Perkovich: Independent Body Needed to Investigate Intelligence ‘Failures’ in Iraq

January 13, 2004

Interview
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.

George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a co-author of a new report on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), says that administration officials used U.S. intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs to justify war even though the information was not as clear cut as they claimed. He says that a new, independent commission should be established to look into the intelligence “failures” on Iraq’s WMD.

Perkovich, an expert on nonproliferation issues, wrote the report, “WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications,” with Jessica T. Matthews and Joseph Cirincione, both of the Carnegie Endowment. He was interviewed on January 12, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org.

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Why do you think the United States launched a war against Iraq?

In our report, we actually looked at what the president said in his key speeches leading up to the war, such as the speeches to the American people, to Congress, and to the United Nations. What the speeches said to the American people and to the international community was that weapons of mass destruction existed and so did the possibility that those weapons could be handed to terrorists, i.e., al Qaeda, and that those were the reasons we were going to war. Now, after the fact, we have other rationales being emphasized more strongly [such as, that the world is safer with Saddam Hussein gone]. They were always there, especially among pundits and others, but the president’s words prior to the war focused on the grave threat [posed] by the combination of weapons of mass destruction and terrorists.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill said in a book and interviews that President Bush wanted to go to war against Iraq well before 9/11 and that 9/11 then became a rationale for doing so. Did your report get into that?

Our report literally looks at words that were produced by the intelligence community, the various intelligence assessments, what administration officials said, and then what United Nations agencies had said prior to the war, and what they found afterwards. All of that, when you look at it, is consistent with Secretary O’Neill’s view in the sense that there’s a pattern whereby administration officials’ statements go well beyond what the intelligence said in terms of the specificity of the threat from Iraq. One way to look at that, but we don’t do this in the report, is to say that it appears as if people knew what they wanted the outcome to be and were looking for any kind of scintilla of evidence they could find to back the policy that they had already determined. That’s the essence of what O’Neill was saying. We don’t go into that, but we provide raw material for people to make their own judgments.

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On the question of WMD, nobody has found any such weapons in Iraq and many people doubt they’ll ever be found. Is that your conclusion too?

We don’t know. We called in the beginning for ongoing inspections, and I think the inspections should be completed so we could find out if there are any weapons. In fact, there was a report that some chemical weapons shells from the Iran-Iraq war were found by a Danish group [on January 9]. That may turn out to be true, so we would not preclude that such weapons [might be found]--but again, that was the whole point of the inspections that the war terminated.

What was your assessment of how well the U.N. inspectors did in Iraq?

One of the things we found was that [chief U.S. weapons investigator] David Kay, in his initial report last October, suggests that the inspections, starting with UNSCOM [the original U.N. inspection agency in Iraq sent in after the 1991 Gulf War], had worked formidably, and that the sanctions regime and other measures to isolate and keep a magnifying glass on Iraq had really worked. So one of the things we call for is a post-action commission to look at the whole process of inspection and say, “Well, what part of inspections worked the best, what part was least relevant?” This may be a case where nonproliferation was actually working. We have other problems out there in the world we are going to worry about, whether it is Iran, North Korea, Libya, or others to come. We ought to find out what works and what doesn’t.

The president’s September 2002 U.N. speech called on the Security Council to authorize inspections in Iraq, but when the inspectors made their initial reports in early 2003, they were slammed by the administration. That’s led me to believe that war was inevitable, because it looked as if the administration wasn’t taking the inspectors seriously. Is that your conclusion too?

As you know in the report, we try to systematically document what the inspectors— prior to 1998, when they were first removed— had found and what they were finding when they went back in late 2002. You hit it on the head. On March 7, 2003, Mohammed ElBaradei [the head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency], said, “There is no indication of resumed nuclear activities [in Iraq], nor any indication of nuclear related prohibited activities at any inspected sites.” [Two week after that] the inspectors would be pulled out and the war would begin. We now know [ElBaradei] was right. The inspectors were getting it right. They were in the process of doing their work. The U-2 flights [to aid the inspections] had just begun when we pulled the plug on the whole thing.

On the intelligence community’s work, your report calls for an examination of the intelligence community’s performance in this crisis, headed by a non-partisan intelligence expert who has knowledge of the contents of the Iraq files. That will be a hard person to find. You don’t think the congressional committees or the CIA itself can come up with a decent post-mortem?

