On February 5, 2003, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to convince the United Nations Security Council of the need for war against Iraq, in a quiet Baghdad neighborhood half a world away, Mahdi Obeidi watched Al-Jazeera intently as Powell's presentation unfolded.
Once tasked with designing and building a centrifuge to enrich uranium for use in Iraq's nuclear-weapons program, Obeidi had spent most of the past decade tracking budget numbers as the state Military Industrial Commission's director of projects -- a position that put the scientist in the unique position of knowing the line-item details of every ongoing Iraqi weapons endeavor. Though the nuclear knowledge he had gained in '80s-era clandestine missions all over the world made him one of Saddam Hussein's most important scientists, this was a special status he could have done without: He and his family were under constant surveillance because of his refusal to join the Baath Party.
According to selections from a soon-to-be-published memoir by Obeidi that were obtained by the Prospect, as well as interviews with personnel involved in Obeidi's recent defection and debriefings, the only place he and his family felt safely out of electronic earshot was behind the house, in Obeidi's exquisite garden. Yet to Obeidi, even that picturesque setting had a sinister quality. To him it was less a garden than a horticultural map of Iraq's covert nuclear-weapons program: The mature lime tree in one corner was originally a sapling from Holland, where Obeidi had gone to filch technical information on uranium enrichment; the berry vines snaking through lattice had come from India, site of another 1980s-era nuclear-espionage endeavor.
And, buried under his lote tree -- a tree that in the Koran represents the border between knowledge that can and cannot be ascertained -- were the components of the centrifuge, consigned to the earth on Hussein's orders in 1991 as United Nations sanctions and weapons inspections began.
All the manifest reminders of deception and destruction, according to Obeidi's memoir, left him “eager for [the Americans] to come and topple [Hussein].” But he also “knew ... better than most” that “the American pretext [of Hussein's possessing weapons of mass destruction] was false.” As he sat on the edge of his sofa that February evening listening to Powell on Al-Jazeera, he was “stunned” when he heard Powell unequivocally state that Iraq still had an active program to enrich uranium. “The only successful Iraqi method of enriching uranium to bomb grade had been the centrifuge, and I was the only person on earth who knew every detail of the program,” he writes. “[Hussein] simply couldn't have begun it anew without my participation, or at least my knowledge.”
As the secretary of state went on to make his case, Obeidi noted that Powell did not repeat President Bush's assertion from a week earlier that Iraq had tried to procure low-grade uranium from Africa,
a claim Obeidi considered virtually impossible. The points Powell did make left Obeidi vexed. One was that a new factory was being built to produce magnets for the centrifuge motors. “[T]hese motors have many uses, from refineries and other industrial plants to rockets and missiles,” he recalled. “One thing I knew for sure is that the magnets weren't intended for a centrifuge.”
Next was Powell's assertion that a consignment of high-grade aluminum tubes had a “dual-use” purpose -- i.e., they could be used either as material for military rockets or in a uranium-enriching centrifuge program. On the latter point, “The idea was so fundamentally flawed it was almost ludicrous,” Obeidi writes. “[T]he specifications of the tubes were so unlike anything we'd worked with before that using them would require us to start almost from scratch. ... [T]he diameter of the aluminum tubes was about half the diameter of the tubes we had used throughout our centrifuge program. ... [It] also would have required retooling every aspect of our program and basically starting again from square one.”
If, that is, a centrifuge program were indeed still active. But as Obeidi could attest, the sanctions and inspections regime had been effective, ensuring that the centrifuge's key components, schematics, and other documents stayed buried under his tree. “What does it mean,” he writes in recounting his discussion with his family after Powell's speech, “when the mightiest nation in the world spends so many resources on a fairly simple investigation and still cannot arrive at the truth? If they are genuine about seeking the truth, why is it so impossible for them to find it? ... If they wage war in Iraq and conquer the country, the truth will come out in the end. They will find this truth, and then they will be measured by it. If they say they believe there is a centrifuge program in Iraq, they must be genuine in their belief. The question is: How have they arrived at the wrong conclusion?”
