Thursday, October 13, 2011

The CIA’s Shoddy Pre-War Intelligence Reporting: The Case Of Iraq’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq and no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found, Washington officials descended into a war of words over who was responsible for one of the greatest intelligence failures in American history. This largely consisted of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the White House trading barbs about which side pushed the charges about Iraq’s weapons programs harder. The intelligence agency appeared to win that battle when many in the press and the public began to claim that the administration had lied about the threat posed by Iraq. This obscured the fact that the Agency was quite willing and able to make alarming claims about Iraq’s weapons programs with very little solid evidence. The case of Iraq’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was a perfect example.

L-29 trainer converted into a drone (CIA)
In September 2002, the Bush White House began using the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in its arguments against Iraq. On September 5, Vice President Dick Cheney and Central Intelligence Director George Tenet briefed four Congressional leaders about Iraq, and mentioned that it had unmanned aircraft that could carry weapons of mass destruction (WMD). That same day, Tenet delivered the same message to the Senate Intelligence Committee, adding that the UAVs could be used against the continental United States. On September 12, the State Department publicly released “A Decade of Deception and Defiance,” detailing Iraq’s WMD programs, which said that Iraq had worked on converting Czech L-29 jet trainers into UAVs that could deliver chemical or biological agents. Four days later, in an article in Time about the threat posed by Iraq the piece mentioned that in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox, Talil Air Base in Dhi Qar province was hit, revealing one of the L-29 UAVs. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld then mentioned UAVs as a WMD delivery system in testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee on September 19. The story of the UAVs gained much more notoriety when in a television speech, President Bush mentioned them in October, and then later in the month at an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Cincinnati. In December, the State Department issued a fact sheet saying that Baghdad had not included the UAVs in its declaration to the new round of United Nations weapons inspectors that had just begun. That same month, the White House was bandying about ideas to include in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the United Nations when Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby provided a long list of charges to make against Iraq. One of those was the UAV story, including the claim that Iraq had tried to buy mapping software from Australia that included topographical information about the United States. This was the basis for the allegation that the UAVs could be used against the continental U.S. Cheney’s office heard about the UAVs through CIA chief George Tenet. Unbeknownst to the public, when Powell went through the story in January 2003, he found out that the CIA did not even know whether the mapping software had ever been sent to Iraq or whether Iraq’s military was going to use it. That led Powell to drop that specific charge from his speech, but he did use the UAVs. During the presentation Powell showed an image of an Iraqi F-1 Mirage jet fighter drone set to spray WMD. He went on to say that Iraq had plans to turn a MiG-21 into a UAV and put spray tanks on it as well. He claimed that the jet could be used in a terrorist attack. Iraq also told inspectors that they had produced four WMD tanks, but they were unaccounted for. The UAVs were first used in secret briefings to Congress, and then leaked to the press before being employed in public releases, and then in prominent speeches by Powell and President Bush. This showed a common tactic the White House used in its case against Iraq. It would often spread a story to the media and politicians, and then use it more officially until appearing in an important address to the public by a top official. The unmanned aircraft were never a major claim against Saddam Hussein, but they showed the spotty intelligence many of these stories were based upon.
Footage of an F-1 Mirage converted into a UAV shown at Powell's Feb. 02 U.N. speech (Aero News)
U.S. intelligence had been writing about the UAVs since the early 1990s. The CIA first became aware of the vehicles during the Gulf War. The Agency issued one report claiming that Iraq planned on using three MiG-21 UAVs in a WMD attack upon Coalition forces during the Gulf War, but they were shot down. In May 1992, the CIA released a memo, which said that the United Nations weapons inspectors found ten UAVs at Nasir State Establishment for Chemical Industries. The U.N. ended up discovering that Iraq tried to convert both MiG-21s and Mirage F-1s into drones, but failed. What they were successful at was creating drop tanks that could spray WMD from planes. The inspectors destroyed four of these tanks during their work. These findings led to a January 1998 CIA report about the UAVs saying that they were specifically made as part of Iraq’s WMD program. That same report also said that Baghdad had worked on UAVs since the mid-1980s for training, reconnaissance, and decoy missions. The Agency would repeat these claims in two more reports in 1999. On December 17, 1998, the United States and England launched Operation Desert Fox to punish Saddam for refusing to cooperate with the weapons inspectors. During this raid was when Talil Air Base was struck, and a L-29 jet trainer converted into a UAV was discovered. This led to a new set of intelligence reports. In the U.N.s final report on Iraq, it said that Baghdad had built 20 WMD spray tanks that were unaccounted for. In 2000, U.S. intelligence sounded more alarm bells when it noted that the L-29 UAVs were being flown in Samarra, Salahaddin. That led to a July report that claimed the UAVs could deliver biological agents and were a threat to Iraq’s neighbors and American forces in the Gulf. In the summer of 2001, the CIA found out that Iraq had tried to get mapping programs from an Australian firm that included information on the continental United States. That led to the charges that the UAVs could threaten America. This was included in the October 1, 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons programs. The Air Force and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center dissented however, saying that the UAVs were for reconnaissance, and that the mapping software automatically included the United States, so therefore, Iraq was not purposely buying maps of America. It was later discovered that the company offered Iraq the software, and that Iraq did not ask for it. As noted before, the CIA didn’t even know whether the software was ever delivered to Iraq. The Agency’s charge also ignored the fact that the UAVs would have to be delivered to Mexico or Canada or be placed in a ship off the coast to ever reach the U.S. Air Force chief General Robert Boyd would later note that he never believed the drones were a threat to the U.S. homeland, and that they were not for delivering WMD either. Despite these warnings from the branch of the military that should know the most about UAVs, the CIA held onto the claims about Iraq until after the 2003 invasion. That was because the Agency’s analysts believed the worst about Iraq, so any story that accused Saddam of working on weapons programs was prone to be believed. Even when contradictory evidence appeared such as the details about the mapping software, the CIA was reluctant to back off its reports.

