Commentary

CIA, WMD, and Accountability

The strangest thing happened soon after George Tenet resigned as CIA director. Critics and supporters of the Bush administration and Iraq war both tried to depict Mr. Tenet as a fall guy — an innocent scapegoat for the errors of others.

Shortly before Mr. Tenet resigned, David Corn of the Nation had reasoned that because Mr. Tenet was still on the job, President Bush must not have cared about being misinformed that finding Iraq’s WMD would be “a slam dunk.” “Shouldn’t someone be held accountable?” asked Mr. Corn — maybe CIA chief George Tenet? Or… Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle?” But Mr. Perle had already resigned in February. With Mr. Tenet also gone, the new technique for blaming intelligence failures on somebody other than the person in charge of intelligence has been to claim Mr. Tenet was merely a helpless fall guy for White House bullies.

In Al Jazeerah, Mike Whitney depicted Mr. Tenet as “just a public servant carrying out his duties…. Tenet had nothing to do with any of this…. Tenet, of course, was intended to be the ‘fall guy’; a role he decided to reject by leaving early.” At Salon.com, Martin Sieff concluded: “The abrupt departure of Tenet had nothing to do with justice…. The true architects of catastrophe in Iraq continue to sit safely in the Pentagon.” Sen. Charles Schumer, New York Democrat, insisted, “No one should make him [ Mr. Tenet] a fall guy for anything.”

Such Bush critics fear blaming the CIA for intelligence failures might largely absolve the White House and Pentagon from responsibility for military decisions based on CIA misinformation. Blaming the president, vice president and defense secretary is far more useful to the Democratic Party and Al Jazeerah than blaming the CIA.

Ironically, a few writers attempting to defend the White House and Pentagon also claimed Mr. Tenet should not be blamed. These Iraq war supporters ended up claiming — as did war critics — Mr. Tenet did nothing wrong.

Michael Barone of U.S News & World Report wrote Mr. Tenet’s infamous “slam dunk” remark “was the conclusion as well of every other competent intelligence agency in the world. Tenet was right. Given that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction [mustard and nerve gas before 1991]… and given that Saddam’s regime had not accounted for WMDs he had [reportedly] possessed, any prudent intelligence agency would have to have concluded that he still had them. Moreover, there was no evidence that could have been obtained which would have convinced a prudent intelligence agency that Saddam did not possess them.”

We cannot prove Unicorns do not exist either. But requiring skeptics to prove the nonexistence of invisible objects is an imprudent definition of prudence.

In “The economics of war,” The Washington Times, Page B3, Nov. 24, 2002, I wrote: “Those most eager for a U.S. invasion… claim to have indisputable information about Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Yet they are equally confident that inspections will fail because those same weapons will supposedly be impossible to find…. [They] say we must be in a big hurry to invade before Iraq acquires weapons of mass destruction, thus changing the complaint from weapons Saddam has to weapons he wishes he had. But that is equivalent to admitting Iraq does not yet have the many dangerous weapons that were supposed to justify invasion in the first place — gas, germs, nukes and (more importantly) the means of delivering them to U.S. shores…. Those who claim to be certain that Iraq has a formidable arsenal of fearsome weapons also express inexplicable confidence that those weapons pose no danger to U.S. troops…. My understanding (from cited sources) is that homeland risks from chemical or biological terrorism are smaller than from, say, two snipers…. My best guess is that war and its aftermath would be more costly and difficult than the optimists admit.”

In “Hazy WMD definitions,” Page B4, Feb. 2, 2003, I questioned the hysterical WMD comments of top administration officials such as Paul Wolfowitz, citing contrary evidence from one of the 1997 U.N. inspectors and from Britain’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. I noted that “[Deputy Defense Secretary] Wolfowitz’s acknowledged sources consisted of hearsay evidence from Iraq defectors and old reports from U.N. inspectors. An October 2002 CIA report on Iraq’s weapons likewise relied almost exclusively on past discoveries by U.N. inspectors. That CIA report is full of references to what ‘most analysts believe’ and the words ‘suggests’ and ‘probably’ — which suggests they probably believe much and know little. In any event, it is hypocritical to rely on past discoveries of U.N. inspectors as evidence for waging war while simultaneously claiming inspectors cannot possibly discover anything.”

“Administration officials,” I added, “need credible evidence that Iraq’s actual weapons pose a clear danger to the United States, not just a possible threat to Iran or Israel. Invading Iraq would not remove the need for such proof — it would, in fact, make finding the assumed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ even more essential.”

In “The duct tape economy,” Page B4, Feb. 23, 2003, I cited Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s book, “When Every Moment Counts,” to indicate administration officials and the press were grossly exaggerating the probable risk from ricin, aflatoxin, botulinum toxin and anthrax: “Endless efforts to keep Americans in a constant state of near-panic may help the sales of duct tape, but they are sure to discourage long-term planning by households or businesses. And hearing government officials cry ‘Wolf’ too often, particularly when it comes to hypothetical exotic weapons from distant lands, could easily make us insufficiently alert to far more likely dangers from terrorists using the same weapons here they use in Israel — old-fashioned bullets and bombs.”

In “Intelligence minus brains,” Page B4, June 15, 2003, I offered a detailed critique of the October 2002 CIA report on “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.” I concluded a properly careful reading of the report itself shows “some weapons that were supposed to make Iraq a formidable military threat never existed, such as UAVs or missile warheads loaded with biological agents. Others, such as capacity to produce biological and chemical precursors, were never weapons. The rest, as the CIA put it, was based on ‘limited insight into activities since 1998,’ including speculations from private analysts…. ‘All intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons,’ wrote the CIA. But seeking is not having, and intelligence experts are not necessarily intelligent.”

Finally, on Oct. 12, 2003, in “Mystery of the vanishing weapons,” Page B4, I wrote: “The president has clearly been badly served. At some point, those who produced the shoddy intelligence about Iraqi WMD, and those who most grossly exaggerated its significance, are going to have to be held accountable. That means doing the honorable thing through a few graceful apologies and timely resignations.”

George Tenet’s resignation was neither graceful nor timely, and his apology is still overdue.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist.