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Dear Glenn Kessler:

Thanks for your column of March 22 on the issues of intelligence failure or White
House spin regarding the 2003 war on Iraq. It prompts us to share our own
experience in our research work and independent consulting on sanctions from
1992 through the mid-2000s that brought us into consistent interaction with UN
and USG actors, including intelligence experts, deeply engaged in weapons
inspections and sanctions implementation in Iraq.

As the clouds of war began to swirl in early 2002 our Sanctions and Security
project undertook a comprehensive inventory of what WMD materials had
credibly been captured, destroyed, or degraded via UN inspections inside Iraq. It
was far more considerable than any public official in the USG had acknowledged.
We also assessed the materials captured and prohibited in the sanctions program
that was strangling Iraq’s trade and finances. In addition, we examined the claims
that Saddam must be developing weapons that were undiscoverable by
inspectors. Sanctions data revealed, for example, that some products and agents,
such as freon needed for refrigeration, were so limited by sanctions that
preservation of the biological or chemical weapons stocks, if they existed, at
levels feared was quite implausible.

Worried that time was running out for our findings to have any impact on the
march to war, we self-published a few policy briefs that we blitzed to various
members of the USG and news agencies, and pushed articles out to various
popular and policy journals. We began to have some success in getting on major
news programs and talking with a limited number of US officials. The articles
emphasized that sanctions were working in disarming and containing Hussein.
The submission to Foreign Affairs was turned down - we were told ‘with
reluctance’. After dithering for a few months Arms Control Today published a
shortened article of ours in September. But they felt the need to have a counter-
argument article from Charles Duelfer, who later headed up the post-war search
for WMD. Duelfer wrote that sanctions regime was falling apart and Iraq would
continue to have banned weapons as long Hussein was in power.
These experiences with the journals and even the news people reflected the
unexamined consensus view among foreign-policy elites that Iraq did have some
kind of WMD program and certainly would not hesitate to develop even more if
the sanctions strangling their revenues and materials were failing or loosened.
They assumed Iraq was unrestrained by either inspections or sanctions and they
had limited understanding or data supporting how successful these reinforcing
policies had been in disarming Iraq.

The individuals who did not – rather consistently - share the elite view were desk-
based and other mainline intelligence officials that we met across the USG during
this time. Among other interactions with these experts we were asked to attend
a ‘no-paper’ two hour meeting at the CIA. There were no business cards
exchanged, no writing pads allowed to us, no names of people around the table
provided.

But the questions about our findings and views were intense and detailed. It was
a grilling about evidence and interpretations of our results that revealed they very
much had their own, thus permitting such thorough scrutiny. They came as close
as we thought they could to validating our findings that invading Iraq in order to
find the WMDs - at best - would lead to discovering remnants of a decimated
program. From our experience the intel was there for those who wanted to learn
it. It was not that the intelligence community was wrong.

In our research and anti-war policy advocacy experience we found intelligence


failures were of a more nuanced and troublesome nature than simply ‘why did
intel get it so wrong’ or ‘who lied’ in reading the intelligence. To their credit, in
2004 the editors of Foreign Affairs asked for an updated resubmission of the
article rejected almost two years earlier in which we could explore these issues.
See: Foreign Affairs.

We showed that the Bush administration spent its first two years methodically
and effectively rebuilding an international consensus behind sanctions and
containment of Iraq. By the fall of 2002, it had constructed the core elements of
an effective long-term containment system. The adoption of "smart" sanctions in
Iraq was a diplomatic triumph for the Bush administration at the UN. It was
followed a few months later by Iraq's acceptance of renewed inspections and
Security Council approval of a tougher monitoring regime in Resolution 1441. And
all of this was built on top of successful disarming Iraq and decimating Iraq’s
military capacity through sanctions and inspections before Bush came into office.
The crisis of intelligence in 2003 was not just who lied, or why so many officials
overestimated what was wrong in Iraq. Regardless of what intelligence was put in
front of them, no one in journalism and few in policy analysis pushed the Bush
Administration on why they ignored so much readily available evidence that
sanctions and inspections had actually worked in Iraq.
The US had mostly won their goals but convinced themselves and others that we
were losing and under threat. It was not that just that the Bush decision-making
team conjured up the worst fears of what WMDs were possible for Saddam to
have or build. The Iraq case demonstrates that claims about intelligence estimates
that fail to take into account the success of past actions imperil what becomes
future policy.
The implications of the Iraq case for dealing with heavily sanctioned Iran or North
Korea should not escape us.

David Cortight
Director of Policy Studies
George A. Lopez
Professor Emeritus of Peace Studies
Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies
University of Notre Dame