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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Tuesday, July 15, 2003



What Does Ken Pollack Think Now?

Mr. Pollack, the former Clinton NSC member and author of "The Threatening Storm", wrote in the June 20 NY Times:

Where are Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? It's a good question, and unfortunately we don't yet have a good answer.... In any event, the mystery will be solved in good time; the search for Iraq's nonconventional weapons program has only just begun.

On the Iraqi nuclear program:

...it wasn't just the United States that was concerned about Iraq's efforts. By 2002, British, Israeli and German intelligence services had also concluded that Iraq was probably far enough along in its nuclear weapons program that it would be able to put together one or more bombs at some point in the second half of this decade. The Germans were actually the most fearful of all—in 2001 they leaked their estimate that Iraq might be able to develop its first workable nuclear device in 2004.

Nor was it just government agencies that were alarmed. In the summer of 2002 I attended a meeting with more than a dozen former weapons inspectors from half a dozen countries, along with another dozen experts on Iraq's weapons programs. Those present were asked whether they believed Iraq had a clandestine centrifuge lab operating somewhere; everyone did. Several even said they believed the Iraqis had a covert calutron program going as well. (Centrifuge and calutron operations allow a country to enrich uranium and produce the fissile material for a nuclear bomb.)

At no point before the war did the French, the Russians, the Chinese or any other country with an intelligence operation capable of collecting information in Iraq say it doubted that Baghdad was maintaining a clandestine weapons capability. All that these countries ever disagreed with the United States on was what to do about it.


Dedicated Bush partisans will want to stop there. However, pressing on, we find:

Which raises the real crux of the slanted-intelligence debate: the timing of the war. Why was it necessary to put aside all of our other foreign policy priorities to go to war with Iraq in the spring of 2003? It was always the hardest part of the Bush administration's argument to square with the evidence. And, distressingly, there seems to be more than a little truth to claims that some members of the administration skewed, exaggerated and even distorted raw intelligence to coax the American people and reluctant allies into going to war against Iraq this year.

Before the war, some administration officials clearly tended to emphasize in public only the most dire aspects of the intelligence agencies' predictions. For example, of greatest importance were the estimates of how close Iraq was to obtaining a nuclear weapon. The major Western intelligence services essentially agreed that Iraq could acquire one or more nuclear bombs within about four to six years. However, all also indicated that it was possible Baghdad might be able to do so in as few as one or two years if, and only if, it were able to acquire fissile material on the black market.

This latter prospect was not very likely. The Iraqis had been trying to buy fissile material since the 1970's and had never been able to do so. Nevertheless, some Bush administration officials chose to stress the one-to-two-year possibility rather than the more likely four-to-six year scenario....

Moreover, before the war I heard many complaints from friends still in government that some Bush officials were mounting a ruthless campaign over intelligence estimates. I was told that when government analysts wrote cautious assessments of Iraq's capabilities, they were grilled and forced to go to unusual lengths to defend their judgments, and some were chastized for failing to come to more alarming conclusions. None of this is illegal, but it was perceived as an attempt to browbeat analysts into either changing their estimates or shutting up and ceding the field to their more hawkish colleagues.

More damning than the claims of my former colleagues has been some of the investigative reporting done since the war. Particularly troubling are reports that the administration knew its contention that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Niger was based on forged documents. If true, it would be a serious indictment of the administration's handling of the war.

As important as this debate is, what may ultimately turn out to be the biggest concern over the Iraqi weapons program is the question of whose hands it is now in....

Nor can we allow our consideration of weapons of mass destruction and politicized intelligence to be a distraction from the most important task at hand: rebuilding Iraq. History may forgive the United States if we don't find the arsenal we thought we would. No one will forgive us if we botch the reconstruction and leave Iraq a worse mess than we found it.


It's the sensible critics that are most troublesome.









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