Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How The CIA Ignored Hard Evidence That Iraq No Longer Had Any WMD Programs In 2002

In 2000, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began a secret program to contact relatives of scientists working on Iraq’s nuclear and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs living in the United States. For years, U.S. intelligence had struggled to get any agents into Iraq, and this was seen as a new way to make contacts within the country. What the Agency was told was that Saddam Hussein no longer had any active weapons program since the 1990s. That didn’t fit the CIA's pre-conceived view of Iraq, so the reports were ignored, and never shared within the Agency or with the rest of the government. Instead, U.S. intelligence stuck with its previous assessment that all of Iraq’s WMD and nuclear operations were up and running, and were even larger than they’d been before. After the 2003 invasion, it turned out that the family members were right, and the Agency was wrong. This successful intelligence operation was a perfect example of how the CIA was convinced that Iraq had WMD, and ignored anything that contradicted that belief.

For decades, the United States had struggled to recruit or infiltrate agents into Iraq. Saddam Hussein had a near totalitarian hold upon the country. He used several methods to achieve this, starting with the Baath Party, which reached down to every community, and the largesse of the state, both of which were used to create patronage systems to maintain both support and tabs on the public. There were also several different intelligence agencies that kept track of different sectors of the country. On top of that, Saddam created a complex network of family and clan members that came from his hometown of Tikrit in Salahaddin province that made up his internal circle. He also carried out constant purges, used a divide and conquer strategy with both his opponents and allies, and increasingly turned to tribal sheikhs for additional support after the Gulf War. Many Iraqis then, were dependent upon the state for support, and fearful of Saddam’s repression, which greatly curtailed the likelihood of anyone cooperating with the United States.

In the 1990s for example, the CIA tried and failed to penetrate Iraq. First, before and after (1) the 1991 Gulf War, President George H. Bush ordered U.S. intelligence to try a coup, but with no success. In 1994, a CIA base was established in Kurdistan to work with the Kurds and Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC). The next year, Chalabi led a failed revolt. The year after that, Saddam launched a campaign in northern Iraq that largely expelled the INC from the region. In 1996, the CIA backed a failed coup that involved Iyad Allawi and his Iraqi National List. (2) From 1997-1998 Jack Downing, the Agency’s Deputy Director of Operations launched a campaign to recruit sources within the country, but with no success. Around the same time, CIA Director George Tenet created a committee that covered the nations considered the biggest threats to the Unites States that were also the hardest to penetrate. That included North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. The group went over the lack of resources America had in Iraq, but failed to gain any success. During the decade, Saddam also launched waves of repression, executions, and purges. All together these events made the 1990s a disappointing period for the CIA and U.S., as it failed to establish a foothold in Saddam’s Iraq. The Americans didn’t have much more success in the 2000s before the U.S. invasion either.

When it came to Iraq’s WMD programs, the U.S. became almost completely dependent upon the United Nations inspectors that were in the country from 1991 to 1998. The U.N. team had unprecedented access to Iraq, and went to every major suspected site. Despite Saddam’s best effort to stifle them, they proved to be highly effective, and put an end to his programs by the time they left. The problem for the U.S. was when the inspectors departed, the intelligence agencies had to depend upon satellites and defectors, neither of which proved reliable. In turn, their reporting on Iraq got spottier and spottier, and became largely based upon the assumptions that Saddam must have restarted all of his programs after the U.N. exited. This theory eventually became the conventional wisdom within the Agency, and shaped all of its studies in the 2000s.

Into this information vacuum stepped Charlie Allen. Allen was the CIA’s Assistant Director of Collection. In 1998, he began looking for new ways to collect data on Iraq. Two years later he hatched a scheme to contact family members of scientists working on Iraq’s weapons programs. He got in touch with around 30 of them, and James Risen of the New York Times talked to one, Sawsan Al-Haddad. Haddad was a doctor living in Cleveland, Ohio when in May 2002 a CIA officer contacted her. She was asked to go back to Iraq and talk to her brother, Saad Tawfiq. Tawfiq was a British trained engineer who lived in Baghdad, and worked on the nuclear program. The Agency wanted to know whether Tawfiq would defect, and if not whether he would answer questions about Saddam’s weapons operations. Haddad agreed. She went through weeks of training, going through the things should would ask her brother. In September, she set off to Iraq. When she met her brother, and they initially talked he said that it would be impossible for him to leave the country. Then she started going over the questions the CIA had prepared for him. Tawfiq said that the nuclear program was ended in the 1990s after the Gulf War. He said there was no more funding, no one was working on it, that Iraq lacked the equipment and material to restart it, and that there was no drive to even revive it. Tawfiq also refuted the story that Iraq tried to buy uranium yellow cake from the African country of Niger, which had just been released in the British dossier on Iraq’s WMD. Haddad asked her brother about Khidir Abdul Abbas Hamza, the former Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected in 1994, and then wrote a book in 2000, Saddam’s Bombmaker, claiming that Saddam had restarted his effort to build an atomic bomb. Tawfiq stated that Hamza knew nothing, and was just talking to making money. At the end, Haddad’s brother told her that he hoped his interview would stop the war. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

