Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, which served as the prime rationale advanced by President Bush for the war that began a year ago this week, have vanished like a desert mirage, and the issue has become potentially troubling for a president seeking re-election.
It is now universally acknowledged, even by members of the administration, that intelligence mistakes were made. It's too early to say whether they were as great as past fumbles, such as the failure to anticipate the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989-91. But the public and Congress are grumbling.
"The fact that the intelligence assessments before the war were so wildly off the mark should trouble all Americans," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter of the U.S. talks to a journalist during a conference entitled 'Iraq, the aftermath - prospects for peace and security' at the University of Westminster in central London, March 13, 2004. Ritter has been a vocal critic of military action against Iraq since leaving the inspections team in 1998. REUTERS/David Bebber
David Kay, the former chief of U.S. weapons inspections, confessed in January to the Senate: It "turns out that we were all wrong probably ... and that is most disturbing."
But was it really an intelligence failure? Or was it a failure by the policymakers and battle planners in the White House and Pentagon who used the intelligence to make the case for war? Or even deliberate deception, as some have charged?
In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the United Nations what he described as compelling evidence for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The speech impressed many Americans; an ABC News poll showed that almost 60 percent regarded the speech as "hard proof ... that Iraq possesses banned weapons."
Also impressed was Bay Area resident Jay Davis, a veteran weapons inspector, physicist and former head of the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. "Those who are not convinced by this (Powell) evidence will not be convinced by any evidence," Davis said in a Chronicle interview at the time.
In an interview last week, Davis said he had no doubts at the time. "I would have bet my house on it, that we would have found chemical weapons," he said. "And the huge surprise is that we found none."
What went wrong? In hindsight, Davis says, he should have realized there was a simple reason to doubt that Iraq retained chemical weapons. The chemicals in the weapons tend to break down over time; only wealthy, technically advanced nations such as the United States, the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and World War II-era Japan ever developed chemical weapons that could withstand prolonged storage. So Iraqi chemical weapons might have deteriorated into uselessness by 2003, he now says.
"I didn't think it through," Davis admits. "It was a damned discoverable thing that other people brighter than I should have known. The lesson of life is that the 'obvious' isn't."
Still, before the invasion, a few independent U.S. experts did question the Bush administration's interpretations of the intelligence data. Even the CIA's reports on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) contained caveats.
Oddly, the most aggressively skeptical of the war's well-qualified observers was not an intelligence officer at all. He was ex-Marine Maj. Scott Ritter, the former lead inspector for the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) Concealment and Investigations team in Iraq. "There simply is no evidence of a factual nature that sustains the allegation by the Bush administration or British government that Iraq today possesses weapons of mass destruction," Ritter told The Chronicle in late March 2003. He stuck to his guns later, when U.S. officials or troops incorrectly reported finding possible WMD sites early in the conflict.
In retrospect, says Jonathan B. Tucker of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies' Washington office, "I guess (Ritter) can claim vindication: He was right when everyone thought he was simply an apologist for the Iraqi government." Tucker recalls Ritter as being "probably the toughest or the most gung-ho of the (weapons) inspectors involved in trying to penetrate the Iraqi deception system during the early 1990s.''
"Sometimes people jump from one extreme to the other," he said.
In a recent interview, Ritter dismissed talk of an intelligence failure, because, in his view, the Bush administration and CIA knew all along that the Iraqis had no WMDs and were "lying to the Congress and the American people."
Ritter dismissed CIA defenders who say the agency's reports bristled with caveats.
"They lie by caveating. You can write an intelligence report in a manner which protects you (from critics later) because you put in the appropriate caveats," Ritter said. "It's a wink and a nod."
Angelo Codevilla, a noted intelligence expert who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq because he felt Hussein thumbed his nose at the United States, believed it was a mistake to use alleged WMDs to justify the attack. He was not impressed when Powell, in his U.N. speech, played a recording of a cell-phone conversation between Iraqi officials that supposedly exposed their scramble to hide WMD-related work. Codevilla warned The Chronicle at the time: "I'm afraid they (the conversations) are anything but conclusive."
Codevilla, who was with the Hoover Institution at Stanford and now teaches international relations at Boston University, blames the botched intelligence on a long-standing cultural crisis within the CIA.
In the mythology of espionage, colonialism and nation-building, figures such as Britain's T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) deeply loved, understood and participated in the cultures whose secrets they aimed to penetrate.
By contrast, Codevilla complained, "we now have a huge CIA station in Baghdad, and the people there ... don't speak Arabic, they're afraid to walk outside except under escort by soldiers, they're working through translators. We are talking about a basic, fundamental incapacity to get a grip on the situation." He contrasted their isolation with a friend "who used be a CIA officer in Iran ... He was in love with Iran; he wanted to know and feel and touch everything Iranian.''
Davis, by contrast, thinks it's unfair to make the CIA the scapegoat. "Everything I hear from people who know a lot more than I know say the CIA's statements were conservative and accurate," Davis said. "And everything we've learned since the war is consistent with their statements. They were not leading this charge for war."
S. Eugene Poteat, president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers in McLean, Va., agrees. The CIA's reports included "all the caveats; they use words like 'possible' or 'probable.' ... The choice to go in (to Iraq) was purely the Pentagon or the administration's decision,'' he said. "The problem is not in the intelligence; it was in the use and abuse of that intelligence by others, whoever they were."
In discussing the intelligence data, Bush's aides failed to emphasize to the president its uncertainties, Davis suspects.
"Condoleezza Rice is the national security adviser to the president, and she is the gatekeeper for this information," Davis said. "She should say (to Bush), 'Gee, we've got two (possible) answers here.' One of the functions of your (presidential) staff is to read the 100-page documents while you get the one-page summary."
Tucker, a former U.N. bioweapons inspector in Iraq, says "groupthink" -- the tendency of analysts to think alike -- contaminated their interpretation of intelligence data.
"I was very surprised that no WMDs were found," Tucker admits. "I was taken in by this groupthink, this set of preconceived notions, as well as anyone else."
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle