The Iraq War’s Intelligence Failures Are Still Misunderstood
The United States invaded Iraq 20 years ago under false pretenses. Historians and social scientists have spent two decades investigating what went wrong. George W. Bush and other senior officials in his administration claimed former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They also claimed that the Iraqi government had ties to nefarious groups such as al-Qaeda. Together, these two things posed an unacceptable threat to American security. Yet, once the American-led coalition toppled the Iraqi regime in 2003, it quickly became evident that there were no weapons of mass destruction or active ties to Osama bin Laden.
The narrative around the war is also controversial. Did the Bush administration actually believe that Saddam Hussein was a threat that had to be eliminated with military force, or did prominent U.S. officials simply cite the intelligence as a public justification for a war because they were eager to use the anger from 9/11 to remake the Middle East?
Either way, historians are now tasked with finding out what happened. Their sometimes–provocative findings have often been buried in dense academic tomes or, in some cases, exiled from polite conversation due to the political toxicity of anything that might be seen as lending support for a disastrous and ill-conceived war. This has left popular discourse to partisans on all sides looking to score political points rather than investigate the past. As a result, much of the debate in the national security community remains rooted in long-dispelled narratives or even factual inaccuracies. Despite the conventional wisdom touted in recent retrospectives, Saddam did not pursue a strategy of ambiguity around his weapons of mass destruction programs to deter Iran. Neither did his Arab nationalist ideology prevent him from working with people like Osama bin Laden. Indeed, much of the current conventional wisdom suffers from the same sort of groupthink as the intelligence failures it criticizes; it coalesces around easily digestible but flawed analysis. The 20-year anniversary of the war provides the perfect occasion to take stock of what we now know about these most infamous of intelligence failures.
Since the demise of Saddam’s rule, historians have been blessed with millions of pages of internal Iraqi records containing the former regime’s innermost secrets. In the wake of the American-led invasion, Iraqi dissidents and the U.S. military seized the records of the regime in Baghdad, including the archive of the ruling Baath Party’s secretariat. The way those records were removed from Iraq led to protests and accusations of colonial-style appropriation of historical artifacts from the Middle East. However, the archives have produced a steady stream of books and articles outlining how Saddam Hussein ruled and conducted his foreign policy. These files, along with other investigative projects and interviews with former Iraqi officials, provide stunning insights into American intelligence failures in 2003.
Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction
The basic history of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction has now been well-documented. The country had them in the 1980s. Saddam ordered their use them against Iranian forces and even his own people. Following the Gulf War, he promised to hand them over, but attempted to hide some from United Nations weapons inspectors. Once the Iraqi government was caught lying, Saddam decided to destroy the remaining illicit weapons in secret and without any documentation. Then, the Iraqi government doubled down on the claim that it had no weapons of mass destruction and challenged the inspectors to prove it wrong. Over the course of the 1990s, cajoling by the international community and defections by senior Iraqi officials — including Saddam’s son-in-law in 1995 — led the Iraqi regime to come clean about some of its past programs and to give up whatever remained of them. By the end of the decade, Iraq had completely dismantled his illicit weapons programs.
Yet, the question remains: How did intelligence agencies in the United States, with all their resources, fail to understand what had happened? Access to internal Iraqi records immediately showed the origins of some tactical misperceptions in Washington. For example, the United States government had intercepted snippets of Iraqi communications in which senior Iraqis ordered a site to be cleansed prior to the arrival of U.N. inspectors. In a high-profile presentation to the United Nations in February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell cited these intercepts as evidence that the Iraqis were covering up existing weapons programs. In the full context provided by Iraqi records, it became clear that the government was worried about a false positive from the residue of a long-dead program.
These discoveries, however, could not explain the full scope of the American intelligence failure. Finding itself in a political quagmire, the Bush administration prioritized uncovering how their assessments had gone so wrong. When an FBI agent named George Piro interrogated Saddam after his capture, one of his primary missions was to answer that question. After weeks of prying, Saddam let slip that he feared an Iranian invasion. Piro had his answer: Saddam had dismantled his illicit weapons programs but wanted to leave a residue of doubt about them to deter the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, he could not come clean about completely dismantling his weapons program.
The claim that Saddam was intentionally ambiguous about his weapons programs received a boost when a U.S. government-commissioned study on Iraqi strategic thinking interviewed former Iraqi officials. “For many months after the 2003 war,” the report recounted, “a number of senior Iraqi officials continued to believe it possible (though they adamantly insisted they possessed no direct knowledge) that Iraq still possessed a weapons of mass destruction capability hidden away somewhere.” One Iraqi general claimed Saddam Hussein was pursuing a strategy of “deterrence by doubt.” If Saddam was not forthright with senior leaders in his own regime, he was obviously lying to the international community as well.
