Below is an opinion piece that UK publications did not print. It seems anything that would appear to defend the actions of Prime Minister Tony Blair is of no interest. My take on the Chilcot review of the UK actions regarding Iraq….
One consequence of the long delay in issuing the Chilcot Report is that the context in which the events took place is a distant memory. The American reviews of the policy and intelligence decisions were made more contemporaneously. They certainly identified errors of process and judgment, particularly in the US intelligence community. The fact that these reviews took place closer to the time of the crucial decisions, however, implicitly meant readers had a better understanding of the urgency and dangers leaders in both executive and legislative branches felt.
I spent over six years investigating Saddam’s WMD programs in the 1990’s as Deputy Chairman of the UN Iraq inspection team dubbed UNSCOM. I also led the Iraq Survey Group throughout 2004 that produced the definitive report on those programs after the war. The later effort answered the questions remaining from the former. In 2004, we had access to sites, documents and the Iraqis themselves, including Saddam. From this experience, there are several points that are important to highlight in considering the Chilcot Report.
In 2002, we knew Saddam had a history with WMD—a positive history from his perspective. His use of chemical munitions during the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980’s arguably saved him. Iran was conducting “human wave” attacks against Iraq positions with good effect. Saddam responded by using 101,000 chemical munitions.
Less obvious, but even more potent for Saddam, was the role played by WMD in the 1991 Kuwait war. Saddam possessed both chemical and biological weapons (and was close to achieving a nuclear weapon). He ordered chemical and biological weapons to be loaded, dispersed, and he pre-authorized their use in the event coalition forces moved on Baghdad. Iraq detailed these actions to UN inspectors in 1995 and stated their view that this contributed to deterring the United States from going to Baghdad in 1991.
Intelligence analysts and weapons inspectors saw that from Saddam’s perspective, WMD was vital. Combine this with Saddam’s long track record of obvious cheating during the period of weapons inspection activities in Iraq in the 1990’s. For example, Iraq denied having any offensive biological weapons at all for over four years. This history did not incline inspectors or the US intelligence community to give Saddam the benefit of the doubt when he could not demonstrate verifiably that he had gotten rid of all WMD. In fact, inspectors could prove that some things claimed by Saddam were steadfastly wrong.
Inspectors left in 1998—when an impasse resulted from their inability to conclude Iraq was disarmed and the US and UK responded with a four-day bombing operation. Saddam refused to allow inspectors to return and from that point forward, Iraq was doing relatively well. Sanctions were crumbling.
At the same time, intelligence agencies were left largely blind. The detailed reports of UNSCOM inspectors ended and intelligence analysts had virtually nothing new to base their judgments. Intelligence agencies made the mistake of focusing on only a single notion, basically that Saddam would be crazy not to pursue WMD. This was a broadly held notion and it colored the analysis of the limited data available. Worse, sources and reporting that supported Iraq WMD were viewed uncritically.
By the time of the September 11, 2001 attack, Saddam’s regime had been recovering as sanctions were collapsing. Today, after 15 years the shock of 9/11 may have faded. However, at the time, there was a radical recalibration of what was required to defend the US. Washington could not afford to “give up the first punch.” It was too costly.
Moreover, there was widespread intelligence reporting that a second wave of attacks was imminent. The US and other intelligence agencies were on worldwide alert for any reports or indications of threats. This produced a lot of worrisome reporting. Much of that reporting touched on the risk of an attack employing WMD.
Exacerbating this was the very real flurry of letters containing anthrax mailed to various locations in the US resulting in five deaths.
This was not an atmosphere where leaders were inclined to minimize threats. Neither was it a time when intelligence officials would opt not to pass on questionable reports. One of the key faults prior to 9/11 was the failure to share information.
In Washington, 2002 was a critical year for intelligence collection. There were very limited opportunities to collect information on Iraq. Reports that Iraq had WMD were received as well as reports that Iraq did not have WMD. Intelligence analysts tended to discount the later saying that Iraq was of course good at hiding things and even some senior Iraqi officials would not necessarily know the true situation. Saddam opposition groups fed dubious defectors to both the US government and journalists. They were saying what many expected to hear—Saddam had WMD.
For his part, Saddam made his own (fatal) mistake in early 2002. At a February meeting with his ministers, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and Foreign Minister Naji Sabri suggested that Iraq permit UN weapons inspectors back to continue their inspections. Saddam agreed, but on condition that Aziz and Sabri first negotiate a guarantee with the UN that would assure sanctions would be lifted when inspectors found nothing. To outside observers, this appeared to be more of a disingenuous tactic by Saddam.
From Saddam’s perspective, he assumed Washington knew the truth about his WMD status. The world’s last superpower spent tens of billions of dollars on intelligence; his assumption was that we knew the truth. (Saddam’s ambiguous statements about his WMD were aimed at deterring Iran, he later explained.) He suspected, not unreasonably, that Washington was simply using the inspection process to sustain sanctions on Iraq. However, had he allowed the inspectors to return when his advisors recommended, there would have been much more time for them to conduct their work before the political and military momentum built for war to remove him.
In October 2002, the US intelligence community produced its consensus assessment of Iraq WMD in a National Intelligence Assessment. It stated categorically in its summary of key judgments that Iraq possessed both chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear programs were suspected, but, less clear. This document was the basis for both legislative and executive decision-makers in considering the use of force. It was a deeply flawed document now used as an example of how not to produce and report intelligence.
Could responsible authorities have not acted in the presence of such a judgment? Bear in mind that an independent review of the failures of US intelligence on Iraq WMD did not find they were caused by political influence. They were wrong for other reasons.
Finally, two points are worth recalling about Saddam’s actions. First, he was not in complete compliance with the UN weapons limits. He had been developing and producing ballistic missiles that exceeded range limitations. He had been limiting the access of inspectors. Of course these were far short of the violations Washington assumed.
More importantly, as documented in the Iraq Survey Group Report, Saddam had the full intention of reconstituting his WMD after sanctions were lifted. Saddam played a long game and he viewed his setbacks of the 1990s as temporary.
Where we would be today had Saddam remained in power is an open question. Certainly the flawed execution in removing Saddam from power and the series of actions taken in the succeeding years have contributed to the instability obvious in Iraq today.
The decisions taken by leaders in Washington and London were not based on lies. They were based on flawed intelligence combined with real fears of renewed attacks, and in response to actions by Saddam that offered little evidence he had changed his stripes. We should have known better, but we didn’t. Risks and consequences were evaluated and extremely difficult decisions were taken.
Under similar circumstances I suspect current critics might in fact, have made similar decisions.