Accessibility links

U.S./Iraq: Study Says Washington 'Systematically Misrepresented' Threat From Baghdad

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A new report by a leading Washington think tank has concluded that the Bush administration "systematically misrepresented" the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in the months leading up to the war. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was quick to dismiss the report, but the study could help rekindle an election-year debate over whether Washington exaggerated the Iraqi threat.

Washington, 9 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush spoke to the American people on 7 October 2002 about the threat posed to the United States by Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who Bush said was "harboring terrorists and the instruments of terror."

"While there are many dangers in the world, the threat from Iraq stands alone because it gathers the most serious dangers of our age in one place," Bush said. "Iraq's weapons of mass destruction [WMD] are controlled by a murderous tyrant who has already used chemical weapons to kill thousands of people."

According to a new study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, however, Iraq was not an immediate threat to the United States or the Middle East and the Bush administration "systematically misrepresented" the danger from Baghdad.

The report -- titled "WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications" -- was released yesterday in Washington and looks certain to rekindle debate in this presidential election year about whether or not Bush misled the American people.

After surveying six years of U.S. intelligence reports on Iraq, the study concludes that there was no convincing evidence that Iraq had revived its nuclear program or that Saddam Hussein was in league with Al-Qaeda terrorists.

It also recommends abandoning the preventative war doctrine adopted to replace deterrence as the pillar of security policy after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

The findings by the liberal-leaning think tank -- which opposed the war before it began -- contradict a series of statements about the Iraqi threat made by senior officials, including Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Joseph Cirincione, head of Carnegie's Nonproliferation Program, said Cheney's remarks began as vague assertions that Iraq may be seeking nuclear arms but later transformed into declarations of absolute certainty.

"Typical is the statement of Vice President Cheney in August of 2002, who says: 'We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Many of us are convinced Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.' So we have these two elements now -- certainty of the threat and immediacy of the threat," Cirincione said.

The threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was the administration's chief justification for going to war. But so far, U.S. forces and experts hunting for such weapons in Iraq have not found any stockpiles of biological or chemical weapons or any evidence Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program.

The report says it is unlikely that Iraq could have destroyed or hidden any such weapons without Washington or the international community taking notice. The report concludes, "Administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq's WMD and ballistic missile programs."

Asked about the report at a news conference yesterday at the State Department, Powell said he remains confident that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He said he stands by what he said to the UN Security Council last year before the war, when he accused Iraq of possessing of chemical and biological weapons.

"I am confident of what I presented last year [at the United Nations]. The intelligence community is confident of the material they gave me. I was representing them. It was information they presented to the Congress. It was information they had presented publicly and they stand behind it, and this game is still unfolding," Powell said.

However, Powell acknowledged that he has "not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection" between Hussein and Al-Qaeda, although he had believed such a connection existed.

But Carnegie President Jessica Mathews -- who declined to state explicitly that the administration lied about Iraq -- said Hussein's alleged links to the terror network blamed for the attacks of 11 September 2001, was vital to the administration's case for war.

"The linkage through terrorists was the only way that Iraq's WMD posed a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, and it was the only reason that might invalidate or erase our capacity to deter Iraq. In those two elements lay the importance of that linkage," Mathews said.

Mathews added that not only was there no proof of a link between Al-Qaeda and Hussein, most evidence suggested that the terrorist group and the Iraqi leader harbored a deep dislike for one another.

Powell, pressed by reporters, said that while the Carnegie report accuses the administration of overstating the Iraqi threat, it was known that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the past because they used chemical arms in attacks against Iraqi Kurds.

For that reason alone, Powell said there was no question about Saddam's intention to use such weapons and suggested that that was reason enough to go to war. "In terms of intention [to develop and use weapons of mass destruction], [Hussein] always had it, and anybody who thinks that Saddam Hussein last year was just, you know, waiting to give all of this up even though he was given the opportunity to do so and he didn't do it.... What he was waiting to do [was to] see if he could break the will of the international community, get rid of any potential for future inspections and get back to his intentions," he said.

The Carnegie report does acknowledge that Iraq was apparently expanding its capability to build missiles beyond the range permitted by the UN Security Council. "The missile program appears to have been the one program in active development in 2002," it said.

The study accuses the Bush administration of "unduly" pressuring the intelligence community to shade its judgments on Iraq in order to support administration policies. Such pressure included the creation of a separate intelligence office at the Pentagon.

It was in this environment of intense political pressure, it says, that an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's banned weapons was hurriedly put together and presented to Congress just 10 days before it voted to give Bush the authority to wage war on Baghdad.

The NIE, as it is called, included a high number of dissenting opinions, usually in footnotes to assertions made in the main text, which is supposed to be a consensus document of the various national intelligence agencies.

Stuart Cohen, vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which produced the National Intelligence Estimate, denied this week that its analysts in any way altered their findings to fit administration policy.

What happened, according to Cirincione, is that administration officials often repeated assertions put forth in the NIE, but left out the dissenting opinions and qualifiers that were attached to them.

"So, for example, the NIE would make a statement that said, 'We assess that Baghdad has renewed production of chemical weapons.' In the administration statements, they would say, 'Baghdad has renewed production of chemical weapons,'" Cirincione said.

In conclusion, the study recommends former United Nations weapons inspectors and experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency return to Iraq to compile a full record of its weapons programs. It also urges the UN to create a special body to combat weapons proliferation.

Mathews said the greatest proliferation threat is now from Pakistan, as well as Russia and other former states of the Soviet Union, where stockpiles of chemical, biological, and radioactive materials remain at risk of being acquired by terrorists.

She urged the administration and Congress to build on past efforts, such as the Nunn-Lugar programs, to secure such weapons sites.

(The full report can be found at Carnegie's website at