WMD Programs: Culling Hard Facts from Soft Myths
A Message from Stuart A. Cohen
Vice Chairman, National Intelligence Council
28 November 2003
October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)
on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) has
been dissected like no other product in the history
of the US Intelligence Community. We have reexamined
every phrase, line, sentence, judgment and alternative
view in this 90-page document and have traced
their genesis completely. I believed at the time
the Estimate was approved for publication, and
still believe now, that we were on solid ground
in how we reached the judgments we made.
remain convinced that no reasonable person could
have viewed the totality of the information that
the Intelligence Community had at its disposalliterally
millions of pagesand reached any conclusions
or alternative views that were profoundly different
from those that we reached. The four National
Intelligence Officers who oversaw the production
of the NIE had over 100 years' collective work
experience on weapons of mass destruction issues,
and the hundreds of men and women from across
the US Intelligence Community who supported this
effort had thousands of man-years invested in
studying these issues.
me be clear: The NIE judged with high confidence
that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons
as well as missiles with ranges in excess of the
150 km limit imposed by the UN Security Council,
and with moderate confidence that Iraq did not
have nuclear weapons. These judgments
were essentially the same conclusions reached
by the United Nations and by a wide array of intelligence
servicesfriendly and unfriendly alike. The
only government in the world that claimed that
Iraq was not working on, and did not have, biological
and chemical weapons or prohibited missile systems
was in Baghdad. Moreover, in those cases where
US intelligence agencies disagreed, particularly
regarding whether Iraq was reconstituting a uranium
enrichment effort for its nuclear weapons program,
the alternative views were spelled out in detail.
Despite all of this, ten myths have been confused
with facts in the current media frenzy. A hard
look at the facts of the NIE should dispel some
popular myths making the media circuit.
#1: The Estimate favored going to war:
judgments, including NIEs, are policy neutral.
We do not propose policies and the Estimate in
no way sought to sway policymakers toward a particular
course of action. We described what we judged
were Saddam's WMD programs and capabilities and
how and when he might use them and left it to
policymakers, as we always do, to determine the
appropriate course of action.
#2: Analysts were pressured to change judgments
to meet the needs of the Bush Administration:
judgments presented in the October 2002 NIE were
based on data acquired and analyzed over fifteen
years. Any changes in judgments over that period
were based on new evidence, including clandestinely
collected information that led to new analysis.
Our judgments were presented to three different
Administrations. And the principal participants
in the production of the NIE from across the entire
US Intelligence Community have sworn to Congress,
under oath, that they were NOT pressured to change
their views on Iraq WMD or to conform to Administration
positions on this issue. In my particular case,
I was able to swear under oath that not only had
no one pressured me to take a particular view
but that I had not pressured anyone else working
on the Estimate to change or alter their reading
of the intelligence information.
#3: NIE judgments were news to Congress:
Over the past fifteen years our assessments on
Iraq WMD issues have been presented routinely
to six different congressional committees including
the two oversight committees, the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence, and the House Permanent
Select Committee on Intelligence. To the best
of my knowledge, prior to this NIE, these committees
never came back to us with a concern of bias or
an assertion that we had gotten it wrong.
#4: We buried divergent views and concealed uncertainties:
Diverse agency views, particularly on whether
Baghdad was reconstituting its uranium enrichment
effort and as a subset of that, the purposes of
attempted Iraqi aluminum tube purchases, were
fully vetted during the coordination process.
Alternative views presented by the Bureau of Intelligence
and Research at the Department of State, the Office
of Intelligence in the Department of Energy, and
by the US Air Force were showcased
in the National Intelligence Estimate and were
acknowledged in unclassified papers on the subject.
Moreover, suggestions that their alternative views
were buried as footnotes in the text are wrong.
All agencies were fully exposed to these alternative
views, and the heads of those organizations blessed
the wording and placement of their alternative
views. Uncertainties were highlighted in the Key
Judgments and throughout the main text. Any reader
would have had to read only as far as the second
paragraph of the Key Judgments to know that as
we said: "We lacked specific information
on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD program."
