What Went Wrong

Saddam Hussein was holed up in his palace putting the final touches on his latest novel. His first, "Zabibah and the King," had been published in 2000 to reviews that only a dictator could get. Everyone seemed to adore the story of a righteous Iraqi king who dies, but only after restoring the honor of the beautiful Zabibah. The woman had been raped--and here's where the tricky historical allusion comes in--on Jan. 17, the day that American troops launched their 1991 offensive to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. The Iraqi National Theater was planning to turn the novel into a hit musical, the country's biggest-ever stage production. So the despot now had his own big act to follow. His second masterpiece, called "Al-Qala-ah Al-Hasinah," or "The Fortified Castle," also concerned a fierce battle between good and evil--"without boring details," Iraqi television had reported.

No writer likes to be disturbed. But so much was going on at the time: the United Nations was demanding greater access to Saddam's palaces, George W. Bush had declared Iraq part of an "Axis of Evil," the United States was pushing for war. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who routinely consulted Saddam about U.N. demands, found that his boss was often distracted by his latest literary effort. When the subject did turn to weapons, the dictator seemed dangerously out of touch. As early as 2000, Saddam became convinced there was a loophole in United Nations resolutions--that long-range missiles were proscribed only if they were loaded with weapons of mass destruction. All of Saddam's top aides knew better, but they were terrified of contradicting the dictator. The illegal missile program went ahead.

Saddam's rich fantasy life extended to another weapons program. David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group tasked with finding Iraq's WMD after the war, told NEWSWEEK that Saddam was obsessed with building a system that could shoot down U.S. stealth aircraft. He "kept handing out money," says Kay, to scientists and military officers who claimed to be developing new techniques for spotting stealth planes. Many of the schemes were Potemkin projects that existed largely in the imaginations of the officials promoting them. Saddam would give away new cars to the inventor with the most ingenious idea; the more elaborate the invention, the fancier the car. Scientists and officials involved in wacky programs shared payoffs or tacitly blackmailed one another to ensure their programs weren't exposed as empty shells.

Saddam's real masterwork--the edifice of fear that had ensured his power for decades--was decaying beneath him. An air of decadence and decline had spread among the elite, and small to middling officials were trying to take what they could for themselves. But nobody could tell the dictator, because virtually everyone was implicated.

It seems that nobody told President Bush or his senior advisers, either. Saddam was more than just evil, according to their intelligence, he was also a master of control and deception. He had fooled U.N. inspectors for a decade. Now he had resumed production of chemical and biological weapons, and he was also trying to purchase parts for a nuclear-weapons program. Defectors were telling of labs hidden under Saddam's palaces. The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which represented Washington's best available analysis, concluded that "Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction [WMD] programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions," that it had "invested more heavily in biological weapons" and that "most analysts" believed that it was "reconstituting its nuclear weapons program." Even the French and Germans believed that Saddam had WMD.

"It turns out we were all wrong, probably, in my judgment," Kay stammered before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. "And that is most disturbing." With perhaps 85 percent of the Survey Group's work done, Kay said it was likely that no WMD would be uncovered. His team did find evidence that Iraq was working to develop the poison ricin, and he warned of "unresolved ambiguity" about other Iraqi programs. Too much evidence had been destroyed and looted in the early days of the war, he said. But in Kay's mind, the absence of evidence should not obscure a larger fact: Iraq was a monumental intelligence failure.

How did it happen? The United States spends more to run spy satellites and supersecret listening devices than the gross domestic products of many countries, yet it didn't have a clue as to what was really going on inside a sanctions-racked dictatorship it was about to attack? A new Senate Intelligence Committee report, lambasting the CIA for major "errors in judgment," suggests that America's mastery of high-tech gadgetry is part of the problem, and Kay thinks much the same. The United States has become so dependent on what it can detect from a distance that it no longer does the dirty, painstakingly slow business of gathering human intelligence well. But that is only part of the story.

Kay himself believes that in order to get the full picture, an independent panel needs to investigate. He was very careful not to blame the administration--there were no accusations of "sexing up" the intelligence. On the contrary, he absolved policymakers of any misjudgments, and said he still supported the war. (Britain's Tony Blair got a similar reprieve last week, when the much-anticipated Hutton report found him innocent of making a 2002 WMD assessment "more exciting.") But intelligence is never gathered or assessed in a political vacuum, and leading Democrats will be sure to demand that any investigation extend to the White House.