This narrative is still widely accepted, but it is too neat. It too easily lets the intelligence community off the hook. It suggests the United States had relied on sound strategies and competent analysis, but it was tricked by the regime in Baghdad. It also ignores the fact that while Saddam was certainly duplicitous, and his claims about weapons of mass destruction contradictory, his regime had been telling the world it did not possess weapons of mass destruction for a decade.
There is no solid evidence prior to 2003 of Iraqis claiming that they really did have weapons of mass destruction. Further, scholars have uncovered no evidence of a “deterrence by doubt” strategy in the millions of pages of internal Iraqi records, and the Iraqi general who coined that phrase later walked it back. He claimed to have been influenced by reports in Western media and clarified that Saddam “never signaled the existence of WMD; neither in a statement of any kind nor by hints.” Despite whatever some other Iraqi generals told the United States government in an effort to clear themselves of responsibility for their crimes under the previous regime, Iraqi archives made clear that Saddam consistently and repeatedly conveyed the truth to his underlings about Iraq’s lack of illicit weapons programs. As he told the regime leadership in one closed-door meeting during the late 1990s, “you might think we still have hidden chemical weapons, missiles and so forth. We have nothing; not even one screw.”
New Scholarship on Iraqi Weapons
Scholars working with Iraqi archives have posited other theories resting on firmer ground. An important academic article by Gregory Koblentz pointed to the role of secret Iraqi intelligence agencies in Saddam’s failure to cooperate with U.N. inspectors, and thus the misperceptions about his weapons programs. The most important agency was aptly named the Special Security Organization. Its primary role was to spy on other spies and on members of the Baath Party to coup-proof the regime. The Iraqi regime held members of the Special Security Organization to the highest standards and trusted them with its innermost secrets. When Iraq tried to hide some weapons of mass destruction from the international community in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein placed the deception program within his most trusted agency, the Special Security Organization. Once Iraq dismantled its remaining weapons programs later in the decade, U.N. inspectors demanded Iraq not only open its weapons facilities but also to come clean about previous deceptions. Only then would the inspectors and the U.S. government feel comfortable that they were not being lied to again. Yet, that demand necessitated Iraq open it Special Security Organization to international inspectors.
By the mid-1990s, the United States clearly wished to do away with Saddam one way or another. It had even attempted a coup. It was also clear that U.S. intelligence agencies worked with and had penetrated the U.N. weapons inspection program. So, to come clean on his government’s deception program, Saddam would have had to open his primary counter-coup organization to the international community. This risked exposing this organization to U.S. intelligence agencies, which were working to overthrow the Iraqi regime. As the CIA concluded in a 2006 retrospective, when Saddam Hussein refused, intelligence analysts in Washington assumed he had something to hide. Instead, he was simply hoping to avoid a coup.
More recently, Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, a leading expert on weapons proliferation at the University of Oslo, produced perhaps the most in-depth and sophisticated study of Saddam Hussein’s incentives. As she states, “The Iraqi leadership did not, as is widely believed, try to create a deterrent effect through calculated ambiguity as to whether Iraq no longer possessed WMD.” Rather than elaborate schemes or hidden agendas, sometimes the problems in Iraq stemmed from the type of good old-fashioned incompetence one often finds in authoritarian regimes. Senior leaders like Saddam had difficulty communicating their policies to lower-ranking officials, leading to contradictory statements and actions throughout the regime. Just as importantly, Saddam’s initial attempt to deceive weapons inspectors left him in what Braut-Hegghammer, calls a “cheaters dilemma.”
Once Baghdad was caught concealing weapons and documentation, U.N. inspectors and U.S. intelligence analysts developed a healthy distrust of everything the Iraqis said. When Baghdad later owned up to some aspects of its illicit programs, Americans took Iraq’s revelations of its previous misdeeds as proof of the regime’s duplicitous nature. Thus, instead of encouraging the Iraqis to cooperate with weapons inspectors, American and U.N. officials turned the screws even tighter on Baghdad, hoping to squeeze out even more hidden details. The incentive structure was all wrong. Every time Saddam Hussein cooperated, he was punished, and therefore, he eventually stopped doing so. As he told his advisors, “We can have sanctions with inspectors or sanctions without inspectors; which do you want?”
