The absence of large-scale stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or proscribed missiles in Iraq following the coalition invasion left many puzzled and angered in the post-war period. However, the WMD issue is more a lesson in the limitations of intelligence than in its abuse by governments. Although technically a secret rather than a mystery1, the details of Saddam Hussein's weapons program were so diffuse and well-guarded that it would have been impossible to know the whole story without actually being Saddam Hussein.

After 9/11, both the Americans and the British had lost their tolerance for this level of uncertainty, a situation exacerbated by the absence of any international inspection teams in Iraq following Saddam Hussein causing UNSCOM to withdraw in 1998. In an atmosphere of growing fear over the nexus between weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, the intelligence was construed in the worst possible light.

Many of the claims of this intelligence have now passed into the realm of mystery, the invasion having changed the facts on the ground to the point where much is now neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Although some intelligence officials made comments that now appear somewhat bullish, it seems that the pre-war intelligence assessments were largely supported by the available evidence. The conclusions reached were entirely reasonable based on the history of Saddam's regime and his known preoccupations. What has been shown to be at fault in the post-war period are over-inflated media and public perceptions of what exactly would be found by the boots on the ground – and this is more a problem created by policymakers than intelligence officials.


It is common to begin telling the story of Iraq's WMD program with the Gulf War, when it was realized by Western intelligence agencies that Saddam had a significantly more advanced weapons program than they had suspected before the war. One might go back even further to the story of the Osirak reactor, which was bombed in 1981 by the Israeli Air Force due to Israeli fears that Saddam was planning to produce a nuclear bomb. Iraq's history of pursuing WMD was hence at least two decades old by the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and over this entire period Saddam had remained single-minded in his aspirations to such weapons.

The Gulf War saw the institution of a policy known of containment based on a number of UN Security Council resolutions and a dual enforcement arm. The first arm consisted of the USAF and the RAF, involved in Operation Southern Watch and Operation Provide Comfort (later Operation Northern Watch) which enforced no-fly zones over 60% of Iraqi territory. As Woodward points out, this was a highly risky and expensive venture for the Allies – very expensive warplanes and the lives of pilots were being risked to take out AA batteries, of which Saddam had warehouses full.

The risks might have been deemed worthwhile, if not positively desirable, if the other enforcement arm – United Nations weapons inspections – had continued to see success through the decade and into the twenty-first century. The first UN body charged with the duty of disarming Saddam was UNSCOM, which was instituted in 1991. While Saddam was focused on other problems – viz. internal uprisings – UNSCOM was able to record significant success, but it gradually became weakened throughout the later '90s. According to Scott Ritter there was an 'anti-UNSCOM industry', a huge bureaucracy headed by Tariq Aziz to engage in denial and deception operations. Eventually UNSCOM withdrew in 1998 and the UK and USA launched a bombing campaign against Iraq.

Emerging uncertainty

Anyone concerned with Saddams weapons program now had a huge new burden on their mind, as the absence of any international inspectors in Iraq meant the only barrier to Saddam's acquisition of WMD were the UN sanctions, which it was suspected – and later proved – he had built a sophisticated apparatus to circumnavigate. Iraq was an incredibly difficult target to penetrate via covert action due to the efficiency of Saddam's security apparatus, and so with the absence of the international teams information on Iraq's weapons program would be hard to come by.

The occasional defector provided information, but such individuals were always suspect as it was in their interest to falsify stories to encourage a Western confrontation with Saddam. Between 1998 and 2001, Western intelligence continued to believe that Saddam sought weapons of mass destruction, that he would be able to reconstitute such programs within weeks of the end of UN sanctions, and that he possibly still had stocks of proscribed weapons.

The nature of the beast

All of these beliefs fit a hypothesis which was perfectly reasonable. Saddam had systematically lied for so long that he was incapable of convincing anyone he was telling the truth. British and American intelligence was bound to continue to believe he was engaging in proscribed activity when he did everything he could to hinder weapons inspections, and refused to give a full disclosure of his activities. One failure it is possible to highlight here is that the Western agencies were perhaps expecting Saddam to be too much like a rational actor, and ignoring the nature of his regime.

It was true that the nature of his regime made WMD particularly appealing to him, as they could be used for both external aggression and internal pacification. However, Saddam's constant fear of internal coups and his self-image as the leader of the Arab nation who was standing up to the West made it very difficult for him to prostrate himself before the demands of the United Nations Security Council. It even appears that on the eve of the war he ordered the distribution of protective gear to his troops and was reluctant to admit to military commanders that he did not actually possess WMD with which to fight off the coalition invasion.

Saddam's intransigence, based in pride and necessity, was taken by the West as a smokescreen for his prohibited activities. However, the prevailing view of Saddam's regime among both policymakers and intelligence officials in the Western world – based very legitimately on his past record – meant that he was always viewed with a jaundiced eye.

Saddam had clearly calculated that he would win the war of nerves with the West. He had survived both the Iran-Iraq war and Operation Desert Storm, weakened but still in power – he had seen American Presidents come and go while he remained. John Keegan points out that he was an acolyte of Stalin, who despite his numerous audacious crimes never overstretched himself and met with decisive failure – unlike Hitler. Maybe he felt invulnerable. Indeed, as the twentieth century drew to a close things did seem to be going rather auspiciously for him. What changed everything was September 11.

The impact of 9/11

Blair pointed out that after 9/11 what changed was not the intelligence on Saddam's WMD, but the calculus of risk carried out by the USA and UK. Intelligence remained just as sparse on Iraq's weapons programs post-9/11 as it had done beforehand, but this paucity now seemed a terrible threat. 9/11 shook America from its complacency about the post-Cold War world, inspiring George W. Bush to recognize the existence of America's enemies in the world and take the battle to them.

