Your State of the Union Address
We write this, our fifth such memorandum to you since our critique of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s UN speech last February, out of concern that the same advisers who served you so poorly in drafting the Iraq section of last year’s state-of-the-union address will embarrass you again. Your credibility and that of the intelligence community suffered a major blow from the hyperbole that characterized that speech–not to mention the infamous 16 words based on the forgery alleging that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. The panel led by Gen. Brent Scowcroft, whom you asked to investigate how that wound up in your speech, reportedly attributes it to desperation on the part of your staff to "find something affirmative" to support claims like those made by Vice President Dick Cheney that Saddam Hussein had "reconstituted" Iraq’s nuclear program. We suggest you ensure that those over-eager functionaries responsible for the 16 words, and for your claim last spring that weapons of mass destruction had been found in the form of two "bio-trailers"–since proven to be generators of hydrogen for weather balloons–take no hand in drafting this year’s address.
Before your state-of-the-union address last year we urged you to resist the temptation to favor "ideologues and spin doctors over the professional intelligence officers paid to serve you." Specifically, we noted that most of our major allies, with whom we have extensive intelligence sharing arrangements, had taken strong issue with US claims regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They found the evidence on the presence of weapons of mass destruction inconclusive–and far short of what would be necessary to justify war. Ten months of unsuccessful quest for such weapons, together with freshly obtained documentary evidence, has proved them right.
After all the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction as the main reason for war, it will take considerable humility and courage to acknowledge error. But such a step is needed to stem further erosion in the credibility of your administration’s statements and the intelligence adduced to justify them. Further dissembling on Iraq will inevitably bring still more damage. Besides, conceding error is the honorable thing to do–and the only way to go forward with confidence and self-respect.
Each week brings new evidence that the case for war was bogus. On January 7, for example, the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a meticulously documented study concluding that:
"Administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs."
We in Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity recently completed a post mortem on why, hardened professional skeptics that we are, most of us still expected that some weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq (not enough to justify war, but some). Why that conclusion? Our post mortem found that our professional judgment was beclouded by the repeated claims by you and your senior advisers that the evidence available to you "left no doubt" about the presence of WMD in Iraq. There were also hints that the evidence was too sensitive to reveal, and we are very familiar with that dilemma. In addition, there was a new factor for us who, until now, have devoted what we used to call "propaganda analysis" only to the pronouncements of foreign leaders. In all candor, as Americans we found it difficult to be as objectively critical of statements from Washington as we would have been of ones from Baghdad or, say, Paris. Consequently, most of us were inclined to give you and other administration spokesmen the benefit of the doubt.
Hussein Kamel Also Said: the Full Story
But we were being told only half the story. Consider, for example, the information provided by Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, who defected in August 1995. He is the defector you quoted in the key speech you made on October 7, 2002, the speech that gave great impetus to the successful attempt to persuade Congress just four days later to cede to you its power to declare war. Referring correctly to Kamel as "the head of Iraq’s military industries," you noted that his defection forced Baghdad to admit to having produced "deadly biological agents."
Kamel had already been extolled as defector par excellence. In his scene-setter-for-war speech of August 26, 2002, Vice President Cheney singled out Kamel "as a reminder to all that we often learned more as the result of defections than we learned from the inspection regime itself."
The vice president spoke truth in underscoring the value of the first-hand information provided by Kamel. But it was half-truth, of the kind we warned you about before the war–in our memorandum "Forgery, Hyperbole, Half-Truth: A Problem," for example. There we noted that:
"Kamel also said that in 1991 Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them."
That part of Kamel’s debriefing was suppressed until Newsweek disclosed it on February 24, 2003, several weeks before the war. On the day the Newsweek report appeared, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow pulled out his entire tray of deprecatory adjectives, branding it "incorrect, bogus, wrong, untrue." But a few days later when the official transcript of the Kamel debriefing (originally classified UNSCOM/IAEA SENSITIVE) was made available to the press, there on page 13 was Kamel stating categorically:
"I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons–biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed."
The rest of the information that Kamel provided about major WMD programs, many of them undetected before his debriefing, proved to be accurate. Understandably, his assurances that he had decided to "disclose everything" required confirmation, but it is odd that those assurances were totally suppressed–particularly since so much of what he said had already proved true.
Confirmation has now come in two very persuasive ways. First, none of the weaponry that Kamel said was destroyed at his order has been found. Second, documentary evidence corroborating Kamel’s testimony has now come to light. In a lengthy Washington Post article on January 7, "Iraq Arsenal Was Only on Paper," Barton Gelman reported he had acquired a handwritten letter written to Saddam Hussein’s son Qusay five days after Kamel’s defection.
The writer was Hossam Amin, director of the key Iraqi office overseeing UN inspectors. The letter was essentially a damage report warning that after Kamel’s defection the cover stories masking forbidden weapons were no longer sustainable. Considered together with the subsequent findings of the UN inspectors who pursued every item in Amin’s catalogue, the letter shows that Iraq had in fact destroyed its entire inventory of biological weapons during the summer of 1991, before the UN inspectors even knew of their existence.
