During the 1990s, U.S. intelligence became almost completely reliant upon the United Nations inspectors to find out what was going on with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and nuclear programs. When the inspectors left in 1998, the Americans were left virtually blind. The CIA and other agencies had very few assets within the country, and none of them had any information about WMD. The intelligence community was left to largely rely upon satellite intelligence and defectors, neither of which proved effective in penetrating Iraq. In 2002 however, the CIA finally came across sources from within the Iraqi weapons establishment and government. What they were told was that Iraq no longer had any active programs. That didn’t fit the Agency’s assumptions about Iraq having stockpiles of chemical and biological agents, and an expanding nuclear and WMD effort, so this intelligence was ignored.
|Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri (PBS Newshour)|
In Hubris, The Inside Story of Spin,Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek and David Corn of The Nation revealed the story of Naji Sabri, Iraq’s Foreign Minister. Bill Murray, the CIA station chief in Paris, France, was friends with a Lebanese journalist who claimed to know a high-ranking Iraqi official. The journalist told Murray that the Iraqi wanted to work with the Americans. In August 2001, the journalist revealed that he knew Naji Sabri, Iraq’s Foreign Minister. Sabri did not like Saddam Hussein because the dictator killed his brother. The reporter said that Sabri might be willing to defect to the West if his family could be smuggled out of the country as well. Sabri said he would also work in a new Iraq if Saddam were removed. As part of this deal, Sabri demanded $1 million. This would have been a coup for Murray if he could talk one of the top official in Baghdad to switch sides. At the least, it would have embarrassed Saddam, and at best, Sabri could provide intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the regime, and perhaps intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs.
Murray was interested in Sabri. He passed on a series of questions for Sabri to answer, mostly about Iraq’s WMD. The Foreign Minister was able to pass along information about an Iraqi purchase of aluminum tubes from Eastern Europe using front companies. This was important to the CIA, because in July 2001, 3,000 aluminum tubes had been seized in Jordan. A CIA analyst went on to speculate that these were going to be used for centrifuges to enrich uranium, and build a nuclear bomb. That assessment went on to become the main evidence the intelligence community used to claim that Iraq had restarted its nuclear weapons program. The reporter was actually able to get his hands on two of the tubes, pass them onto Murray, who then sent them to the CIA’s headquarters in Virginia. Analysts used the fact that Iraq was trying to buy more of the tubes to further this argument. The station chief was receiving hard intelligence from Sabri, but did not want to continue the relationship through a third party, the reporter. Murray wanted to meet Sabri in person.
In 2002, the United Nations offered that opportunity. Every year, world leaders and officials address the international body when it opens its new session each September. Murray asked Sabri through his friend that if he were to attend the United Nations that month, if they could meet. Murray said that the Foreign Minister should wear a hand-tailored suit when he arrived in New York as a sign that he agreed to Murray’s offer. Sabri arrived in the U.S. wearing just such a suit. That led to the two meeting on September 18 before Sabri was to give a speech to the General Assembly. The Foreign Minister said that he wanted to work with the United States. Murray asked him about Iraq’s weapons programs, and Sabri replied that the country’s chemical arsenal had been destroyed. He claimed that Saddam did not want inspectors to find any evidence of it, so he ordered it gotten rid of. There might be a vial or two of agents leftover from years before, but there were no active programs. When it came to the nuclear program, Saddam had kept his scientists together, and they could work on a bomb if they ever got fissile material, but Sabri said Baghdad was not doing that, and there was no effort to revive the program either. Here was one of Iraq’s leading officials saying that his country had no WMD. Rather than being a defector that claimed to have gone to some specific site, or a satellite photo that showed a suspected building, Sabri was giving inside information on Iraq’s weapons from near the top, and saying that they no longer existed.
Murray passed on this information to Washington, telling the CIA’s Deputy Director John McLaughlin. When the CIA’s European Division chief Tyler Drumheller heard about Murray’s meeting and intelligence he was impressed, but two other CIA agents who were running a covert campaign to overthrow Saddam rejected Murray’s report. They said that since Sabri was still part of the Iraqi government, everything he said should be taken as disinformation. They also did not want Sabri acting as a source within the government because they said President Bush was set on invading Iraq and overthrowing the regime. CIA Director George Tenet did end up telling the White House about Murray’s meeting. It said it would be interested in Sabri defecting, but thought his comments about WMD were lies. In the end, Sabri remained in Iraq until the 2003 invasion, and his tales of Iraq’s weapons programs being over did not change the CIA’s reporting, or the White House’s opinion.
This was the second time in 2002 that the CIA received evidence from Iraqis that the country no longer had any WMD. Both times this intelligence was discounted. Around the same time that Murray met Sabri in New York, the Agency was receiving reports from 30 Iraqi scientists that worked on Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons that these programs no longer existed. U.S. intelligence had contacted their family members that lived abroad, and got them to talk to their relatives back in Iraq. All of them said the same thing; Baghdad had ended all of the WMD programs. This, along with Sabri’s information was the best that the United States had received about what Saddam was up to. U.S. intelligence and the administration however, believed that all of Iraq’s programs were up and running, and even larger then before. They therefore only accepted reports that supported that view, and ended up discarding the Foreign Minister and the 30 scientists’ accounts. America hard very little on Iraq, and went with a series of questionable stories, all of which proved to be false. Not only that, but when they were confronted by contradictory reports, they were not believed. It wasn’t intelligence that was being used to shape their views, but rather the other way around, their opinions shaped what information they wanted to hear. The proof of that was that it took nearly a year after Iraq was invaded for the CIA and all of the White House to finally accept that Iraq no longer had any WMD even though it was pretty apparent in a few months after the fall of Baghdad that there was nothing left. This was why the Iraq war was considered one of the worst intelligence failures in U.S. history.
Gellman, Barton and Pincus, Walter, “Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence,” Washington Post, 8/10/03
Isikioff, Michael and Corn, David, Hubris, The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2006
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Report On the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments On Iraq,” U.S. Senate, 7/7/04