November 23, 2003 | The Weekly Standard

What the Iraqi Generals Tell Us: An Explanation for the Misestimates of Saddam’s Weapons.

Many have waxed wroth at both the CIA's purported misestimates and the Bush administration's alleged deception regarding stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But although security in Iraq is a vital concern, this WMD stockpile issue looks different in November than it did in October. The deck has been shuffled considerably by recent disclosures (in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal) that a number of sources now believe the Iraqi generals were themselves deceived by Saddam about units being equipped with WMD and that French and Russian advice may have substantially affected Saddam's behavior on the eve of the war.

To see how the WMD issue has changed, try to imagine the following hypothetical question fired at the director of central intelligence by an irate member of a congressional committee: “Mr. Tenet, how could your so-called experts have believed that Saddam had deployable weapons of mass destruction on the eve of the war just because all of his own generals did?” Or this imaginary rhetorical thrust at the NSC on the floor of the Senate: “Can this White House explain to us how it could be so weak and foolish as to be steered by this cabal–neocons in the Pentagon, the vice president's office, and the Iraqi general officer corps–into adopting the view that WMD stockpiles actually existed in Iraq?”

Such questions, of course, won't be asked because the new press reports don't fit at all with October's level of vitriol. In short, it may now be considerably harder for those who have axes to grind–Democrats eager to find Bush administration skullduggery, Republicans eager to portray the CIA as incompetent in order to shift attention away from the administration, retired intelligence officers with unhappy memories or grudges. Axe edges should be especially dulled by the revelation that with “100 percent” consistency, according to the Post account, Iraqi commanders have told U.S. interrogators, “My unit didn't have WMD, but the one to my right or left did.”

In short, those American and British intelligence officers and political leaders who thought Saddam's units were armed with WMD early this year, rather than his only retaining “just-in-time” production capacity, may have been neither foolish nor nefarious. It is one thing to make intelligence misestimates because of incompetence, weakness, or ideological bias–all would deserve strong censure. But it is quite another to succeed in the tough job of stealing secrets from a totalitarian government, and then for it to turn out that even if you were skillful and lucky enough to have had Iraqi generals as sources, they had themselves been deceived.

Intelligence collection provides only a partial picture of reality; hence estimates involve judgment and thus contain mistakes. There may not have been enough done in the past–training adequate Arabic linguists, for instance–for there to have been adequate collection on the WMD issue when it was needed. But that is a different matter than the bureaucratic cowardice and political bias that has been charged.

Once David Kay's WMD review is completed we may well learn that there were overestimates with respect to some issues such as stockpiles (where, if mistaken, the estimators seem to have shared their mistake with virtually the entire Iraqi military hierarchy), and that other aspects of the WMD programs were missed or underestimated, such as the biological laboratories hidden by the Iraqi intelligence service, and Saddam's covert attempt to obtain long-range missiles from North Korea. We should learn from both kinds of mistakes and figure out how to do better in the future. But such failures are not prima facie evidence of a scandal. This is the imperfect real world of intelligence estimating.

The interrogations of Tariq Aziz and a number of Iraqi generals seem to be filling in another important part of the WMD picture: the role of the French and Russians in advising Saddam just before the war. It now appears that they convinced him we would repeat our actions of 1991: conduct a long air bombardment, follow it by a land incursion, and then halt short of Baghdad.

Both Aziz and Iraqi Major General Taiee have said that the Russians and French indicated that, during our predicted pause, they would take the steps necessary for Saddam to “buy enough time to win a cease-fire brokered by Paris and Moscow.” If so, General Franks's completely different strategy of boldly driving for Baghdad at the opening of the war may well have surprised Saddam in part owing to the bad advice given him by Mr. Chirac's and Mr. Putin's representatives. Thanks, guys.

If Saddam was led to expect cease-fire negotiations after the war started, this could explain why, even if he had retained some portion of his stocks of chemical or bacteriological weapons, he might well have disposed of much of what remained as the war began. By that point the utility of chemical or biological weapons was very limited: launch sites in the South and West that could have been used for WMD-carrying SCUDs against Israel or other countries had been taken by American and British Special Forces, and it was clear that Iraqi aircraft couldn't be used to deliver such WMD since they would be blown away as they took off. Only artillery firing chemical shells would have been useful against advancing American and British troops (biological weapons generally have only a delayed effect), and they were well-protected by their vehicles and clothing. In these circumstances Saddam could have seen banking on a cease-fire and renewed inspections as a reasonable tactic. It would have made sense to clean things up while awaiting the French- and Russian-sponsored reprieve.

Indeed, a former Iraqi intelligence officer has described being ordered to destroy chemical weapons just as the war began. His behavior, reported by Judith Miller in the New York Times in late April, would fit nicely into a survival plan for Saddam that counted on bellus interruptus.

Should the intelligence being provided in the interviews with Aziz and the Iraqi generals be further confirmed, those who have charged George Tenet, his analysts, and the Bush administration with stupidity, bad faith, and worse regarding WMD may want to stop crying “gotcha” and consider clearing their throats and changing the subject.

R. James Woolsey, director of central intelligence from 1993 to 1995, is a vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton and an FDD Distinguished Advisor.