The UAV tale finally began to unravel right before the 2003 invasion. In March, the United Nations inspectors found two UAVs in Samarra, Salahaddin along with a spray tank for chemical weapons. The problem was that the tank could not be attached to any of the UAVs. After the U.S. invasion, intelligence discovered that the UAV program was for reconnaissance as the U.S. Air Force had argued the previous year. In February 2004, David Kay, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, which was tasked to find Iraq’s weapons programs, testified to Congress saying that the UAVs were for surveillance, not WMD as well. That same month, the CIA first acknowledged differences in opinions about the UAVs when George Tenet gave a speech at Georgetown University stating that Iraq had worked on UAVs, but it was unknown whether they were for delivering WMD or not. In July, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on pre-war intelligence, which found that the UAV story was overstated, U.S. intelligence failed to deal with alternative uses for the aircraft, and that the argument about the mapping software was unsubstantiated. In September, the Iraq Survey Group issued its comprehensive findings, and noted that the UAVs were for reconnaissance, not use with WMD. It took sixteen months after the fall of Baghdad for the UAV story to be finally put to rest. That was true for all of the American WMD claims as not only the CIA, but the White House were reluctant to admit to getting anything wrong about its argument for going to war.

After no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the CIA seemed to win the public relations battle by placing the blame for that failure upon the White House. The truth is, when it came to WMD, the Agency was ready and willing to provide a plethora of charges against Iraq with very flimsy evidence. Iraq’s unmanned aerial vehicles was a glaring, although secondary example. The CIA knew that Iraq had worked on drones and tried to equip them with WMD spray tanks, but what the U.S. ignored was the fact that the weapons inspectors discovered that they failed back in the 1990s. The Agency never acknowledged that. To make matters worse, it took a miniscule piece of evidence, that an Australian company offered mapping software to Baghdad, and used it to claim that the UAVs could be used against the continental United States. How exactly Iraq was going to get them a few hundred miles off the U.S. coast undetected never seemed to be debated. The fact that the CIA didn’t even know whether the topographical program was sold to Iraq didn’t seem to matter either. This tale of foibles continued when the Air Force argued that the UAVs were for reconnaissance and not WMD when debating the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, but failed to win over the CIA. The Agency was so set in its view that Saddam Hussein was committed to developing his WMD programs that it would accept any piece of evidence it came upon, and repeat it in report after report after report. The UAVs were never a main piece of the argument for invading Iraq, but it did show how distorted U.S. intelligence reporting had become. The White House didn’t have to lie about Saddam, because there were plenty of fallacious stories to pick from the CIA.