When Haddad returned to Cleveland and was debriefed, her brother’s testimony was rejected. The CIA officer who originally contacted her told her that the Agency thought her brother was lying. The 29 other scientists in Iraq that were talked to by family members also claimed there were no WMD or nuclear programs in Iraq. The CIA took this information, and did nothing with it. None of it was believed because they thought the scientists were trying to hide Saddam’s weapons. Therefore the reports were not disseminated within the Agency or to any other part of the government. In fact, the Directorate of Operations that was also trying to find spies within Iraq, was mad at Allen, and shut down his program. Instead, the CIA and the rest of the American intelligence community continued on with their claims that Iraq’s nuclear and WMD programs had been restarted, and were larger than before the Gulf War largely based upon assumptions rather than hard evidence. That was the story portrayed in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons program, which was presented to Congress to help convince them for the necessity of war. Tawfiq on the other hand, was hoping that he could change minds in Washington about Iraq, but when he saw Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations in February 2003 about Iraq’s weapons programs, he was discouraged.

The CIA leadership in fact, was so wedded to their hypothesis about Iraq’s programs that it went on to ignore other on the ground intelligence before and after the 2003 invasion. In November 2002, international weapons inspectors returned to Iraq. By January 2003, they reported that the nuclear facilities they had visited were basically untouched since the last time they were there in 1998. (3) At the end of the month, and then in February, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.N. inspectors issued their official reports to the Security Council saying there was no active weapons programs in the country.  That was dismissed. Then after the 2003 invasion, when no weapons showed up, CIA Director Tenet continued to believe that they were going to be found. The head of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, who led the search for Iraq’s WMD and nuclear programs in post-Saddam Iraq, met with Tenet and told him that there was nothing in Iraq just before he resigned in January 2004. Kay claimed the Director still thought the U.S. was going to turn something up. It took around a year after the war had started for Tenet to finally change his mind. That obstinacy in the face of growing evidence even into 2004, showed how reports like those from Tawfiq who was in Iraq, and had worked on the nuclear program, could be dismissed by the Agency. It was so firmly wedded to its ideas about Iraq that anything that did not fit its view was discarded.

Saddam Hussein believed that a nuclear bomb was the path to making Iraq a world power. The 1991 Gulf War, United Nations inspectors, and sanctions put an end to his dreams. Facilities were taken apart, documents were found, and eventually Baghdad decided to shut down its program, and shift its scientists to other work. The United States knew nothing of his because they were largely blind about what was happening within Iraq after the inspectors left in 1998. Attempts to get spies within Iraq failed, but when Charlie Allen contacted 30 scientists from Iraq’s weapons programs, the U.S. finally had hard evidence that there was nothing suspicious going on in Iraq. Rather than analyzing these stories, and using them for further research, they were dismissed because they didn’t fit the Agency’s assumptions. That wasn’t because intelligence was lying about Saddam, but rather it believed all the programs were up and running, and nothing was going to shake them from that image. The CIA and others just could not fathom that Iraq would give up on obtaining nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons given its past history. This was a missed opportunity, and highlighted the huge intelligence failure that the U.S. experienced, which helped lead to the 2003 invasion.


1. Waller, Douglas, “Bush’s Rude Surprise,” Newsweek, 4/22/91

2. Shrader, Katherine Pfleger, “Nominee linked to U.S., CIA by decades of anti-Hussein work,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5/29/04

3. Jansen, Michael, “Inspectors states no banned weapons found in Iraq so far,” Irish Times, 1/2/03


Anderson, Jon Lee, “A Man Of The Shadows,” New Yorker, 1/24/05

El Baradei, Mohamed, “The Status of Nuclear Inspections in Iraq,” IAEA, 2/14/03

Broder, Jonathan, “U.S. policy on Iraqi chaos: Cold, hard – and wistful,” San Francisco Examiner, 3/31/91

Gordon, Michael and Risen, James, “Report’s Findings Undercut U.S. Argument,” New York Times, 1/28/03

Hersh, Seymour, “The Iraq Hawks,” New Yorker, 12/24/01
- “Selective Intelligence,” New Yorker, 5/12/03