You will recall that in September 2002, when your administration mounted a full-court press to make the case for war in Congress, the Defense Intelligence Agency published a dissonant report which, had it not also been suppressed, might have caused a game-losing turnover. The DIA report asserted that there was "no reliable information" that Iraq had chemical or biological weapons. DIA specialists had read and evaluated the Kamel debriefing reports as well as the other available evidence on this issue. To their credit, even lacking the documentary confirmation now provided by the Amin letter, DIA analysts apparently decided that, since most of what Kamel said had proven accurate, it would be less than honest to simply ignore his important claim that chemical and biological weapons had been destroyed at his order.
This did not prevent your advisers from inserting into your important speech of October 7, 2002 an alarming passage exaggerating what Kamel said about biological agents and omitting altogether what he said about having had them all destroyed:
"In 1995, after several years of deceit by the Iraqi regime, the head of Iraq’s military industries defected. It was then that the regime was forced to admit that it had produced more than 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents. The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount. This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, and capable of killing millions."
In your state-of-the-union address last year you reiterated those claims. And a week later, in his UN speech of February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell emphasized that it was only after Kamel’s defection that Iraq finally admitted that "it had produced four tons of the deadly nerve agent, VX. A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes." Powell, too, neglected to mention that Kamel had also said that such stocks had been destroyed. Nor did he mention that in the seven and a half years since Kamel’s debriefing the US had turned up no evidence challenging his testimony.
It is important that you be completely clear on timing. While the Newsweek report of February 24, 2003 was the first to publicize Kamel’s testimony that the weapons had been destroyed, US and British intelligence (as well as UN officials) had had that information since August 1995. If you were not given a full account of what Kamel said before it appeared in Newsweek, your advisers should certainly have given you the whole truth when Newsweek did break the story three weeks before you sent US troops into Iraq to destroy those same weapons. If they did not tell you, heads should roll. If they did, it becomes necessary to explain why the information from Kamel had no apparent effect on your decision to launch the invasion.
Barton Gelman’s detailed report also addresses other key aspects of the case made against Iraq on weapons of mass destruction. Discussing the two trailer-mounted "bio-labs" found near Mosul last spring–the ones that led you to say while on a trip to Poland that weapons of mass destruction had been found–Gelman quotes David Kay’s description of that find as a "fiasco." Kay told the BBC last fall, "I think it was premature and embarrassing." The two trailers, it is now widely accepted, are mobile hydrogen generators purchased from the UK in 1982 to fill weather balloons measuring wind and temperature for Iraqi artillery units.
Summarizing his talks with the investigators working under Kay, Gelman writes that they have found no support for the twin fear expressed in Washington and London before the war–that Iraq had a hidden arsenal of old weapons and advanced programs for new ones. What is now clear is that Iraq did not have the wherewithal to build a forbidden armory on anything like the scale it had before the Gulf War in 1991. In his interim report of October 2, 2003, Kay reported no discoveries last year of finished weapons, bulk agents, or ready-to-start production lines, and some of the investigators working for Kay told Gelman they now have little expectation of such a find.
–We suggest that you announce that you will now permit the reintroduction of UN inspectors. It is time to bring in the experts. They know Iraq; they know the weapons and what it takes to produce them; they know the Iraqi scientists, with whom they have dealt in past years; and they even have adequate UN funding to do the job. If weapons are to be found, they will find them.
In contrast, David Kay’s is a highly inefficient operation. Of the 1,400 people in his group, most have no prior experience as inspectors because, for some reason, previous UN inspectors were generally not invited to join. Consequently, fewer than 100 of the 1,400 are actually involved in generating information from field investigations, and the number of Iraqi weapons scientists interviewed by Kay’s inspectors is very low.
–Announce that you are asking Gen. Brent Scowcroft, head of your Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, to look into why only half of Kamel’s story was told. This would be a limited investigation into one discrete aspect of the general credibility problem, not unlike the inquiry Scowcroft recently completed into how it was that the canard about Iraq seeking uranium found its way into your speech last year. This time the Scowcroft panel should find out which government officials and which members of Congress were told the full story and when. The panel should be asked to report back to you by May 1.
–Make it clear that you will hold people accountable if the Scowcroft panel investigation turns up evidence of ineptitude or deliberate distortion of intelligence. And be prepared to make good on that. The buck does stop with you.
–Announce that you are widening your circle of advisers beyond what has become known as your "praetorian guard." This is all the more necessary as it grows clearer and clearer that fresh ideas are needed on how to address the post-invasion situation in Iraq.
A ready lesson can be drawn from what President Lyndon Johnson chose to do when he began to realize he had been misled on Vietnam by his closest advisers. Just weeks after the surprise Vietnamese Communist Tet offensive in early 1968 (another major intelligence failure), Johnson asked Clark Clifford to convene a panel of "Wise Men" to review the entire Vietnam situation de novo and develop its own policy recommendations. Just three weeks later the panel briefed the president on the gravity of the situation; Johnson abruptly changed course and sought a negotiated settlement with Hanoi. One key lesson here is that a panel of distinguished advisers need not take inordinate amounts of time to come up with constructive recommendations.