No, because one of the other variations in what we are recommending is that at least one person in this commission should be intimately familiar with the UNMOVIC [the successor group to UNSCOM] and the UNSCOM record. One of the problems here has been that for whatever reasons— and we can all guess what they are— the U.S. government was very mistrustful and disregarding of the international inspectorate. And yet, there is a 30-million page digitized record from UNSCOM and UNMOVIC. Those were the guys who really knew the Iraqi programs. I know from my own work on the history of India’s nuclear program that you have to get a feel for what the individual scientists and engineers were doing in order to know where to look and how to interpret [information]. The international inspectors had all this. We didn’t have it. So to do the post-action assessment of the intelligence failure right, it is very important to have people familiar with what the international inspectors were doing. One of the things we may find, in fact, that led to part of the failing on the U.S. intelligence side was the barrier between the U.S. and international inspectorates.

The Director of Central Intelligence should do his own assessment. That would be a self-examination, which Aristotle said is a good thing, but we live in a more skeptical time and so you [also] want independent people looking. Similarly, in Congress it’s impossible to escape from the partisan angling. We think this is a problem that goes beyond partisanship. This was a bipartisan failure of governance, and so we need to have a group that is more focused on issues of governance than on politics.

Is there any chance that this recommendation will be accepted by the current administration?

I don’t know. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post editorialized on Sunday in favor of a version of this kind of commission. We know that neither of those papers is read avidly by some in the administration, but I think it would be in the [administration’s] interest to come out and say, “We’re in favor of good governance and this wasn’t something we manipulated on purpose. There was an intelligence failure and we, too, want to find out what lay behind it.”

Did policy makers pressure the intelligence community in advance of the Iraq war?

The report points out a number of indicators that would warrant an investigation. We don’t claim to have an answer, but we notice the creation of a separate intelligence body, basically under [Under Secretary of Defense for Policy] Doug Feith in the Pentagon. Then there were the trips by Vice President Dick Cheney to the CIA. We’re not judging it. We’re saying that this ought to be explored. What we didn’t put in the report, but I know from my own interactions with analysts at the [CIA], is that they felt under a lot of pressure to come out with the right answers: that Iraq was “a clear and present danger.”

The Office of Special Plans that was set up in the Pentagon went out and looked for particular bits of evidence that made their case. [Officials] weren’t saying that they were trying to evaluate that evidence against all the counterevidence and so forth. They were looking for the evidence that was part of their case. In fairness to them, many of them believed that the CIA was biased against the case for war, so this Office of Special Plans was going to go out and get the countervailing evidence.

I suppose the seminal statement during the run-up to the war was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003, presentation to the Security Council, in which he insisted that his claims about Iraq’s WMD arsenal were based on proven facts and yet, as your report points out, these were not “proven” but fragmentary or hypothetical. How will history judge that presentation by Powell?

What we know so far is that these weren’t actual facts or have not turned out to be facts, so the question is: did the intelligence community strongly perceive these things to be true and did they have reasons they could marshal that Secretary of State Powell and others thought were solid enough? Where I would come out is that the secretary believed what he said was true and factual.

We don’t go into this in the report, but from what we’ve heard about his trip out to the CIA and the days [he and other officials] spent “scrubbing” his presentation and the arguments and the supposed data he threw out suggested that he didn’t, at the end of that process, go forward with a case that he didn’t feel was true. So the problem must lie deeper. That is why an investigation would be worthwhile. Were there solid high-level bodies in the intelligence community who were tasked with arguing the opposite case? In other words, saying: “What if what the Iraqis are saying is true? What if there aren’t WMD?” I don’t know if that kind of alternate planning and assessment was being made, but that’s the kind of thing we should find out.

The two biggest problems we talked about in the report are actually more conceptual. One of them is the link between Iraq and al Qaeda-like terrorists. The assumption was that Iraq, under some circumstances, would transfer WMD to terrorists. There is no evidence that Saddam was undeterrable after 1991, for example. There is no evidence that prior to 1991, when he did support various types of terrorism, that he ever handed over chemical weapons that we know he possessed. He didn’t transport them to the terrorists he was supporting then. So by past record, strategic logic, by behavior which shows that this guy was highly deterrable, there was no reason to take as a given [the assumption he would give WMD to terrorists].

The other great conceptual failure was the conflation of very different kinds of weapons into this rubric of WMD. To put it simply, would you go to war, at the expense of hundreds of billions of dollars, and [risk] the international consequences and the loss of thousands of lives, if, for example, Iraq had a residual chemical weapons capability and some old chemical weapons shells? I think the answer is you probably wouldn’t. It was the nuclear threat which would lead you to say, “Boy, this is so big we can’t let this materialize.” And yet, the intelligence on that was actually pretty solid that he did not have nuclear weapons.

But Cheney said Iraq was already developing nuclear weapons, didn’t he?

The statements that depart the furthest from the intelligence record come from the vice president.

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