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Tuesday, January 27, 2004

New Spin on Iraq

I've been reading as many stories as I can about David Kay's weekend interviews -- and I've even seen a few on TV.

It's clear to me that Kay is now offering a unique and troubling spin on Iraq's WMD. The Charlotte Observer has a nice compilation of some of the best quotes. Here is Kay's new claim:
Since Saddam's fall, Mr. Kay said, it has become apparent that Iraq's government had descended into chaos before the invasion, so "there was little control over Iraq's weapons capabilities. I think it shows that Iraq was a very dangerous place. The country had the technology, the ability to produce, and there were terrorist groups passing through the country -- and no central control."
Think about that. Oh, and consider what that meant if the country was also under attack. Who would get the weapons in the "fog of war"? Kay now concludes, "I think, at the end of the inspection process, we'll paint a picture of Iraq that was far more dangerous than even we thought it was before the war."

While this is an important point (and I may return to it soon), that is not my point today. Instead, I'm concerned that the Bush administration was arguing that Saddam Hussein ruled a Stalinist police state. This is from Bush's October 2002 Cincinnati speech outlining the Iraqi threat (this is the "mushroom cloud" speech too):
The dictator of Iraq is a student of Stalin, using murder as a tool of terror and control, within his own cabinet, within his own army, and even within his own family.

On Saddam Hussein's orders, opponents have been decapitated, wives and mothers of political opponents have been systematically raped as a method of intimidation, and political prisoners have been forced to watch their own children being tortured.
So, did the US even have an idea of whether Saddam Hussein was in control of the country -- or not?

Does this sound like the Joe Stalin you know?
From interviews with Iraqi scientists and other sources, he said, his team learned that sometime around 1997 and 1998, Iraq plunged into what he called a "vortex of corruption," when government activities began to spin out of control because an increasingly isolated and fantasy-riven Saddam Hussein had insisted on personally authorizing major projects without input from others.

After the onset of this "dark ages," Dr. Kay said, Iraqi scientists realized they could go directly to Mr. Hussein and present fanciful plans for weapons programs, and receive approval and large amounts of money. Whatever was left of an effective weapons capability, he said, was largely subsumed into corrupt money-raising schemes by scientists skilled in the arts of lying and surviving in a fevered police state.

"The whole thing shifted from directed programs to a corrupted process," Dr. Kay said. "The regime was no longer in control; it was like a death spiral. Saddam was self-directing projects that were not vetted by anyone else. The scientists were able to fake programs."

In interviews after he was captured, Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister, told Dr. Kay that Mr. Hussein had become increasingly divorced from reality during the last two years of his rule. Mr. Hussein would send Mr. Aziz manuscripts of novels he was writing, even as the American-led coalition was gearing up for war, Dr. Kay said.
If Kay's charges are true, this is a much bigger intelligence failure even than the missing WMD. After all, some WMD are easy to hide (vials of toxins, relatively small volumes of dangerous chemicals, etc.).

But, at minimum, the US should be able to figure out whether a tyrant is still in charge of his own country.

The long James Risen New York Times story on Kay from Monday makes this point.
"There is going to be an irreducible level of ambiguity because of all the looting," Dr. Kay said.

Dr. Kay said he believed that Iraq was a danger to the world, but not the same threat that the Bush administration publicly detailed.

"We know that terrorists were passing through Iraq," he said. "And now we know that there was little control over Iraq's weapons capabilities. I think it shows that Iraq was a very dangerous place. The country had the technology, the ability to produce, and there were terrorist groups passing through the country — and no central control."

But Dr. Kay said the C.I.A. missed the significance of the chaos in the leadership and had no idea how badly that chaos had corrupted Iraq's weapons capabilities or the threat it raised of loose scientific knowledge being handed over to terrorists. "The system became so corrupt, and we missed that," he said.
Before I wrap this up, I want to note that Kay attempts to debunk two arguments that war opponents have been making (and I've blogged about recently). Kay says that it was analysts, not political leaders, who cherry-picked the intelligence. He also says that the White House did not pressure analysts to alter their intelligence:
"I think that the system should have a way for an analyst to say, `I don't have enough information to make a judgment,' " Dr. Kay said. "There is really not a way to do that under the current system."

He added that while the analysts included caveats on their reports, those passages "tended to drop off as the reports would go up the food chain" inside the government.

As a result, virtually everyone in the United States intelligence community during both the Clinton and the current Bush administrations thought Iraq still had the illicit weapons, he said. And the government became a victim of its own certainty.

"Alarm bells should have gone off when everyone believes the same thing," Dr. Kay said. "No one stood up and said, `Let's examine the footings for these conclusions.' I think you ought to have a place for contrarian views in the system."

Dr. Kay said he was convinced that the analysts were not pressed by the Bush administration to make certain their prewar intelligence reports conformed to a White House agenda on Iraq.

Last year, some C.I.A. analysts said they had felt pressed to find links between Iraq and Al Qaeda to suit the administration. While Dr. Kay said he has no knowledge about that issue, he did not believe that pressure was placed on analysts regarding the weapons programs.

"All the analysts I have talked to said they never felt pressured on W.M.D.," he said. "Everyone believed that they had W.M.D."

Dr. Kay also said he never felt pressed by the Bush administration to shape his own reports on the status of Iraq's weapons. He said that in a White House meeting with Mr. Bush last August, the president urged him to uncover what really happened.

"The only comment I ever had from the president was to find the truth," Dr. Kay said. "I never got any pressure to find a certain outcome."
This is a story to watch.

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