The other weapons questions

Posted in Iraq , Broader Middle East , United States | 03-Feb-04 | Source: The New York Times

David Kay, the former weapons inspector, gave the Bush administration some insulation last week against charges that it coerced or manipulated the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify an invasion.

In Senate testimony, Kay placed the blame for overestimating Iraq's weapons capabilities squarely on the intelligence community and said he had seen no evidence that administration officials put pressure on analysts to come up with preconceived results. Yet there are reasons to go slowly in accepting Kay's version as the full story of what happened in this intelligence debacle. Only a broad and truly independent investigation can unravel the roots of this colossal failure.

Kay based his exoneration of the administration on the fact that intelligence analysts who helped him in the search for illicit weapons in Iraq repeatedly apologized for being so far off base in their prewar estimates. Not a single analyst complained to him of any pressure being applied.

That is an important insight from Kay, but it is not dispositive. Kenneth Pollack, a Clinton administration national security official whose support for an invasion of Iraq was highly influential in the debate leading up to war, has done a lot of soul-searching over how he and others could have been so misled. In a recent magazine article, he, too, placed most of the blame on intelligence failures but, unlike Kay, he faulted the Bush administration as well.

In the months leading up to the war, Pollack says, he received numerous complaints from friends in the intelligence community that administration officials showed aggressive, negative reactions when presented with information that contradicted what they believed about Iraq. They subjected the analysts to barrages of questions, according to these accounts, requests for more information and fights over the credibility of sources that passed beyond responsible oversight to become a form of pressure.

Analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have tracked what they consider a pronounced change in the tone of intelligence estimates, with those made before mid-2002 generally cautious and full of caveats and those thereafter much more alarmist. The shift suggests, they say, that pressure from policy makers led intelligence analysts to reach more threatening judgments about Iraq's weapons programs. David Kay told the Senate last week he is doubtful that the break was really so sharp. This, too, is a dispute that requires impartial investigation.

Without doubt the most important intelligence document leading up to the invasion was the National Intelligence Estimate hastily assembled and presented to Congress shortly before the vote on a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. This document contended that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons in hand, as well as active programs to enhance its capabilities in all areas.

The estimate is striking for the way it minimizes dissenting views on Iraq's capabilities.

It cites Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes as compelling evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. The declassified version issued at the time fails to mention that the Energy Department, the government's leading source of expertise, thought the tubes unfit for that purpose.

The estimate also warns ominously that Iraq was developing drone aircraft that were probably intended to deliver biological agents and could even threaten the American homeland. That view was disputed by Air Force intelligence, the chief source of expertise on drones, which thought the drones were primarily for reconnaissance. These were no minor dissents. These were the agencies most qualified to judge.

Also left unexplained was how the estimate's authors could conclude that Iraq was continuing and expanding its chemical weapons programs when a Defense Intelligence Agency report had just acknowledged that "there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons."

In these and other respects, the information on which Congress based its war vote seems out of kilter with the government's own most expert opinions. The great unanswered question is whether this was wholly the work of top intelligence officials or was the result of pressure from above.