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Faulty Intelligence, My Eye

David Kay was the perfect choice to head up Bush’s search for Weapons of Mass Destruction. He was in Iraq in 1991 with the UN inspection team. He was one of the most visible and vocal believers in the existence of WMDs in Iraq. And he was one of those who thought only an invasion and occupation would allow us to find and destroy them.

In short, no one wanted to find WMD more than David Kay.

In this effort he had not only motive but also opportunity. The inspection team could go anywhere and everywhere. And it did, in an effort that cost over $400 million.

When Kay’s final report concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction that should have been the story. For one day it was. That day the front-page headline in The New York Times declared, “Iraq Illicit Arms Gone Before War, Inspector States.”

Then the story took a fascinating, although in retrospect distinctly unsurprising twist. David Kay added an entirely new charge to his mission: to explain why we were wrong. This created a problem. For while David Kay’s self-interest in finding weapons was the reason why he was the best person to lead the search, his self-interest in justifying his own predictive failure made him the worst person to explain why we had gone to war given that WMD did not exist.

Not surprisingly, Kay first declared that “we were almost all wrong.” Then he blamed the CIA, not the White House or the Pentagon or the State Department. Indeed, he insisted, “I think if anyone was abused by the intelligence it was the president of the United States.”

Within days President Bush had called for an independent commission. Its charge would be limited to discovering how the intelligence community could have been so inept. The commission will report back after the election. The newspapers are now full of stories about intelligence blunders.

Have we suffered from collective amnesia?

Have we forgotten that there were highly credible people who were telling the White House that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction? Scott Ritter, former intelligence officer and senior official in the UN’s inspection team in Iraq for seven years was one such highly visible—and highly credible—critic. Back in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, Ritter told his superiors something they not only didn’t want to hear but didn’t believe: that the allies had failed to destroy any Iraqi Scud missile launchers. He was later vindicated.

Ritter indicated that as of 1998, when the UN team was withdrawn from Iraq, 90-95 percent of its capacity to produce chemical and biological weapons had been eliminated. And there was no evidence that Iraq had nuclear weapons.

In the halls of Congress and on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal Ritter’s well-reasoned argument was dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic. He was accused of being in the pay of Saddam Hussein.

When asked about Ritter’s allegations, Richard Butler, Ritter’s old boss at the United Nations weapons inspection team said on CNN, “I don’t know why. I’m not a psychoanalyst.” David Kay told Congress, “I cannot explain it on the basis of known facts.” Secretary of State Colin Powell contrasted his own scientific approach with that of Ritter, “We have facts, not speculation.”

Ritter wasn’t the only credible skeptic. Have we forgotten the repeated rebuttals of assertions by the White House of mobile and underground biological labs by Hans Blix, head of the UN inspection team in 2003? Have we forgotten the terse refutation by Mohamed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, of the Pentagon assertion that Iraq had nuclear weapons?

Have we forgotten the flurry of stories in national newspapers in late 2002 and early 2003 that described how the White House and Pentagon were pressuring the CIA to come up with “intelligence” that would support their position? In March 2003 the Washington Post quoted a senior administration official with access to the latest intelligence who said, “I have seen all the stuff. I certainly have doubts.” The United States, he said, will “face significant problems in trying to find” such weapons.

Have we forgotten how Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld set up an intelligence unit in the Pentagon to help him undermine the CIA’s cautionary intelligence reports on Iraq?

“Even as it prepares for war against Iraq, the Pentagon is already engaged on a second front: its war against the Central Intelligence Agency,” wrote Robert Dreyfuss in The American Prospect in December 2002. Dreyfuss quotes Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA official and counter-terrorism expert who describes the “tremendous pressure on (the CIA) to come up with information to support policies that have already been adopted.”

What should be done? First, insist that those who got it right, like Scott Ritter, become regular commentators on Iraq on network and cable news stations. Second, widen the mandate of the commission so that it can examine whether and to what extent the intelligence community was bypassed or compromised by the White House and Pentagon. Third, ask the commission to report back before the election.

And finally, stop asking David Kay for advice and counsel. He’s admitted he was wrong. He’s refused to own up to the reason for his mistake. Such behavior deserves no reward.

—David Morris


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