#5: Major NIE judgments were based on single sources:
Overwhelmingly, major judgments in the NIE on
WMD were based on multiple sourcesoften
from human intelligence, satellite imagery, and
communications intercepts. Not only is the allegation
wrong, but it is also worth noting that it is
not even a valid measure of the quality of intelligence
performance. A single human source with direct
access to a specific program and whose judgment
and performance have proven reliable can provide
the "crown jewels"; in the early 1960s
Colonel Oleg Penkovskiy, who was then this country's
only penetration of the Soviet high command, was
just such a source. His information enabled President
Kennedy to stare down a Soviet threat emanating
from Cuba, and his information informed US intelligence
analysis for more than two decades thereafter.
In short, the charge is both wrong and meaningless.
#6: We relied too much on United Nations reporting
and were complacent after UN inspectors left in
We never accepted UN reporting at face value.
I know, because in the mid 1990s I was the coordinator
for US intelligence support to UNSCOM and the
IAEA. Their ability to see firsthand what was
going on in Iraq, including inside facilities
that we could only peer at from above, demanded
that we pay attention to what they saw and that
we support their efforts fully. Did we ever have
all the information that we wanted or required?
Of course not. Moreover, for virtually any critical
intelligence issue that faces us the answer always
will be "no." There is a reason that
the October 2002 review of Iraq's WMD programs
is called a National Intelligence ESTIMATE and
not a National Intelligence FACTBOOK. On almost
any issue of the day that we face, hard evidence
will only take intelligence professionals so far.
Our job is to fill in the gaps with informed analysis.
And we sought to do that consistently and with
vigor. The departure of UNSCOM inspectors in 1998
certainly did reduce our information about what
was occurring in Iraq's WMD programs. But to say
that we were blind after 1998 is wrong. Efforts
to enhance collection were vigorous, creative,
and productive. Intelligence collection after
1998, including information collected by friendly
and allied intelligence services, painted a picture
of Saddam's continuing efforts to develop WMD
programs and weapons that reasonable people would
have found compelling.
# 7: We were fooled on the Niger "yellowcake"
storya major issue in the NIE:
was not one of the reasons underpinning
our Key Judgment about nuclear reconstitution.
In the body of the Estimate, after noting that
Iraq had considerable low-enriched and other forms
of uranium already in countryenough
to produce roughly 100 nuclear weaponswe
included the Niger issue with appropriate caveats,
for the sake of completeness. Mentioning, with
appropriate caveats, even unconfirmed reporting
is standard practice in NIEs and other intelligence
assessments; it helps consumers of the assessment
understand the full range of possibly relevant
#8: We overcompensated for having underestimated
the WMD threat in 1991:
judgments were based on the evidence we acquired
and the analysis we produced over a 15-year period.
The NIE noted that we had underestimated key aspects
of Saddam's WMD efforts in the 1990s. We were
not alone in that regard: UNSCOM missed Iraq's
BW program and the IAEA underestimated Baghdad's
progress on nuclear weapons development. But,
what we learned from the past was the difficulty
we have had in detecting key Iraqi WMD activities.
Consequently, the Estimate specified what we knew
and what we believed but also warned policymakers
that we might have underestimated important aspects
of Saddam's program. But in no case were any of
the judgments "hyped" to compensate
for earlier underestimates.
#9: We mistook rapid mobilization programs for
is practically no difference in threat between
a standing chemical and biological weapons capability
and one that could be mobilized quickly with little
chance of detection. The Estimate acknowledged
that Saddam was seeking rapid mobilization capabilities
that he could invigorate on short notice. Those
who find such programs to be less of a threat
than actual weapons should understand that Iraqi
denial and deception activities virtually would
have ensured our inability to detect the activation
of such efforts. Even with "only" rapid
mobilization capabilities, Saddam would have been
able to achieve production and stockpiling of
chemical and biological weapons in the midst of
a crisis, and the Intelligence Community would
have had little, if any, chance of detecting this
activity, particularly in the case of BW. In the
case of chemical weapons, although we might have
detected indicators of mobilization activity,
we would have been hard pressed to accurately
interpret such evidence. Those who conclude that
no threat existed because actual weapons have
not yet been found do not understand the significance
posed by biological and chemical warfare programs
in the hands of tyrants.
