war on the rocks

Chilcot and Opening Old Wounds on WMD Intel

July 11, 2016

I certainly did not say that I would be proved wrong [about the threat from Iraq’s WMD]. On the contrary, I said with every fibre of instinct and conviction that I believe that we are right

-Prime Minister Tony Blair in a press conference with President George W. Bush, July 17, 2003

Sir John Chilcot, as chair of a U.K. inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, released a long-anticipated report on the British development of intelligence regarding Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program and associated policy decisions. This report, initially commissioned in 2009, has 12 volumes and 17 sections. At this time, I cannot offer a good assessment of all of its findings. Of particular interest, however, is section four, titled “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction,” which offers an analytical report that runs over 600 pages — a book in and of itself. This is a very detailed discussion and worth reading, if not just to understand the faulty logic that led to war. In the report’s executive summary, Chilcot states: “The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — WMD — were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”

The report has a kind of brutal intensity in its clearly laid out, exhaustively footnoted discussion on the U.K. government’s deliberations and actions prior to and after the invasion of Iraq. As far as the intelligence assessments that led to war are concerned, the United States has already gone through this catharsis with the Robb-Silberman Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (released in 2005) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on “Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information” (released in 2008). There is a difference between the two governments’ self-examination, however. Where the U.S. Senate kept the critiques of policymaking and intelligence assessment in separate reports, the latest British inquiry integrated the two. In addition, the British report adds personal discussions and meeting minutes specifically related to WMD policymaking that should be of significant interest to American defense analysts and policymakers.

The Chilcot report breaks up its WMD analysis into distinct sections — what was being assessed as Iraq’s WMD program before July 2002, what positions evolved between July and October 2002, the focus on Iraq’s capabilities between October 2002 and March 2003, and, finally, the search for WMD leading up to the 2004 Butler Report.

The U.K. intelligence community’s assessment was not too different than that of the U.S. intelligence community, and this should not be a surprise given the closeness of the two governments. Prior to July 2002, the assessment was that Iraq was continuing a chemical and biological warfare capability, without much hard evidence that had previously (prior to 1998) been provided by the United Nation’s Special Commission (UNSCOM). Their assessment included the “mobile biological warfare” plants that the U.S. government became so enamored of. By 2000, the British believed that al Qaeda in particular was interested in seeking out chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) materials for use as terrorist weapons. After 9/11, concerns in the United Kingdom about the risk of terrorists obtaining CBRN weapons escalated. However, cooperation between Iraq and al Qaeda was deemed “unlikely.” The bigger threat was Iraq’s continued pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles, the development of chemical-biological warheads for those missiles, and eventually its desire to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Much of the U.K. government’s challenge was how to present this information to the public as to “reinforce our judgement that Iraq’s chemical and biological capabilities are substantial and a very clear danger to the region and the wider world.” (Vol 4, p. 97).

During the spring of 2002, the British Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence began assembling a dossier for the prime minister to explain Iraq’s WMD program to the general public. The production of this dossier eventually was taken over by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). The Chilcot report notes that the JIC’s assessment did say that Iraq was believed to be producing chemical and biological warfare agents, but not chemical and biological weapons. While sanctions remained in place, Iraq was not seen as capable of producing a nuclear weapon. Much of the assessment was extrapolated from the UNSCOM’s inability to account for the final disposition of Iraq’s chemical agents and weapons prior to 1998. Iraq’s continued resistance to new U.N. inspections, and its simultaneous claims that it was complying with U.N. resolutions, was seen more as deceit and denial. To wit, the JIC never considered that Iraq’s weapon programs were actually unable to produce any military capability by which to threaten regional stability or arm terrorists. This assessment changed as the British and U.S. governments continued to talk about how to deal with Saddam’s regime over the summer.