–Looking toward more systemic problems and the longer term, we suggest you endorse the following recommendation from the report that the Carnegie Endowment put out this month, "WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications:"
Create a nonpartisan independent commission to establish a clear picture of what the intelligence community knew and believed it knew about Iraq’s weapons program throughout 1991-2002, which can be compared to what actually happened in Iraq when that becomes known. The commission should consider the role of foreign intelligence as well as the question of political pressure on analysts and the adequacy of agencies’ responses to it."
–Finally, you may wish to read the advice we provided prior to last year’s state-of-the-union address. We append our letter of last January, in the hope it will encourage you to take this year’s recommendations seriously.
Gene Betit, Arlington, VA
Ray Close, Princeton, NJ
David MacMichael, Linden, VA
Ray McGovern, Arlington, VA
Steering Group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
Attachment: VIPS Warning, January 2003
(from The Birmingham News, January 28, 2002)
As you prepare to make the case against Iraq in your State of the Union address Tuesday, beware the consequences of favoring ideologues and spin-doctors over the professional intelligence officers paid to serve you.
Until last week many Americans were inclined to take your top aides at their word that the looming war with Iraq is not about oil or vengeance but rather about Iraq’s continuing pursuit of "weapons of mass destruction." Now all but the most unquestioning loyalists are having serious second thoughts.
Doubt grew exponentially as France and Germany, with whom we have extensive intelligence sharing arrangements, took strong issue with your administration’s claims about Iraq. Those two major allies and others have concluded that the evidence that Iraq is continuing to pursue new weapons of mass destruction is far from conclusive and that it falls far short of justification for starting a war.
Your speeches on Iraq last October–in Cincinnati and at the UN–were rhetorical triumphs. But you need to be aware now that much of the evidence you adduced against Iraq could not withstand close scrutiny. Your advisers had you shooting yourself in the foot with hyperbole.
In both speeches they had you making alarmist claims that our allies know do not square either with the facts or the judgments of the US and wider allied intelligence communities. I’ll mention just two:
–Singling out the high-strength aluminum tubes Iraq has been trying to purchase, you said they "are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons." After an aggressive investigation, the UN inspectors in Iraq have now concluded that the tubes were not meant for enriching uranium but rather for making ordinary artillery rockets, as the Iraqis have said.
–You also claimed that Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon "in less than a year." Our allies are finding it difficult to reconcile that with the formal estimate of the US intelligence community that Iraq will not be able to produce a nuclear weapon until the end of the decade, if then.
On January 3, to the well-rehearsed cheers of our troops at Fort Hood, you stated three times that Iraq is a "grave threat" to the United States. But for our allies, and for an increasing number of Americans, repetition alone does not enhance credibility. They are looking for proof. (You are, after all, talking war.)
In the past, Mr. President, you have said that the CIA delivers the world’s best intelligence, but now you seem captive to the "intelligence" coming from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz. You will recall how stung Wolfowitz was last fall, when the CIA insisted that reports tying Iraq to al-Qaeda lacked credibility and that the available evidence on Iraq’s nuclear program was inconclusive. And you are probably aware that he has declared publicly that CIA analysis "is not worth the paper it is written on."
To be sure, CIA’s conclusions are often unwelcome. The question is whether they are more accurate than the ones you are getting from the Pentagon.
When NATO ambassadors asked Wolfowitz last month about the evidence against Iraq, he likened it to pornography: "I can’t define it, but I will know it when I see it." He did little to rehabilitate himself as super analyst last Thursday with his long, unpersuasive speech in New York.
Rather than offering evidence to support the points he was trying to make, Wolfowitz fell back on phrases like "there is every reason to believe." Worse, he has a peculiar affinity for information from defectors and exiles, sources that experienced intelligence professionals know to be notoriously unreliable.
Suffice it to say that were Wolfowitz an apprentice intelligence analyst in his two-year probationary period, I would not recommend taking him on as a career employee.
As you prepare for Tuesday’s address, you might consider giving your principal intelligence adviser, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, an advance look at your draft this time. And please think long and hard about the rhetoric.
Talk is cheap, and it is easy to play down the significance of rhetoric. But it would be a serious mistake to do so with reference to major pronouncements like the State of the Union.
That words can have far-reaching consequences is shown by North Korea’s decision, after you labeled it part of the "axis of evil" in last year’s address, to renege on its commitment to forgo nuclear weapons. No one should have been surprised when the North Koreans concluded that, without a strengthened nuclear deterrent, they would be next in line after Iraq for a US "preemptive" attack.
Hopefully, your intelligence advisers have warned you of the possibility that Pyongyang will decide to take further advantage of your fixation on Iraq in the weeks ahead and perhaps even go beyond words to threaten the 37,000 US troops who form a human tripwire south of the demilitarized zone. There, beyond question, is a real and present danger.
Good luck Tuesday evening. Please cool the rhetoric and stay close to the facts.
The VIPS can be reached at: RRMcGovern@aol.com