#10: The NIE asserted that there were "large
WMD stockpiles" and because we haven't found
them, Baghdad had no WMD:
experience gained at the end of Desert Storm more
than ten years ago, it was clear to us and should
have been clear to our critics, that finding WMD
in the aftermath of a conflict wouldn't be easy.
We judged that Iraq probably possessed one hundred
to five hundred metric tons of CW munitions fill.
One hundred metric tons would fit in a backyard
swimming pool; five hundred could be hidden in
a small warehouse. We made no assessment of the
size of Iraq's biological weapons holdings but
a biological weapon can be carried in a small
container. (And of course, we judged that Saddam
did not have a nuclear weapon.) When the Iraq
Survey Group (ISG), led by David Kay, issued its
interim report in October, acknowledging that
it had not found chemical or biological weapons,
the inspectors had then visited only ten of the
130 major ammunition depots in Iraq; these ammunition
dumps are huge, sometimes five miles by five miles
on a side. Two depots alone are roughly the size
of Manhattan. It is worth recalling that after
Desert Storm, US forces unknowingly
destroyed over 1,000 rounds of chemical-filled
munitions at a facility called Al Kamissiyah.
Baghdad sometimes had special markings for chemical
and biological munitions and sometimes did not.
In short, much remains to be done in the hunt
for Iraq's WMD.
do not know whether the ISG ultimately will be
able to find physical evidence of Iraq's chemical
and biological weapons or confirm the status of
its WMD programs and its nuclear ambitions. The
purposeful, apparently regime-directed, destruction
of evidence pertaining to WMD from one end of
Iraq to the other, which began even before the
Coalition occupied Baghdad, and has continued
since then, already has affected the ISG's work.
Moreover, Iraqis who have been willing to talk
to US intelligence officers are in great danger.
Many have been threatened; some have been killed.
The denial and deception efforts directed by the
extraordinarily brutal, but very competent Iraqi
Intelligence Services, which matured through ten
years of inspections by various UN agencies, remain
a formidable challenge. And finally, finding
physically small but extraordinarily lethal weapons
in a country that is larger than the state of
California would be a daunting task even under
far more hospitable circumstances. But
now that we have our own eyes on the ground, David
Kay and the ISG must be allowed to complete their
work and other collection efforts we have under
way also must be allowed to run their course.
And even then, it will be necessary to integrate
all the new information with intelligence and
analyses produced over the past fifteen years
before we can determine the status of Iraq's WMD
efforts prior to the war.
about the quality of the US intelligence performance
and the need to confront these charges have forced
senior intelligence officials throughout US Intelligence
to spend much of their time looking backwards.
I worry about the opportunity costs of this sort
of preoccupation, but I also worry that analysts
laboring under a barrage of allegations will become
more and more disinclined to make judgments that
go beyond ironclad evidencea scarce commodity
in our business. If this is allowed to happen,
the Nation will be poorly served by its Intelligence
Community and ultimately much less secure. Fundamentally,
the Intelligence Community increasingly will be
in danger of not connecting the dots until the
dots have become a straight line.
must keep in mind that the search for WMD cannot
and should not be about the reputation of US Intelligence
or even just about finding weapons. At its core,
men and women from across the Intelligence Community
continue to focus on this issue because understanding
the extent of Iraq's WMD efforts and finding and
securing weapons and all of the key elements that
make up Baghdad's WMD programs before
they fall into the wrong handsis
vital to our national security. If we eventually
are proven wrongthat is, that there were
no weapons of mass destruction and the WMD programs
were dormant or abandonedthe American people
will be told the truth; we would have it no other
Stuart A. Cohen is an intelligence professional
with 30 years of service in the CIA. He was acting
Chairman of the National Intelligence Council
when the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on
Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction was published.