For more on U.S. intelligence failures before the 2003 invasion see:

For more on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction see:


Auster, Bruce, Mazzetti, Mark and Pound, Edward, “Truth and Consequences,” U.S. News & World Report, 6/9/03

Battle, Joyce, “The Iraq War – PART I: The U.S. Prepares for Conflict, 2001, Timeline,” National Security Archive, 9/22/10

Borger, Julian, “White House ‘exaggerating Iraqi threat,’” Guardian, 10/9/02

Cirincione, Joseph, Mathews, Jessica, Perkovich, George with Orton, Alexis, “WMD in Iraq Evidence and Implications,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2004

Collier, Robert, “Bush’s evidence of threat disputed,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/12/02

Hanley, Charles, “Powell’s ‘thick file’ looking thin,” Associated Press, 8/9/03

Iraq Survey Group, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCIA on Iraq’s WMD,” 9/30/04

Jehl, Douglas and Sanger, David, “Powell’s Case, a Year Later: Gaps in Picture of Iraq Arms,” New York Times, 2/1/04

Kemper, Bob, “Experts review, poke holes in case for war,” Chicago Tribune, 8/10/03

McGeary, Johanna, “What Does Saddam Have?” Time, 9/16/02

Mukhopandhyay, Dipali, “The Bush Administration on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Capabilities,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2004

Powell, Colin, “’A Policy of Evasion and Deception,’” Washington Post, 2/5/03

Prados, John, Hoodwinked, The Documents That Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War, New York, London: New Press, 2004

Rangwala, Glen, “Claims and evaluations of Iraq’s proscribed weapons,” University of Cambridge, 2004

Simpson, Alan, Rangwala, Glen, “The Dishonest Case for War on Iraq,” Labor Against the War,” 9/16/02

Strobel, Warren and Ibarguen, Diego, “Bush Administration Scoffs at Iraq’s Weapons report,” Knight Ridder Newspapers, 12/20/02

Strobel, Warren and Landay, Jonathan, “What went wrong with Iraq intelligence?” Knight Ridder Newspapers, 2/6/04


Anonymous said...

The information CIA used as the main classified excuse for the Iraq war pertains to a new type of WMD delivery methodology produced & reported by a private US citizen approx. 2 weeks prior to 9/11. The Iraqi Curveball story was an invented disinformation ruse to mislead prewar intelligence investigations & any suspicions as to where the genuine information came from. . The entire world has been mislead about prewar intelligence truth.

Joel Wing said...

Would have to disagree with your characterization of Curveball. Curveball was an Iraqi engineer who wanted asylum in Germany and made up a story about WMD to achieve that. There are plenty of records and books that detail his story. Germany had questions about his story all along and told U.S. intelligence officials who would listen about them, but the Americans for the most part didn't listen.

I also don't think you can say there was one piece of intelligence that made up the argument for going to war with Iraq. If you read the Senate Intelligence reports or other reviews of pre-war intelligence they show that a number of factors contributed to the U.S. believing that Iraq's WMD program was growing. Those include CURVEBALL, the aluminum tubes, and the removal of U.N. inspectors.

Anonymous said...

Joel Wing: Sorry Joel fact is you haven't the first clue as to what's behind 2003 Iraq war prewar intelligence. Your determinations are wholly based upon the 'official' prewar intelligence story information and nothing else. Don't be concerned because nearly everyone else in the world doesn't know any better either. It's the kind of thing nobody shouldn't know about anyway because if they did we would all be finished.