The clamor for heads to roll has already begun. Democratic hopeful John Kerry last week called for CIA Director George Tenet to be fired, and he was seconded by Sen. Bob Graham, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee in the run-up to the Iraq war. "If you're in the Navy and you're the captain of a ship that runs aground, you're responsible," Graham told NEWSWEEK. "I believe in the principle of accountability."

But the White House is, for now anyway, loath to scapegoat Tenet, a loyal soldier if ever there was one. (The CIA itself says its assessments were done with "professionalism and integrity," and believes WMD may still be found.) Nor did top officials immediately embrace the call for an independent commission. But with Bush insisting that he wanted "to know the facts," the seeming contradiction appeared untenable: NEWSWEEK learned late last week that the White House was moving toward endorsing the idea of a "presidential blue-ribbon panel" of elder statesmen and WMD experts. Officials had begun putting out feelers to possible chairs. Such an inquiry will have to examine, at least, whether direct or indirect pressure was placed on American spies to produce particular results. It will also have to examine the reluctance of spymasters to admit what they didn't know, and when they didn't know it.

Some proponents of the war now argue that analysts were relying on outdated information. Saddam did have a hidden weapons program, this argument goes, but must have gotten rid of it after U.N. inspectors were recalled in 1998. But this doesn't quite fit the facts. NEWSWEEK has learned of two separate American government panels whose members concluded, back in 1998, that reports of Saddam's secret programs were based on suspicions, not hard data.

The first panel was an independent group of a half-dozen members, most of them distinguished scientists, called the Arms Control & Non-Proliferation Advisory Board. One of ACNAB's pursuits was to examine what was known about Iraq's weapons programs. Panel members got access to CIA materials, and were able to quiz the analysts. What they found, according to three members reached by NEWSWEEK, was that the CIA's intel on Iraqi WMD was largely speculative. "There were suspicions, hints, but nothing hard," says one member. "The agency analysts' basic argument was: 'Saddam must be hiding something, or why would he be putting his people through all this?' " The absence of hard evidence was so striking, in fact, that panel members recall discussing "the Wizard of Oz theory: that the whole Iraq WMD program was smoke-and-mirrors, and Saddam was just a little guy behind a curtain."

Donald Rumsfeld himself led the second such investigation of Iraq's weapons program that year. The brief of his congressionally appointed commission was to assess the potential ballistic-missile threat to the United States from hostile powers. What is not generally known about Rumsfeld's commission is that it also reviewed current intelligence about the WMD various countries might be able to pack in their warheads. "The commission's findings on Iraq's WMD didn't materially differ from what ACNAB had concluded," says a panel member familiar with both reports. Rumsfeld spokesman Larry DiRita says, "The commission based its conclusions regarding WMD on the prevailing [intelligence] assessments."

Still, powerful suspicions persisted. These centered mainly on vast stockpiles of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons that were unaccounted for. Saddam had tons of anthrax, VX nerve agents and other deadly materials before the gulf war, and his regime would never produce documents showing they had been destroyed. Given Iraq's long history of deception, it seemed clear Saddam must have been hiding something. But this inference was questionable. Most of the alleged stocks of anthrax and VX were perishable, and would have degraded to uselessness. And in 1995, the most senior defector to emerge from Iraq--Hussein Kamel, who had been in charge of WMD--told debriefers that Iraq had destroyed "all weapons and agents." The phantom stockpiles nonetheless served a useful purpose to those who wanted to keep Saddam in a box. As long as Iraq was incapable of refuting the existence of the VX and anthrax, it was easy to argue that sanctions should remain in place.

But if Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction, why didn't he come clean? After all, he could have given U.N. inspectors free rein; he could have allowed them to interview all of his scientists in private--even outside the country--and let them rummage through his palaces. Faced with war, wasn't that the sensible option?

