Along the Tracks

Monday, October 13, 2003

A trap of its own making

The Bush administration, following the advice of Colin Powell (which I agreed with at the time), went the “UN route” in its diplomatic lead-up to war. I still think this was the right course - up until the Iraqi’s delivered their 10,000-plus pages of nothing in the mandated listing of all their programs, mid-December 2002. At that point, they were in “material breach” of Resolution 1441 and all further UN activities (i.e., inspections) should have ended, then and there. The administration should have forwarded a simple resolution noting the breach, and let the Security Council votes fall where they may.

But the Bush administration chose another path. From last week’s Leader column:

"Weapons inspector David Kays interim report condemns Iraq’s continued efforts at missile, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons proliferation right up to the start of the war. He has found evidence of programs in all three areas, and has placed particular emphasis on Iraqi biological weapons research, where Saddam’s scientists were constantly testing new methods of murder and looking for ways to build a decentralized production program which could be jump-started into making viable weapons on short notice. Three mobile biolabs have been found, along with pages and pages of documentation showing how 'dual-use' facilities could be transformed into factories of death as soon as international eyes turned away.

"The key finding - something we always knew, and something the administration should always have made its central argument (but failed to): Saddam was committed to a “continuous improvement” program of missile, chemical, biological and nuclear research. A decade of sanctions had not stopped him. Any lifting of sanctions would have resulted in full-blown production of weapons. Even under sanctions, Saddam’s scientists were advancing their tools and increasing the threat to Iraq’s neighbors, and to the United States. Remember: A teaspoonful of anthrax or another bioagent could kill thousands. Saddam was capable of making many times that amount in a matter of days right up until his statues fell.

"Did Kay find the stockpiled weapons which intelligence agencies universally expected? Not yet. I still believe many of those weapons will be found - but it will take a long time, interviewing and searching. The key issue here is not really 'Did he or didn’t he have the weapons?' Rather, we need to understand where American and other intelligence agencies failed. Some of the problem here rests with the Bush administration - but not in the way many critics claim.

"Bush and Co. decided to follow a United Nations process farther than they needed. Saddam was in violation of multiple resolutions, and not just on weapons restrictions. Bill Clinton, rightly, launched Operation Desert Fox when inspectors reported they were being blocked by Saddam - nobody claimed Iraq was an 'imminent threat' then either. Similarly, when Hans Blix declared the Iraqi weapons disclosure of mid-December 2002 'incomplete,' that should have ended the UN debate. Stretching out the inspections while trying to woo the duplicitous French was a terrible mistake. That decision changed the focus from Iraqi non-compliance to a 'smoking gun' chase. Intelligence information would be the key to any further Security Council resolution - not Saddam’s obvious failure to comply. This shift placed a burden on the CIA and other intelligence agencies which they could not handle. Intelligence is an art of analysis and interpretation; the precision required was simply not available.

"Now, the president faces a firestorm over how he and his administration represented the intelligence in their public statements. Nothing they said was a 'lie,' despite what some claim. But by transferring the burden of proof from Saddam to themselves, they set their own trap, politically speaking: Every statement became a test of trustworthiness, not of the intelligence data, but of the president’s case for war and the administration itself. Thus, if intelligence was wrong, those errors were likely to be laid not at the feet of the CIA, but of the president himself.

"George W. Bush is tripping over them right now."

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