February 2, 2004 | New York Times Online

Q & A: James Woolsey on WMD

Co-Authored by Bernard Gwertzman

R. James Woolsey, director of central intelligence in 1993-1995 and a longtime advocate of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, argues that some biological and chemical agents may still exist in small quantities in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein's atrocious human-rights record and his regime's ties to terrorists more than justified the war. “The world,” he says, “is roughly 10 times better off with Saddam gone.”

Woolsey contends that inspectors may yet turn up stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But he acknowledges that, “when you end up not being able to find any of the agents or any of the weapons, either because they are hidden, or because they are in Syria, or because they were destroyed, it substantially weakens people's confidence, [and] understandably so.”

Woolsey, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, was interviewed on February 3, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.

How surprised were you when former chief arms inspector David Kay told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we were all wrong” in thinking there were large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Well, at different times, David formulates it in different ways. Much of the time, he talks about stockpiles or large stockpiles. But it seems to me that for some time, it has been possible and may be possible still–he admits the possibility–that small stockpiles existed and couldn't be found and won't be found. I think it is really important to understand this, to put some numbers on this, rather than adjectives.

Look at anthrax, for example, which is the principal biological agent that Iraq, after Hussein Kamal [a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein and head of the military industry in Iraq] defected in 1995, admitted to having produced. The Iraqis admitted they had a biological weapons program. The range of the stockpile of agents was from 8,500 liters, which they admitted, up to Colin Powell's [February 5, 2003] speech [at the United Nations Security Council], drawing on CIA assessments, that it might have been up to 25,000 liters. Now, that sounds like a lot, but that's only the difference between approximately 8.5 tons and 25 tons, or approximately a third of a tractor trailer load or a tractor trailer load and a bit. And if you reduce it to powder, which Powell suggests the Iraqis were perfectly capable of doing to weaponize anthrax, that's the difference between approximately four suitcases full of anthrax powder or twelve suitcases.

So you think it is quite possible that some biological weapons haven't been found?

You have to distinguish between weapons and agents. Weapons suggests loaded-up artillery shells and rockets and bombs. But you don't load anything up with biological or chemical agents until the last minute. So most of the more sophisticated discussion about this talks about agents rather than weapons. Kay said that it is possible–indeed, I think he said it was likely–that something connected to WMD may have been smuggled out to Syria. And the same thing was said some weeks ago by James R. Clapper, the head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

Even with chemical weapons, the numbers that keep getting cited are between 100 tons and 500 tons. That was in the National Intelligence Estimate in the fall of 2002, and it was in Powell's statement. People talk as if that's a huge amount. That's the difference between approximately five tractor trailer loads and 25 loads. So for chemical weapons, if you pull into a truck stop on the interstate, and there are five tractor trailers sitting there with the truckers getting coffee, that is the approximate volume of the lower end of the estimate of the Iraqi chemical agent stockpile.

So you're leaving open the possibility that there still are some WMD in Iraq?

There are three possibilities in addition to the Iraqis never having had any after the mid-1990s. One is that they destroyed some of it and kept a bit and that got hidden. Another is the possibility that some got destroyed at the last minute, a few suitcases worth of anthrax, or part of a truckload of chemical agents. And another possibility, in addition to something being smuggled out to Syria or destroyed at the last minute–if you're talking about these small amounts–is burial or whatever. It's possible that the estimate was wrong. It's possible that it was partly right, or it is possible that it was right when it was made in the fall of 2002, but by late winter [or] early spring of 2003, several truckloads or suitcases had either been destroyed, moved out of Iraq into Syria, or something else done with them.

People get a very exaggerated view of size and also of production facilities. Bruce Berkowitz [senior analyst at RAND] had a superb piece in The Washington Post a couple of days ago that stressed that these days a nuclear weapons program for a country can be contained in two or three medium-sized buildings. We're not talking about something that looks like the Manhattan Project. The South Africans went all the way to a bomb and we didn't know about it. And for chemical weapons, a production facility looks very much like something that makes pesticides. For biological weapons, it could quite easily resemble a microbrewery attached to a restaurant. The equipment is just about that complex and it looks like that.

So people need to get their arms around the size of some of these facilities and some of these stockpiles. And they have to ask themselves this: in the state of California, which is approximately the same size as Iraq, how many suitcases full of cocaine are there or how many truckloads full of marijuana that the authorities can't find or don't know anything about?

You're not convinced there is nothing there?

Nothing in a country the size of California where you're talking about possibly part of a truckload or a truckload or two of chemicals or a few suitcases full of anthrax is a very hard negative to prove. Kay is an extraordinarily able man. I think he is a diligent man. I think he is giving us his very best judgment, and it may be correct that absolutely nothing in the way of biological or chemical agents survived the mid-1990s. Of course we know Saddam had them before. But this is going to be, over the long run, a very hard thing absolutely to prove, given the size of some of these really tiny potential stockpiles and even of production facilities.

In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on February 2, you wrote that the Bush administration could be faulted for putting too much emphasis on the WMD question in rationalizing the decision to go to war and not enough on human rights and terrorist connections. Could you have made an argument for war without emphasizing WMD?

