David Kay and his team are not coming up empty-handed in their search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. They have uncovered networks of clandestine chemical weapons (CW) and biological weapons (BW) laboratories, proof of systematic concealment and deception, reference strains of BW-related organisms, evidence that Saddam remained intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, and much more. These discoveries notwithstanding, Kay and the Iraq Survey Group have not yet found stocks of chemical or biological weapons. Since WMD played such a big part in the public justification for Operation Iraqi Freedom, fingers are starting to point.
Some (mostly Republicans) are saying the CIA provided lousy intelligence to President Bush and his advisors, leading them to believe the WMD threat from Baghdad was greater than it was - a classic intelligence failure. Others (mostly Democrats) claim that Bush took the intelligence and deliberately exaggerated it, dishonestly manipulating the CIA's judgments in order to rationalize an invasion of Iraq that he and his advisors had already decided upon.
These two accusations both need to be treated with the greatest skepticism.
The National Intelligence Estimate
Much of the talk about an intelligence failure points to statements made in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's WMD, a classified report produced by the CIA and five other members of the Intelligence Community. In July 2003, a declassified version of the NIE's Key Judgments was made public.
In its Key Judgments, the NIE unambiguously declared that there were WMD in Iraq. It said Baghdad possessed between 100 and 500 metric tons of CW, and was producing mustard, sarin, GF (cyclosarin), and VX. The NIE asserted that "all key aspects - R&D, production, and weaponization - of Iraq's offensive BW program are active and [most] elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the  Gulf War."
Of course, most of the 90-page NIE remains classified, and therefore beyond the scope of public commentary. Still, by taking the declassified Key Judgments and combining them with Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs, an unclassified supplementary report that the CIA has also released, we can come to reasonably confident conclusions about just how sound those Key Judgments actually were.
But before we get to the NIE, we need to take note of a fact that hovers over the entire enterprise like a dark cloud. The analysts who wrote the NIE had almost no recent human intelligence (HUMINT) to draw on. This was not surprising, as Saddam's security services spent the past decade killing every CIA agent they could find, leaving our Clandestine Service with few, if any, well-placed spies in the Baghdad government. About a year ago the Agency evidently started rebuilding its web of Iraqi agents, but twelve months is not enough time to spot, develop, and recruit anything like an adequate agent network, especially in a totalitarian state like Saddam's Iraq.
This HUMINT gap is actually implied in the NIE itself. In the section entitled Confidence Levels for Selected Key Judgments in this Estimate, three judgments are listed about which the NIE claims to have the lowest confidence - i.e., when Saddam would use WMD; whether Saddam would clandestinely attack the U.S. mainland; and whether Saddam might share WMD with al-Qa'ida. Notice that all three have to do with plans and intentions, two subjects on which only human spies can effectively report.
To make up for the dearth of agent reporting, the CIA seems to have fallen back on three other categories of information in its preparation of the NIE:
When all these sources were pulled together and the analysis was written, the result was a realistic, responsible National Intelligence Estimate. No effort was made to present the sources as being stronger than they were. Old material, for example, was labeled as such, and when inferences were drawn from Iraq's refusal to answer questions, this too was clearly identified. No sophisticated policy maker, in the White House or anywhere else, can plausibly claim to have been misled.
On the other hand, the Key Judgments were undeniably strong. Honest critics might legitimately question whether the triad of historical data, negative inference, and NTM was robust enough to support such confident conclusions. But supporters of the Key Judgments can make the opposite case, and do so at least as persuasively as the critics. For in the final analysis, however lacking in HUMINT corroboration the Estimate may be, the data it cites is voluminous and accurate.
The White House and the NIE
So the NIE was a credible document. But did White House officials illegitimately exploit intelligence to further a veiled agenda, as some of the President's detractors are claiming? Their public statements on the likelihood that Iraq had WMD, however confident, do not appear to have gone beyond the available intelligence estimates. More complex is the question of whether the Administration used WMD as an excuse for pursuing 'hidden' ends.
Although WMD concerns were certainly the centerpiece of Bush's public campaign to gain support for Operation Iraqi Freedom, they were only part of a much larger strategy about which the President and his advisors have been remarkably candid. In the important National Security Strategy series and collateral statements (like the President's June 2002 speech at West Point), the Administration laid out the need for power projection, regime change, preemption (preferably with allies, alone when necessary), the application of political and military pressure in the Middle East, and other elements of America's strategy for combating terror.
The eradication of WMD was always an important part of the Administration's strategy, but it was (and is) far from being the whole. And this fact was never hidden, although the WMD piece was publicly much more prominent than were the larger, strategic elements. This was hardly surprising, since the Administration was trying to give potential allies (e.g., Germany, France) something they could endorse, and the destruction of Iraqi WMD was a far easier goal for the Europeans to support than a proposal for sheer US power projection would have been.
Still, the decision to be relatively coy about the strategic goals of Operation Iraqi Freedom carried a risk: If WMD were not found, there would be some explaining to do. When the decision to emphasize WMD was made, this risk seemed relatively low. It retrospect, it was not.