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Iraq: Prewar Intelligence Said Weapons Of Mass Destruction Would Be Hard To Find

  • Andrew Tully

A U.S. newspaper reports that American intelligence analysts warned three months before the Iraq war began that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction -- if they existed -- might never be found. But the report, published 13 February in "USA Today," says this view was not passed on to U.S. President George W. Bush. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully speaks with two former intelligence officials about the significance of the disclosure.

Washington, 16 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the war in Iraq began, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated that not only would Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction be found, he even predicted where they would be found -- "in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad."

No evidence of such weapons has turned up following the invasion nearly 10 months ago, and Rumsfeld on 4 February had to explain his words to a congressional committee. He said he had used the word "weapons" as shorthand for "weapons sites."

"And you are quite right -- shorthand -- 'We know where they are' probably turned out not to be exactly what one would have preferred, in retrospect."

U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this month was obliged to appoint a bipartisan commission to investigate the accuracy of prewar intelligence about the existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, or WMD.

"Once you start loading him with anything that's not in one of those documents, you're really pushing the edge of the envelope.”
And on 13 February, "USA Today" -- a nationally distributed U.S. newspaper -- reported that a classified U.S. intelligence study written three months before the invasion predicted that WMD might never be found in Iraq.

The document was described to the newspaper by three high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials. It said that U.S. tactics, guerrilla warfare, looting, and lying by Iraqi officials would undermine the search for banned weapons.

"USA Today" says the report was delivered to the National Security Council but apparently was never shown to Bush. Why would the conclusions of a team of military and civilian intelligence analysts not be shared with the president?

The answer involves the sheer volume of information, and its reliability, according to Anthony Cordesman, himself a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. departments of state and defense.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Cordesman says that when he was in government service, he dealt each day with stacks of intelligence reports. He argues that it is the analyst's responsibility to pass on to the president the intelligence that is well substantiated.

"Unless you can look at the whole volume of reports and see how many of them there were, and how many of these were controversial or speculative -- get into the contents -- the answer is you can always, after the fact, after every crisis or mistake, find that there is somebody who got it right, and that if you had only analyzed everything correctly, you should have seen the pattern."

Cordesman -- now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy center -- says that to attribute undue significance to a past intelligence report is mere hindsight. This, he says, is no better than doing what Bush has been accused of doing: being ultraselective with -- or "cherry picking" -- intelligence in order to bolster a predetermined thesis.

"You basically cannot simply go through the process, cherry pick out every report or indication that might have been correct, and then assume that somehow all of these intelligence reports flow uphill [to higher-ranking officials]," he said.

Retired U.S. Army General Edward Atkeson agrees. Atkeson was an intelligence officer and later served on the staff of the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Atkeson tells RFE/RL that an American president regularly sees two intelligence reports -- the President's Daily Brief and, less often, the National Intelligence Estimates. He says the only unsubstantiated information that is supposed to be included in these two reports must be of overriding interest to national or international security.

To add speculation on something less urgent would be, according to Atkeson, to waste the president's time with peripheral details.

"The things that [the president] should be shown are the President's Daily Brief and the summary of any National [Intelligence] Estimates. Once you start loading him with anything that's not in one of those documents, you're really pushing the edge of the envelope,” he said.

Atkeson says he personally believes that Bush exaggerated the evidence that Iraq possessed banned weapons, and that his administration is driven as much by politics as by duty.

But he adds that even in so politicized a White House, there is probably no expectation that the country's intelligence apparatus provide information to keep Bush, or cabinet officials like Rumsfeld, from making statements that could be politically embarrassing.

"It's not up to the intelligence community to provide the president with politically important issues, except on an international basis. I can't imagine something that is purely based on American political interests would ever come out of the intelligence community."