Getting inside Saddam's head isn't easy--the man is famous for miscalculating on a catastrophic scale--but the most likely explanation is the most simple: transparency is the enemy of all dictators. Saddam ensured his continued rule by keeping his many enemies--foreign and domestic--off balance. None could be allowed to know all his secrets, because in Iraq, what you didn't know, you feared. So Saddam wanted to open his regime enough to ensure sanctions were lifted, but not so much that he stood naked before the world.

This wasn't mere paranoia. The CIA had tried to orchestrate a coup in 1996, and the U.N. inspection teams were infiltrated by U.S. and British agents. When President Bill Clinton attacked Iraq in Desert Fox two years later, several bombs hit very specific "leadership targets," including the offices of Saddam and his chief of staff. In recent years some of Saddam's closest relatives had turned against him, including Hussein Kamel, who defected with another son-in-law and revealed many of Iraq's WMD secrets. (The two defectors inexplicably returned to Iraq, and Saddam immediately had them murdered.) Fear was Saddam's most effective ally. So the dictator often hinted that he had WMD, even as he was trying to persuade the world he was clean.

Once U.N. inspectors left Iraq, Saddam's malevolent history and intentions took on even greater significance, because the CIA was suddenly cut off from a critical source of information. (Kay calls the data produced by UNSCOM inspectors the CIA's "crack cocaine.") In February 2000, Tenet told Congress that the United States had no direct evidence that Iraq had reconstituted its WMD programs, "although given its past behavior this type of activity must be regarded as likely." Iraq had begun to rebuild parts of its chemical infrastructure "for industrial and commercial use," he said, and had also "attempted to purchase numerous dual use items."

Thin gruel. So how did the agency make the leap from suspect intentions to bold claims of existing WMD programs two years later? The impact of September 11 on policymakers and analysts is undeniable. At the first meeting of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board after 9/11, there was consensus that the United States should take out two regimes: Afghanistan and Iraq. It was deemed necessary to show American power, and Saddam was the perfect target. It's not clear how fast this view took hold within the White House, or when exactly the intelligence community digested it. What is clear is that to fight a pre-emptive war, you need evidence of a significant threat; suspect intentions alone are not sufficient.

At about this time, Iraqi defectors started to play a bigger role in the revelation of Saddam's resurgence. The media played a part here, too. Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress funneled defectors to the press, which reported claims of clandestine weapons programs. These claims, often disputed by CIA analysts, nevertheless got picked up by the Pentagon's intel shop, which passed them on to the White House. And the CIA was already under fire. It had failed to connect clues that could have foiled the biggest attack ever on the mainland United States. So officials like Alan Foley, the CIA officer who had the Iraq WMD portfolio inside the agency, knew they couldn't afford to underestimate another threat.

In comments to NEWSWEEK, Foley denied reports that he had been bullied by anyone in the White House: "I don't think I was pressured at all," he said. That may well be true, yet people who dealt with Foley during the run-up to war say they were struck by the lack of substance behind his assessments.

Prior to the invasion, the White House convened a series of working groups, and Foley was on the one that dealt with the threat posed to U.S. forces by Iraq's alleged WMD stocks. More than one member of the high-level group groused that it was extremely hard to get Foley to reveal exactly what the agency had on Iraq's WMD. U.N. chief inspector Hans Blix had the same problem. All he could get from the CIA was a list of sites that were already well known--from the United Nations' own inspection teams. At Central Command, this lack of hard information produced real problems. The Pentagon needed to know where Saddam's WMD stockpiles were, and what exactly was inside them, so they could plan to destroy them. After intense pressure, the CIA finally produced what one top administration official touted as "the crown jewels"--satellite photos of buildings. But the CIA admitted that it didn't know what was inside the buildings. "I'm coming to the conclusion that the agency really knew very little, but didn't feel it could admit that to anyone," says an insider deeply involved in one of the internal probes into the mess.

