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Misreading Iraq

Interviewee: Charles Duelfer, Former Deputy Chairman of the UN Special Commission on Iraq, Former Head of the CIA-Led Iraq Survey Group
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
March 17, 2009

The failed U.S. military and intelligence strategies in Iraq have undergone intense scrutiny since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. And perhaps no piece of the puzzle is more fraught with controversy than the now-debunked conclusion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But Charles Duelfer, who served as deputy chairman for the UN weapons inspection organization in Iraq during much of the 1990s and later led a CIA investigation into Hussein's weapons program, says the biggest prewar failure was misreading the country's societal and political currents.

"Mindsets and biases were constructed both in Baghdad and in Washington where the assumption was that, frankly, Saddam would be crazy not to have weapons of mass destruction," says Duelfer, who in 2004 was head of the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA-led weapons inspection team established after the war started. "So there is this long trail of history where in essence there was only one hypothesis that the intelligence community, and intelligence communities around the world, had, which was that Saddam was retaining a WMD capability. When you have one hypothesis you tend to only see data that supports that hypothesis."

Duelfer, who has detailed his experiences investigating Iraq's weapons program in a new book, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, says the failure to correctly read Iraq's capabilities should serve as a warning to Washington when dealing with other hard-to-gauge countries, especially Iran. While U.S. intelligence experts may know more about Iran's political dynamics than they did about Iraq's political structure under Hussein, serious gaps in understanding the Islamic republic's weapons programs remain, Duelfer says: "We are perhaps better informed than we were about the Iraqi WMD case and nuclear program, but there is still vast uncertainty about that, particularly with respect to intentions."

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