Judy Miller’s Book | Charles Duelfer

Judy Miller’s Book

“The Story” provides a fascinating perspective on a terrible period.  For those who want to look at the Iraq mess from various angles, this will add a valuable perspective (she quotes me in it, so I may not be unbiased).

There have been harsh comments about Judy Miller’s reporting, but the intelligence community did no better–as has been acknowledged publicly. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 2002 has now been largely declassified.  This was the baseline document for Congress and the Administration regarding the decision to go to war.  It was awful.  Now it serves as an example of how not to create intelligence assessments. And, the intelligence community has taken many steps to improve its collection, analytic process and intelligence products in the aftermath.  But don’t think there won’t be future intelligence “failures.”  It’s inevitable.

Journalists face many of the same problems as intelligence officers–vetting sources, not getting locked in on a single hypothesis, checking your assumptions, reviewing all the sources of bias that seep into analysis, etc, etc, etc.  For both journalists and intelligence officers Iraq was a tough problem.

There was little data.  Defectors were wobbly and hard to check. (Curveball was only the most famous fabricator).  And the mindset was, given Saddam’s history, why wouldn’t he have WMD?  Chemical weapons saved him (by offsetting Iranian “human wave attacks”) in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s.  Later, in the 1991 Kuwait war, Saddam believed his WMD stocks saved him again by deterring George Bush the elder, from going to Baghdad.  Add to those two facts, the years of Saddam’s playing cat and mouse with UN inspectors (91-96 or so), and it is understandable that intelligence analysts were not postulating that Saddam had finally given everything up.

In the absence of evidence, but with the requirement, nevertheless, to make a judgment for policymakers, giving Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt was improbable.

Of course the assessments were mostly wrong, especially on Nuclear where they were way off the mark–embarrassingly so.  The other assessments (CW, BW, and ballistic missiles) lacked caveats and qualifications that misled readers to assume there was real data underlying the judgments.  As Ms. Miller’s account relates, journalists did not do much better.

It’s worth recalling that the UN weapons inspectors also found it impossible to give Saddam a clean bill of health.  Obviously the consequences of their judgments were not the same as the US intelligence community.  However, their work formed the basis for many key assessments.  And the weapons inspectors were certainly unconvinced that Saddam had come clean.  In fact, they delineated the areas where Saddam had not provided verifiable accounts of his WMD activities.  And the substantial gaps in his story were more readily explained by “hidden WMD” than he innocently “forgot how much he had or where it went.”

From Ms. Miller’s description, it also seems the ugly bureaucratic fights in the government bureaucracy (e.g. between State and Defense) had their counterparts inside the NY Times. The friction between management and staff is quite similar.  So too were the slippery responses by management when things go wrong.

The circumstances leading to the war were not simple.  Quite the contrary.  For those who already have their minds made up (“Bush lied and People died”) and do not want any contrary evidence, perhaps this is not for you.  However, if you are inclined to build on your background this book adds a lot.  I would expect journalism students would find it on future syllabi.

As for Jon Stewart, he certainly expounds a point of view.  And he knows his audience.  He gives them what they want to hear.  Maybe he should become the head of the CIA in his next job.  He’d be better than some and worse than others.  But, I suspect he will run for congress (Senate) next.  Those jobs’ are more in line with his talent.  And maybe the hearings would be even more comical.

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2 Responses to Judy Miller’s Book

  1. Eric says:

    Charles Duelfer: “It’s worth recalling that the UN weapons inspectors also found it impossible to give Saddam a clean bill of health. Obviously the consequences of their judgments were not the same as the US intelligence community.”

    Sir, if by “not the same as”, you mean less consequence rather than various role, then your UN weapons inspectors versus intelligence community comparison is not obvious.

    My reading of the UNSCRs that set the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” and the US law and policy that authorized and “urged” the President to “bring Iraq into compliance with its international obligations” (P.L. 105-235) placed the UN weapons inspectors, not the intelligence community, at the center of gravity of the President’s final decision for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

    Short of an imminent threat by Iraq, which was not claimed (Bush officials characterized the Iraqi danger as “gathering” or “grave and gathering”), the intelligence assessments could spur initial action and steel resolve, but they could not trigger enforcement. By the operative enforcement procedure, only a UNSCR-687 Special Commission assessment of noncompliance confirming material breach of the terms of ceasefire could trigger enforcement.

    For Operation Iraqi Freedom, President Bush’s citation of the pre-war intelligence added political weight, enough to spur debate about preemptive defense, but it was not casus belli. The triggering element was the UNMOVIC Cluster Document finding that Iraq had failed to prove disarmament in Saddam’s “final opportunity to comply” with “full and immediate compliance by Iraq without conditions or restrictions with its obligations under resolution 687 (1991) and other relevant resolutions” (UNSCR 1441).

    As set out in the law and policy and reiterated by President Bush, notwithstanding his citation of the “grave and gathering” pre-war intelligence, the casus belli by procedure was Iraq’s failure to prove disarmament as mandated.

    The relationships between intelligence community, UN weapons inspectors, and the US president, ie, chief enforcer, in the disarmament process for Iraq seem straightforward on paper. But they were confused in the politics.

