Chapter 6 The Iraq War: American Decision-Making



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It is interesting to note that, as the momentum on the war decision grew, there was not a culminating meeting of the National Security Council at which a final decision on war was made. Rather, a number of smaller decisions began to cascade, giving the war option a sense of inevitability. That trend was interrupted early August 2002. Secretary of State Powell met privately with President Bush and NSA Rice on August 5 to urge that an international cover, through the UN, be sought for any move against Iraq. Powell’s argument was echoed in the public debate at the same time by former Republican foreign policy officials Brent Scowcroft, James Baker and Henry Kissinger. National Security Council meetings on August 14 and August 16 then set the policy line: continued preparation for war, but accompanied by a diplomatic initiative at the United Nations to force a confrontation with Iraq on disarmament.56 This hardly signaled unanimity within the Administration. Some saw the UN approach as a possible alternative to war, others as a step (perhaps not even a necessary one) to secure international and domestic support for war. Just a few days later, Vice President Cheney called into question the effectiveness of weapons inspections in Iraq in a public speech, despite the fact that Administration policy was now aimed at forcing the return of those inspectors to Iraq.57
In retrospect, it is clear that the move to the UN was not a shift in policy, but a tactical move aimed at shoring up public support for the Iraq campaign in the United States and among potential allies.58 President Bush had made the decision to change the regime in Iraq sometime between September 12, 2001 and the summer of 2002. Had Saddam Hussein given convincing evidence that Iraq no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction, perhaps the Bush Administration’s march to war could have been diverted. Had the inspections regime somehow led to a coup against the regime, perhaps Washington would have seen war as unnecessary.59 However, the Iraqi weapons declaration of December 7, 2002, characterized by UNMOVIC head Hans Blix as “an opportunity missed,” simply confirmed for the Administration its belief that Saddam Hussein would not disarm. Despite numerous statements from Blix before the war that Iraq was mostly cooperating and his plea for more time to complete the inspections, the Administration was convinced that Saddam would not disarm without war.60 Woodward points to late December 2002 as the point when President Bush decided that war would be necessary to accomplish his aims, and he transmitted this decision to the major Cabinet officers in early January 2003.61 But the record indicates that he was set on war much earlier than that. Bush’s contention that Iraq continued to maintain a substantial WMD capacity was the centerpiece of the Administration’s argument for war. The mounting evidence after the war that Iraq did not have such a capacity called into question both American intelligence capabilities and the Bush Administration’s credibility.
The War Decision and Assumptions about Iraqi WMD, Terrorist Ties and Post-War Iraq
The Bush Administration rested its public case for war against Iraq on two putative threats – Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda – which have subsequently been shown to be baseless.62 Opponents of the war have taken this as proof that President Bush and those around him lied to the American public and the world in order to mobilize support for their war plans.63 Subsequent investigations by Congressional committees, by a special commission appointed by President Bush and by the media paint a more complex picture. It is difficult to establish with certainty the difference between good-faith but incorrect estimates of disputable facts and uncertain outcomes, and willful misrepresentation and exaggeration of those facts and outcomes for political reasons. It is difficult to know just what the policy-makers knew and how certain they were of what they knew. Such intimate knowledge would be necessary to answer the question: did the Bush Administration lie about the threat that Iraq posed?
I cannot answer that question. The principals can struggle over this issue in their memoirs and in other forums. I want to try to answer a more analytical question: how did very smart people come to such wrong-headed conclusions on a series of factual and interpretative issues, when they had access to substantial contrary evidence, or at least substantial reason to doubt the evidence supporting the incorrect conclusions? Here the vast literature on the intersection of psychology and foreign policy decision-making can provide some guidance.64 It teaches us that, because of both motivated and cognitive biases, people tend to misinterpret information in predictable ways. If they are convinced of a conclusion, they tend to emphasize information that supports that conclusion and discount information that calls that conclusion into question. Without more recent information, they tend to over-rely on “lessons” of the past, reading into the present such “lessons” as fact, even when there is little empirical data to support those conclusions. Such biases affect the perfectly sincere and the liars equally. Readers can make their own moral judgment about the Bush Administration. What I hope to demonstrate is that these established psychological tendencies can go a long way to explaining how the Bush Administration deluded so much of the public, and most probably itself, about key issues regarding Iraq.
