The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate provides further proof that the president and his aides purposefully mischaracterized and exaggerated the dangers posed by the Iraqi regime in an effort to stoke fear about a nuclear or biological attack on the U.S. and its allies. A close reading of the report, which reflects the consensus of U.S. intelligence at the time, reveals an intelligence community at odds with itself about the nature of the potential threat.
What the report found: The Black Vault, a website that seeks out and collects declassified government files, provided the partially redacted 96 pages to Vice on Thursday. The report was produced in October 2002, and represents the most complete collection of intelligence available to senior White House officials. It was presented to Congress during the tense months preceding the March 20, 2003 launch of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
“We have low confidence in our ability to assess when Saddam would use WMD,” the report states early on in a bolded subsection. “The information we have on Iraqi nuclear personnel does not appear consistent with a coherent effort to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program.”
Another, more disturbing passage questions the intelligence community’s ability to draw accurate conclusions.
“Iraq probably has renovated [a previously dismantled] facility, but we are unable to determine whether [Biological Weapon] agent research or production has resumed,” it says before citing a redacted source, which “suggests that Baghdad held true to its 1999 press claim to renovate this facility, reportedly to produce FDM vaccine.”
On the question of biological weapons: “We judge that Baghdad would lack confidence in its ability to attack successfully well-defended military point targets outside Iraq with biological weapons, except via missile forces.” But just pages later, the validity of that claim is questioned by the U.S. Air Force, which “judges that Iraq is developing [unmanned aerial vehicles] primarily for reconnaissance rather than delivery platforms for [chemical or biological] agents … delivery is an inherent capability of UAVs but probably is not the impetus for Iraq’s recent UAV programs.”
What the Bush administration said: Less than a month before the report was presented to Congress, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN, “You will get different estimates about precisely how close [Saddam Hussein] is. The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
The rhetoric was unchanged, even ramped up, after the NIE was completed in early October and circulated to advisers and congressional leaders.
Late on the night of Oct. 10, 2002, the House of Representatives voted to authorize President Bush to launch a military attack on Iraq. Hours later, at about 1:15 a.m., the Senate did the same.
“The gathering threat of Iraq must be confronted fully and finally,” Bush said after the House vote. ”The days of Iraq acting as an outlaw state are coming to an end.”
In the months that followed, high-ranking aides to the president made broad and repeated reference to the documents. Secretary of State Colin Powell called back to them during his now-infamous February 2003presentation to the United Nations.
“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources,” Powell declared. “These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
He went on to assert that four anonymous Iraqi sources, two of them defectors, described to the U.S. and international agents the processes and progress of the regime’s biological weapon program, the same one the NIE explicitly stated it was “unable” to confirm existed.
In the weeks leading up the invasion, George Tenet, the CIA chief who commissioned the report, was called to the White House. There, according to journalist Bob Woodward’s 2004 book, Plan of Attack, he told Bush it was “a slam dunk case” that Iraq was holding WMD.
That final sales pitch was not, as we now know, simply wrong, but a brazen denial of the warnings, questions and caveats included in the intelligence report. With the release of the 2002 report, we have still more evidence of the deadly errors and purposeful lies that led the U.S. into a war that killed more than 6,100 American military men and women and more than 500,000 civilians. That number, as a new conflict with the Islamic State continues, will grow in the coming years.