Iraq’s Support of Terrorism
The basic facts about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are well-known. Iraq did not have them. Thus, most of the post-mortem analysis has been interpretive. On the other major intelligence failure, the basic facts are still not widely understood. Senior Bush administration officials and right-wing intellectuals made false and reckless claims about Iraqi connections to terrorists. Despite their allusions and assertions, Saddam had no active links to al-Qaeda in 2001 and no ties to the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Refuting such claims is important, but the backlash, as is often the case, overreached. For example, Paul Pillar was a CIA analyst who served as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East from 2000 to 2005. That made him the nation’s top authority for interpreting the Iraqi regime during the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. When no evidence was found linking Iraq to 9/11, he argued that because Saddam Hussein was the head of a “secular dictatorship,” the “lack of connection should not have been surprising.” This is a widely held view.
Yet, while Iraq had no ties to 9/11, records in Iraqi archives have confirmed that he had a long history of supporting terrorists, including the type of radical Islamists in al-Qaeda. In 1994, bin Laden was living in Sudan. The director of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, along with Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, made contact with him through a Sudanese intermediary. The Iraqis met bin Laden with Saddam’s approval in 1995. Bin Laden requested that the Iraqis begin radio broadcasts of a dissident Salafi preacher, Salman al-Ouda, into Saudi Arabia, and “to perform joint operations against the foreign forces in the land of Hijaz.” The latter was a euphemism for attacking U.S. military forces. Saddam personally approved a plan for the broadcasts, and the Iraqi Intelligence Service was looking for ways “to develop the relationship and cooperation between the two sides” further when Bin Laden was deported from Sudan and took refuge in Afghanistan in 1996. The Iraqi government then claimed that “the relationship with him is ongoing through the Sudanese side. Currently, we are working to invigorate this relationship through a new channel in light of his present location.” However, it appears Baghdad lost contact with him.
The Baathist regime aided other Islamist terrorists around the Middle East as well. Saddam was quite open about support for Palestinian suicide bombers. Iraqi records also make clear that in the early 1990s, Baghdad supported Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later became an affiliate of al-Qaeda., Further, as late as July 2001, the Iraqi Intelligence Service was working with a group called the Army of Muhammad in Bahrain, which the Iraqis thought was an off shoot of al-Qaeda. According to Iraqi records, the group’s “objectives” were “similar” to bin Laden’s but it used “different names” as “a way of camouflaging the organization.” Clearly, then, there was no ideological impediment to cooperation between the Iraqis and the type of people who carried out the 9/11 attack.
When some of this information became public, and especially after some former Baathists turned up in the Islamic State, a few analysts argued that not only had Saddam supported radical Islamists, but that in the final years of his rule, he had become one himself. He was a “born again Muslim” or a proponent of some sort of “Baathi-Salfism.” These claims often came from proponents of the Iraq War and were meant to refute people like Paul Pillar. In reality, they simply repeated the same fallacy: that a dictator like Saddam Hussein needed to be ideologically aligned with foreign groups to support them. In fact, internal Iraqi documents show unequivocally that Saddam Hussein made no such ideological conversion. He still hated Islamists and did everything he could to suppress them in Iraq. Yet that did not stop him from supporting them abroad when his interests aligned with theirs.
Questions about Iraq’s weapons and ties to terrorism have already become foundational issues in 21st century international history. Unfortunately, public debates about these questions have not kept pace with the rather significant advances made by scholars. Saddam Hussein did not try to trick outsiders into thinking that he had weapons of mass destruction as a form of deterrence. The U.S. government had a flawed strategy rooted in poor incentives and dubious analysis. Saddam Hussein had no ties to the 9/11 attacks, and he was not an Islamist. Yet, these facts did not prevent him from working with Osama bin Laden and groups like al-Qaeda.
Failing to grapple with the tragedy of the Iraq War in all its complexity risks creating simplistic narratives that will leave American analysts and policymakers ripe for repeating the same mistakes in the future. Blaming Saddam Hussein’s trickery for faulty assessments about his weapons programs takes the onus off American intelligence agencies. They will not learn the right lessons if they fail to address how their strategies to uncover Iraqi weapons programs created the flawed incentive structures that ultimately led Iraq to cease cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors. Likewise, simplistic narratives that refuse to address Saddam Hussein’s very real support for people like Osama bin Laden will leave analysts and policymakers ill-equipped to handle the nuance that such a threat demands.
Samuel Helfont is the author of Iraq against the World: Saddam, America, and the Post-Cold War Order (Oxford 2023) and is Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy in the Naval War College Program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California.
This article contains the personal views of the author. It does not represent the views of the Naval War College or any other part of the U.S. government.
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