In January 2006 the Central Intelligence Agency released a review of how Iraq dealt with the United Nations’ weapons inspections in the 1990s and 2000s. It came to the conclusion that Iraq’s early deception campaign forever shaped how western governments and intelligence agencies perceived Iraq. That meant in 1995 when Iraq tried to come clean about its weapons programs and in the 2000s when it thought it was cooperating with a new inspections regime, it was still thought of as a country that was hiding its weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq’s reaction to the initial U.N. inspectors in 1991 set the whole stage for everything that would follow. Baghdad thought that sanctions and inspections would only last for a little while and therefore felt no real pressure to comply. Its strategy was to hide everything while secretly destroying parts of its programs. Saddam Hussein ordered his son-in-law Hussein Kamal to lead this campaign. In April 1991 for instance it said that it had no nuclear program even though it had been working on one since the 1970s. That was proven untrue when inspectors discovered the program in June. Later that year Saddam decided that the inspections were far more thorough then he initially believed. He felt he could no longer conceal the programs anymore so he ordered all the stocks and documents destroyed. That was a fateful mistake because it meant that the regime could never prove what it did. More importantly, Iraq’s actions led the West to believe that Iraq still had its WMD and was doing everything possible to hide them. This would shape the view of Iraq all the way to 2003 and set the fate of Saddam Hussein.
1995 was a major turning point when Hussein Kamal defected and revealed many of the secrets of Iraq’s weapons programs to the U.N., but ironically only made them more suspicious. In August 1995 Hussein Kamal fled Iraq for Jordan. There he was interviewed by the United Nations and revealed all kinds of details about Iraq’s programs. (1) For example it had four projects to build a nuclear program, but that was ended in January 1991 due to the Gulf War. Most important he said he ordered the destruction of all of Iraq’s WMD stocks, but didn't document it. In turn, Iraq felt like it could no longer hide its weapons, so it tried to come clean. It released a whole trove of documents claiming that Kamal was the one that hid them from inspectors. The documents showed that Iraq did more work on biological weapons and missiles than previously known and had a crash course to try to build a nuclear bomb. Unfortunately for Iraq, the inspectors and the west perceived this as just another example of Saddam’s deception campaign. If he had kept so many secrets what else must he be hiding was the general mood. The inspectors were intent upon becoming more obtrusive than before. Rather than resolving the issue of Iraq’s WMD and nuclear programs, the CIA wrote that Kamal’s defection was the last straw. Afterward the West would believe nothing Iraq said.
In the second half of the 1990s the U.N. changed its approach with the inspectors focusing upon trying to uncover Iraq’s deception campaign more than its actual weapons programs. This included searches of presidential palaces and intelligence agencies. This led to two reactions within Iraq. First, the government decided that the sanctions would never end and therefore it shouldn’t work with the U.N. anymore. Second, Saddam felt that the West was trying to use the inspectors to overthrow his government. Those suspicions were increased when in 1998 the U.S. passed the Iraq Liberation Act. That was true as the CIA backed a coup plot in 1996 involving the inspectors, and then tried to create confrontations between the U.N. and Baghdad that would lead to military strikes.
In 2002 the U.S. and England demanded that a new round of inspections begin in Iraq. Baghdad accepted and the CIA believed it made a legitimate attempt to comply. Beforehand the government conducted its own investigation and ordered officials to give up any documents they had. Iraq was also still sensitive about certain locations such as presidential palaces. Those actions led to suspicion that Iraq was hiding things once again. An ironic example was an order to look for any leftover WMD so that it could be turned over to the inspectors was intercepted by the U.S. and used in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 U.N. speech where he said this was an example of the Iraqis trying to hide its weapons. (2) Iraq didn’t understand the precarious situation it was in from 2002-2003. Saddam did not see any urgency in this matter because he didn’t believe that the U.S. and U.K. were going to invade his country until right before it actually happened. Iraq was trying to cooperate, but the mistrust created in the 1990s meant that there was nothing it could do that the U.S. would believe. That was the reason why American officials continually attacked the U.N. By that time the inspections were simply a formality to create a justification for the war.
Iraq was not completely to blame for this misperception by the west. American and other western intelligence agencies made wide assumptions about Iraq after the 1990s. The U.S. for instance, assumed that Iraq would never change its behavior so it completely missed Baghdad’s new stance in 1995 and 2002. American intelligence was also embarrassed by how much it underestimated Iraq’s weapons programs before the 90s and went in the other direction afterward to believe the worse when making assessments. That was seen in the 2000s when the Americans received a lot of ambiguous and questionable intelligence but accepted all of it. These were the main reasons why U.S. intelligence believed that Iraq had a large stock of WMD and an active nuclear program leading up to the 2003 invasion. That turned out to be one of the biggest intelligence failures in U.S. history because it was based more upon belief than facts. It would also help lead to the downfall of Saddam.
1. UNSCOM/IAEA, “Note For The File,” 8/22/95
2. Hanley, Charles, “Powell’s ‘think file’ looking thin,” Associated Press, 8/9/03
Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, “Misreading Intentions: Iraq’s Reaction to Inspections Created Picture of Deception,” 1/5/06
Hanley, Charles, “Powell’s ‘think file’ looking thin,” Associated Press, 8/9/03
Hiro, Dilip, Iraq, In the Eye of the Storm, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002
Marr, Phebe, The Modern History of Iraq, Boulder Oxford: Westview Press, 2004
Mazarr, Michael, Leap of Faith, Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy, New York: Public Affairs, 2019
Robb, Charles Silberman, Laurence, “Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction,” 3/31/05
Select Committee On Intelligence United States Senate, “Report On The U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments On Iraq,” 7/7/04
UNSCOM/IAEA, “Note For The File,” 8/22/95