DAVID KAY, THE former chief weapons-hunter in Iraq, last week told the Senate Armed Services Committee there were almost certainly no chemical or biological weapons in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program had been virtually nonexistent. Coming from a man who, before the war, stridently maintained that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Kay’s testimony was strikingly honest. But Kay’s further analysis was less impressive: “[I]f you read the total body of intelligence in the last twelve to fifteen years, ... it would be hard to come to a conclusion other than Iraq was a gathering, serious threat ... with regard to WMD.” According to Kay, “We were all wrong” on Iraq. 

With that one phrase, Kay shifted culpability for faulty claims on Iraqi WMD from the White House to the intelligence community. Only problem is, they weren’t all wrong. Many in the intelligence community got it right, but their opinions were either ignored in the run-up to war, or they were pressured to change their minds. Yes, there was widespread suspicion that Iraq maintained chemical and biological weapons, but many observers (this magazine, unfortunately, not among them) had significant doubts that Iraq possessed an active nuclear program. 

The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), ostensibly the consensus of all U.S. spy agencies, argued that, if Iraq acquired fissile material from abroad, it could have a nuke “within several months to a year.” As proof of a robust atomic program, the NIE claimed that Iraq was attempting to import aluminum tubes for use in uranium-enrichment machinery and had “vigorously” tried to acquire uranium from Africa. But, far from being unanimous, these conclusions were disputed by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Department of Energy. Their opinions, however, were relegated to footnotes in the classified version of the NIE, while the CIA’s view dominated. And you didn’t have to read a classified intelligence document to learn that not everyone believed the White House on Iraq’s nukes. On March 7 of last year, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei told the Security Council that, “after three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program.” 

The mystery is not why the administration ignored the U.N. inspectors—its derision for them was well-known—nor why the views of two agencies were big- footed by the CIA. The question is how that CIA view came to exist in the first place. Kay claims the assessment of Iraq’s WMD capabilities “did not change in the Bush administration.” That’s not true. An unclassified January 2002 CIA report covering proliferation in the first half of 2001 noted Iraq was only pursuing “low-level theoretical R&D” on nukes. By the fall of 2002, however, the CIA was supporting the NIE’s contention of a full-fledged nuclear program. This pattern played out in the chemical and biological areas as well, where caveats that appeared in earlier CIA assessments were inexplicably dropped. For example, the January 2002 CIA report noted only that, in the 1990s, U.N. inspectors had been unable to account for all of Iraq’s chemical munitions, but the October 2002 NIE went much further, professing “high confidence” that Iraq was concealing a large—perhaps 500-ton—stockpile of chemical weapons. 

Why was the CIA consensus changed so quickly? This magazine, as well as The Washington Post, has reported that the White House and the Pentagon encouraged intelligence agencies to take a more hawkish view of Iraqi weapons than the evidence merited. Kay contends that the administration did no such thing: No CIA analysts, he says, ever complained to him. But why would they? Kay spent his time scouring Iraq for weapons, not investigating the CIA. Moreover, his mandate did not include Saddam’s supposed connections to Al Qaeda—the area about which suspicion of cherry-picked intelligence is greatest. 

Given the utter failure to anticipate the real state of Iraq’s WMD, we support a review of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. But President Bush’s announcement of a commission that will examine intelligence not only on Iraq but also on Libya, Iran, and North Korea seems like a whitewash in the making— guaranteed to focus all attention on Langley rather than on the White House. Indeed, given the administration’s attempt last summer to blame the CIA for the 2003 State of the Union assertion that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Africa—when in fact responsibility for the yellowcake story rested near the Oval Office—we wonder whether President Bush really wants to get to the bottom of the Iraq intelligence story at all.

This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.