A CIA analyst frames it differently: "We said nothing that we knew to be untrue. But we did extrapolate." But to what extent, and why? That's where the question of political pressure comes in. Senior officials may not have bullied analysts, but they certainly made their expectations well known. They made a sport out of dissing U.N. assessments (which turned out to be the most reliable of all), and the Pentagon even set up its own secret war-planning bureau called the Office of Special Plans. "It was a more-nuanced form of pressure," says Greg Thielmann, a former top official in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Most skepticism about U.S. claims now centers on the astonishingly assertive 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. The report itself was cobbled together in three weeks--and thudded on congressional desks just 10 days before the crucial vote authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq. Very few NIEs ever see public print, but key portions of this one did, and certainly influenced public debate. More disturbingly, perhaps, the declassified version was stripped of important caveats and footnotes.

Remember the aluminum tubes presented as evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program? It's now clear that the real experts in the United States' own nuclear-weapons program, at the Energy Department, fiercely challenged the CIA's assessment that the tubes were designed to build centrifuges. Remember the Iraqi drone aircraft that Colin Powell told the United Nations could be used to deliver bioweapons agents? When previously classified chunks of the NIE were released in July 2003, it was revealed that experts in Air Force intelligence regarded the idea of mini-UAVs' dispensing bioagents as nonsense. Remember the mobile bioweapons labs, which Vice President Dick Cheney cited yet again just two weeks ago as evidence of Saddam's WMD program? It seems they were made to generate hydrogen for weather balloons. Kay has called a CIA report endorsing the bioweapons theory "premature and embarrassing." (The CIA still stands by the report.)

President Bush declared last week that he welcomed a debate with Democrats over the war. "I'm absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do," Bush said during a visit to New Hampshire two days after the Democratic primary. "And I look forward to explaining it clearly to the American people." Yet the fact that the president feels the need to re-explain the war--nine months after he declared an end to major hostilities--is an acknowledgment that he has a potential problem. A senior administration official acknowledged as much, saying that Bush must demonstrate--particularly to military families--that he "is as sure today as he was before the war that this was the right decision... He doesn't have any doubt."

Inevitably, some doubts are emerging on the battlefield. In a recent letter home, a reservist with the 124th Infantry Regiment of the Florida National Guard told friends and family that violent days had become strangely ordinary. In the past week he and his buddies had faced RPG and mortar attacks, "even a car bomb in the area." But that was unexceptional: "It has been just another set of days going by. Most of us don't know what day it is anymore, the concept of a 'workweek' and a 'weekend' are as foreign to us as the Moon." The soldier then proudly told how his unit had uncovered "a large weapons cache" in the town of Ar Ramadi, adding parenthetically "(still no WMD, sorry)." Irony turned to cynicism: "On the subject of WMD, we once did a raid on a place where we heard they may have been storing 'mustard gas,' [and] being the patriots that we are and always out to prove our Commander in Chief's allegations, we geared up in our chemical suits and stormed the place. It turned out to be a restaurant... but they did have mustard, and some guy there had gas."

Dark humor--at the expense of commanders, even the commander in chief--has always been as much a part of war as blisters and bad food. But still, there's a new danger here. American politicians told soldiers they had to fight--to die, if necessary--for a particular reason. That reason was a threat to the American homeland. Now the best piece of evidence about that threat may have been an illusion. The message is muddled, at a time when the country is being asked to gird itself for a long, expensive and bloody occupation. If the cynicism grows, and seeps back home, the whole Iraq enterprise could be undermined.

The Bush administration will focus on other justifications for the war. Many of them are reasonable: Saddam was an evil tyrant, and the world is better off without him; it was necessary to show other rogue nations that from now on, ambiguity about WMD is no longer acceptable; countries that aren't transparent about their programs and intentions need to know they will suffer, regardless of what those programs are, or were. The Bush team will point to Libya's new openness about its WMD, and recent cooperation by Iran and Pakistan, to bolster its case.

But if for no other reason than to restore American credibility, an unbiased review of the Iraq intelligence process may be vital. Yes, regime change was a Clinton policy aim, but it was the Bush team that came to office vowing to be "forward leaning." After the attacks on September 11, Bush himself outlined a new doctrine of pre-emption, a resolve to strike first--and ask questions later--"when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives." But now the cloud over American intelligence makes pre-emption all but untenable. Who will believe the next American official who goes to the United Nations wagging a vial of fake anthrax, arguing that North Korea or Iran or some other "rogue state" needs to be taken out before it attacks first? More worrisome still, the next dire warning may well be right.