    Some in the intelligence community, while accepting responsibility for the faulty intelligence, have yet disagreed they are responsible for OIF. They point out that sussing out Iraq’s proscribed armament was not a conventional intelligence mission due to the terms of ceasefire. Executive action against Iraq was channeled through the US-enforced, UN-mandated compliance process. Therefore, on the road to war with Iraq, the intelligence community supported the UN weapons inspections. There was no burden of proof on international intelligence agencies to prove Iraq possessed the estimated armament. The burden of proof was on Iraq to prove it had disarmed as mandated. Casus belli was Iraqi material breach of the terms of ceasefire.

    Yet after UNMOVIC confirmed Iraq’s material breach, which triggered the regime change, the intelligence community was blamed in the politics, despite that it had played a prescribed supporting role only in the disarmament process.

    Meanwhile, Hans Blix and his inspection team fulfilled their mandate under UNSCR 1441 and conclusively demonstrated that Iraq had not disarmed as mandated in Saddam’s “final opportunity to comply”. President Bush made his final decision for OIF based on the UNMOVIC findings.

    Yet Blix decoupled the UN weapons inspectors’ responsibility for the casus belli by expressing the view that Iraq’s evident failure to disarm as mandated was not evidence of proscribed Iraqi armament, eg, his accusation that Bush officials turned question marks into exclamation marks.

    Blix’s rationale struck me as altogether invalidating the founding purpose of the terms of ceasefire in UNSCR 687. Iraq’s guilt of armament was established at the outset as the foundational premise of the disarmament process; after all, what is a disarmament mandate if there’s no armament to disarm? I’m still confused by Blix’s twisted take on the UN weapons inspections and the terms of ceasefire.

    For President Bush’s part, I see President Clinton sans Lewinsky scandal. There is a difference of progressed degree and situational detail, not of substantial kind, between Bush’s decision-making for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002-2003 and Clinton’s decision-making for Operation Desert Fox in 1998.

    Presidents HW Bush and Clinton have largely escaped blame for OIF, yet President Bush inherited a ceasefire enforcement that was more than mature and fixed in its course. Bush merely carried out the coda of an overstretched campaign that, according to your findings with ISG, had come to a head by 2001, in other words, as George and Laura Bush were entering residence in the White House.

    For your part, based on what I’ve read, you seek to distance international weapons inspectors from policy decision-making. In that vein, you imply here that the intelligence community, and not the UN weapons inspectors, was the center of gravity in the final decision for OIF. Yet the law and policy that enforced the terms of ceasefire plainly show the casus belli was Iraq’s noncompliance with the UNSCR 660-series resolutions, in particular UNSCR 687, not the pre-war intelligence.

    The operative enforcement procedure built upon UNSCR 687, related resolutions, and US law and policy tied a string directly from Hans Blix to President Bush, the same string that tied Richard Butler to President Clinton. Blix denies he tugged the string when he presented the UNMOVIC Cluster Document to the Security Council, but he tugged it.

    So, if you mean the consequences of the pre-war intelligence estimates were different than the subsequent UN weapons inspections, that’s obvious. But if you mean the consequences of the pre-war intelligence estimates were more severe than the UN weapons inspections, that’s not obvious.

  2. Eric says:

    Dr. Duelfer,

    To follow up my 14MAY15 comment, I criticize the Bush administration’s error of presentation with the pre-war intelligence and clarify the role of the UNSCR 1441 inspections in establishing casus belli for Operation Iraqi Freedom, here.

    Excerpt:
    For the 1991-1998 Gulf War ceasefire enforcement, the disarmament-based trigger for enforcement was straightforward: Iraq’s evident noncompliance with the UNSCOM inspections.

    But the 1998-2002 ad hoc ‘containment’ following Operation Desert Fox was implemented when Clinton could not foresee that UN weapons inspectors would return to Iraq. Therefore, for the ad hoc ‘containment’, sans UN weapons inspections, the disarmament-based trigger for enforcement was, by necessity, indication of “reconstitution” – ie, the intelligence.

    The casus belli was established throughout the 1991-2003 Gulf War ceasefire as Iraq’s “continued violations of its obligations” according to the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441). For the ad hoc ‘containment’, President Clinton did not shift the burden of proof and replace the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) with an intelligence-based standard that eliminated Iraq’s presumption of guilt and obligated the US to prove the predictive precision of its intelligence. Iraq’s presumption of guilt and obligation to comply with all its ceasefire obligations in order to cure its guilt remained unchanged for the ad hoc ‘containment’ from the compliance-based ceasefire enforcement. Iraq’s burden to prove it was disarmed as mandated stayed the same. As Clinton recounted on July 3, 2003, “it is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted for stocks of biological and chemical weapons”.

    Rather, because the mandated UN disarmament process had been suspended, President Clinton was compelled to draft the intelligence to fill in for the UN weapons inspections as a makeshift substitute trigger for enforcement during the ad hoc ‘containment’. The early emphasis by Bush officials on the intelligence was consistent with Clinton’s ad hoc enforcement procedure for the ad hoc ‘containment’.

    So far so good, so why is it only a half-valid excuse for the Bush administration’s error of presentation? Because messaging consistent with the intelligence-based enforcement trigger for the ad hoc ‘containment’ was rendered inapposite as soon as the inspection-centered UN disarmament process was restored.

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