Great post giving an overview of the entire pre-war intelligence debate from the Belmont Club:
The entire assertion that ‘Bush lied, people died’ doesn’t work if there was a single pre-war consensus Iraq intelligence estimate which unhappily turned out to be wrong, in whole or in part. It only works if there were two versions, one of which was fed to the public and to government officials like John Murtha, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry (which ‘misled’ them into voting for OIF) and another which was kept secret within the inner circles of the Bush administration, which showed OIF to be unjustified.
Yet it’s fair to say that one reason why the pre-war intelligence estimate that Saddam Hussein constituted a national security threat to the US did not elicit more scrutiny was because the view had been held for years. Milbank and Pincus noted that President Clinton ordered Iraq bombed on four days in 1998 based on a Congressional authorization to defend “against the continuing threat by Iraq”. Although a Bush-administration ground invasion of Iraq was a far more serious step than a Clinton cruise missile barrage it was based on the same general narrative – a narrative which had been accepted for years.
Nor was the US alone in holding this view; the idea that Saddam Hussein constituted a threat to international security was shared by Britain and even the United Nations. Neither the regime of sanctions, weapons inspections, No-Fly Zones nor anything else makes any sense except in the context of a consensus that Saddam Hussein constituted some sort of threat. On that subject there was simply one version.
But it was a story with two variants, respecting the magnitude and imminence of the Hussein threat. Both are presented in a PDF compiled by the Washington Post ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/nationalsecurity/documents/nie_iraq_wmd.pdf ). (See an equivalent HTML version from FAS here: http://www.fas.org/irp/cia/product/iraq-wmd.html ) The first is represented by the State Department’s Intelligence and Research Assessment, which believed that although Iraq’s WMD programs were extant, they were not far advanced.
It’s fairly clear there was only one version of the general assessment of Saddam Hussein before OIF – that he was a threat. There were, however, two variants respecting the degree and imminence of the danger that he represented. The first view was that Saddam, though mischievous, did not present a very imminent threat in 2003, though INR offered no estimate to when he might be. The second view was that Saddam Hussein might be able to build a nuclear weapon in the 2007-2009 timeframe. Interestingly, the NIE’s most imminent Iraqi threat scenario did not involve nuclear weapons at all but possible assistance to a terrorist launched “CBW attack against the United States”.
Since chemical weapons are far more widely available than nuclear weapons, the danger of a CBW attack on America did not directly depend on Yellowcake in the Niger or centrifuge tubes, but simply on the availability of money and operational support that a hostile Iraqi regime might offer a terrorist organization. The seriousness of any Iraqi CBW threat to America was independent of it’s nuclear weapons making capability; indeed it was only directly dependent on the character of the regime in Baghdad.
It’s an article of journalistic faith now that OIF was all about WMDs and that generalization has covered a multitude of elisions. A close reading of the NIE suggests that the Saddam CBW threat was insensitive to which version of how advanced Saddam’s fissile program was. In fact, one is tempted to conclude that in a larger sense, OIF itself was irrelevant to the threat of a state supported terrorist CBW threat against America; because for so long as a state, not necessarily Iraq, had the incentive to provide money and logistical support for a terrorist group intent on mounting such an attack the threat would remain undiminished.
Do read the whole thing.