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Kay’s Say and the CIA

February 1, 2004

David Kay’s exit interview was odd. In resigning as chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, he made news. “I don’t think they existed,” he said of the WMD supposedly stockpiled by Saddam Hussein. But this announcement came not in a Washington press conference but in a phone interview with a London-based news outlet (Reuters). Then he declined to answer phone calls and e-mails from The New York Times and talked to the London Telegraph instead.

Reuters said Kay “fired a parting shot at the Bush administration.” This wasn’t true and may have reflected the journalistic expectation (or hope) that Kay would slam the door on the way out. Reuters eliminated the “parting shot” from its copy a couple of hours later.

The right-leaning Telegraph, possibly with an opposite expectation, ran its story under a sensational headline: “Saddam’s WMD hidden in Syria, says Iraq survey chief.” Kay was quoted as saying that interviews with former Iraqi officials established that “a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam’s WMD program.” The story was tamer than the headline.

Kay’s account grew tamer still when he got around to talking to U.S. media and the Senate: Whatever had been shipped to Syria (satellites and on-the-ground reports established “a constant stream of trucks, cars, rail traffic”) could not have amounted to much, since no significant, telltale evidence of production of weapons of mass destruction has been found anywhere in Iraq.

The first reports on Kay’s comments, based solely on the brief and thin Reuters dispatch, stuck to the simple failure to find WMD. But once Kay started adding qualifiers and nuances, the story seemed less damaging to the Bush administration and less helpful to the “Bush lied” constituency. The stark no-weapons reporting (Iraq illicit arms gone before war, inspector insists, said the first New York Times article) faded from certainty to the finding that the weapons “probably” were gone when the United States invaded. Kay is personally convinced that Iraq had no WMD, but he acknowledged a dwindling chance that such forbidden weapons might still be found.

Kay told National Public Radio that Saddam “had a large number of WMD program-related activities,” repeating the awkward phrase used in Kay’s interim report last October and repeated in President Bush’s State of the Union address. “So there was a WMD program. It was going ahead. It was rudimentary in many areas.” Later, he said that Iraq began retooling its nuclear weapons program in 2000 and 2001, but never got as far toward making a bomb as Iran and Libya.

The Iraqis were working to develop biological weapons using the poison ricin “right up until” the invasion in March. Officers in the Republican Guard, Kay said, told interrogators that they believed other guard units had biological or chemical weapons. This might be interpreted as a small olive branch offered to the intelligence community — maybe the CIA was picking up reports of beliefs, rather than hard facts, about the existence of WMD.

“Clearly, the intelligence that we went to war on was inaccurate, wrong,” Kay said, but he did not think intelligence reports had been deliberately distorted and said he had found no evidence that analysts had been pressured to shade their assessments in order to justify a war. His only political finger-pointing was toward the Carter administration (for its policy of relying so heavily on technological surveillance and downgrading the need for spies) and in the general direction of unnamed political or military leaders who allowed post-invasion looting to go on in Iraq, thus allowing the destruction of official papers about weapons.

Kay’s smooth and convincing testimony at his Senate hearing helps to discredit the theory that neoconservatives in the Bush administration conspired to manipulate intelligence reports. In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Duke professor of political science Peter Feaver writes: “How could even the all-powerful neocons have manipulated the intelligence estimates of the Clinton administration, French intelligence, British intelligence, German intelligence, and all the other ‘co-conspirators’ who concurred on the fundamentals of the Bush assessment?”

The belief that Saddam had WMD was so universal that one blogger,, launched a contest of sorts seeking the names of any serious analysts who publicly doubted the actual existence of WMD in Iraq before September 2002, when the U.N. inspections resumed. The blogger and his readers identified two people who qualified: Russian President Vladimir Putin and former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter.

The point here is unmissable. The huge consensus about WMD in Iraq was wrong, and the arrow is pointing toward the intelligence services. The war on terrorism will be a disaster if these services aren’t shaken up and forced to do better.

From → Politics

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