How Colin Powell got so much wrong about Iraq.

Military analysis.
Aug. 12 2003 6:27 PM

Calling Out Colin

What Powell got wrong in his U.N. briefing on Iraq.

Revisiting the Powell report
Revisiting the Powell report

In the middle of a fascinating article in Monday's Los Angeles Times, which quotes several former Iraqi officers on why they lost the war so badly, the following passage leaps out: "Commanders interviewed for this article said they were issued no orders regarding chemical or biological weapons. And they denied that Iraq ever possessed such weapons."

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The truth of this denial is, by now, close to inescapable. Too much time has passed, too many suspicious sites have been inspected, too many knowledgeable sources have been interrogated, for much doubt to remain on the matter. Maybe a ton of VX will be unearthed in Ahmed's basement tomorrow, but this is unlikely—and, at this point, few would regard such a find as authentic.

Whatever officials and apologists may say about it in retrospect, the belief in Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" was the only compelling reason, really, to have fought this war. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and his toppling is welcome. But the same could be said of North Korea's Kim Jong-il, with whom the Bush administration is now (properly) preparing to negotiate, or of Liberia's Charles Taylor, whose exile didn't strike Bush as worth the commitment of more than a handful of Marines. Even Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon's intellectual architect of Gulf War II, admitted in his famous Vanity Fair interview that Iraqi human rights alone would not have justified the sacrifice of American soldiers.

So let us ask, one more time: Where are the Iraqi WMD? Or, more to the point now, since such weapons will probably never be found: Why did so many—including Bush officials, whose views on this issue, I think, were sincere, if hyped—believe Iraq had WMD in the first place?

The best case that the administration ever made on the issue was Secretary of State Colin Powell's briefing before the U.N. Security Council last Feb. 5, shortly before the war. Powell introduced the briefing as "an accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behavior" that "demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort to disarm" and, in fact, "are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction."

Months later, news articles reported that Powell had spent several days at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., looking over the intelligence, and that he put only the strongest evidence in his briefing, tossing out many claims—for instance, the business about uranium-shopping in Niger—that he considered flimsy, if not fraudulent.

Yet in hindsight, his best stuff now looks pretty thin. The four "chemical bunkers," which he showed in overhead spy photos, have since been scoured to a fare-thee-well and come up dry. Powell also made much of aluminum tubes, which he said could be used as centrifuges for enriching uranium * and thus constituted proof that Saddam remained "determined to acquire nuclear weapons." Even back in February, Powell conceded that some intelligence analysts thought the tubes were meant for conventional artillery rockets, though he added, "It strikes me as quite odd that the tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets." Now, it doesn't seem odd at all; indeed, the tolerances turn out to be exactly the same as those of conventional artillery tubes made in Italy.

As for the "mobile biological-weapons labs," one trailer of which was supposedly found in northern Iraq last May, the Defense Intelligence Agency has recently concluded that the trailer was in fact what Iraqi officials claimed it was: a producer of hydrogen for military weather balloons. (Even the rival Central Intelligence Agency's report of May 28, which called the trailers "the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological-warfare program," was, read closely, far more ambiguous than its sweeping summary paragraphs suggested.)

This leaves one piece of Powell's briefing that remains, to this day, puzzling. It involved two intercepted phone conversations that Powell played and translated. One, recorded Nov. 26, the day before U.N. weapons inspections were to resume, was said to be between a colonel and a brigadier general in the Iraqi Republican Guard. The general says, "I'll come see you in the morning. I'm worried you all have something left." The colonel replies, "We evacuated everything. We don't have anything left." The implication is that the Iraqis have removed illegal materials from a site to be inspected to the next day.

The other conversation, which Powell said was recorded Jan. 30, was supposedly between two commanders of the 2nd Republican Guard Corps. One reads aloud an instruction, as the other writes it down, phrase by phrase: "Remove the expression 'nerve agent' wherever it comes up in wireless communications."

This was by far the most persuasive part of Powell's briefing. At the time, I called it a "smoking gun," writing, "Assuming the tape is genuine and the translation correct, here is the evidence … that a) the Iraqis possess illegal weapons; (b) they are deliberately hiding them from the inspectors; and c) they are not likely to give up the weapons on their own."

I still stand by the logic of that sentence, but I would like to italicize those first few words: "Assuming the tape is genuine…" Given all the shenanigans that have been revealed since the war ended—the forged letter about uranium from Niger, the fictitious claim in Britain's intelligence dossier that Iraqi troops could fire chemical shells with 45 minutes' notice, and all the rest—it can no longer be assumed that the tape is real or that the people speaking on the tape are who Powell said (and no doubt thinks) they are.

It has been well known since last fall that the Bush administration was actively seeking intelligence that would show Iraq had two things: weapons of mass destruction and a connection with al-Qaida. When the CIA and DIA failed to come up with the goods, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a handful of his top aides formed their own intelligence network to search more carefully. If the word had gone out, to friends far and wide, that Rumsfeld was looking for this sort of evidence, is it not conceivable that someone with an interest in seeing Saddam overthrown—and there were many parties who had such an interest—might have "staged" a phone conversation that they knew the National Security Agency would intercept?

Maybe this is far-fetched. If so, the administration should finally tell us who these officers were. Surely there is no point keeping this information classified; revealing their identities would not put them in any danger. These tapes form the last shred of possible evidence that Iraq might have had chemical or biological weapons in the past nine months—that, in other words, the war had any legitimate cause. If the officers were real, name them.

There is another possibility, perhaps equally far-fetched: that the officers were real but they were making things up, on orders, on the assumption that U.S. agents were listening in. Consider this: If Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, why did he behave as if he did? Deterrence might be a reason. If the United States thought he had these weapons, maybe it wouldn't invade. (CIA Director George Tenet had testified, after all, that Saddam would use these weapons only if his regime were threatened with destruction; this logic was the main reason many Americans opposed the war before it started.)

History is filled with precedents for similar disinformation campaigns. In the late 1950s, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed that his factories were churning out ICBMs "like sausages"—when, in fact, his ICBM program was dreadfully stalled. Khrushchev worried that the Americans were planning a nuclear first strike and thought a Potemkin missile program would give them second thoughts. This was a gross miscalculation; his thundering statements only spurred Eisenhower, then Kennedy, to accelerate and expand the construction of U.S. nuclear missiles.

Monday's Los Angeles Times story reveals that Saddam was a stupid military commander in many ways. For instance, he thought a battle of Baghdad would be a repeat of Black Hawk Down, failing to consider that this time the United States might bring in armor. Maybe he was no less stupid as a diplomat, creating a perception that he thought would dissuade the Americans from invading when in fact it spurred them on.

Correction, Aug. 12, 2003: This story originally incorrectly referred to "enriching aluminum." (Return to the corrected sentence.)