Here's a good piece in Newsweek on the intell backdrop to the failure thus far to find any WMD. To me, the authors still pull their punches with regards to the administration and the issue of conscious manipulation or willful credulousness.
A couple quotes bear repeating ...
A recently retired State Department intelligence analyst directly involved in assessing the Iraqi threat, Greg Thielmann, flatly told NEWSWEEK that inside the government, âthere is a lot of sorrow and anger at the way intelligence was misused. You get a strong impression that the administration didnât think the public would be enthusiastic about the idea of war if you attached all those qualifiers.â
And even more this one ...
The case that Saddam possessed WMD was based, in large part, on assumptions, not hard evidence. If Saddam did not possess a forbidden arsenal, the reasoning went, why, then, would he put his country through the agony of becoming an international pariah and ultimately risk his regime? Was he just bluffing in some fundamentally stupid way? Earlier U.N. weapons inspectors projected that Saddam kept stores of anthrax and VX, but they had no proof. In recent years, the CIA detected some signs of Saddamâs moving money around, building additions to suspected WMD sites, and buying chemicals and equipment abroad that could be used to make chem-bio weapons. But the spooks lacked any reliable spies, or HUMINT (human intelligence), inside Iraq.
Two points. The issue raised in the first graf of the second passage is a damn good one -- one that opponents of the war or critics of the administration need to grapple with. It's not an excuse in itself or a justification for the war. But if Saddam didn't have any WMD or only a minimal capacity why did he risk and ultimately lose his regime by stonewalling inspections? I can imagine a few possible answers. But it's a tough question.
Then came the defectors. Former Iraqi officials fleeing the regime told of underground bunkers and labs hiding vast stores of chemical and biological weapons and nuclear materials. The CIA, at first, was skeptical. Defectors in search of safe haven sometimes stretch or invent the facts. The true believers in the Bush administration, on the other hand, embraced the defectors and credited their stories. Many of the defectors were sent to the Americans by Ahmed Chalabi, the politically ambitious and controversial Iraqi exile. Chalabiâs chief patron is Richard Perle, the former Reagan Defense Department official and charter member of the so-called neocons, the hard-liners who occupy many top jobs in the Bush national-security establishment.
The CIA was especially wary of Chalabi, whom they regarded as a con man (Chalabi has been convicted of bank fraud in Jordan; he denies the charges). But rather than accept the CIAâs doubts, top officials in the Bush Defense Department set up their own team of intelligence analysts, a small but powerful shop now called the Office of Special Plansâand, half-jokingly, by its members, âthe Cabal.â
The Cabal was eager to find a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, especially proof that Saddam played a role in the 9-11 attacks. The hard-liners at Defense seized on a report that Muhammad Atta, the chief hijacker, met in Prague in early April 2001 with an Iraqi intelligence official. Only one problem with that story, the FBI pointed out. Atta was traveling at the time between Florida and Virginia Beach, Va. (The bureau had his rental car and hotel receipts.)
Point two is Chalabi. And this goes to the heart of why a lot of people don't trust him. If you criticized Chalabi over the last year or so, you were immediately accosted -- verbally if not literally -- by a gaggle of conservatives joustingly asking why you were against democracy in Iraq. You don't think Arabs are capable of democracy!?!?!? You want another strongman to replace Saddam? What is it about democracy you don't like?!?!?? And so on and so forth.
It's true that there was and is a part of the foreign policy establishment that isn't crazy about the idea of pushing for straight-up democracy in the Middle East in the here and now. But most of the criticism of Chalabi was not about democracy but about Ahmed Chalabi -- and the belief that he was an untrustworthy schemer. That's a very big part of the reason why folks at the CIA -- and not just at the CIA, but all through the government -- didn't trust him. There's a long history of his gaming the Washington policy process through the 1990s, a story that's never really been told.
Even friends of mine in the Pentagon/neo-con orbit concede that it's now clear that a lot of the info that came out of Chalabi's 'intelligence network' must have been a bill of goods.
One other point bears mentioning in this 'where is the WMD' debate. It is true that it was widely accepted across the intelligence community -- and not just the US intelligence community -- that Saddam continued to maintain some WMD capacity. I was confident that he'd maintained a WMD capacity. But all WMD are not created equal. To a great degree, the entire category is misleading. A number of writers made this point over the last year. But the distinction becomes particularly relevant now.
Chemical weapons are just not a strategic threat to the United States. Chemical weapons are very hard to use effectively and they're most useful when you have dense and uncontested air superiority over a piece of land -- like what happened to the Kurds in northern Iraq. There's just no chance of that happening in the US.
Even if Saddam had given chemicals to terrorists, even that wouldn't have been that big a deal. Yes, chemical weapons are no walk in the park if you're in a crowded subway station in New York city. But then, a dozen AK-47s or some plastic explosives wouldn't be much fun either.
Biological weapons are potentially a much bigger deal. But the real issue, the real weapon of mass destruction is a nuclear weapon.
When evaluating who thought Saddam had WMD and who didn't, it's critically important to make these distinctions since it is across this spectrum of different kinds of WMD that the real distortions took place.