This chapter has already established the context in which Iraq was viewed by the Bush Administration after 9/11. A number of important figures in the Administration were already looking for an opportunity to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Even those who were not – President Bush, Vice President Cheney, National Security Adviser Rice – were disposed after 9/11 to see Iraq in a much more sinister light, given the generally held belief that Saddam Hussein still had some elements of his WMD program, the fact that he had in the past supported groups that the United States regarded as terrorists and the certainty that he harbored ill-will toward the United States. We know that Bush and Cheney very quickly focused on Iraq in the post-9/11 period. We also know that the American intelligence community, called upon to produce new analyses of the potential Iraqi threat, was hamstrung by a lack of reliable information from sources within Iraq itself. The community was also haunted by past failures on Iraq, both before and after the Gulf War, where it underestimated the extent of Iraq’s WMD programs.65 As the Silberman-Robb Commission reported:66

Lacking reliable data about Iraq’s progress, analysts’ starting point was Iraq’s history – its past use of chemical weapons, its successful concealment of WMD programs both before and after the Gulf War, and its failure to account for previously declared stockpiles…In essence, analysts shifted the burden of proof, requiring evidence that Iraq did not have WMD. More troubling, some analysts started to disregard evidence that did not support their premise. Chastened by the effectiveness of Iraq’s deceptions before the Gulf War, they viewed contradictory information not as evidence that their premise was mistaken, but as evidence that Iraq was continuing to conceal its weapons program.


As will be demonstrated below, the Bush Administration exaggerated the intelligence about the extent of the threat posed by Iraq, more in some areas (nuclear weapons, al-Qaeda link) than in others (chemical and biological weapons). Members of the Administration also accepted exceedingly optimistic projections about the difficulties and costs of stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq, despite very credible reports from both inside and outside the government calling those projections into question. This section will examine these four issues – biological and chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, the al-Qaeda link and post-war Iraq – to see how the Administration came to its mistaken judgments. I conclude the section with an assessment of the “politicization” of the intelligence on Iraq and my judgment about these issues generally.
a) Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons
The baseline finding of the American intelligence community on the question of Iraqi biological weapons, before the 9/11 attacks, was that Saddam Hussein retained both stockpiles that were, or could easily be, weaponized and the ability to produce more such weapons. Certainly the decision-makers in the Clinton Administration thought that Iraq had at least a biological weapons program, if not a weaponized biological capability itself. It emphasized that fact during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. Though they did not have specific evidence, the community judged in an August 1999 National Intelligence Estimate that the biological weapons program “is being revitalized” in the absence of U.N. inspectors. In December 2000, an Intelligence Community Assessment reported, based upon a single source, that Iraq had constructed seven mobile biological weapons plants and was generally increasing its focus on biological weapons production. The December 2000 Assessment was a significant upgrading of the picture of Iraq’s biological weapons capabilities, though it also contained caveats about the uncertainties surrounding the issue.67
It was subsequently revealed that the single source responsible for the upgrading of the warning on the Iraqi biological weapons program, particularly on the mobile plants, was an Iraqi defector code-named CURVEBALL. He had defected in Germany, and his information was provided to the American intelligence community by its German counterpart. There were numerous questions raised about his credibility within the intelligence community. However, his information began to be used again in finished intelligence by July 2002, including in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that helped to make the case for war and in Secretary of State Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003.68
When the 9/11 attacks occurred, therefore, the intelligence community judgment was that Saddam Hussein probably had biological weapons and the capacity to produce more of them. The “probably” part of the assessment disappeared from community reports as policy makers began to focus more intently upon Iraq in the post-9/11 period. The October 2002 NIE stated with “high confidence” that Iraq possessed biological weapons.69
Despite the obvious failure of the intelligence community to adequately vet Iraqi defector sources like CURVEBALL, and its willingness to jettison the earlier cautions it had included in its assessment of the biological weapons threat posed by Iraq, the post-9/11 community judgment on this issue is not that different from its pre-9/11 judgment. It is simply stated much more definitively. The Senate Intelligence Committee Report, which was the most scathing assessment of the intelligence community’s work on biological weapons, took the post-9/11 analysis to task more for not highlighting the uncertainties about its conclusions – for overstatement and lack of recognition of possible alternative explanations – than for absolutely misreading the biological weapons issue. The Report found that the community’s conclusions about Iraq’s ability “to produce and weaponize biological agents are, for the most part, supported by the intelligence provided to the Committee.”70 While the community’s judgment about Iraqi biological weapons were incorrect, they were not unreasonable given the baseline knowledge provided by the final report of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraqi Disarmament (UNSCOM), Iraq’s past behavior and the widely held assumptions about Saddam Hussein’s ambitions.