Obeidi -- who, along with his family, is making the transition from temporary CIA protective custody to normal U.S. residency -- isn't the only one asking that question. Yet the answer is not necessarily easy to divine. In part, the Iraq weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle has to be understood in the context of a decades-old battle between two camps in both policy and intelligence circles. One -- prominent among Bush administration political appointees -- hews to a “capabilities-based” reading of intelligence (that is, a potential enemy's possession of weapons is considered tantamount to his using them). The other -- more often found in career circles -- embraces an “intentions-based” approach, which puts at least equal emphasis on political, economic, sociological, and psychological factors as on capabilities. The conflict between these two camps hampers the intelligence community's ability to do its job and is at least partly responsible for how the United States “arrived at the wrong conclusion” about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But at the heart of the matter is the fact that the entire National Foreign Intelligence Program -- as the U.S. intelligence community is formally known -- is in need of a long-recommended reconstitution.
Over the past decade, there has been no shortage of studies on how to reform the intelligence community in the service of at least minimizing “intelligence failures.” Some of those studies have hardly been revolutionary; others have been better at diagnosing problems than coming up with mechanisms for reform. But the best of them -- including 1992's effort by the then–House and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairmen David Boren and Dave McCurdy, both Democrats, and, most recently, the 2001 Brent Scowcroft–chaired presidential commission on intelligence -- have concluded that the only hope for American intelligence is to reorganize it completely, a view that at least a significant minority of intelligence professionals echo. But rather than heeding the advice of these experts, the Bush administration has been assertively intransigent.
As it stands now, the person many think of only as the CIA director has, in fact, two roles: director of the Central Intelligence Agency and director of central intelligence. In theory, the director of central intelligence has ultimate authority over every U.S. intelligence agency, including the three with the largest budgets -- the National Security Agency (NSA, signals intelligence), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO, the spy-satellite maintainers), and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA, the eyes in the sky). Budget control over those three agencies, however, lies not with the director of central intelligence but with the Pentagon -- whose own intelligence agencies, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the individual armed services' agencies, exist primarily to gather tactical intelligence for military operations.
All these different missions, agencies, budgets, and authorities don't always make for the best possible intelligence community. While recent years have seen improvements in management, the fact that there is no one true leader remains problematic. CIA official Larry Kindsvater noted in a recent Studies in Intelligence article, at a time when “managerial and organizational emphasis in the [intelligence community] should be on national security missions and issues. Today's [intelligence community], however, is organized by a collection of ‘stovepipes'” that think of themselves more as specialized collection agencies than as parts of a whole acting in concert.
The Boren-McCurdy and Scowcroft recommendations aimed to fix that. Somewhat oversimplified, they boil down to this: Let the CIA director be the CIA director only, managing an agency devoted solely to human intelligence (the recruiting and running of spies). Create a new position, the director of national intelligence, which would have ultimate leadership and budgetary control over all the intelligence agencies. Pull the NSA, the NRO, and NIMA out of the Defense Department and, along with elements of the CIA's science and technical directorate, create a new agency that would put all of the non–human intelligence under one roof. Furthermore, pull the CIA's analysis arm, the Directorate of Intelligence, out of the CIA and make it a separate agency under the director of national intelligence. (An alternative proposal by Kindsvater calls for a similar reorganization of the community around intelligence “centers” dedicated to specific issues -- terrorism, say -- or regions.) The proposals would also let the military's intelligence agencies stay under service control, but focused on order-of-battle-related intelligence.
The Bush administration and Congress, however, have been working to reinforce the status quo, giving Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the tools to expand the Pentagon's intelligence bureaucracy and operations. While Rumsfeld's appointment of Stephen Cambone as the new undersecretary of defense for intelligence may help bring some order to the chaos of military intelligence, it also ensures that the Pentagon will hold tight to the three big-budget agencies that give it real power. It also, especially in the current atmosphere, means that the Pentagon may use its intelligence apparatus for operations and the creation of finished intelligence products more driven by politics than actual information.
