The Weapons Weren’t There – The Intelligence Failure that was Iraq

There is a current conspiracy theory that the Bush Administration invaded Iraq for its oil.  This tactic would have been an extremely expensive and impractical way of securing resources.  After all if the US wanted to secure oil it could simply purchase it.  Both Bush and Blair really did believe Iraq possessed WMD. This essay explores the intelligence behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  It does not excuse the 2003 Iraq War, which in my opinion was the worst American foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.   

On March 20th 2003, U.S. led coalition forces invaded Iraq. The objective was to disarm Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, of suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However it quickly became apparent an intelligence failure had occurred. Saddam Hussein displayed no WMD, he used none against the invading coalition forces, and none could be found afterwards. The American President George W. Bush and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair were certainly guilty of overstating the potential danger of Iraqi WMD to the public. However both leaders were convinced Iraq did possess such weapons and came to this conclusion based on intelligence. This intelligence failure came about because the intelligence community was asked to find certain information, and requests were made for intelligence reports to bypass critical stages of review. These requests created an atmosphere within the intelligence community that was not conducive to analysis. This was compounded by the notion within the intelligence community that war was inevitable. Furthermore the intelligence community opted for a worst case scenario in an effort to avoid another attack such as Pearl Harbour or the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 (9/11). Iraq’s actions also affected the intelligence failure, its government practised deceit. Combined with the innate difficulty for intelligence to predict change, intelligence officials were led to believe that finding no evidence for the existence of WMD was evidence in itself.

Overstating the evidence

In a radio address made to the American people in September of 2002, President Bush stated that “should [Saddam’s] regime acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year.” Perhaps more exaggerated was Prime Minister Blair’s claim made to the British public implying “Saddam could use chemical weapons within 45 minutes of deciding to do so.” When armed with post-invasion knowledge these statements seem ludicrous. Much debate has arisen “over whether the Bush administration manipulated . . . intelligence.” Pollack argues that while Bush and Blair may have over publicized the possible existence and danger of Iraqi WMD, their actions were “essentially well-intentioned,” since each was truly convinced Iraq had WMD because intelligence supported this conclusion. In October of 2002, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) titled “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction” was published for the White House, representing the consensus of the American intelligence community. It stated, in high confidence, that “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles that range in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.” The NIE stated that although American intelligence communities had low confidence in predicting whether Saddam would use such weapons, he had the potential of partnering with a terrorist network such as Al-Qaeda to attack the United States. Though this statement was made in low confidence, it nonetheless takes little imagination to envision the anxiety this caused Bush in a post 9/11 world. It is true that Bush and Blair acted with accordance to the statements made by their intelligence communities, they truly believed Iraq was a threat, as the NIE stated. For this reason “‘allegations of politically inspired meddling’ could not be established,” however the actions of Bush and Blair and the actions of their administrations indirectly influenced their intelligence community’s conclusion, causing the intelligence failure.

Looking for more evidence means you find more evidence

Political pressure created by the Bush and Blair administrations created “an atmosphere that was not conducive to critical analysis.” During the Second World War, British intelligence realised that asking its sources to be on the lookout for certain information was a trap, and the sources were therefore likely to find it. This apparently was forgotten prior to 2003. Prior to the war, CIA agents around the world were told to seek information concerning Iraq’s progress toward obtaining WMD. Asking agents to find certain information means one’s suspicion is likely to be confirmed. This phenomenon also occurred through the American intelligence community’s use of IMINT. In an effort to detect Iraqi WMD, American satellites were reprogrammed to provide more frequent coverage of suspected Iraqi chemical weapons sites. What they saw was the apparent stepped-up production at these sites, however what was actually being observed was a change in American surveillance (the reprogramming of the satellites) rather than a change in Iraqi behavior  The Bush and Blair governments created an environment in the intelligence community that was not favourable to correcting conclusions. This environment was created by asking the intelligence communities to find certain information, thus ensuring they would.

Fast-tracking reports

Another example of government requests causing incorrect information occurred during the publication of the October 2002 NIE. Intelligence community officials did not properly analyse the NIE because it bypassed key stages when being drafted. It was not “submitted to intelligence community peers . . . for review.” The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), an organisation dedicated to overseeing the American intelligence community, concluded that the NIE was essentially a “rush job.” The intelligence community fast-tracked the NIE, thus causing it to be improperly analysed. This was due to the fact that the Bush administration provided the intelligence community with an inadequate time frame for the NIE’s publication. In this way the American government indirectly affected the intelligence community’s conclusion by forcing the NIE to skip stages of analysis.