The story of the intelligence community’s assessment of Iraq’s chemical weapons program is similar. Pre-9/11 reporting emphasized that Iraq had the material and the capability to produce chemical weapons, particularly after the end of the UNSCOM inspections in December 1998. The Clinton Administration had emphasized the continuing threat of Iraq’s chemical weapons capabilities during the December 1998 Desert Fox operation. The reliance of the community on the reporting of UNSCOM is highlighted by a September 1998 finding regarding Iraqi chemical weapons in a report prepared by the National Intelligence Council: “Gaps and inconsistencies in Iraqi declarations to UNSCOM strongly suggest that Iraq retains stockpiles of chemical munitions and agents.”71 In February 1999 a report produced by the CIA, DIA and Central Command concluded that “we believe that Iraq possesses chemical agent stockpiles that can be, or already are, weaponized and ready for use.” While the report also found that Iraq retained the infrastructure to produce chemical weapons, it judged that Iraq had not resumed such production.72
As was the case with biological weapons, the post-9/11 intelligence judgments regarding chemical weapons dropped many of the qualifiers and stated their findings more definitively. The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iraq had chemical weapons and also asserted that Iraq had resumed production of a number of chemical weapons agents. Part of this new certainty stemmed from new imagery intelligence that showed trucks moving to and from suspected chemical weapons sites in Iraq, leading analysts to judge that activity around the sites had increased.73
There was a substantial, pre-9/11 basis within the intelligence community for policy makers to believe that Iraq possessed biological and chemical weapons. That belief was also shared by other governments and outside observers. In a paper prepared in March 2002, the Overseas and Defense Secretariat of the British Cabinet Office reported that “Iraq continues with its BW and CW programmes, and, if it has not done so already, could produce significant quantities of BW agents within days and CW agents within weeks of a decision to do so.”74 Hans Blix, the head of UNMOVIC, said that up to a month before the war, he still thought that the Iraqis were concealing banned weapons.75 The New York Times, which opposed the Iraq War, editorialized in September 2003: “Like President Bush, we believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding potentially large quantities of chemical and biological weapons…”76 Even high-ranking Iraqis, members of the Revolutionary Command Council, were surprised when Saddam told them in late 2002 that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.77 These assessments confirm the reasonableness of the American intelligence community’s judgment that Iraq possessed biological and chemical weapons. Other observers, not wedded to either the political ends of the Bush Administration or the analytical frameworks of the American intelligence community, reached roughly the same conclusion on the question.
