Will Clapper Nomination Reopen the Saddam WMD Controversy?

Clapper listens as President Obama introduces him as nominee for director of national intelligence in the White House Rose Garden on June 5. Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images

President Obama's nomination of Pentagon intelligence chief James Clapper as intelligence czar could reignite the Bush-era debate over how and why agencies overstated Saddam Hussein's weapons-of-mass-destruction arsenal before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Clapper played an important role in that estimate; from 2001 to 2006 he headed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon unit responsible for interpreting spy-satellite photos and other technically gathered intelligence like air particles and soil samples. And now the conservative Washington Times is reviving the argument, reporting that in Clapper's judgment the Iraqi dictator evaded the post-invasion WMD search by hiding at least part of the arsenal across the border in shortly before the invasion.

The idea that Saddam hid his WMD stockpiles and programs by secretly shipping them to Syria has been popular for years among some of the most avid supporters of George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Nevertheless, lengthy and expensive investigations by the Iraq Survey Group, a special team set up by Bush to look for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, found only traces of them. The inquiry concluded that Saddam had largely destroyed his WMD stockpiles and production infrastructure years before the invasion, retaining only the ability to restart the program if it became possible. Experts affiliated with both the Republican and Democratic parties now say the Iraq Survey Group's evidence shows overwhelmingly that Saddam's WMD programs and stockpiles were eliminated well before the U.S. invasion. Claims that Iraqi WMDs might still be hidden in Syria are now regarded as no more than a fringe conspiracy theory.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials, requesting anonymity when discussing sensitive information, confirm to Declassified that Clapper supported the theory. One of the officials says Clapper was a fairly enthusiastic proponent of the idea, but three others say they don't remember his being a bitter-end advocate of the notion; they suggest he probably abandoned it after the Iraq Survey Group reported its conclusions. One of the officials says Clapper was "not much of an ideologue."

Nevertheless, he apparently stuck with the theory for at least six months after the invasion. The Washington Times's ace defense reporter, Bill Gertz, described Clapper in an Oct. 29, 2003, story as telling a group of defense journalists at a breakfast that spy-satellite images of vehicle traffic indicated that material and documents related to the WMD programs had been shipped to Syria. "Those below the senior leadership saw what was coming and I think they went to extraordinary lengths to dispose of the evidence," Clapper was quoted as saying.

It remains to be seen how much appetite the Obama administration or the Senate intelligence committee (which conducted its own lengthy probes of alleged intelligence failures related to Iraq) has for resuming the discussion in the context of Clapper's nomination. Dianne Feinstein and Kit Bond, respectively the committee's ranking Democrat and Republican, had already spoken against his candidacy for other reasons. Bond remains on the record as opposing Obama's choice of Clapper, but Feinstein has been traveling, and her current views are an open question. She is expected to come under heavy administration pressure to support Clapper for the job.

Declassified e-mailed the Pentagon on Sunday seeking comment on Clapper and the WMD controversy. We received no immediate response beyond a defense official's assertion that it's unreasonable to expect the Pentagon "to respond to every anonymous allegation, rumor or innuendo about [Clapper's] advice on every past intelligence judgment."