Arms Expert Says Bush Administration Exaggerated Claims of Iraq’s WMD

June 5, 2003
5:45 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes arms control, says senior Bush administration officials knew claims about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were exaggerated.

“The real controversy now is the difference between the administration’s dire rhetoric and dire warnings about Iraq’s WMD capability and its alleged possession of such weapons, and what we know so far, which is that there is no physical evidence of actual chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons,” Kimball says. “My personal view is that there were those in the administration who wanted to have this war no matter what. They recognized that the charge of Iraqi non-compliance with the U.N. resolutions barring weapons of mass destruction was the strongest possible charge against Iraq and the strongest possible justification for war.” Kimball says, “What is disturbing is that high-ranking administration officials certainly knew” that claims about Iraq’s weapons arsenal “were based on sketchy evidence.”

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Kimball was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on June 4, 2003.

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It’s been two months since the war effectively ended in Iraq, and there are no signs of any weapons of mass destruction, which had been the administration’s raison d’etre for getting into the war. Were you surprised at this?

I was not especially surprised, but my lack of surprise has to do with my views about the situation going into the war.

Which were what?

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If one takes a close look at the evidence, prior to the war, I think it’s fair to say that Iraq had capabilities to make weapons of mass destruction. And it was unclear whether Iraq had destroyed weapons that it might have produced with those capabilities. What the administration did was to make the claim— I think it was an exaggerated claim— that the absence of evidence of disarmament meant that Iraq must therefore have these weapons. [What] we see in fact from the two months of efforts by U.S. [weapons inspection] teams, [is] some evidence, in the form of these two [mobile-laboratory] trailers that have been uncovered, that Iraq had capabilities to produce some biological weapons agents, but we have not seen any actual biological, chemical, and certainly no nuclear weapons. [That] conforms with what very careful analysts thought was and was not there, but the real controversy now is the difference between the administration’s dire rhetoric and dire warnings about Iraq’s WMD capability and its alleged possession of such weapons, and what we know so far, which is that there is no physical evidence of actual chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

Do you believe the administration had this dire view because it wanted to have the war and Iraq’s alleged WMD were just a convenient excuse?

My personal view is that there were those in the administration who wanted to have this war no matter what. They recognized that Iraqi non-compliance with the U.N. resolutions barring weapons of mass destruction was the strongest possible charge against Iraq and the strongest possible justification for war. So there was a great deal of pressure, there was a high motivation for them to find evidence of such WMD capability and possession. What you see here is perhaps not an outright manipulation of the intelligence-gathering process and the findings, but an expression by administration officials of the worst-case [scenario] put together by the intelligence community. What is disturbing is that high-ranking administration officials certainly knew that these claims were based on sketchy evidence.

Does that include Secretary of State Colin Powell? He still claims he’s sure Iraq had chemical weapons.

In Powell’s presentation [to the U.N. Security Council on February 5], if you go through it carefully, he was very careful about what he actually charged Iraq was doing. But the way in which it was presented, the manner of speaking, conveyed a sense— partly because of the preponderance of circumstantial evidence he was bringing together, partly because of his phraseology— that the Iraqis must have these weapons, because they’re obfuscating, because they’ve had them in the past, because we see no evidence of their destruction. The conclusion that he wanted the listener to come to was Iraq must therefore have these weapons.

In an article you wrote in Arms Control Today, you say that “Powell asserted that ’Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons.’ ”

Yes, and that was the strongest claim that he made. It was based, as I recall, on satellite intelligence about the movement of certain containers— believed to be chemical munitions storage facilities— prior to an UNMOVIC [United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission] visit. But still, the evidence he presented did not prove the Iraqis had such chemical weapons. Nevertheless, he asserted that point.

In addition, much of this evidence that the administration had of Iraqi WMD capability was coming from human intelligence sources, which are notorious for being unreliable. Sometimes they can be extremely valuable, but sometimes they can be highly unreliable. And we know that many of these human intelligence sources were identified by activist groups such as the Iraqi National Congress [opposition group], which had a strong motivation to see the United States invade Iraq. In 2002, the CIA issued a report which found that only 30 percent of the information the Iraqi National Congress provided to the United States was reliable.

