Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 9, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

WHY WERE WE SO WRONG?....Ken Pollack, author of the influential pro-war book The Threatening Storm, has a long article in The Atlantic this month that tries to answer the big question: why were we so wrong about Iraq's WMD?

The answer, unfortunately, boils down to a shrug of the shoulders: we really don't know quite how it happened.

Pollack's basic case is that while it's possible something might still turn up, the plain fact is that we've searched everything we're going to search and at this point it's pretty unlikely we're going to find anything more. Sure, there's some evidence that programs were kept alive in a very rudimentary state and that Saddam might have started them back up if he ever got the chance, but basically it's time to face facts: he seems to have given up on WMD around 1995-96, or perhaps 1998 at the latest.

There are plenty of excuses for why we didn't know: Saddam had a very bad record, his lack of cooperation was suspicious in itself, and we relied too much on UNSCOM and didn't have enough intelligence resources of our own after UNSCOM left Iraq in 1998. Plus there was the fact that everybody else agreed with us: Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, everybody. The Clinton administration was as convinced about Saddam's WMD as the Bush administration.

He also rehashes a few old theories about why Saddam acted the way he did if he had nothing to hide, and adds a couple of new ones, but none of it is very convincing. Mostly just the usual speculation that Saddam didn't want the rest of the world to realize how toothless he was.

And that's about it. The rest is common knowledge: the CIA screwed up by overestimating the danger and the Bush administration screwed up by taking the CIA's case and exaggerating it even further:

Throughout the spring and fall of 2002 and well into 2003 I received numerous complaints from friends and colleagues in the intelligence community, and from people in the policy community, about precisely that. According to them, many Administration officials reacted strongly, negatively, and aggressively when presented with information or analysis that contradicted what they already believed about Iraq. Many of these officials believed that Saddam Hussein was the source of virtually all the problems in the Middle East and was an imminent danger to the United States because of his perceived possession of weapons of mass destruction and support of terrorism. Many also believed that CIA analysts tended to be left-leaning cultural relativists who consistently downplayed threats to the United States. They believed that the Agency, not the Administration, was biased, and that they were acting simply to correct that bias.

Intelligence officers who presented analyses that were at odds with the pre-existing views of senior Administration officials were subjected to barrages of questions and requests for additional information. They were asked to justify their work sentence by sentence....

In the end Pollack admits that "the case for war with Iraq was considerably weaker than I believed beforehand," although he also spends some time in ass-covering mode, making it clear multiple times that he never supported immediate war the way George Bush did. And that's it.

The most peculiar part of his essay is at the very end. Despite the fact that he really doesn't know what went wrong, he concludes by offering some advice about how to avoid these problems in the future. His primary suggestion is to make the CIA stronger, more independent, and more secretive than it is now, an idea he doesn't back up very persuasively.

The article is worth reading, especially for people like me who were temporarily swayed into the pro-war camp partly on the authority of Pollack's book, but it's ultimately disappointing. Even Pollack, who presumably has lots of sources and a personal interest in finding out how he could have been so wrong, doesn't seem to know what really happened.

Kevin Drum 3:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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