For those policy makers who had targeted Iraq before the 9/11 attacks, the intelligence on biological and chemical weapons simply confirmed their view that Iraq was a threat to the United States. For policy makers like President Bush, Vice President Cheney and NSA Rice, who did not exhibit strong inclinations on Iraq before 9/11, the intelligence on Iraq was seen through the new prism of their fears about terrorist attacks on the American homeland with WMD.78 Having quickly come to the conclusion that the post-9/11 threat from Iraq was much more serious than they had previously thought, they were disposed to look to the intelligence community for stronger confirmation of that conclusion and to discount uncertainties and caveats about Iraq’s chemical and biological capacity. The consequences of underestimation were too great, in the wake of 9/11. The fact that it was sincerely believed within the Administration, and was not simply a pretext to gain public support, is demonstrated by the extensive preparations made by American forces to confront chemical and biological weapons on the battlefield.79
In response to these new concerns from the top level of the Administration, the intelligence community stated its judgments about Iraqi chemical and biological weapons much more definitively after 9/11. The more definitive intelligence findings after 9/11 stemmed in part from new information, from human sources and technical sources, which proved to be inaccurate. They stemmed in part from pre-existing beliefs about Saddam Hussein’s intentions and capabilities, and an unwillingness to challenge those beliefs as the political process moved toward war with Iraq. The more definitive tone of the findings also came from the intense interest top policy makers showed in getting just such definitive findings, an issue to which I will return below in the section on politicization of intelligence. However, in the case of chemical and biological weapons, the Bush Administration did not have to push the intelligence community very far. Its pre-9/11 consensus already leaned very strongly to the conclusion that Iraq possessed these weapons. That consensus was wrong, but it was not unreasonable.80
b) Iraq’s nuclear program
The nuclear issue was considerably different than the biological and chemical weapons issue, in that the intelligence consensus before 9/11 was that Iraq did not pose a serious nuclear threat. The intelligence community, in a number of reports prepared in the late 1990’s, judged that while Iraq retained the human and technological capital to reconstitute its nuclear program in the future, and that Saddam Hussein had not abandoned his desire at some point in the future to acquire nuclear weapons, Iraq did not appear to have reconstituted at that time. Moreover, UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had successfully destroyed or neutralized substantial portions of Iraq’s nuclear infrastructure during the early and mid-1990’s, making it very difficult for Iraq to stage a “nuclear breakout” over a short period of time.81 As late as December 2000, a community assessment noted that Iraq “still does not appear to have taken major steps towards reconstitution” of its nuclear program.82
The only indication, before 9/11, of a change in the intelligence community’s assessment of Iraq’s nuclear capabilities came in a spring 2001 report that Iraq was seeking high-strength aluminum alloy tubes, judged by some analysts to be consistent with requirements for building centrifuges, the key part of the uranium enrichment process aimed at producing fissile material. That report also noted other indications of Iraqi procurement that were consistent with reconstituting the nuclear program.83 The aluminum alloy tubes quickly became the center of a major analytical conflict within the intelligence community, to be discussed below. However, this report was the beginning of some rethinking within the community of the Iraqi nuclear program. The Silberman-Robb Commission reported that analysts began to worry that “they may again be facing a surprise similar to the one in 1991,” when the American intelligence community had underestimated the progress Iraq had made toward acquiring a nuclear capability.84
In the wake of 9/11, the intelligence community reached very different judgments about Iraq’s nuclear program. The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated: “Most agencies assess that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that UNSCOM inspectors departed – December 1998.”85 This marked a significant upgrading of the Iraqi nuclear threat. The key indicator of reconstitution highlighted by the NIE was Iraq’s interest in procuring the high-strength aluminum alloy tubes.
