You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Intelligence Failure: Bush's ‘selective Interpretations'

The Senate intelligence committee released its two-part report this month exploring pre-war intelligence on Iraq and its use by the Bush administration. We asked James Martin, a Paul Mellon fellow at Cambridge University who writes on international security issues, to wade through the report for us. He'll be guest-posting his findings here over the next few days.

In glancing through the 170 pages of the report "Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information," one cannot help but be struck by a certain mad logic to the administration's interpretations of prewar intelligence findings. Without conclusive evidence that Iraq had restarted nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs, and that it had the wherewithal to deliver these weapons to the U.S. or to distribute them to al-Qaida and its fellow-travelers, the administration focused on certain minute, dubious details of intelligence findings that would simultaneously give evidence of major Iraqi WMD programs and explain why the existence of these programs had been so difficult to establish with certainty in the first place.

For instance, the report makes clear just how crucial the existence of the supposed "mobile biological weapons laboratories" was to proving that Iraq had restarted its biological weapons program since the conclusion of the First Gulf War. The fact that these mobile bio-weapons labs could be easily moved throughout the country and hidden within "palm and date tree groves" provided the perfect explanation why there had been little direct observation of the supposed bio-weapons program since 1991. Of course, our knowledge of these mythical mobile-labs was tenuous at best, provided by only a handful of informants (one of whom was the famous "Curveball"), and post-war investigations proved that they had, in fact, never existed.

The same was true of the case for Iraq's supposed chemical weapons program: Since intelligence could not determine conclusively whether Iraq had restarted such a program in earnest since 1991, the Bush administration based its case on scattered reports that Saddam had surreptitiously embedded his chemical weapons program into civilian chemical industries. Again, absent the existence of these dual-use chemical plants whose activities would evade outside detection, conclusively proving that Iraq had restarted a serious chemical weapons program would have been significantly more difficult. And again, the intelligence was proven wrong.

The most maddening instance of this selective interpretation of intelligence came in the administration's attempts to argue that Iraq had both the capability and intent to use its WMDs against targets in the continental United States. Given very little evidence that this was true, the White House focused on limited and contradictory intelligence suggesting that Iraq was outfitting unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with equipment for a chemical or biological attack. And when it was discovered that Iraq had attempted to purchase navigational equipment for its UAVs that contained maps of the 50 American states, it was reported that Hussein could be planning a major attack. According to prewar Air Force and DIA assessments, however, the UAVs were likely intended only for reconnaissance and the navigational software for "generic mapping" purposes. But again, when consideration of the full-range of evidence did not reveal any conclusive facts about Iraqi capabilities and intentions, the mere possibility of the existence of these retrofitted UAVs--as with the supposed mobile bio-weapons labs and dual-use chemical factories--was taken as indication that Iraq did, in fact, pose a clear and present danger.

While perhaps the Senate Intelligence Committee's report does not reveal any shockingly new conclusions about the Bush administration's manipulation of prewar Iraq intelligence, at the very least it affords one the opportunity to revisit these tragicomic intelligence debates, and to consider again how tenuous the administration's interpretations of the available evidence on Iraqi weapons technology truly was.

--James Martin

Earlier Posts:
Intelligence Failure: Inside This Month's Senate Report