The Clinton administration, to its credit I think, went to war twice with Slobodan Milosevic solely over human rights violations and did so successfully and did so without U.N. resolutions. Milosevic, while a horrible man, has killed approximately 10 percent of the people that Saddam did, about 200,000 versus 2 million. I think a better rationale than purely human rights would have been to emphasize what the Bush administration pointed out in its own strategy statement in the fall of 2002: namely, that in this post-9/11 world we live in, the combination of a terrible dictatorship that aggressively represses human rights; that has connections of one kind or another with terrorist groups, not necessarily controlling them, but some kind of connection; and that has weapons of mass destruction programs, puts such a state in contention, in a sense, for preventive attack because of the possibility, even probability, that it might share WMD such as biological agents with a terrorist group.

And if one emphasizes all three parts of that case, particularly given the horrible nature of Saddam's human rights violations, it seems to me that that is a reasonable proposition, and the American people would likely have bought it.

But apparently as a result of bureaucratic compromises, they didn't want to talk about human rights to the United Nations–maybe it was the State Department, I don't know. After all, the United Nations has just made [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi chairman of the Human Rights Commission, which has 43 dictators in it, so maybe the State Department thought it might anger somebody by talking about human rights. But they did not talk about human rights at all in Powell's statement. And they talked only a little bit about [Iraqi] ties to terrorists [such as] Ansar al-Islam and Abu Nidal. But George Tenet [director of the CIA] had written to the Congress in the fall of 2002 and pointed out that contacts of one kind or the other between the Iraqis and al Qaeda went back a decade and that they involved, among other things, training and instruction with respect to poisons, gases, and explosives.

You don't have to show that Iraq ordered al Qaeda around or that they didn't hate each other. Of course they hated each other. One was secular, and the other fundamentalist Islamist. But Mafia families hate each other, too, and kill each other, and they are perfectly capable of working together here and there against an enemy. There were enough contacts between Iraq and Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda for there to have been a risk that something like anthrax, or even dirty bomb material, might have been provided. To my mind, given the human rights situation, that would have been sufficient.

I don't know why the administration didn't make the case on the basis of its own strategy as distinct from putting all the weight on the WMD. When you end up not being able to find any of the agents or any of the weapons, either because they are hidden or because they are in Syria or because they were destroyed, it substantially weakens people's confidence, [and] understandably so.

So the U.S. decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was wise? You've been advocating that for years.

It is my judgment. It was in the mid-1990s. I supported the Iraq Liberation Act of the Clinton administration, as did almost all the people who were in the Congress in 1998. And I think that the world is roughly 10 times better off with Saddam gone. I don't think the United States should get into the business of just going around invading dictatorships. That's not what the administration statement of the fall of 2002 says, either. In Iran, for instance, another of the so-called axis of evil countries, it would be very bad judgment to use military force now, because you have such a movement of women, students and reformers and even a large number of clerics in opposition to a handful of crazy mullahs who are running the country. We don't want to drive all these wonderful Iranians into the arms of the mullahs.

So even though Iran does have weapons of mass destruction programs, and it is a dictatorship with some terrible human rights violations and it has definite ties to terrorist groups like Hezbollah, foreign policy is not a matter of litmus tests, it is a matter of judgments, and my judgment would be you don't go and use military force against Iran now. But Saddam in the last year, yes, it was a matter of judgment and matters of judgment are things that people can reasonably disagree about. I still think it was a good idea to remove him from power.

If you were the president and were setting up the national commission on intelligence gathering, what would you want the commission to accomplish?

I think it would be reasonable for [commission members] to look at the complex of Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Libya because, as we [have learned] just in the last few days, this may have been an integrated operation, a money-making operation by Dr. [Abdul Qadeer] Khan, the head of the Pakistan nuclear program, and some of his colleagues, and although the CIA probably had a hand recently in turning some of this up, it looks as if United States intelligence missed that for some years, just as they missed the Iraqi uranium enrichment programs in the 1980s.

They also missed the South African [nuclear] program and so forth. Most of these programs of weapons of mass destruction have been missed on the low side, that is, not catching them. That is understandable because the facilities are small. They are very carefully hidden by totalitarian or dictatorial governments. It is a very, very hard problem. But if you only report exactly what you see, and you don't see the South African weapon, you may miss a nuclear-development program. That may explain some of the psychology in the intelligence community on Iraq; having missed some of these earlier programs [perhaps] led some analysts to tilt in the direction of the worst case assessment in some of the these cases–for example with the famous [aluminum] tubes [Iraq attempted to import] that might have been for centrifuges or for rockets, [and] the mobile laboratories for biological weapons that might have been for hydrogen instead.

The allegation from the Democrats among others is that pressure from the White House on intelligence analysts resulted in inaccurate judgments. What do you think?

It is worthwhile to have a commission, I think, to try to look into that. But at this point, Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the CIA and a very objective and fair mind, is running a review for the CIA, and he says that didn't occur. According to the David Brooks column in The New York Times on February 3, 175 [individuals interviewed by the staff of] the Senate [Intelligence] Committee have all been asked about this, and 175 have said no, it didn't happen. And David Kay said he talked to everybody he could talk to, and they said no, it didn't happen. So although one might turn up some analyst who was pressured in ways we don't know about yet, it doesn't look as if the likelihood is that way. After all, intelligence analysts and the director of central intelligence are grownups and they can argue with other government officials. Intelligence analysts ought to be challenged. When I was director of central intelligence in the early 1990s, nobody came to me and said, “Woolsey, stop saying that.” They might have frowned some, but if you can't put up with frowns, you ought not to be in the intelligence business.