International Security Studies
The WMD Commission Report: Findings and Implications
This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's Division of International Studies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.
The failure to discover weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq after the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime undercut the core rationale for the war. In the lead up to the 2003 conflict, the Bush administration cited assessments of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) to assert that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted Iraq's nuclear program, and possessed biological and chemical weapons. A presidential commission, established by President Bush in the aftermath of the war under the co-chairmanship of Laurence Silberman and Charles Robb, issued its final report on this intelligence debacle in March 2005.
The report examined the IC's performance not only on Iraq, but on Libya, Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism. On the basis of the "lessons learned" from the case studies, the commission offered recommendations to reform the IC's organizational structure and culture. According to commission member Walter Slocombe, Iraq was not a "perfect storm" – a series of unique conditions that produced a bad result – but a reflection of systemic problems.
Slocombe cited the limits on the IC's collection capabilities, which meant that the hard evidence on Iraq was remarkably thin. In addition, the collectors of WMD intelligence were largely cut off from those assigned to analyze it. Slocombe cited the example of a type of truck in Iraq that the IC linked to Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons (CW) program; what U.S. officials described as increased Iraqi CW activities was actually the result of more frequent surveillance flights that simply produced more photos of the same phenomenon.
Beyond the problem of collection, the analysis of WMD data lacked analytical rigor. For example, the assessment that certain aluminum tubes were intended for Saddam's nuclear program was based on the high price that the Baghdad regime had paid to acquire them. Analysts failed to consider alternative hypotheses: What would it look like if Saddam Hussein did not have WMD programs? Saddam Hussein's history of concealment (as well as a history of use) led to a "confirmation bias" that he still possessed those capabilities.
According to Slocombe, the commission found no overt evidence that the intelligence assessments on Iraq's WMD programs had been politicized. But a mindset in the government and the IC existed that was not receptive to new and alternative views on the WMD issue. Slocombe stated that the IC had stood up to political pressure to link Iraq to Al Qaeda.
The report's conclusion underscored the need to integrate the collectors and the analysts and to improve information sharing. Slocombe observed that those working with classified sources often do not know what is available in open sources – hence the need for the establishment of an "open sources office" in CIA. He also concluded that understanding the culture of an adversary is as important as understanding its technology: In the case of Iraq, that would not have affected the WMD issue but would have affected the occupation after the toppling of the regime.
Robert S. Litwak, Director, Division of International Studies