Wed Feb 4 11:57:55 2004

Iraq WMD: Intelligence Failure? ON C-SPAN NOW! HTTP://WWW.C-SPAN.ORG 

Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2004; 11:00 AM

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Monday in an interview with The Post

that he does not know whether he would have recommended an invasion of Iraq if he had been told it had no stockpiles of banned weapons, even as he offered a broad defense of the Bush administration's decision to go to war. Meanwhile, President Bush announced that he will name an "independent, bipartisan commission" to look into the possible intelligence failures. What implications would such a failure have for the mechanisms in place to identify security risks -- the State Department, the CIA and President Bush's advisers?

Washington Post foreign policy reporter Peter Slevin was online Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss latest developments in the investigation of a possible intelligence failure.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Peter Slevin: Hello all. I'm doing my usual Thursday discussion a couple of days early. Thanks for the many intel questions already here. Let's get started.


Burlington, Vt.: As every day passes it becomes more evident there were egregious intelligence failures -- both old and new -- in the run up to the war. Having Bush appoint the committee members to look into the matter if there were "possible" failures in intelligence already smacks of a whitewash with little genuine interest in uncovering the truth. Nothing short a full blown Congressional hearing-a la Iran Contra-complete with subpoenas should be immediately initiated. Do you agree? Cheers!

Peter Slevin: Democrats and some intel aficionados who sought an independent investigation are disappointed that President Bush will be appointing the members of the new commission. Critics mindful of the difficulties faced by the 9/11 commission are worried that the White House will deny access to important information.

I agree that the effort's credibility would be helped by a greater appearence of independence from the Bush administration, whose work it will be evaluating. Let's see who ends up on the commission, and how its mandate is defined.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Don't we owe Dr. Hans Blix an apology?

Peter Slevin: I don't imagine Dr. Blix or Dr. ElBaradei are shedding any tears over the administration's predicament.


Demarest, N.J.: A statement first: I don't feel more secure as an American citizen when George Bush gets to define the terms of investigations into intelligence failures (the 9-11 commission, the Iraq WMD commission). He always defines them with an eye to minimizing his own accountability rather than maximizing what we can learn about security.

Now a question: Before the Oct. 2002 Congressional vote and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, everyone was talking about an imminent WMD threat from Iraq -- one that precluded waiting for inspectors on the ground from finishing their work. I remember the Bush administration claiming certainty, while its critics said the evidence was ambiguous and didn't indicate such a great urgency.

Even if the CIA, NSA and other agencies failed to see what was going on in Iraq, is it possible to believe that President Bush and his aides, looking at the evidence presented them with unbiased minds, could have judged that Iraq was the imminent, unambiguous threat they claimed it was? Is there any way their words and actions don't constitute hype?

Peter Slevin: It's hard to know what was in their heads, but President Bush and his top aides did, indeed, express certainty about the danger posed by Saddam Hussein -- an assertion the president and vice president have not backed away from.

Secretary of State Powell, in his interview here at the Post yesterday, said he raised questions about some aspects of the intelligence presented to him at the CIA before his Feb. 5 U.N. speech. But he also said he thought the intel added up to a clear and present danger.

It was revealing, I thought, that Powell said he was recalling what happened in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was only after the war that Hussein's chemical weapons and nuclear program was discovered. Powell thought it logical that Hussein again had hidden programs that would turn up after this year's invasion.

Only they haven't.


Germantown, Md.: Ironically, it appears that Saddam Hussein was telling the truth when he said he had no WMDs. Do you think this makes it easier for countries like North Korea to credibly claim that they don't have such weapons, either? Are we likely to wind up second guessing ALL of our future intelligence? If so, it seems to me that we are opening the door to the very problems that this kind of intelligence is supposed to help prevent.

Peter Slevin: U.S. credibility is one of the great casualties of the Iraq experience so far, and it will take time to rebuild. You can be sure that President Bush's doctrine of preemption has won no new fans, given the critical importance of accurate intelligence when war is to be waged to prevent a threat.

