Early last week I sat down with Ken Pollack in his office at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC for an hour-long interview on Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, and the current state of the US-sponsored rebuilding and democracy-building effort.
Pollack is the author of The Threatening Storm. And, as regular TPM readers will remember, this is a follow-up to an earlier interview we conducted with Pollack late last January — about six weeks before the start of the war.
We’ll be publishing this interview in three parts. The following is part one, which covers the state of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as of June 30th, 2003.
TPM: I want to do this chronologically, starting with things that came before the war and ending with things looking forward. I guess my first question and the question that a lot of people are wondering about now is not ‘why haven’t we found ten nuclear weapons?’ but ‘why haven’t we found even some stuff on the chemical or biological front?’
Pollack: I think there are two different answers to that. I think the first question is, why haven’t we found more of the production capabilities? I think we now have good evidence that indicates that the Iraqis were holding on to a production capability. That centrifuge that was discovered last week and the plans to reconstitute the program are the best evidence we have of what was always believed, which was that the Iraqis at the very least were holding on to the ability to start manufacturing stuff when Saddam gave the word.
In the case of the chemical and biological stuff that seems to have taken two forms. First on the biological side there were the mobile trailers. And I will say that my expectation is that when a judgment is finally rendered on these two trailers that my guess is that we’re going to find that they were biological warfare trailers. A) The counter-explanations that people have offered are kind of absurd on the face of them – the hydrogen balloons explanation really doesn’t hold a lot of water, or air, as you may see fit. The idea that these were for rocket fuel? Possible. But again, seems unlikely, and that would be prohibited as well. That would be part of maintaining a prohibited production capability.
On the chemical side, it’s just unclear what if anything else we’re going to find. Our understanding from a whole variety of things including the specifications of the plants themselves, as we saw them constructed, was that the Iraqis were building pharmaceutical plants which were dual-use. Well, if the facilities are dual-use and it’s a facility that can be relatively quickly transitioned into making prohibited chemicals, you don’t need anything else. You don’t need a biological facility, you don’t really need anything beyond that.
On the missiles, we just don’t know. I think it’s pretty clear that the Iraqis were using the Al Samoud and [inaudible] programs, in fact even the UN suspected as much, as that same kind of thing — the ultimate production capability. On the nuclear side, the interesting question is whether there was anything beyond what we’ve so far learned from this one nuclear scientist, which is that they basically shelved the program and it went into hibernation and the expectation was that at some point in the future when Saddam felt that the sanctions were sufficiently lifted or eroded that he would reconstitute the program. It’s still possible that there was a more active program going on. But that seems fairly unlikely at this point in time.
I think that the bottom line is that this stuff was all very difficult to find. Had that scientist not come forward and said “I’ve got this stuff buried in my backyard,” we never would have found it. And again that goes to the point of just how difficult this stuff is to find, how hard it is to find.
The second issue is, why was there not a lot of stuff deployed? And there I think there is simply a mystery out there. Before the war I always believed that the Iraqis wouldn’t have a whole lot of munitions lying around because that made no sense. As I said in the New York Times piece, the munitions degrade very quickly and they’re very easy to produce. So you wouldn’t want to have lots of them sitting around. That said, there were intelligence reports all through the spring of 2003 suggesting that the Iraqis were deploying actual [i.e. chemical] rounds with Republican Guard divisions â¦
TPM: Do you think it’s possible, and this applies to what you’re talking about now and also more broadly to the whole chemical and biological programs â¦ that some of the intelligence may have been not just exaggerations but actual disinformation coming from the Iraqis. Do you think that’s possible?
Pollack: It’s possible and certainly the Iraqis were trying to mount a kind of deterrence campaign, saying that if you come into Iraq you will be hit very hard and very badly … We saw clear aspects of that where you had unnamed Iraqi officials telling various Arab newspapers that if the United States came in that they’d be hit with chemical and biological weapons and that there’d be waves of terrorism (all things that were actually to be expected, were very predictable). And it is possible that some of the stuff that they were doing was intended to make us think that it was deployed – that weapons of mass destruction were deployed – when in fact they weren’t.
You’ve seen other people speculate in the press that maybe what they were doing was not deploying the weapons but actually pulling them back for destruction. It’s possible. You know, who knows? This is my point: it is a mystery, ultimately. It’s a mystery to me why Saddam didn’t fill the rounds, because as I said, while I didn’t expect him to have lots of it sitting around, I did expect that at some point in time he would begin to think the Americans may actually invade and when that happened he would say, ‘alright, you know what? Let’s gin up a batch of this stuff, so if they do come in, we’ve got it waiting.’ Because I never expected that he’d go without a fight.
He clearly didn’t [do that]. And it is a mystery as to why, although the reports that are increasingly surfacing are that he believed to the last that we absolutely wouldn’t come in and we moved on Baghdad much faster … That was my fondest hope, that was my best case scenario, but I was pessimistic that we would actually be able to get that best case scenario. If we did, that is fantastic. And I am obviously delighted. But right now it’s a mystery. And there’s also this mystery about what happened with those intelligence reports. Was it Iraqi disinformation? Were they simply mistaken? Were we reading something that was inaccurate or were we getting defector reports that turned out to be inaccurate? That is clearly a mystery.
