Intelligence Failures

Sunday’s Washington Post featured an in-depth story on the infamous “Curveball” – the notoriously unreliable source at the center of the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein had a functioning WMD program in early 2003. Both President Bush and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Iraq’s mobile biological laboratories in major speeches in the run-up to war, despite the fact that a number of senior CIA analysts had doubts about Curveball’s credibility. When asked to verify Curveball’s reports, German intelligence officials would not do so. One told the CIA’s Tyler Drumheller, as Drumheller tells the Post: “I think the guy is a fabricator…We could never validate his reports.”

Most of the attention on the Iraq war has focused on the administration’s WMD claims. (Alas, the story still doesn’t go away.) And it is certainly true that the American public would have been far less supportive of the Iraq war at the outset if they knew that a key component of Iraq’s WMD program was a figment of one man’s imagination.

But the broader intelligence failure did not pertain to Iraq’s supposed WMD program; rather, it had to do with the Bush administration’s misplaced confidence that a stable functioning democracy could be quickly established in Iraq. Richard Perle, one of the leading advocates for war with Iraq, and now an advocate of confrontation with Iran (see yesterday’s Post Outlook section), still thinks this was the case. As Justin Logan and I write in our Policy Analysis, “Failed States and Flawed Logic”:

Perle would admit in the summer of 2003 that the DOD civilians’ plan centered on installing Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as the new leader of Iraq. In Perle’s view, had the Chalabi plan been enacted, “we’d be in much better shape today.”

But Perle’s (and the Bush administration’s) confidence in Chalabi was badly misplaced. As John Hulsman and Alexis Debat explain in the most recent issue of The National Interest:

the administration simply backed the wrong horse in supporting Chalabi…In its appreciation of the impeccably tailored and mannered Chalabi, the administration failed to question how his exile status and Western orientation, indeed the very qualities that made him a neoconservative fantasy ruler for Iraq, would impair his leadership capability.

Just as there were officials inside of government who were skeptical of the WMD claims, so too did government experts try to warn the Bush administration that the post-conflict period would be protracted and costly. As I wrote over two years ago, the failure to heed these warnings has been, and is likely to be, far more costly that the “failed intelligence” on Iraqi WMDs.