The cases against other countries will be examined on their merits. North Korea may continue to protest its innocence, but there is increasing (and, apparently, increasingly accurate) intelligence that North Korea has two types of programs to produce fissile material.

I commend the story in today's Post by John Lancaster and Kamran Khan, who say Pakistani weapons scientist A. Q. Khan told investigators that he traded with North Korea and that senior Pakistani military officials knew it.


Atlanta, Ga.: Did Colin Powell discuss the recent misstatements of President Bush?
Specifically: The statement about U.N. inspection team not being in Iraq last fall. And the continuation of the administration tying the Iraq war with Sept. 11th?

Peter Slevin: Those issues did not come up. He focused on his role in the Feb. 5 speech and the argument for going to war.


Cambridge, Mass.: Do you think Powell's admission that he would not have recommended war if he had known Iraq had no stockpiles of weapons, was pre-approved by the administration or was it for once, an honest spontaneous admission for which he may be pulled up later?

Peter Slevin: A slight correction: Powell said he didn't know what he would've done if he had learned ahead of time that there were no stockpiles, although he suggested that "the absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus."

Powell's a disciplined speaker who chooses his words carefully. It's important to keep in mind how important the Feb. 5 speech and his advocacy of war is to Powell's legacy. I don't believe his answers were spontaneous, given how much he surely thinks about his role, but I do think they represent an important chunk of his current, largely unvetted view.


Santa Fe, N.M.: The WMD issue is not the only matter that arrived with differing points of view. By autumn of 2003, the following opinions were held by credible sources:
1. That the U.S. had sufficiently strangled Iraq through sanctions and daily air assaults for 12 years.
2. That an interest in control of oil production would trump the quality of reasoning behind an invasion.
3. That the WMD in Israel and Pakistan held greater threat than the non-WMD of Iraq.
4. That the antipathy of al Qaeda for Hussein precluded cooperation between the two parties.
5. That Hussein was actually the U.S.'s man in the mideast in opposition to the Shia's in Iran and Iraq.
6. Charles Duelfer, now replacing David Kay, stated long ago that there were no WMDs left in Iraq.
7. etc.

Is it time to take a look at these points of view, among others, and see how they applied to the U.S. war on Iraq?


Peter Slevin: A number of people, including news organizations, have written about these points. I've seen some of them in the media coverage of the past week.

I think the administration's assumptions about Hussein are bound to be a large part of the intel commission's work, though how deeply it delves into other potential motivations for the war remains to be seen.

Studying the intel alone, and how it was used, will be a huge challenge.


Washington, D.C.: There is one thing that bothers me the most about watching the administration in the current debate. If there were fed bad intelligence that led them to war... why is the President not very very angry? I don't get it. He coldly explains: "I wanna know the facts."

Aren't you in the media surprised and suspicious how they all seem to brush everything off? Where's the outrage, where's the anger?

Peter Slevin: Good question. President Bush, as you can well imagine, is walking a tightrope here.

For one thing, he and his administration are not prone to admit mistakes even in minor affairs.

And if, as it seems, the intel was wrong on a war that has cost tens of billions of dollars -- and the lives of more than 500 Americans, and counting -- he's got a far bigger problem on his hands.

The White House has dramatically shifted the emphasis on its rationale for the war. It'll be intriguing to see how this all plays in the presidential campaign; and the extent to which it does.


Atlanta, Ga.: How did Colin Powell address the loss of his credibility and the "coup" of the neo-conservatives to control the White House?

Peter Slevin: He addressed the reduction of his credibility by saying that the intelligence community was largely united on the view that Hussein had the intent and the capability to acquire weapons of mass destruction; and had done so in the past.

As for the strength of the neo-conservatives, we didn't talk about that yesterday, but it's a battle he wages in countless ways every week. It has not been much fun to be Colin Powell in this administration.

Powell often says that he continues to fight within the administration for things he believes in, while backing the president to whom he remains loyal.