Far from being united in its assessment of the aluminum tubes, however, the intelligence community was divided on whether they were suited to centrifuge design, and thus an indicator of nuclear intent, or whether they were more likely intended for conventional, short-range rockets. One Congressional investigator characterized the disputes within the community on the aluminum tubes as a “holy war.”86 The theory that the tubes were an indication of nuclear intent was championed by analysts at the CIA. Their counterparts at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) and at the Department of Energy (DOE) vigorously objected to the CIA conclusion.87 In the NIE itself, INR officially dissented from the finding that Iraq was seeking to reconstitute its nuclear program. The DOE agreed that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, but not based upon the evidence of the tubes.88 The DOE based its case for reconstitution largely upon intelligence reports, subsequently discredited, that Iraq was seeking to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger. Ironically, the CIA had by the fall of 2002 begun to question the validity of the Niger information. So the majority opinion of the intelligence community on the reconstitution of Iraq’s nuclear program was a bureaucratic compromise, with the CIA basing its findings on evidence discredited by the DOE and the DOE basing its findings on evidence discredited by the CIA.89
The story of the Niger connection, the other major piece of evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, has had a much fuller public airing than the aluminum tubes issue. It became a cause celebre after the Iraq War, when former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson publicly criticized the Bush Administration for citing Iraqi efforts to obtain yellowcake uranium from Africa as proof of Iraq’s nuclear intentions.90 Wilson’s public attack on the Bush Administration was followed by a news report that identified Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as the CIA official who proposed that Wilson make the fact-finding trip to Niger. Although not in the field, Plame was at that time still an undercover employee of the CIA, and releasing her name to the press was a violation of Federal law. A special prosecutor appointed to investigate the case subsequently obtained an indictment of Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, on charges of making false statements to a grand jury related to the case. Libby was tried and convicted.
The “Plame-gate” scandal had little to do with the development of the nuclear case against Iraq in the lead-up to the war, as Wilson’s trip to Niger had little effect on the developing analysis. More central to the analysis was the publication of a British government White Paper on September 24, 2002 that stated “there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” There was sufficient doubt in the US intelligence community about the source of the report that the National Intelligence Estimate prepared in October 2002 downplayed the Niger connection in its discussion of the Iraqi nuclear program. There was no mention of the African yellowcake connection in the NIE’s “Key Judgments” section. In a section on “Uranium Acquisition” found on page 24, deep into the document, the NIE states that a “foreign government service” reported on the Niger-Iraq yellowcake deal. It went on to say “we do not know the status of this arrangement.” It then referenced other reports of Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium ore from Somalia and “possibly” the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It concluded: “We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.”91
Almost immediately after the publication of the October 2002 NIE, an Italian journalist provided the American embassy in Rome with documents related to the alleged Niger-Iraq agreement. State Department analysts quickly judged the documents to be forgeries, and conveyed that finding to the entire intelligence community. The IAEA, given copies of the documents by the U.S., also concluded some months later, in early 2003, that they were forgeries.92 Secretary of State Powell found the information to be sufficiently questionable that he left it out of his presentation about Iraq’s WMD programs to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003.93 The CIA, however, did not independently analyze the documents. It continued to report in the months leading up to the war that Iraq was probably seeking to acquire uranium from African countries. The CIA Director cleared President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address, in which he asserted that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”94 Both the White House and the CIA subsequently acknowledged that this assertion was based on false information, but that was after the Iraq War.
The intelligence community’s findings on Iraq’s nuclear program in the months leading up to the Iraq War were not nearly as certain or unanimous as its findings on chemical and biological weapons. While both the aluminum alloy tubes and the Niger yellowcake connection were accepted by some parts of the community as evidence of Iraqi efforts to reconstitute the nuclear program, they were vigorously challenged by other parts. Nowhere in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002 did the community say that Iraq had a nuclear weapon – in the way it stated “with high confidence” that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons. Its “high confidence” finding was that Iraq “could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.” However, it did not conclude that Iraq had acquired such material, and was cautious in its assessment of the Niger and other African connections. It concluded with “moderate confidence” that Iraq “does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one, but is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009,” while acknowledging in the report that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research believed that Iraq was much further away from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It stressed the aluminum alloy tubes as evidence of reconstitution, but acknowledged that the Department of Energy did not agree that they were compelling evidence.95 On the whole, while incorrect about the extent of Iraqi nuclear reconstitution, the Intelligence Community was much more cautious and much more clearly divided on the nuclear question in the lead-up to the Iraq War than it was on biological and chemical weapons.
Moreover, top officials in the Bush Administration knew of these disputes and uncertainties. A senior administration official said that NSA Rice “was aware of differences of opinion” in the community on Iraq’s nuclear program, specifically on the issue of the aluminum alloy tubes. CIA and Administration officials told the
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