In the wake of ex–Iraq Survey Group chief David Kay's congressional testimony revealing an apparent absence of weapons of mass destruction, the White House has appointed former Democratic Senator Chuck Robb and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman to head yet another intelligence commission (at least the 21st in 50-plus years), in this case to study “intelligence failures” on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This may, in fact, be a misplaced mandate, because the real key to understanding the Iraq debacle is not how intelligence failed but how, behind every intelligence failure, there is a policy failure. In this case, the policy failure is not just the administration's resistance to meaningful intelligence reform; it's also the policy of preemption and its cousin regime change. And the reality is that neither the CIA nor any neocon/Iraqi National Congress (INC) operation could have delivered enough definitive evidence to support a policy of preemptive war against Iraq.
In recent years I've spoken with veteran officers and analysts from U.S. and U.S.–allied civilian and military intelligence services, including some who worked both with the Iraqis in the 1980s and against them more recently. All of them have noted -- and approvingly echoed -- the call for a greater emphasis on “human intelligence.” Yet they also hold that lacking human intelligence from Iraqi sources -- a universally agreed upon shortcoming in the recent debacle -- has to be understood in the context of U.S. intelligence history with Iraq.
As James Lilley, a CIA veteran, former U.S. ambassador to China, and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told an intelligence-reform commission in 1996, intelligence networks don't just “appear out of the ground; you have to know what you're doing and go after it,” sometimes spending years to cultivate only a few agents and often spending days on planning what might be the briefest of encounters between case officer and agent. This can be dicey even in reasonably friendly countries, and virtually impossible in “denied areas,” enclaves bereft of an American presence that would allow CIA officers to operate undercover. “Hard-target country” is the term used to describe a nation where the challenges to conducting human-intelligence operations are exceptionally high. Until 1984, when Washington and Baghdad established full diplomatic relations, Iraq was effectively a denied area, and after 1984 it was most definitely a hard target. At best the CIA ran only very limited operations out of its station there. “It was a tough place, one of the toughest,” a former CIA division head says. “In many respects, operating behind the Iron Curtain was easier.”
But, then, there wasn't much of a priority on actually operating in Iraq, given U.S. policy at the time. “We really didn't attempt to run any human ops there against the Iraqis,” recalls a veteran intelligence officer who liaised with the Iraqis in the 1980s, citing the Reagan administration's paramount policy goal: to support the Iraqis so they could continue to fight the Iranians. (Of secondary interest was the Reagan administration's desire to undermine Libya's Muammar Quaddafi, an endeavor in which Baghdad participated by funding anti-Quaddafi groups.) Indeed, the intelligence-sharing relationship was considered so important that, as one old hand puts it, “[I]n other places in the world, if we wanted to get a terrorist, we'd try to kidnap him; in Iraq, we had someone try to convince the Iraqis to voluntarily hand one over.”
Another reason for forgoing intelligence in Iraq was Saddam Hussein's brutality. According to the account of an Australian intelligence officer, whatever Anglo-American human-intelligence efforts there were in Iraq effectively ended in the mid-1980s, after the British MI6 station chief and his deputy were pulled off a Baghdad street one night and taken to a warehouse on the outskirts of town. “They had arrayed before them the various agents they had been running,” the officer told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Four Corners in 1994. “There were wires hanging from the rafters in the warehouse. All the men were strung up by wires around their testicles and they were killed in front of the faces of their foreign operators.”
So leading up to the Gulf War, U.S. policy had not made a priority of human-intelligence operations against Iraq. (This was underscored not only by the CIA's failure to predict the invasion of Kuwait but by its inability to get a handful of its own intelligence officers out of Baghdad after the invasion began. Their rescue was undertaken by the Polish intelligence service, which was only able to pull off the extraction based on cover provided by a large Polish industrial project in Baghdad.) As a result, there were scarce agent networks to be tapped when U.S. policy turned against Hussein.
After the Gulf War, the CIA did set up shop in no-fly zones and Kurdish areas and, with dissident Iraqi groups, did debrief some former Iraqi military and intelligence officials. But as Andrew and Patrick Cockburn chronicled in their 1999 work, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, a mix of regional political instabilities, infighting among Iraqi dissident groups and CIA divisions, and Hussein's ruthless Mukhabarat, or secret police, undermined everything from useful human-intelligence collection to coordinated coup attempts. By the late '90s, non-no-fly-zone Iraq had truly become a denied area once again, with the only on-the-ground intelligence-gathering opportunities coming via UN inspection teams. While CIA personnel were on those teams, they weren't able to recruit and run spies. “We did have sheep-dipped people on the teams,” says a retired CIA official whose responsibilities included Iraq at the time, “but only people with the right science and tech knowledge who knew what to look for and how to look for it, which was a far cry from actually running human ops, which would have put the UN missions in too much risk.” And when the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) team was kicked out of Iraq in 1999 after it was discovered that U.S. intelligence had decided to run its own mission under UNSCOM cover but without UNSCOM's knowledge, U.S. access ended entirely.
