We may never know if Saddam Hussein really had weapons of mass destructionduring the final months or years before his ouster, but it is worth asking why the Bush administration claimed he did with a degree of certainty far exceeding that of U.S. intelligence reports.
Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and the other Pentagon officials who made these claims so fiercely probably weren't lying. Clearly, they had formed their conclusions first, then went scrounging for the evidence. Clearly, they stretched the evidence they found right up to, and in some cases beyond, the logical limits. However, it's a fair bet that they genuinely believed that Saddam had these weapons. They probably also believed that the analysts in the CIA and DIA, who were uncertain or skeptical about the matter, just didn't, or didn't want to, look hard enough.
In this sense, Rumsfeld and company saw themselves as something like a district attorney who twists the facts a bit to "frame a guilty man"—or like Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, who admitted in his memoirs that, while pushing for a massive U.S. arms buildup against what he saw as a grave Soviet threat, he made his points "clearer than truth."
In fact, the history of the Cold War offers many parallels to this pattern, few more enlightening or pertinent than the controversy over the "missile gap"—another case of a threat that everyone perceived as real and immediate (it even helped elect a president) but that, in this case, turned out to be completely false.
It started in 1957, when the CIA's annual top-secret National Intelligence Estimate stated that the Soviets could deploy 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles by the end of 1960 or, if they built them on a crash basis, even the end of '59—500 by the end of 1961 or '62. Not only would such an arsenal greatly outnumber the U.S. missile force, it would also be large enough to wipe out America's entire nuclear arsenal in a surprise first-strike.
This estimate reinforced a report that same year, by a top-level Air Force panel, concluding that the USSR's primary strategic objective was to destroy so much of our arsenal that we would not be able to retaliate effectively—with the result that "the Soviets might well consider that they would be in a position to initiate general [nuclear] war with very little risk."
The estimate was based on Air Force Intelligence data, but its numbers—and its underlying assumptions about Soviet aims and motives—were accepted as truth by the entire intelligence community. (The only dissent came from the Strategic Air Command's intelligence wing, which predicted the Soviets would have not 500 ICBMs but 1,000.)
However, by mid-1958, analysts in the CIA's science and technology division began to notice something strange: The Soviets were still testing plenty of short- and medium-range missiles, but they were dramatically slowing down their ICBM testing; they'd tested only six ICBMs, all told, and hadn't tested any for several months. (The United States had a secret radar site in Turkey that looked out across the Black Sea. The Soviets had two missile test-ranges—one for ICBMs, one for shorter-range missiles, both within this radar's view.)
The CIA analysts wondered: How could the Soviets have 100 missiles in the next couple years when they haven't been testing any lately?
As a response to this skepticism, Air Force officers started spreading the word, to the press and among Democratic hawks in Congress, that CIA chief Allen Dulles and, by implication, President Dwight Eisenhower were dangerously underestimating the Soviet threat. From this stemmed the widespread charges of the administration's complacency about a "missile gap."