Whereas Saddam's weapons had before seemed a threat to regional stability and hence America's national interests in the Middle East, they now seemed a clear and present danger to the American homeland itself. Intelligence on Iraq's weapons was combined with new intelligence emerging about international proliferation of such weapons by Pakistan's A.Q. Khan. This raised two associated dangers – Saddam could acquire weapons through such networks, and Saddam could distribute weapons through such networks. He could even distribute them to a terrorist group, even al-Qaeda – and he was known to permit the operation of a group linked to al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, in the north of Iraq.

The mass of fragmentary evidence that existed on Iraq's weapons programs came to be seen in this light as menacing, but what was incredibly menacing were the gaps in this intelligence. The large if circumstantial body of known information was extrapolated out into what Donald Rumsfeld would call the 'known unknowns' – specifically, if Iraq had actual stocks of usable WMD or precursor materials. Actually finding what was dubbed a 'smoking gun' was impossible without international inspections, and little more likely with them.

The amount of material which was unaccounted for in Iraq following the international inspections could have been fit into a petrol tanker, and yet its destructive power was huge. The policy of containment looked insufficient to America in the face of these facts and their new intolerance of threats in the post-9/11 era.

The failure to find WMD in Iraq after the war is not necessarily as harsh an indictment of pre-war intelligence as is often suggested, nor does it demonstrate the abuse of intelligence by policymakers. The Hutton and Butler reports have cleared the government of political pressure on the intelligence community in the UK, and no significant scandal has emerged in the USA. The mass of evidence on Iraq's weapons program was so overwhelming that specific quibbles such as the yellowcake affair or the 45 minutes claim cannot derail the strength of the case which confronted policymakers in 2003.

The case had, of course, become particularly strong as late due to 9/11 and the new propensity for policymakers to read worst case scenarios into the intelligence. The shake-up of the international environment that was heralded by 9/11 led naturally to feelings of uncertainty and fear among Western policymakers, particularly in the Anglosphere, which was bound to affect how they interpreted the available data. As was shown by the missile/bomber gap scares in the 1950s and was shown again here, fear multiplied by ignorance often results in exaggeration – at the very least it results in increased fear.

This in itself explains the shift in perceptions following 9/11. Western intelligence agencies would have been remiss in their duties had they not continued to report on the activities of Iraq's weapons program as best they could, as well as on the international arms trade.

The limits of intelligence

The limitations of intelligence itself, especially in penetrating a regime like Saddam's, is shown by their inability to get the full picture. Yet these limitations are shown by the Hutton report to have been fully communicated to the Blair government, which interpreted them as signifying a danger – what could not be seen could be used to take one by surprise. In the USA, George Tenet was guilty of characteristic over-zeal when he declared the evidence a 'slam dunk'. The Blair government's September dossier also communicated incorrectly to the public the concreteness of intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs, citing the difficulty in explaining intelligence to the layman as justification.

Yet neither of these instances signifies an intelligence failure, but rather a failure of clarity in communication. This failure – which rests with policymakers – led to the expectation that a 'smoking gun' would be produced in Iraq soon after the coalition invasion which would prove Saddam had stocks of proscribed weapons. The difficulty of finding a small cache of material in a huge country precluded this from being the case.


The conclusions and working hypotheses of the intelligence communities in the UK and the USA were entirely consistent with what was known, what it was known was not known, and the past history of Saddam's regime. It might be mentioned in closing the discussion of this issue that intelligence agencies from countries which did not support the Iraq war also continued to believe Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, as did Hans Blix – although he kept this opinion to himself. The fundamental difference between the countries in the pro and anti war camps were not on the existence of the weapons, but the conclusions that should be drawn from their existence.

That France could so vociferously oppose the war while knowing essentially what the Americans knew about Iraqi WMD – although perhaps in less detail – is an object lesson in how the perceptions of policymakers effect their interpretation of intelligence. While the attacks of 9/11 resonated throughout the entire Western world, they did so much more strongly amongst America's closest political and cultural allies, whose elites felt the threat much more strongly.

These countries were no longer willing to accept that the limitations of intelligence might lead to an attack on their own shores, and hence undertook decisive steps to remove the threat from Saddam's Iraq.

The overall goal of the coalition invasion of Iraq was perceived as being more complex than this in the minds of a number in the American and British political classes, namely the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East as a whole. George W. Bush told Bob Woodward that he believed a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would eventually grow out of the coalition invasion of Iraq. It is worth noting in conclusion that such matters are entirely beyond the realm of intelligence and firmly in that of mystery, and that while the Iraq war can certainly tell us many things about intelligence, intelligence cannot tell us everything about the Iraq war.

In providing policymakers with factual reporting on Iraq's capabilities, while also accepting the limitations of this reporting – a quality found, admittedly, more in evidence in the more timid political culture of Britain – intelligence agencies did their bit admirably before the Iraq war. The alternative, for them to have concluded Saddam was no to little threat at all, might have led to the death of containment; and who knows then what might have happened when Saddam was unleashed. The intelligence community provided intelligence that containment might not work indefinitely, and that Saddam could plausibly threaten the American homeland – it is the policymakers that history will judge for the way they acted on this received information.

1. In intelligence, a "mystery" is something that cannot be found out however good your collection apparatus is. For instance, the answer to the question 'Where will Osama bin Laden direct attacks against Western targets in the next five years?' is not knowable. Ozzie might himself not know, and if he does the information might only lie in his skull.

Further reading

Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (London, 2004) is an invaluable account of the view from the Bush White House, whereas John Keegan's The Iraq War (London, 2004) discusses the broader issues. Hans Blix tells the story from his perspective in Disarming Iraq (London, 2004).

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