The War was inevitable anyway

Intelligence was drafted with the belief that war with Iraq was inevitable, further contributing to an environment that did not promote analysis. Briefings of America planning for war in Iraq “show that by August of 2002 arrangements to attack Iraq were well-advanced,” although as previously discussed the NIE concerning Iraq’s WMD was only drafted in October of the same year. One analyst told the SSCI that when the 2002 NIE was written “the going-in assumption was we were going to war, so [the] NIE was written with that in mind.” Minutes for a July 2002 Downing Street meeting confirm the notion that war was inevitable. The head of MI6 stated, after reporting back from Washington, that “military action was now seen as inevitable” and that “intelligence and facts were being fixed around that policy.” The Butler Inquiry, a British attempt to account for the intelligence failure, concluded that “[i]ntelligence was being sought to support political judgments already arrived at.” This fact appeared to be well known among intelligence officials. One example of this occurred after Secretary of State’s Colin Powell’s reference to certain HUMINT reports. When an agent questioned the reference’s legitimacy his boss replied, “[l]et’s keep in mind that this [war is] going to happen regardless.” Bush and Blair may not have meant to influence their intelligence communities’ conclusions concerning Iraqi WMD, but by making the war seem inevitable to intelligence communities, they indirectly caused the intelligence failure by creating an atmosphere that did not promote critical analysis.

Avoiding another Sept 11 or Pearl  Harbor-like intelligence failure

Another factor that caused the intelligence failure was the intelligence community’s tendency to predict a worst case scenario. The nature of predicting the existence of WMD came with a potentially catastrophic consequence of being wrong. The CIA was created in 1947 by President Harry Truman to prevent another intelligence failure like that of Pearl Harbor  The CIA in its very nature was meant to predict potential threats, and therefore erred on the side of caution. This factor is especially relevant in the wake of the criticism the American intelligence community suffered after its “failure to ‘join the dots’ and prevent the 9/11 attacks.” Of course, the American intelligence community was eager not to repeat a similar mistake, therefore it was prone to err on the side of the existence of Iraqi WMD rather than face another intelligence failure similar to that of 9/11. The post 9/11 intelligence community was determined to prevent another terrorist attack from happening, and was therefore determined to discover WMD. When the NIE linked Saddam to Al-Qaeda, as previously mentioned, the intelligence community must have been particularly eager to not repeat an intelligence failure similar to 9/11. This was combined with the previous failure to identify the progress of Iraq’s active nuclear weapons program that existed prior to the 1991 Gulf War, a failure which apparently caused the intelligence community to “over learn” its lesson and become especially vigilant in its search for Iraqi WMD. For all of these reasons, the intelligence community started being extremely alert to signs of a future WMD program, thus running the risk of predicting the existence of WMD when there were in fact none, a potential consequence when opting for the worst case scenario.

USS Arizona burns at Pearl Harbour

USS Arizona burns at Pearl Harbour

Saddam acted as if he had WMD

The intelligence failure was compounded due to actions of Saddam Hussein and his government. During the 1991 Gulf War it was discovered that Iraq did possess a WMD program, he used WMD against a Kurdish uprising in the late 1980s, and was in fact much closer to having a nuclear weapon than the CIA originally predicted. For this reason the United Nations Special Committee (UNSCOM) was established following the war to ensure this program was dismantled. Saddam’s government however attempted to deceive the UN inspectors and retain Iraq’s WMD program. “An Iraqi document that fell into the inspectors’ hands revealed that in April of 1991 a high-level Iraqi committee had ordered many of the country’s WMD activities to be hidden from UN inspectors.” Furthermore, in 1995 a joint U.S. – UN operation “caught Iraqis trying to smuggle 115 missile gyroscopes through Jordan,” displaying the fact that Saddam was intent on continuing a secret WMD program. Iraq’s government did everything it could to thwart the UN inspectors, and therefore the intelligence community concluded it was seeing only a small portion of Iraq’s WMD program. Essentially the intelligence community believed no evidence for Iraqi WMD was evidence for Iraqi deception, not for the non-existence of WMD. One example of this occurred with the intelligence community’s HUMINT sources in Iraq. During the 1991-8 period the intelligence community relied heavily on UN inspectors for information, and post 1998 there was not a single HUMINT source. A CIA official told the SSCI that “despite an intense, vigorous recruiting campaign . . . [the CIA was] never able to gain direct access to Iraq’s WMD programs.” However this did not lead the CIA to question why this was the case, it believed it was due to Iraqi deception. In this way Saddam’s actions led the intelligence community to believe it was being deceived; no evidence for WMD was evidence for deception, not dismantlement.

The 2003 Iraq war revealed that Iraq had in fact cooperated with UN restrictions and dismantled its WMD program. This raises the critical question: if Saddam did cooperate, why attempt to deceive inspectors? Pollack argues this may have been Saddam’s attempt to convince other Arab nations he had WMD to enhance his prestige, or to prevent internal rebellious groups from moving against him for fear of being the victim of WMD. Although this may seem counterproductive, after all this deception would lead to Saddam’s removal from power, Pollack argues Saddam made many foolish foreign policy decisions; “for example invading Kuwait and then sticking around to fight the U.S. – led coalition.” The intelligence community was simply unable to predict this policy decision.

