Let's face it. "Unresolved ambiguity" is not a phrase that rolls easily off the tongues of Dick Cheney or George W. Bush.
So when chief Iraq weapons inspector David Kay told the news media this week that Saddam Hussein apparently had no weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded Iraq last spring, and that Americans were going to have to face the fact that "there will always be unresolved ambiguity" about why U.S. intelligence got things so wrong, observers braced themselves for blood -- specifically Kay's blood.
After all, this is not an administration that takes kindly to ambiguity, nor has it ever welcomed onetime insiders' assertions of facts that contrast with the White House version of reality -- something to which Paul O'Neill, Joseph Wilson, and John Dilulio can attest.
"There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Cheney said in August 2002 at the 103rd National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."
Well, apparently, there was some doubt after all.
Now, in the wake of Kay's conclusions that Iraq apparently no longer had weapons of mass destruction, one is left to wonder how and why the U.S. intelligence community failed.
Don't blame the members of the intelligence community -- or not entirely -- for the mistaken belief that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They say they weren't the only ones fooled. Their colleagues from Germany, France, and several other countries also thought Hussein had them.
Most importantly, though, is the fact that intelligence professionals who did offer dissenting opinions on the weapons program were simply ignored by the Bush administration, which listened to only the intelligence that reinforced its views.
Kay, who resigned this week as head of the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA-led team hunting for Iraq's banned weapons, sees things differently. He insists the intelligence community, not the administration, is to blame.
In a National Public Radio interview on Sunday, he was asked whether President Bush owed the country an explanation for why Kay's own findings differed so starkly from the administration's months of warnings about the threat posed by Iraq's stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.
"I actually think the intelligence community owes the president [an explanation], rather than the president owing the American people [an explanation]," Kay said.
And in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Kay elaborated on this point. "It has been suggested that [U.S. intelligence] analysts were pressured to reach conclusions that were in accord with one administration official or another," Kay said. "I deeply think that is the wrong conclusion to reach. In the course of directing the Iraq Survey Group, I had numerous analysts come to me in apology, saying, 'The world that we are finding is not the world that we had expected.' But not in any case was the explanation, 'I was pressured to do this.'"
So what happened?
And should one, as Kay insists, dismiss the reports that document just how much pressure the intelligence community found itself under from, among others, Cheney and the Pentagon? To be sure, no U.S. intelligence analyst could have been unaware of the claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that White House officials asserted on TV -- and that the officials seemed to be looking to the intelligence community not so much to verify as to bolster these assessments.
"Was the vice president a dispassionate observer, simply waiting for the intelligence estimate to arrive on his desk?" asks Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "No. There was a tremendous amount of activity within the vice president's office and within the office of the secretary of defense to shape the intelligence, to create their own intelligence, and to feed that intelligence directly to the president. And this, in great part, is what got us in the mess we are in today."
"In all kinds of ways, both subtle and major, the fact that the White House knew what answer it wanted from the intelligence community had a very large effect on the way the intelligence community presented information," says Greg Thielmann, who retired as the director of the strategic intelligence office at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in October 2002.
It was Thielmann's office that offered a dissenting footnote in the October 2002 "National Intelligence Estimate" on Iraq that discredited the Niger-uranium claim the president made in his January 2003 State of the Union address. Added Thielmann, "And what is particularly insulting from my perspective, as the office director in the one intelligence entity that really stuck its neck out and said, 'All the others are wrong,' is that we now know from Kay is that what he has found is very consistent with what INR was arguing throughout 2002."
"It's not clear to me at all that the intelligence community should apologize," says Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who this week published a report on the lessons learned from the Iraq intelligence experience. "But one of the great issues that needs to be resolved is whether you can hold the intelligence community to blame for not creating methods which show a range of scenarios. Whether you blame the intelligence community or the policy-makers for that is something almost unresolvable."
One longtime arms-control expert who asked not to be named speculated, "What appeared to happen is that a particular outcome dominated, and the dissents were relegated to footnotes. It wasn't in the primary text, and that's important.
And it may be that individual analysts chose not to describe their uncertainty, or that through the process of writing and editing, that uncertainty was edited out.
"Now one thing that does concern me is that the vice president has continued in recent days to make statements saying that 'we're going to find weapons of mass destruction material in Iraq.' And that really concerns me. Is he is so disconnected from the administration, or what do his comments mean, given the facts that have been revealed? That's really been bothering me."
Some nonproliferation experts say Cheney's recent comments indicate that the administration was never so much concerned with whether Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction as they were looking for a plausible excuse to go to war.
"This was never a debate over weapons," says Carnegie's Cirincione. "It was a debate over war. A year ago, we had [Hussein] surrounded, with tens of thousands of troops outside his borders and hundreds of inspectors inside his borders. He wasn't going anywhere. Now we know his regime was in a death spiral.
"We do know this: that what the Bush administration told us about the threat posed by [Hussein] wasn't true. What we don't know is how many of these officials knew it wasn't true."
Laura Rozen is a freelance journalist who writes on foreign policy from Washington, D.C.
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