Originally published on Tech Central Station January 29, 2004.
Searching for a Story
During a press briefing on Tuesday, a reporter asked White House spokesman Scott McClellan whether suggestive comments from ex-chief weapons inspector David Kay indicate "that when the President took the world to war against Iraq in March of last year, there was really no way to quantify the current threat posed by Iraq." Having already answered variants of this question, Mr. McClellan repeated a somewhat evasive talking point. The reporter pressed; McClellan sidestepped.
He needn't have been so coy.
The unacceptable number of unknowns surrounding a tyrant in Saddam Hussein's position and with his history underlay every argument made for war --- expressed in such words as "estimate," "assume," and "risk." "Why should any of us give Iraq the benefit of the doubt?" Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the U.N. Security Council. The essential justification for war was that, without cooperation and transparent inspections, quantification of the threat could come in the form of another mass body count.
David Kay told National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, after resigning his position, that "we led this search to find the truth, not to find the weapons." Since the war, politically motivated bickering in the United States has made the truth a secondary consideration for many. And Mr. Kay is discovering the dangers of intellectual nuance in such an atmosphere.
In his interim report, Kay stated that Iraq's WMD activities were designed with "deception and denial built into each program." In recent interviews, he has said that Iraq gradually diminished its stockpiles after the first Gulf War and switched its focus to the maintenance of infrastructure and materials and the continuation of research. The increasing discomfort achieved by UNSCOM inspections in the mid-1990s pushed the Ba'athist regime toward even more dispersed and discreet programs, with an emphasis on enabling quick resumption of production.
In Kay's assessment, the bombing campaign that followed the departure of UNSCOM in 1998 diminished Iraq's chemical weapons infrastructure. However, subsequent years -- during which calls to end the sanctions were common on U.S. op-ed pages -- found Hussein restless to revive his efforts. He and his sons inquired how long new chemical weapons would take to produce (a matter of months for some types), and the regime began seeking new equipment and precursors.
Efforts involving biological weapons also continued, and initial steps were taken toward resumption of the quest for a nuclear weapon. Perhaps most telling, and most downplayed in the Western media, the regime was brazen in its pursuit of delivery systems, the apparent absence of which was raised by those who opposed the war.
The major detail that Kay faults intelligence analysts for missing is the state of the Ba'athist regime during these later years. He claims that Hussein began authorizing projects without consultation, leading to a "vortex of corruption" in which the dictator was actively deceived and of which his control began to slip. Finally, as war became inevitable, the Iraqi government scattered or destroyed much of the evidence, both material and documentary. Some of it went to Syria, and still more was lost during the lawless weeks following the invasion.
That is the history that Kay has drawn in his multiple interviews, and the significant intelligence error of which he speaks was not so much a matter of missed intentions, resources, or concealment activities, as one of exaggerated estimates. Lacking sufficient human intelligence to gauge the temper of the Iraqi government, Western analysts appear to have interpreted the regime's behavior as indication of production.
While Mr. Kay has been deliberate in his use of words like "stockpiles" and "large-scale production," the Bush administration repeatedly stressed, in its pre-war case, that it would take only a small amount of a weaponized substance to cause intolerable casualties. More importantly, the fact remains that Iraq did have leftover stockpiles in the '90s, and if it destroyed them, it would have had to do so in an inexplicably clandestine fashion, even as it went to great lengths to maintain its ability to rebuild. Kay warns that this and other puzzles may remain eternally ambiguous.
Did Hussein have the weapons and move them during the extended debate prior to the war? Did his scientists dupe him into believing that he was closer to the leverage that he craved than he actually was? Given the heavy scrutiny of his WMD efforts, did he shift some resources toward terrorism? Headlines notwithstanding, these are all very much open questions.
With the meticulous "sanitation" effort that Kay described in his interim report, it hardly stretches credulity to imagine that the deposed regime could have planted misinformation among those records that remained. Perhaps that was the case with the document that Kay told the New York Times showed Iraqi concerns about the degree to which the 1995 defection of Hussein Kamel "would hamper any efforts to continue weapons programs."
Whatever story emerges with time, only the constant misinterpretation of comments and redirection of emphasis -- the public's own failure of intelligence -- prevent the broad realization that we already know as much as we ever needed. Angry columnists and candidates may mock the President's explicit reference to "programs," but the existence of those programs is indeed the salient factor. We couldn't -- and still can't -- know the extent to which they were applied in Iraq... or elsewhere.
In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush warned that Hussein "could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own." In his intelligence presentation to the U.N., Secretary Powell characterized the programs themselves as "real and present dangers to the region and to the world." And in his interview with the Times David Kay explained that Iraq "had the technology, the ability to produce, and there were terrorist groups passing through the country -- and no central control."
So, whether Saddam Hussein played the role of the megalomaniac mastermind or Iraq represented a vortex where the tools of fascist horror coalesced with the evil ambitions of terrorists, Scott McClellan was entirely correct to note that "if the inspection teams that had been in Iraq had discovered half of what Dr. Kay uncovered in his progress report, then the United Nations Security Council would have had to move to find Saddam Hussein in material breach."
What's more, if President Bush had second-guessed the threat, we might very well be facing more pressing concerns than the temperatures in the upcoming primary states.