When Prime Minister Tony Blair prepared to release a public statement in September 2002, his Foreign Office told him that Iraq was still hiding WMD “in a range of locations,” that Iraq had admitted to producing chemical and biological warfare agents, and that they had “reports of increased nuclear procurement.” While international sanctions were frustrating Saddam’s ambitions to develop WMD, “all of our intelligence reporting…tells us that Iraq is taking advantage of absence of inspections to revive its chemical, biological, and nuclear programs.” (Vol 4, p. 138) Sir Christopher Meyer, British Ambassador to the United States, wrote that the U.S. administration officials felt that “The bulk of the case should rest on history and common-sense argument, rather than specific new intelligence.” Given this assessment, Blair told reporters on September 4, 2002, that “Saddam is a real and unique threat to his region and the rest of the world that needs to be dealt with.”

Later that month, the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS, known popularly as MI6) developed a new intelligence report based on a source claiming Iraq had accelerated production of chemical-biological warfare agents in Iraq and even built new production facilities. Perhaps a key startling note is in the SIS’s second report in September, which stated that VX, sarin, and soman nerve agents had been loaded into a variety of containers, including “linked hollow glass spheres” (Vol 4, p. 196). It wasn’t until December that the SIS admitted that their source on this topic may have been unreliable.

After September, the JIC was not asked to review its assessment of Iraq’s WMD capabilities, despite the new U.N. inspection team (U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC) having access to Iraq between November 2002 and March 2003. The head of UNMOVIC, Hans Blix, did not have much to offer in December, blaming the Iraq government for not providing much new information, but later reports in February and March of 2003 demonstrated an increasing divergence between intelligence assessments and “truth on the ground.” This information should have, in Chilcot’s assessment, prompted a new review. Similar to the U.S. government and its National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002, no one requested an update of intelligence assessments in the five months prior to the invasion. Fast forward to 2004, after the Butler Report did the autopsy on the intelligence assessments, the JIC made the final point that their assessment “would have remained reasonable judgements based on what we knew at the time.” This was far from an admission of fault. But the Chilcot report is not just about the intelligence failures; it criticizes British senior policymakers in their attempts to guide and mold the intelligence reports.

Joshua Rovner has a brilliant discussion in his 2011 book Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence on the intelligence assessments of Iraq, and “politicization” of the process that resulted in the justification for the invasion of Iraq. He notes that in both countries, policymakers had used intelligence as a tool to overcome domestic opposition. Policymakers downplayed dissent and ambiguity within the intelligence community, exaggerated the future threat of Iraq’s capabilities, selectively released intelligence data that supported their claims, and argued that the intelligence assessments “left them no choice but to pursue an aggressive strategy toward Iraq.” The intelligence community had failures, no doubt — in particular its unwillingness to revisit their conclusions issued to policymakers in 2002, because doing so would have meant admitting that their earlier work was very wrong. But policymakers openly favored the intelligence reports that said Iraq was a growing threat, and so encouraged those errors.

This report does not shed any new light on the intelligence assessments prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the general challenges of developing intelligence assessments for contemporary policymaking, nor does it have any significant bombshells. We knew about the horrible “45 minute claim” that the U.K. Foreign Office explained away as based in reliable intelligence reporting. The “glass spheres” is an interesting anecdote but not relevant to the larger issue. There is something in the report about the transition of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) from David Kay to Charles Duelfer in 2004 that I’m not sure has been previously revealed, to the effect that Kay had issues with the transfer of ISG resources from WMD to other Iraqi security issues. But we know the broad strokes of this story. What is new is the depth of the discussion in the Chilcot report, how it offers an unprecedented look at the interaction of British and American policymakers and the intelligence community, and the bad decisions that were subsequently made. As one observer notes, at the least we ought to move away from the simplistic conclusion that no one was to blame, but intelligence procedures needed reform.

There are no U.S. government reports that can compare with the Chilcot report. This truly stands out as a well-written, apolitical, and bluntly honest assessment of government policy, offering a great source of research for defense analysts everywhere. It probably will not change anyone’s mind about the invasion of Iraq, but it should motivate members of the national security enterprise to reconsider how they look at the general threat of adversarial countries and their developing WMD programs in context with regional stability and international relations policy.

 

Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies and author of the forthcoming book, “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the U.S. Government’s Policy.” 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.

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