TPM: Let me ask you this. I guess people are saying this less now, three months out, than they were a couple weeks out, but what about the idea that it’s a huge country and it’s hard to unearth the stuff? On the other hand, we have, not everybody, but a lot of regime leaders in custody. I assume a lot of these are people who had government status but were also scientists … And my premise or assumption has always been that we’re using very big carrots and very bit sticks with these people. Someone should have squealed. It’s one thing to have a latent brain-power capacity and a dual-use infrastructure that you could quickly move to making chemical or biological weapons. But it’s another thing to have something a little more than that, to have a program where you’re actually building up, etc., etc. It seems to me that if you have the latter, one of these people should have talked by now. Even if you’re worried about Saddam, whatever, with a lot of people, someone should have said something. And I imagine that, especially with the political pressure now, we’re offering the world to anybody that could take us to the stuff. Does that logic make sense to you?
Pollack. Yes, I think it is logical. I’ll start by saying, I mean, I tend to agree with you, Josh. I also expected that at least some of the people that we have in custody would have started to speak. And that they would have revealed at least part of what was going on. That may in fact suggest that the programs weren’t as far along or as aggressive or as big as was believed before the war. That’s entirely possible and you cannot rule that out.
By the same token, there are several other alternative explanations. It may be that they are speaking and they’re saying very interesting stuff and we just don’t know about it yet. I note that I continue to hear all kinds of rumors from friends inside the government that there is in fact lots of interesting stuff floating out there. And it will surface fairly soon. That may be true.
TPM: I think David Kay said something like that a few days ago, even publicly.
Pollack: And it’s also worth noting that on a number of these different issues the government’s actually managed to keep it quiet for a number of weeks before it did leak out or was publicly put out. They had the first of the trailers for two weeks before they said anything. With the Iraqi scientist it was a week or two before that stuff came out. There’s actually a bunch of stuff where you can say that they’ve actually sat on it for a period of time. And they’ve been able to successfully keep it secret. So it may be that some of these guys have said some very interesting stuff, maybe even some very revealing stuff, and the administration or – put it a better way – the government has done a good job of sitting on it. That may also be the case. Again, at this point in time other alternative explanations are still out there.
TPM: Do you think â¦
Pollack: Oh, one other point â¦ One other alternative explanation, which is worth mentioning, is that I do know for a fact that the initial exploitation teams did a terrible job … I’ve heard good stories from people on the inside about what the initial teams were looking at and what they overlooked. It was very clear that the initial teams really didn’t know what they were doing. They seem to have been sent in and been told: find shells with VX nerve agent â¦
TPM: So they were sort of expecting literally armaments lying around as opposed to â¦
Pollack: Right. And they boxed up huge numbers of documents and simply shipped them off to Qatar without actually looking through them. So there is a lot of hope and expectation that there will be lots of information found in those documents. And then beyond that, my understanding is that the initial debriefings of the Iraqis, which were conducted by military debriefers, were also considered very poor. These were military debriefers who were looking for military types of information. And they do it in a manner and style that is consistent with on-going military operations. And they’ve just recently turned those over to CIA debriefers. So the third alternative explanation is that it may just be that we did a rotten job looking for the stuff early on because we came in expecting to find it lying all over the place, which, again, if you’d thought about it for 30 seconds you’d realize that was almost certainly not the case. Because if it was lying all over the place, the inspectors would have found it.
TPM: Moving from the technical and intelligence side to the political side in the lead-up to the war, let’s say hypothetically that each of these programs was in a state in some sense similar to where the nuclear program seems to have been. In other words, there was an effort to keep the intellectual infrastructure in place, and at least some of the hardware infrastructure in place for that day when the political climate would be such that you could ramp up. And maybe with chemicals it would be different because you could have factories that were dual-use, and so forth. I mean, that is certainly different from what the administration was saying in the six months prior to the war. And in retrospect I think it would be hard to argue that we had to do this in the Spring of 2003 if what we were talking about was Iraq’s medium to long-term ambition to get back into the WMD business.
Pollack: Yeah. I’d put it this way. I’d go even further. If – if – the nuclear program was exactly as you describe it … that the program was basically dormant. Yes, they had the plans, some elements of the physical base to do it, and certainly they had the know-how to restart the program. But they didn’t even have some kind of centrifuge facility going somewhere. Not only is that a far-cry from what the administration was implying but it didn’t even really match up with the intelligence estimates.