Hoffman, David and Balz, Dan, “Bush Plans Effort Aimed at Destabilizing, Toppling Iraqi Leader,” Washington Post, 8/6/90

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

Jansen, Michael, “Inspectors states no banned weapons found in Iraq so far,” Irish Times, 1/2/03

MacLeod, Scott, “Live From Baghdad: What the Iraqis Told Blix,” Time, 11/21/02

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Priest, Dana and Pincus, Walter, “Bush Certainty On Iraq Arms Went Beyond Analysis’ Views,” Washington Post, 6/7/03

Risen, James, “C.I.A. Held Back Iraqi Arms Data, Officials Say,” New York Times, 7/6/04
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Risen, James, Sanger, David and Shanker, Thom, “In Sketchy Data, White House Sought Clues to Gauge Threat,” New York Times, 7/20/03

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Shrader, Katherine Pfleger, “Nominee linked to U.S., CIA by decades of anti-Hussein work,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5/29/04

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belteshazzar said...

Once again, a brilliant, well researched article.

Interesting conclusion: that rather than trying to create a reason for war that they knew wasn't true, the CIA was really just misguided (and didn't believe their own intelligence).

More interesting to me is this final point, the CIA didn't believe their own intelligence. Sounds like they need to have a bit of re-training on what their job actually is ;)

Joel Wing said...

I think a more accurate description would be that the CIA only believed the intelligence that fit their image of Iraq's weapons programs. I would also say that the CIA leadership signed up to support the administration's drive to war just like the rest of the government did, not that they didn't believe in it. Of course, when no WMD were found after the invasion, the different parts of the administration tried to blame each other for the intelligence failure and the CIA, both active and former agents, were rather successful in pushing the story that it was all the White House's fault, but if you go through the reviews of pre-war intelligence such as the Senate Intelligence Committee's reports or others you'll see that the CIA fully believed that all of Iraq's weapons programs were up and running, and larger than they'd ever been. They did not see any Iraq-Al Qeada connection however. In the end, the blame for the failure can be distributed across the board.

Anonymous said...

The Agency puts politics and its narrative in front of country and has for decades ( from Laos forward).

Your research only confirms the mindset at the "CYA" which is driven by self-justification rather than the pursuit of meaningful intelligence.

The "CYA" needs to be taken apart and re-distributed into the State Department, the NSA and the DIA.


dunwich said...

Interesting article, but I think only part of the picture.

You ignore what I think was a pretty wide consensus in the late 90s that Iraq had in fact destroyed its WDM capability.

Here in the UK former civil servants have said as much - that no one thought he had WDM any more.

Interestingly however there's also a 1998 letter on the PNAC website from Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle and others to President Clinton, which worries that:

"in the not-too-distant future we will be unable to determine with any reasonable level of confidence whether Iraq does or does not possess such weapons."

Since they were unlikely to be worried that he might destroy such weapons without them knowing, there worry presumably was that (not having them now) he might acquire them.

This suggests to me that at that time there was a consensus that those weapons no longer existed and it was a consensus that Rumsfeld et al shared.

Joel Wing said...

dunwich the general opinion among both U.S. and English intelligence was that Iraq had restarted its WMD program after the U.N. inspectors left in 1998. There weren't many specifics about what exactly Iraq was doing, but that was the general view based upon assumptions that Saddam was determined to have WMD. The problem was that those assumptions shaped all the reports, rather than direct evidence, and those assumptions proved wrong.

Some specific examples.

In Feb. 98 Pres. Clinton and his Sec. of Def. Cohen both said that Iraq was developing WMD.

Feb. 99 intelligence report on Iraq's WMD said that it still had the personnel and equipment to continue on with its weapons work and still had biological elements that could be used. Didn't think that Iraq was producing WMD but could at any time.

Aug. 99 National Intelligence estimate on biological weapons programs around the world said that Iraq probably restarted its weapons programs after inspectors left

Feb. 2000 CIA intelligence report said that they didn't have direct evidence that Iraq had restarted its WMD programs, but that it probably had.

Updated National Intelligence Estimate on global biological programs in Dec. 2000 said that Iraq had an active program that was larger than before

Dec. 2000 report to the National Security Council said that it couldn't confirm whether Iraq was producing biological weapons but that there was a single source (CURVEBALL) that said Iraq had mobile weapons labs

I can provide more examples if you want.

None of the people that signed that 1998 letter were in government at the time so they could only speak in generalities about Iraq's weapons program.

This Day In Iraqi History - May 26 Jamil Midfai led Al-Ahd forces to attack Tal Afar in attempt to start revolt vs UK Mandate in Iraq

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