In the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq there were a few that questioned U.S. claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It was only afterward that no WMD was discovered and official inquiries were made that the true extent of this failure was known. American intelligence agencies assumed that Baghdad had restarted its nuclear and WMD programs after U.N. inspectors left in the late 1990s and by the 2000s were looking for reports to confirm their suspicions rather than basing their opinions off of what they collected.
In April 2001, the CIA claimed Iraq restarted its nuclear program when it discovered Baghdad was attempting to buy aluminum tubes. A single analyst at the Agency came up with a theory that the tubes were for centrifuges to enrich uranium to build a nuclear device. His ideas rejected any counter evidence such as the tubes being a step backwards for Iraq’s nuclear program, and that they not only did not match any centrifuges Iraq ever tried, but any that had ever been successfully used by anyone before. The Energy and State Departments, leading scientists at the Livermore Labs, and the International Atomic Energy Agency all argued that the tubes were unsuitable and matched specifications for Iraqi rocket tubes. Because the CIA was the pre-eminent intelligence service in the U.S. its opinion won the debate, and became the agreed upon view of the U.S. intelligence community and would be used in speeches by the president and administration officials. In the end, the tubes were in fact for rockets not nukes.
The CIA believed it had supporting evidence of a renewed nuclear program, but it was just as specious as the aluminum tubes. The CIA claimed the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission was back at work, and that Iraq was trying to buy dual use equipment. This consisted of intelligence reports on things like new buildings being built, attempts to buy magnets which Iraq never received, and Saddam praising all kinds of government agencies including the atomic commission. One even said most of Iraq’s nuclear scientists had retired, died or left. None of these reports were directly related to a weapons program, and some even contradicted that theory. For the Agency however, any activity having to do with nuclear power was suspicious and proved that Baghdad must be working on building a bomb again.
Another story that was not considered that important by the Agency, but was by the Energy Department was that Iraq tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. The CIA never took the time to check the account, and when it got the documents it was based upon didn’t translate or analyze them for weeks. The reports made the Energy Department believe that Iraq’s nuclear program had been revived. The Niger claim however was created by an Italian intelligence peddler that forged the documents and passed it along to Italian intelligence, who then gave it to the Americans. If the U.S. had tried confirming the story from the beginning or just taken the time to look at the fake documents when they received them this could have been avoided, but it was not considered necessary at the time.
In 2002, U.S. imagery intelligence claimed it found proof that Iraq had an operational chemical weapons program based upon photographs of suspicious trucks. The Americans believed they saw a decontamination vehicle and cargo trucks moving WMD from an ammunition dump in Babil province. U.N. inspectors went to the site in the 1990s, but found nothing, but that made it interesting to the U.S. There were also pictures of the ground being graded in Babil, which intelligence took to be clearing the soil of chemical spills. The Americans already believed that Iraq had never destroyed all of its stocks of chemical weapons and went back to work on them after the inspectors left. Together this became proof that Iraq had a large stockpile of WMD, and that it was moving them from the ammo dump in Babil. After the invasion, the Babil site was found not to contain chemical weapons, the decontamination vehicle was just a water truck, and grading the ground was standard procedure at an ammunition dump.
American agencies believed that Iraq had switched to mobile labs to produce biological weapons in the late-1990s, so when it heard about an Iraq defector who said he worked on that program it seemed to confirm their view. Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi aka CURVEBALL went to Germany in 1999 seeking asylum from Saddam’s regime. He claimed to be an engineer that worked on the mobile labs, and saw hidden WMD sites. The U.S. found the building he said he worked at, which was taken as confirmation even though there was no evidence it was involved in any weapons program. There were several defectors and human intelligence reports that also talked about mobile labs, but they all had problems. An American only met CURVEBALL once and came away with questions about his reliability. The CIA’s European chief was told by the Germans that Janabi might be unstable. The U.S. was more interested in confirming its assumptions however, and ignored these issues.
These were the main stories that provided the basis for the Bush administration’s argument that Iraq was a nuclear and WMD threat. As the presidential Robb Silberman Commission found the U.S. had poor intelligence collection, made faulty assessments, didn’t vet sources, and did not to tell the administration about its problems. The American agencies failed at every stage in its reporting on Iraq. Whatever came their way that fit their assumption about Iraq’s weapons programs was accepted, and was passed onto the White House, which then made them public in its case for war.
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