I’m not a technical expert and I need to be very careful about that. But I am struck by the fact that what all the technical experts were saying to me, and to others like me, was that they thought that in the period between 1998 and 2002 the Iraqis did have some kind of clandestine centrifuge facility up and running and that they were probably working on enriching stuff even as we were speaking. This seems to be what led to their estimates that the Iraqis were probably somewhere on the order of five years, maybe as little as two or three years away from having a nuclear weapon. It was all based on the assumption that the Iraqis had restarted the program in 1998. And there were reports that this had been the case. But that doesn’t seem to be the case â¦
TPM: Was this an inferential judgment? If you take aside everything we know from April 1st — ironically — onward, that makes sense to me. What I was struck with in the Obeidi [interview], though, was that he said that they had it on ice. And I was thinking, ‘Why didn’t they have him dig that stuff up in 1998?’ That’s sort of a mystery to me. But go ahead â¦
Pollack: I agree. It’s another one of those mysteries where we’ve got to get inside Saddam Hussein’s head and figure out what was this guy thinking. With regard to the intelligence estimates, I don’t really know exactly why they came to that. I know it was a combination of defector reporting [and] watching the Iraqis purchasing. We watched their clandestine purchasing and procurement network very carefully. And a variety of other intelligence. But in some cases there were defectors who saying flat out that they’ve restarted the program. And this was a consensus among the technical experts among the various intelligence communities, not just the United States, but among many of the European countries and in Israel as well.
What we’ve seen so far clearly isn’t consistent with that. And I think that you’re right. The biggest question it gets to is the timing of the war. Now I think it is fair to say that based on what the intelligence experts were saying it would have been fair for the Bush administration to say, “Alright, we don’t have a lot of time here. We’ve got a period of years, not necessarily months. But we don’t have forever. Because at some point in time he is going to get these things. And as Condi Rice once famously observed, “The smoking gun we may see may be a mushroom cloud.”
By the same token, it’s very clear that the evidence that we’ve found so far doesn’t match up the with implied threat which the administration tried to create, which was that this was an imminent threat, that the Iraqis were very close to the acquiring the stuff or very close to giving the stuff to terrorist groups, that we could face an attack in the very near future. And that therefore the war had to be fought this year â¦
But in some ways it’s unfair to use the evidence that we’ve found since April 1st against the administration, because that was unknown. All the administration really had to go on were the intelligence estimates. And that’s why in my New York Times piece the point that I made was that, not that I felt that what we’ve found since was an indictment of the administration. As I say, it wasn’t fair to hold the administration accountable for that because the fact is that the intelligence community did believe that there was an active program. What I think it is fair to hold against the administration is that they stressed continuously the imminence of a threat which in fact the intelligence community felt was much more distant. Even at the time, even before the war.
TPM: But that’s a big difference.
Pollack: Oh, I agree. It’s a very big difference. It’s why my argument was that you have to do this sooner rather than later. But not immediately. And most importantly, and I think this was important for a lot of other moderate Republicans, Democrats, non-Americans, was that it meant that you had more time. And that you could do other things before you went to war. You could take the time to address the peace process before you went to war. You could take the time to build broad international support. You could take the time to wage the war on terrorism more aggressively. You didn’t have to go right after Iraq. There was time available to go after all of these other issues. You could also take the time to do a better job in terms of post-war planning. So that you didn’t have to rush into this thing. You could have taken the time to prepare the ground work for the war. So that when it happens it would have gone more smoothly and had fewer repercussions.
TPM: Does it sound accurate to say that the intelligence consensus – in our intelligence community and in others – was that maybe this was, say a 6, on the threat scale. The administration was saying that it was more like a 9 or higher. But it’s possible that it may end up that it was more like a 3, in terms of the 24 month threat window. Whether those numbers are exactly right or not, the point is that it’s not like the CIA was saying we were going to find what we’ve found so far. They were off the mark in some ways too. But the administration was making a more maximal argument than they were as well.
Pollack: I certainly think the way you’re setting it up is right. I’d quibble with the numbers. And here let me make a bigger point, which is that I think people are getting really hung up on this issue of the weapons. I think it’s an interesting question; it’s a mystery; it’s clearly one that the intelligence community seems to have gotten wrong. But with weapons of mass destruction – and I’m using that in the broadest sense of the word – not having the physical shells, the physical filled rounds, or missile warheads isn’t terribly important because the stuff is so easy to make, that if you’ve got the production capability you can make the munitions up in short order. So that the fact that we didn’t find 10,000 VX rounds is an interesting mystery to me and it says, it makes me ask some questions about what the intelligence was seeing. But I don’t see that as necessarily being an order of magnitude off of what the intelligence [community] thought before the war.
My quibble here is with your 6 versus 3. You know, it may have been a 5. But you’re certainly right that it wasn’t the 9 that the administration was claiming it to be. The one other thing that I would add is that in every case it was I think a 5 going up, increasing over time. And the big interesting issue now is ‘how much time?’ And we may find after the war that it was increasing much slower. So maybe I’m right. Maybe it was a 5, but it wasn’t going up as quickly as the intelligence, the technical experts, believed before the war. So even if it wasn’t the 6 we believed it was … or a 6 that we expected to be a 9 in five years, maybe it was a 5 that wouldn’t get to be a 9 for ten years.
Part two of the interview, where we get into the question of the Niger-uranium transfer documents and what’s happening in Iraq today, will follow later next week.