years; Iraq focused on preserving a latent, dual-use chemical and probably biological weapons capability, not weapons production.
  • International constraints, sanctions, procurement, investigations, and the export/import control mechanism appear to have been considerably more effective than was previously thought.
  • The intelligence community appears to have been unduly influenced by policymakers' views.
  • No solid evidence of a cooperative relationship between Saddam's government and Al Qaeda or evidence that Iraq would have transferred WMD to terrorists has been uncovered.
  • No evidence exists to suggest that deterrence was no longer operable in Iraq.
  • Data from the seven years of UNSCOM/IAEA inspections are absolutely essential to any intelligence review.
  • There were at least two options preferable to a war undertaken without international support: allowing the UNMOVIC/IAEA inspections to continue until obstructed or completed, or imposing a tougher programme of "coercive inspections."


With these findings in mind, the report identifies potential reforms in US policy, international policy, and the US threat assessment process to address the intelligence errors present in Iraq.

Changes to US Policy

We believe it is necessary to revise the National Security Strategy to eliminate a US policy of unilateral preventive war. The Bush administration's National Security Strategy, released in September 2002, detailed a security strategy that made military preemption possible in the absence of imminent threat. This is, in fact, a strategy of preventive war, which Americans and the international community have traditionally rejected. The very serious intelligence failures in Iraq and the lack of international consensus of the Iraqi threat show that preventive war is a risky policy that should be rejected as a unilateral policy option.

Based on the outcomes of an independent intelligence commission, consider changing the post of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) from a political appointment to a career appointment similar to the chair of the Federal Reserve. Although circumstantial, evidence indicates that administration officials pressured analysts to inflate the Iraq threat. Vice President Cheney, for example, made several visits to the CIA, and the creation of the Office of Special Plans in the Department of Defense seems designed to create and shape intelligence in support of pre-existing policy. While it may be impossible to make the intelligence community immune to political pressure, professionalising the post of DCI could allow the CIA more easily to carry out its mission as an independent intelligence agency.

Make the security of poorly protected nuclear weapons and stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium a much higher priority for national security policy. Little evidence exists that so-called "rogue" regimes or any state would transfer its key national security assets to terrorist groups. The most likely sources of nuclear material for terrorists are poorly guarded stockpiles in former Soviet States. The United States should therefore pursue a policy that increases resources for the security and destruction of existing state stockpiles, particularly in Russia and Pakistan.

International Action

The United States and United Nations should together produce a complete history and inventory of Iraq's WMD and missile programmes. The United Nations teams have almost ten years of on-the-ground experience in Iraq - and a 30 million page archive of information. UN participation is vital to the current effort to document Iraq's weapons programme. If possible, UN teams should join the ISG's effort in Iraq.

The UN Secretary General should commission a high-level analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the UN inspections and sanctions processes in Iraq, and how inspections could be strengthened in the future. David Kay concluded that UN inspections and sanctions were far more effective than previously believed. The UN should commission an after-action report on its programmes in Iraq to clarify the record and improve future inspection regimes.

The UN Security Council should consider creating a permanent, international, nonproliferation inspection capability, if these studies warrant. With concurrent disarmament crises in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and recently Libya, it is clear that the United States and other nations will require international assistance. A permanent United Nations inspection force, with the proper resources and intelligence, could provide the expertise and capabilities and foster the political will to contain and eliminate future proliferation threats.

Make the transfer of weapons of mass destruction a violation of international law. Such a resolution would aid global export control mechanisms and strengthen the legal basis for interdiction of WMD materials.

Changes to Threat Assessments

Recognise distinctions in the degree of threat posed by the different forms of "weapons of mass destruction" - chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons - which pose vastly different risks and cost-benefit calculations of actions to combat them.

Recognise red flags indicating that sound intelligence practices are not being followed. Congress and the public should be wary of signs, such as the Defense Department's creation of its own intelligence office, that suggest policymakers are potentially manipulating the threat assessment process. In addition, Congress should not hesitate to use its power of intelligence oversight.

Examine and debate the assertion that the combined threat of evil states and terrorism calls for acting on the basis of worst-case reasoning. Although worst-case planning is a valid and vital tool for policymakers, the intelligence failures suggest the dangers of acting on worst-case assumptions instead of the most probable case, especially in matters of war.

Examine the assumption that states will likely transfer WMD to terrorists. The October 2002 NIE judged that Saddam Hussein was unlikely to give WMD to terrorist groups because he traditionally only trusted his own intelligence operatives and probably understood the devastating consequences of such a transfer. This subject requires further debate and analysis in relation to other "rogue" states with WMD programmes.

Alexis Orton is a Junior Fellow and Joseph Cirincione is director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They are co-authors, with Jessica Mathews and George Perkovich, of WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications. The full text of the report is available at http://www.ceip.org/intel. This website features additional report materials, administration speeches, government documents, audio and video clips of related events, as well as more comprehensive versions of the information and texts referenced and discussed in this article

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