This left analysts with a disappointing lack of solid intelligence and, outside of signal intercepts, a reliance on dated intelligence gleaned from the brief defections of Hussein's sons-in-law. When seriously pressed by the current Bush administration in the run-up to war, analysts extrapolated from incomplete and dated information, which in some cases led them to starkly different conclusions. In late 2002, a CIA officer told me that an analysts' meeting on one aspect of weapons of mass destruction had, like others, ended the same way: with no consensus. “One-third believe [Hussein] has the stuff,” he said at the time. “One-third don't. One-third, probably the most responsible, say you simply can't say for sure, which is hardly surprising with what there is to work with.”
But if the intelligence community wasn't giving the White House what it needed to attack Iraq, someone else was. Ahmad Chalabi and members of his Iraqi National Congress had long asserted that they had networks and human intelligence that no one else had, especially about Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs and ties to al-Qaeda. Many in the intelligence community -- in particular the CIA and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research -- had long held serious doubts about the reliability of inc intelligence, as well as related intelligence analysis produced by the Pentagon's highly ideological and very low-profile Office of Special Plans. The Pentagon, however, made it policy to exalt whatever “intelligence” came from Chalabi. Not only did Chalabi regularly visit with Pentagon officials in the months leading up to war, bearing ostensibly useful information, the Pentagon also oversaw the INC's Intelligence Collection Program and ordered the Defense Intelligence Agency to debrief “defectors” produced by the INC.
Yet as a 2003 Los Angeles Times investigation found, not only were the defectors few in number (three), their “intelligence” on weapons of mass destruction was found to be either fraudulent or impossible to corroborate (and has not, as yet, panned out). In the months after Baghdad fell, Chalabi has bizarrely dissembled about the INC's intelligence on al-Qaeda, and what was done with it. In one breath on Frontline he asserted that the INC had a “document” now in “U.S. hands” showing “visits of al-Qaeda” to Baghdad and “money that changed hands” between Hussein's lieutenants and al-Qaeda, and added that the INC would share with the show its copy of the document retained by the INC's own “intelligence people.” As the program pointedly noted, “After repeated requests, Frontline has still not seen the document.”
Several months later, Chalabi gave 60 Minutes the document -- a 1992 Iraqi memo that makes passing mention of Osama bin Laden -- which 60 Minutes subsequently asked the Defense Intelligence Agency about. According to Lesley Stahl, the agency said it was “of little significance,” as “it doesn't spell out what the relationship with Osama bin Laden was, or what he did, if anything, for the Iraqis.”
That dubious or discredited intelligence products from the INC and the Office of Special Plans ended up being used by Vice President Dick Cheney and others to make the administration's case for war -- without, as a chagrined George Tenet noted in Senate testimony on March 9, the CIA's knowledge or endorsement -- is, according to intelligence veterans interviewed for this article, the crux of the matter and the principal issue that the Robb-Silberman commission should investigate. “I personally would like to see a full disclosure of the INC's sources and methods, who their ‘intelligence' went to in the administration, and how it was processed and analyzed and conveyed by and to those outside the CIA,” says a former intelligence official who has long cast a jaundiced eye on the INC. Since the war ended, the Defense Intelligence Agency authored a report -- noted in a September 29, 2003, New York Times story -- that concluded that of the information provided by the handful of INC–managed defectors, “no more than one-third of the information was potentially useful, and efforts to explore those leads since have generally failed to pan out.”
According to the Times, the report also noted that several of the Chalabi-introduced defectors “invented or exaggerated their credentials as people with direct knowledge of the Iraqi government and its suspected unconventional weapons program,” and raised the rather obvious possibility that some of the defectors might have been unknowing dupes as part of an Iraqi counterintelligence operation, or possibly even double agents. In mid-2002, and despite the weaknesses of the INC's intelligence, Cheney held an unprecedented meeting with CIA analysts. According to sources with direct knowledge of that meeting, the principal thrust of the vice president's visit was to get the analysts to give more credence to intelligence provided by the INC.
