Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 26, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

WMD IN IRAQ....A FOLLOWUP....On Saturday I asked whether anyone besides Scott Ritter had publicly suggested that Iraq had no WMD back in September of 2002 (before the UN inspections began). My recollection was that back then everyone, even anti-war liberals, accepted the fact that Saddam had WMD stocks even if they disagreed about how important they were.

I got lots of comments, emails, and other blog posts about this, so I thought I'd follow up today with a summary of what everyone said. But before I do, a quick note on what questions I'm not asking. I'm not asking whether Iraq had delivery capability; I'm not asking whether Iraq posed a serious threat to anyone; I'm not asking if the administration exaggerated the CIA evidence; and I'm not asking whether any of this was a good reason to go to war. All I'm asking is a very narrow technical question: were there any serious analysts who publicly doubted the actual existence of WMD in Iraq?

On with the show:

  • Via Tim Dunlop, here is British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in his resignation speech:

    Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of that term - namely, a credible device capable of being delivered against strategic city targets. It probably does still have biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions. But it has had them since the 1980s when the US sold Saddam the anthrax agents and the then British government built his chemical and munitions factories.

    Comment: Actually, Cook says here that Iraq does have WMD, and this was as late as March 2003. He merely doubts that they present much of a threat.

  • Also from Tim, here is Australian intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie:

    Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program is, I believe, genuinely contained. There is no doubt they have chemical and biological weapons, but their program now is disjointed and limited. It's not a national WMD program like they used to have.

    Comment: Like Cook, Wilkie says Iraq does have WMD, it's just not very dangerous. And once again, this was in March 2003.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin:

    Russia does not have in its possession any trustworthy data that supports the existence of nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we have not received any such information from our partners as yet. This fact has also been supported by the information sent by the CIA to the US Congress.

    Comment: This is pretty good, especially since it's from October 2002. However, note that Putin followed by saying "We have apprehensions that such weapons might exist in Iraq."

  • Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill:

    In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction. There were allegations and assertions by people....To me there is a difference between real evidence and everything else.

    Comment: This isn't bad, but it fails on two counts: (a) it's recent, not from 2002, and (b) he doesn't clearly say he thought there was no WMD at the time. He says only that he didn't see convincing evidence.

  • Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern:

    Until last week many Americans were inclined to take your top aides at their word that the looming war with Iraq is not about oil or vengeance but rather about Iraqs continuing pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Now all but the most unquestioning loyalists are having serious second thoughts.

    Comment: This isn't from 2002, it's from late January 2003, by which time the UN inspections had proceeded far enough that a lot of people were starting to get skeptical. What's more, even at that point all he said was that many people were "having serious second thoughts." That's hardly a definitive repudiation.

  • Secretary of State Colin Powell:

    He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors

    And:

    And even though we have no doubt in our mind that the Iraqi regime is pursuing programs to develop weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological and nuclear -- I think the best intelligence estimates suggest that they have not been terribly successful. There's no question that they have some stockpiles of some of these sorts of weapons still under their control, but they have not been able to break out, they have not been able to come out with the capacity to deliver these kinds of systems or to actually have these kinds of systems that is much beyond where they were 10 years ago.

    Comment: This is from early 2001 and is of course especially damning coming from George Bush's own Secretary of State. At the same time, Powell does make it clear that he thinks Iraq still has "some stockpiles" of WMD. He just doesn't think they're much of a threat.

  • Former UN inspector Rolf Ekeus:

    For me, I think it's a high probability that he has tried to strengthen his capabilities, especially production capability -- not so much to produce for storage, it's no idea to have large stocks of chemicals -- but production capabilities, and both with regard first to chemical weapons, but also with regard to biological warfare agents.

    Comment: I only included this because someone mentioned it in comments. It's from November 2002, and although Ekeus says prior to this that Iraq had very little left after the 1998 bombings, he obviously believes that they have likely restarted their programs.

  • General Anthony Zinni, from a profile in the Washington Post:

    As chief of the Central Command, Zinni had been immersed in U.S. intelligence about Iraq. He was all too familiar with the intelligence analysts' doubts about Iraq's programs to acquire weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. "In my time at Centcom, I watched the intelligence, and never -- not once -- did it say, 'He has WMD.' "

    Though retired for nearly two years, Zinni says, he remained current on the intelligence through his consulting with the CIA and the military. "I did consulting work for the agency, right up to the beginning of the war. I never saw anything. I'd say to analysts, 'Where's the threat?' " Their response, he recalls, was, "Silence."

    Comment: this article was written recently but says that Zinni had doubts about Iraq's WMD in September 2002 and before. However, he doesn't appear to have stated those doubts publicly (although he did publicly state that he didn't think Iraq was a serious threat.)

This isn't exhaustive, but it covers most of the bases. Many thanks to everyone who took the time to send email or leave comments to the original post.

Conclusions: The CIA's estimate of Iraqi WMD in September 2002 was pretty clear. With high confidence they concluded that "Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions" and with moderate confidence they concluded that Iraq did not have the material to build a nuclear weapon. So while it's pretty clear that the OSP stovepiped questionable data directly to the White House and that the Bush administration exaggerated the CIA conclusions in some areas, notably with respect to Iraq's nuclear program, it's also clear that the CIA really did believe that Saddam had stockpiles of WMD and active WMD programs.

So who stood up at the time and said the CIA was wrong, that Iraq didn't have WMD stocks and programs? Only one: Vladimir Putin, and even he qualified his doubts. In addition, Zinni says now that he had doubts back in 2002 and O'Neill says now that he never saw anything convincing.

These quotes also show at least two additional things: (a) even among analysts who agreed that Saddam had WMD there were plenty of people who doubted that it was a serious threat, and (b) skepticism about Saddam's WMD programs grew considerably when the UN inspections turned up emptyhanded in January and February of 2003. My skepticism certainly grew considerably.

And with that, I think I'll call it quits on this topic. Just remember to keep it civil in comments, OK?

Kevin Drum 9:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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