U.S. forces in Iraq have yet to find the weapons of mass destruction that President George W. Bush insists Saddam Hussein was hiding. Now, U.S. intelligence officials are reported to be reviewing the quality of the information on which Bush based his claim. RFE/RL studies the implications of the review.
Washington, 23 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is reportedly reviewing the intelligence on Iraq that was gathered before the recent war to evaluate its accuracy.
"The New York Times" newspaper and the Associated Press wire service report that the CIA will examine its own intelligence, as well as material gathered by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, among other government entities.
The reports say the review was not ordered because of suspicions the intelligence was inadequate, but simply to determine how it compares with what is actually being found in Iraq now that U.S.-led forces control the country.
However, "The New York Times" article reports that some intelligence analysts who support the review believe the intelligence may have been politicized to support assertions by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush that Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, illegally possessed biological and chemical weapons.
If the prewar intelligence does not adequately support that thesis, the legitimacy of the U.S. war to depose Saddam could come into question. That's according to retired General Edward Atkeson, who once served as the deputy chief of staff for intelligence for the U.S. Army in Europe. "It's becoming quite apparent that [illegal weapons are] not what the war was fought about. It was just the facade excuse that the [Bush] administration used," he told RFE/RL.
Atkeson said he supports the belief held by some that the current U.S. administration -- particularly senior members of the Defense Department -- have long wanted an excuse to depose Hussein because they saw him as an impediment to normalizing relations between Middle Eastern countries and the West.
"A very small coterie within the Pentagon thinks that you've got a bad guy sitting in Baghdad and that he's causing all kinds of problems, things that are interfering with our expectation of having a happy relationship with the people of the Middle East. And so we've got to find a way to get him. Now, how can we make that acceptable to the people at large? Do we have reports they have weapons of mass destruction? Yeah, we do," Atkeson said.
Atkeson said the trouble with the intelligence used to support the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is that it is not always the best intelligence available.
According to Atkeson, political leaders usually are extremely selective about what intelligence they choose to support their policies. Often, he said, they ignore larger bodies of evidence that might support an opposing view.
"Policy always has to dominate intelligence because ultimately that decides what a nation is going to do. If there's a little bit of information in favor of one policy that the policymaker favors, he's going to use that little bit of information that supports it," he said.
Anthony Cordesman strongly disagrees. He is a military and foreign policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private policy-research institute in Washington.
Cordesman told RFE/RL that he believes the war against Iraq was not based solely on whether Iraq was developing outlawed weapons. He said Hussein already was violating the terms of the cease-fire that ended hostilities in the 1991 Gulf War by importing equipment to make the weapons, not disclosing its research and development efforts, and not accounting for any destruction of its weapons.
Cordesman also supports the Bush administration's assertion that Hussein flouted the strict terms of Security Council Resolution 1441. He notes that it called for immediate and complete cooperation with UN weapons inspectors. As a result, he said, the United States was justified in imposing what the resolution calls "serious consequences" on the Iraqi government.
According to Cordesman, UN weapons inspectors established that Hussein was developing illegal weapons by finding trace evidence of the programs and exposing the Al-Sumud missiles that Iraq was illegally manufacturing.
The real issue, Cordesman said, is whether the United States and Britain erroneously concluded from UN findings that Iraq was developing illicit weapons for immediate deployment. "It seems that Iraq was caught, when the war began, at a point where it had shifted to a strategy of destroying many of its weapons, of concealing its efforts -- dispersing them, putting them into small areas which could not be tied to the ones that UNSCOM [UN weapons inspectors] had found [between 1991 and 1998] -- and that its strategy was not to have a major war-fighting capability ready when the war began," he said.
Cordesman said it may be a long time before the United States and Britain find out the nature of Hussein's weapons programs, and that what they do find may surprise them. For example, he said, the Iraqi government may even have suspended such programs while the government came under scrutiny.
Hussein, Cordesman said, must have calculated that he could always resume his weapons programs once the world's attention shifted away from Iraq and the UN grew weary of continuing to impose sanctions on his country.
"As we gradually sort our way through the records we've picked up [in Iraq], we're going to see that Iraq did continue to proliferate [weapons], but the strategy may have been a different one [from what the Americans and British expected]. It may have been preserving cells of research and development capability and of buying dual-use facilities and equipment that could be converted after sanctions were lifted to the rapid production of these weapons," Cordesman said.
Further, Cordesman said the war was justified even if no further evidence of illegal weapons is found. He cited the brutality of Hussein's rule: "If we have not found chemical and biological weapons, we did find missiles in violation [of the cease-fire], and we did find mass graves. And one of the most key legitimate reasons for this war was you were dealing with a tyranny which not only threatened the region but actively threatened the Iraqi people. And in that sense, the discovery of mass graves in at least three locations is perhaps legitimacy enough."
Atkeson, however, said this was not a valid reason to go to war because the extent of Hussein's cruelty and the existence of the graves was not known beforehand.
Given U.S. forces' failure so far to find any illegal weapons, he said the discovery of the graves after the war merely allows the Bush administration to justify the war after the fact by making it seem "righteous."