Yet even before that meeting, the administration's policy needs were affecting the CIA's read on Iraqi intelligence. This is especially clear when comparing the CIA's mid-to-late '90s reports on global weapons-of-mass-destruction threats with more recent offerings. As Newsday's Knut Royce noted last year, the agency's 1997–2000 reports devote little space to Iraq as a serious potential or imminent weapons-of-mass-destruction threat, particularly with regard to nuclear weapons. The 2001 and 2002 reports, however, suddenly see the introduction of phrases like “reconstituted nuclear weapons program” and “attempting to acquire materials” -- despite the lack of intelligence access in Iraq -- and the removal of key caveats from earlier reports like “generally successful enforcement of the UN arms embargo” and “do not have any direct evidence.”
As the distinguished intelligence scholar John Prados has noted, these changes seem to indicate a CIA that “until about 1998 was fairly comfortable with its assessments on Iraq, but ... gradually buckled under the weight of pressures to adopt alarmist views.” The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs (a hastily thrown together synthesis of intelligence-community assessments) and Tenet's October 7, 2002, letter to Congress that dealt with Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities and alleged ties to al-Qaeda were so deftly written that anyone on either side of the issue could use them to buttress their arguments. But even though the unclassified version of the estimate is alarmist on Hussein's capabilities, according to sources who have had read the classified annexes, “[P]arts of it were so heavily qualified and footnoted that you would be hard-pressed to say it comes anywhere near affirming the notion that stuff was there. It essentially says, ‘Here's what we know and what we don't know,' and anyone who read it would conclude they didn't know a heck of a lot.”
Yet by its own troubling admission -- recall here the notion of policy failure behind intelligence failure -- the administration didn't read the fine print. A July 20, 2003, Washington Post story described a “senior administration official” who briefed reporters that “neither [the president] nor national security adviser Condoleezza Rice read the [National Intelligence Estimate] in its entirety. ‘They did not read footnotes in a 90-page document,' said the official, referring to the ‘Annex' that contained the State Department's dissent.”
According to a veteran CIA officer with White House experience, this shouldn't come as a surprise. “We could embarrass just about every president to the point they'd be run out of office if we declassified the President's Daily Brief and then everyone saw what we told them versus what they actually did,” he sighs. But in this case, he opines, what's more disturbing -- and worthy of focus -- is why the most crucial document in the march to war wasn't even read in full by the president.
At least one confidant of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's was unabashed about the real agenda. At a friendly March 2003 brunch with several journalists, Wolfowitz's adjunct minced no words: “Everyone knows this isn't about weapons of mass destruction but about regime change.” Everyone inside the Beltway, perhaps. But, as a senior intelligence official generally sympathetic to the administration told me late last year, after September 11, it was easier to build a case for war around weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaeda. “You certainly could have made strong cases that regime change was a logical part of the war on terrorism, given Baghdad's historic terror ties,” he said. “But that didn't have enough resonance. You needed something that inspired fear.”
If the Robb-Silberman commission discharges its duties properly, it will likely come to the conclusion that the weapons-of-mass-destruction snipe hunt was the result of a collision among members of an inadequately reformed intelligence community, the myopia of a political leadership hell-bent on realizing its muscular vision, and the reality that, despite whatever mystique may be attached to “intelligence,” certain unavoidable factors will always limit what can truly and fully be known. But even if it does, meaningful change is unlikely. Taking stock of what we know so far in this case, one is hard-pressed to conclude that the administration has much interest in reforming the structure and process -- and is only too enamored of imposing illusions.
Clarification: The author describes certain material as being from "a soon-to-be-published memoir" by Mahdi Obeidi, one of Saddam Hussein's leading scientists. In fact, that material was drawn from an agent's proposal for the memoir circulated to publishers that Vest obtained; the material may or may not be included in the published book.
Jason Vest is a Prospect senior correspondent and a contributor to The Nation and The Village Voice. This issue originally appeared in our April 2003 issue.