If Iraq indeed did not have weapons of mass destruction, why didn’t Saddam Hussein supply evidence to U.N. inspectors to prove he didn’t have them?

First of all, let me just correct you on one thing, which is that we know that Iraq had chemical and had biological weapons. We know that from the inspections process that went on in the 1990s. So the question is: Did he destroy all those weapons, and did he reconstitute them after ’98?

Why he didn’t provide evidence of the destruction? There may be a couple of possibilities. One might be that Saddam was concerned about what would happen if he did reveal that he continued to possess chem [or] bio weapons or capabilities specifically designed to produce them after 1998. He might have felt he was in a damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t situation. It may have provided, he thought, greater evidence for the United States to call for a regime change. Another possibility is that, with respect to some of the accounted-for agents necessary to make chemical or biological weapons, they may genuinely have been lost in the system.

We know for instance that, in the United States, through the course of the Cold War and the U.S. weapons production process, we have not been able to account for all nuclear-weapons-related agents. We’re still finding, in some of our major weapons facilities, burial pits containing materials that someone knew about in the past but for which records were not preserved.

Now this is a much shorter period of time between the first Gulf War and now, but it could very well be that the Iraqis lost track of some of these materials, some of these bomb casings that could have contained some of these weapons. Or they might have, as they claimed, destroyed them in such a way that they could not prove years later that they had been destroyed. Those are some explanations that give them the benefit of the doubt. It still may be possible that Saddam, up until the war and maybe through the war, retained some quantity of chemical or biological munitions.

I would not be surprised if United States investigators over the next few months did find some relatively small amounts of such weapons. But what we have to keep in mind is that the rationale for the war was that the Iraqi WMD programs constituted an imminent threat to the United States and its allies. Even if Iraq continued to possess some dozens of chemical weapons shells, did that constitute an imminent threat to the United States and its allies? I would argue no. The only WMD program or capability that really would pose an imminent threat to the United States would have been Iraqi possession of nuclear weapons, and it is quite clear that Iraq after 1998 did not have a viable nuclear weapons program. [U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief] Mohamed ElBaradei, as late as March of this year, when he reported to the United Nations, said that there was no evidence that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.

What is your feeling about letting the U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq to continue their work?

They certainly should be allowed back in, for two reasons. No. 1, they have a mandate going back to the original U.N. resolutions to finish the task of verifiably disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and other prohibited weapons. They are well-equipped, they’re knowledgeable, they’re trusted by the international community to do that job, and they’re ready to go. And there may still be some WMD capabilities or traces of WMD that require immediate attention. We don’t want these materials to fall into unfriendly hands.

The second reason is that the credibility of the U.S. investigation has been compromised by the gap between the prewar claims and the immediate postwar lack of dramatic findings. There is a need for a third-party, objective arbiter of the facts on the ground to resolve the questions about Iraq’s WMD program. It’s hard to understand why the United States has not yet allowed UNMOVIC and the IAEA back into Iraq. I think that part of the motivation is that some elements in the Bush administration are still angry with Hans Blix [the head of UNMOVIC] and ElBaradei for not taking the harder line that they would have liked them to take when they reported to the United Nations. This may be a case of petty pay-back that is getting in the way of allowing very qualified inspectors to get back in there and do their job.

Do you have any thoughts about why the American public, if I read it correctly, does not seem overly concerned one way or the other on this question?

Part of the problem is this. For many months, the American public had heard about the viciousness of the Saddam Hussein regime. They heard about the importance of protecting the United States from weapons of mass destruction. They heard about the possibility and the— as the Bush people would say— the presence of WMD in Iraq. The administration also connected Iraq with 9/11, I think erroneously, but it did. It’s only now, after the fact, that the media and Congress are beginning to ask the hard questions that are necessary to dissect the administration’s loose logic and rationale for the war. I would predict that the public will become more concerned about the findings or the lack of findings in Iraq, and they will become more concerned about the Bush administration’s credibility on other issues, if the dire prewar assessments are not confirmed by the facts on the ground.


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