Baltimore, Md.: I don't think you can blame this mess on an intelligence failure. Intelligence doesn't fail, it exists, and the only failure is related to the amount of certainty and what you choose to believe. This administration believes anything which supports its preconceived notions, and does not care about certainty or the consequences of being wrong. They have reduced the serious business of confirming intelligence to the level of a game. What about the warnings that came with the "aluminum tubes," the "Nigerian uranium," the "Chalabi" source, the U.N. failure to find WMD's, the inability to supply conclusive evidence to U.N., the statement from O'Neil's book that this administration wanted a reason to invade Iraq, the heavy involvement of the neo-con's and there agenda. There is no intelligence failure; there is nothing but human failing here.

Peter Slevin: That's the essence of the critique of the administration, it seems to me. How the intel and the analysis fit together should be at the heart of the intel commission's work if the investigation is to be valuable.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Now that we know the stockpiles and advanced development of WMD did not exist, the lines of battle over the administration's conduct will be the following:
1. Was the intelligence product by the CIA influenced by policy makers?

2. Were the U.N. inspectors (who were, to be fair, only there because of U.S. saber rattling) discovering the absence of WMD, but administration would not take "no weapons" for an answer?

3. Did Iraq fail to discharge its affirmative obligation of proving the absence of WMD, including the destruction of previously existing stockpiles?

On this last point, there was total derision by the U.S. of Iraq's 10,000 page submission in December 2002. But the only concrete example of Iraq deceit that I remember was Condi Rice's assertion that Iraq had failed to admit efforts to purchase uranium from Africa, an allegation that has since been discredited. Has anyone gone back to the Iraq submission to examine whether it was actually a fair statement of Iraq's WMD status? Thanks for taking my question.

Peter Slevin: President Bush and Secretary Powell alike make much of Hussein's refusal to detail how he disposed of his prior stocks of WMD, assuming that he did. His refusal to do so -- the tome he submitted did not do the job -- remains a key factor in U.S. suspicion of him.

Not to mention a good subject for a psychological profile.


Kennesaw, Ga.: Good morning, Mr. Slevin. It seems clear to me that Bush administration views on Iraq were largely the product of past experience -- the Gulf War's aftermath as well as 9/11 -- in which worst-case scenarios discounted by much of the intelligence community either were much closer than we realized or actually happened.

Having said that, it also looks to me as if Colin Powell, while central to the administration's public justification for war, was peripheral at most to the decision for war. In other words, his role was similar to the one he had as JCS Chairman in the first Bush administration: key to implementing policy but not central to designing it.

Is this fair?

Peter Slevin: That's an interesting idea, and I think there is some truth to it. He was not the driving force for war -- for that, one should look to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

Yet it is also true that Powell, whatever misgivings he may have had at the beginning, took up the case for invasion and played a very important role in attempting to sell it.


Washington, D.C.: I hate to interrupt all the Bush Haters, but can I ask WHERE ARE THE WMD? So, they are not in Iraq. I thought this whole mess was because Saddam would not tell the world what happened to all the WMD he had in 1998. If they are not in Iraq, where are they? Isn't it more important to find the WMD then to point political fingers?

Peter Slevin: Maybe do both? Learn what became of the poison gas and figure out how the intel analysis proved to be so wrong.


Fairfax, Va.: The current Atlantic Monthly makes mention of an intel group in the Pentagon that the administration assembled to question intelligence gathered by the CIA. Increasingly, according to the article, this group at the Pentagon lent credence to very shaky intelligence that the White House was more inclined to listen to.

Why have these assertions not gained much traction? All we hear about are the mistakes made by the CIA. Spies, Lies and What Went Wrong, (Atlantic Monthly, Jan. 2004)

Peter Slevin: The work of the Office of Special Plans has gotten some attention and is sure to get more. The Post, among others, has written about the creation in the Pentagon of a separate intelligence analysis operation to look at all the incoming evidence with different eyes.


Washington, D.C.: It seems that the administration was saying, "Let us wait to see what David Kay finds before judging." Now, even after Kay said he found nothing, the administration is saying, "let us STILL wait and see what the Iraq Survey Group finds." When does this end? Is the administration going to keep saying "wait and see" until the cows come home?

Peter Slevin: No administration would be in a hurry to judge this one, I daresay. Certainly not in an election year.


Nederland, Colo.

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