Thus no evidence was evidence for deception

No evidence for WMD was taken as evidence for WMD for another reason. David Kay, the man charged leading the post war hunt for Iraqi WMD pointed out, “one of the hardest things to do in the world of intelligence is to discern change.” Iraq did possess WMD prior to the Gulf War, and refused to cooperate with UN inspectors overseeing their dismantlement. Therefore the absence of evidence for the destruction of WMD was taken as proof of their existence. Because of the difficulty for intelligence to predict change in a country’s foreign policy, the intelligence community “missed the 1995-1996 shift in Saddam’s strategy . . . to scale back his WMD programs to minimize the odds of further discoveries.” The intelligence community believed Saddam would continue to seek WMD as he had in the past, an assumption that was made because of the innate difficulty of intelligence studies to predict change, and a factor which led to the intelligence failure.

Iraq was invaded in 2003 by a U.S. led coalition to neutralize the threat of suspected chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The international intelligence community arrived at the conclusion that Saddam Hussein maintained his WMD program which existed during the 1991 Gulf War despite UNSCOM. However, the intelligence community was wrong. Saddam had ended this program, and the 2003 invasion found no weapons. The American and British governments had suffered an intelligence failure. George W. Bush and Tony Blair were certainly guilty of over-publicizing and over-exaggerating the potential threat Iraq posed, however they did not directly cause the failure. The intelligence failure came about because of an atmosphere that did not properly promote analysis of conclusions arrived at by intelligence. This atmosphere was caused by government officials’ requests for intelligence agencies to find specific information and for documents to be “fast-tracked,” therefore ensuring critical analysis did not take place. This was compounded by the fact that American and British governments created a notion that war with Iraq was inevitable and going to happen despite evidence for or against the existence of WMD. Also the CIA was was operating in the effort to end intelligence failures such as Pearl Harbour and 9/11, causing officials to opt for a worst case scenario rather than run the risk of being wrong. Furthermore, the intelligence community operated under the assumption that no evidence for the existence of Iraqi WMD was indeed evidence for Iraqi deception, not the dismantlement of WMD. This assumption was made because Saddam Hussein attempted to deceive UNSCOM and the fact that it is innately difficult for intelligence to predict change. All of these factors led the intelligence community to conclude Iraq possessed WMD, when it in fact did not, leading to the embarrassing and ill-fated invasion of Iraq by U.S. coalition forces in 2003.

Works Cited
Aldrich, Richard J. “Intelligence and Iraq: The UK’s Four Enquiries,” in Christopher Andrew et al. Secret Intelligence, A Reader. Baskerville: Routledge, 2009.

Andrew, Christopher et al. Secret Intelligence, A Reader. Baskerville: Routledge, 2009.

Ballard, John R. From Storm to Freedom, America’s Long War with Iraq. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010.

Baylis, John et al. The Globalisation of World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Dobbins, James et al. Occupying Iraq, A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Santa Monica: National Security Research Division, 2009.

Freedman, Lawrence. “War in Iraq: Selling the Threat.” Survival, vol. 46, no. 2, Summer 2004.

Gill, Peter and Mark Pythian. “Intelligence on Iraqi WMD,” in Intelligence in an Insecure World. Malden: Polity Press, 2006.

Gill, Peter and Mark Pythian. Intelligence in an Insecure World. Malden: Polity Press, 2006.

Jervis, Robert. “Reports, Politics and Intelligence Failures: The Case of Iraq,” in Christopher Andrew et al. Secret Intelligence, A Reader. Baskerville: Routledge, 2009.

“Intelligence and Analysis on Iraq: Issues for the Intelligence Community.” [Kerr Group Report] 29 July 2004.

Kauffman, Chaim. “Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War.” International Security, vol. 29., no. 1, Summer 2004.

Pemberton, Miriam and William D. Hartung. Lessons From Iraq: Avoiding the Next War. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008.

Pillar, Paul. “Intelligence, Policy, and the War in Iraq.” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006. the-war-in-iraq

Pollack, Kenneth M. “Spies, Lies, and Weapons: What Went Wrong.” The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 293, no. 1, January/February 2004.

Prados, John. “Lies, Spies, and Legends, The Politicizing of Intelligence,” in Pemberton, Miriam and William D. Hartung. Lessons From Iraq: Avoiding the Next War. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008.

The U.S. October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction.” 18 July 2003.

Warner, Michael. “Central Intelligence: Origin and Evolution.” Washington D.C.: CIA, 2001.


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