Known Unknowns: Iraqi WMD, 13 Years Later


“…it seems to me the president, given the facts he had from the intelligence community, made the right decision. In retrospect, they didn’t find large caches of chemical or biological weapons.”

— Donald Rumsfeld, The Late Show, January 25, 2016


John Walcott recently reviewed a 2002 Pentagon memo written by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — one of the many “snowflakes” that fell upon Pentagon staffers. Attached to the memo was a Joint Staff assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program in the form of a seven-slide PowerPoint brief. In the memo, Rumsfeld wrote to Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD. It is big.” It stands to reason that Gen. Myers had already read the assessment, but Rumsfeld was emphasizing his surprise to the chairman that there were so many known unknowns about Iraq’s WMD program. Walcott’s question is two-fold: Did Rumsfeld have a responsibility to tell the Bush administration that there was so much “unknown” about Iraq’s WMD Program? And does this have implications for the 2016 presidential race?

Before I get into the central point of whether this memo is evidence of anything, let me make a few quick points. First, for all of you PowerPoint haters out there (you know who you are), this a great example of an information product that would have been better presented as a Word document than a PowerPoint presentation. I am a PowerPoint Ranger, but even I will agree that it was a mistake to use PowerPoint in this case. Second, I have no intent to re-litigate the issue as to whether there were WMD in Iraq in 2002 and what that meant for the justification of the war. My personal assessment is that the intelligence community did fail in its efforts to properly analytically determine the scope of an Iraqi WMD program in 2002, but it was a policy-neutral estimate. It remained a policy decision by the Bush White House that the possibility of Saddam Hussein giving WMD material to terrorist groups was an unacceptable risk at that time (and yes, we can argue as to the legitimacy of that rationale).

Walcott argues that the debate on going to war would have been very different had the Joint Staff’s findings been shared more widely within the administration and Congress. I have to disagree. As a former analyst working on the Joint Staff’s nuclear/counter-proliferation division in 2002, I had a unique viewpoint of assessments being sent up to the secretary’s office. The J5 Strategic Plans and Policy directorate was responsible for providing “what if” assessments to the chairman and supporting U.S. Central Command in its preparations prior to going to war, and I was one of the action officers who specifically addressed chemical and biological warfare issues. For one, let’s not beat up on the J2 director for intelligence who drafted the PowerPoint brief. The J2 is the intelligence chief for the Joint Staff responsible for giving the chairman assessments on threats. As a staff agency, J2 receives its intelligence products from the Defense Intelligence Agency, and DIA’s assessment was included in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. WMD issues were in vogue back then, but the focus was on what nations had in WMD stockpiles, not on what they could do with them.

If you review Rumsfeld’s online papers and search for “WMD,” there are a large number of hits. I don’t get the impression that Rumsfeld really cared as to whether the administration’s rationale was adequate or whether the military had an assessment that was contrary to the administration’s position. The intelligence community believed that Iraq had an active chemical and biological weapons program and would restart its nuclear weapons program once the international climate allowed. It said nothing about whether these capabilities were a threat to U.S. security interests or about the possible impact on U.S. forces during a military conflict between the two countries. The intel community didn’t do assessments of force-on-force operations, especially operations involving chemical or biological weapons. The models for assessing those kinds of impacts remain rudimentary and have not been validated. These were issues of policy and operational planning. Given U.S. knowledge of the Iraqi chemical-biological program and the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) finding that there was an inconsistency in Iraq’s accounting for tons of missing chemical and biological warfare agents and delivery systems, the assumption was that U.S. forces could be attacked by these unconventional weapons. That’s all Rumsfeld needed to know.

Rumsfeld’s concerns were on ensuring the success of operational forces as they invaded Iraq and minimizing the impact of WMD on military operations. He was also concerned as to what the military should do if terrorists obtained WMD. We can argue as to whether other officials in the Defense Department were as apolitical when it came to WMD analyses, but my point is to separate Rumsfeld’s focus on operational concerns from the Bush administration’s political views. This very abbreviated intelligence summary from the Joint Staff would have changed no one’s position in the administration on going to war. The key decision-makers had already made up their minds that Saddam had to go. Gen. Tommy Franks and Gen. Myers assumed that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, and one of their charges was to eliminate the WMD threat through the process of regime change. At the same time, it’s clear that Rumsfeld was concerned that those WMD stockpiles weren’t being discovered in 2003. He knew that the failure to find WMD in Iraq would be a policy problem.

Rob Farley effectively argues that uncertainty over Iraq’s WMD status actually played in the favor of the Bush administration. These officials were viewing Iraq’s potential capability and future intentions as threats to U.S. national security. None of their arguments were based on actual threats by Saddam against U.S. forces. As a result, the operational community could not argue with their strategic point of view, other than privately thinking that it was a very bad assumption upon which to base a policy decision. I don’t say this to give Rumsfeld a pass, but his motives were not to hide a military assessment from the administration. He probably didn’t think it was really an issue for the administration as much as it was an issue for the military servicemembers going into Iraq. None of us in the J5 Strategic Plans and Policy office thought that Saddam’s nascent chemical-biological warfare program — even in worst-case assessments — would seriously impact U.S. Central Command’s battle plan. Iraq had a small quantity of unconventional weapons, and our troops had significant protective equipment and counter-proliferation concepts far superior to what had existed in 1991. But that really wasn’t the point, was it? We all knew in late 2002 that we were going to war. The issue was about how serious the chemical-biological threat was to U.S. forces, and our assessment in the J5 shop was that the threat would be manageable.

Lastly, does this Joint Staff assessment mean anything to those politicians running for president who had voted for or against going to war against Iraq? Let’s be clear — Walcott is pointing at Hillary Clinton. But her record’s already been established. She voted in favor of going to war because she believed that Saddam was rebuilding his WMD stockpile and pursuing nuclear weapons. We know the records of both Democrats and Republicans who voted to go to war. Since then, she’s stated that she regrets the vote. I doubt the general public will remember the Iraq WMD debate, let alone use it as a distinguishing mark for or against any candidate. There are far more pressing contemporary issues.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies. He is the author of Where Are the WMDs? The Reality of Chem-Bio Threats on the Home Front and the Battlefront (2006). The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.