Did the CIA just mess up on Iraq's 'weapons of mass destruction'?

Recently-declassified CIA documents blame 'analyst liabilities' for mistakenly concluding that Saddam Hussein had chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs – the rationale for invading Iraq. But some say the situation was more sinister.

Elise Amendola/AP
Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council in 2003.

Remember those “weapons of mass destruction?” How chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs were said to be part of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal – posited as the rationale for invading Iraq in the wake of 9/11, along with the belief that the Iraqi dictator somehow was helping Al Qaeda?

After a massive US-led invasion in 2003 and 4,486 American service men and women lost in Iraq over the years, the images remain:

Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell holding up a small vial of something meant to look sinister as he addressed the UN Security Council. President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice acknowledging "some uncertainty" in Iraq’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon but warning, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Then-CIA Director George Tenet telling President Bush there was a “slam dunk case” regarding such weapons programs in Iraq.

Such weapons were never found. And now, it seems, there’s been a “remarkable CIA mea culpa” regarding those WMD. That’s the conclusion of a report by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Based on documents declassified this summer and acquired from the CIA through a formal “Mandatory Declassification Review” request, the report finds that the spy agency’s internal review “blames ‘analyst liabilities,’ such as neglecting to examine Iraq's deceptive behavior ‘through an Iraqi prism,’ for the failure to correctly assess the country's virtually non-existent WMD capabilities.”

IN PICTURES: Leaving Iraq

In other words, CIA officials – who critics say were being urged by hawks in the administration and think tank neoconservatives pressuring the White House to justify war – in turn pushed agency analysts to come up with conclusions that in hindsight were fundamentally (and in the end tragically) wrong.

"Analysts tended to focus on what was most important to us – the hunt for WMD – and less on what would be most important for a paranoid dictatorship to protect,” the now-declassified CIA review states. “Viewed through an Iraqi prism, their reputation, their security, their overall technological capabilities, and their status needed to be preserved. Deceptions were perpetrated and detected, but the reasons for those deceptions were misread."

In order to preserve his domestic reputation as well as his international image as powerful and dangerous, Hussein and his top officials perpetuated the myth of WMD – which somehow the CIA failed to adequately detect. When Iraqi officials (including Saddam himself after he was captured in Dec. 2003) reversed that assertion, the CIA assumed they were still lying.

“Bottom line, from the CIA’s point of view: Saddam used to lie about possessing WMD, so we believed he still was,” is how Time magazine national security expert Mark Thompson puts it. “Unfortunately, the US went to war based largely on that false intelligence. And 4,486 U.S. troops, 318 allies and untold thousands of Iraqis died in the ensuing conflict.”

Not everyone buys the CIA’s “we screwed up” explanation.

Writing in the online publication Foreign Policy Journal, Jeremy Hammond argues that “far from acknowledging the CIA’s true role, the document does not present any kind of serious analysis, but only politicized statements rehashing well-worn official claims designed to further the myth that there was an ‘intelligence failure’ leading up to the US invasion of Iraq in March of 2003.”

“On the contrary,” he writes, “there was an extremely successful disinformation campaign coordinated by the CIA in furtherance of the government’s policy of seeking regime change in Iraq.”

“The narrative of ‘intelligence failure’ attempts to obfuscate the truth of the matter, which is that senior government officials repeatedly lied and willfully deceived the public by making claims unsupported by evidence and by deliberately withholding any information that contradicted their allegations,” Mr. Hammond concludes. “Seen in this light, it becomes evident that the recently released CIA document is anything but a ‘mea culpa.’ It is, on the contrary, just more of the same.”

IN PICTURES: Leaving Iraq

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