In the decade since the invasion of Iraq, a number of arguments to explain the intelligence failure there are now accepted as gospel truth. Certainly, there were plenty of mistakes made then that should be avoided in the future. However, many of these arguments seem grounded in politics rather than reality.
One of the most obvious examples is the widely accepted statement that President George W. Bush lied about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles. But here's the thing: If Bush knew that Saddam did not have such weapons, he would have been the only one -- even Saddam wasn't 100 percent certain about what resided in his stockpiles. In reaction to insistent U.S. and British statements about Iraq's WMD, at an October 2002 Revolutionary Command Council meeting, Saddam asked his own staff whether they might know something he did not about residual WMD stocks.
The intelligence wasn't cooked or slanted to make policymakers happy. It was just wrong. That made Bush mistaken -- but it doesn't make him a liar.
Intelligence agencies around the world erred in their assessments about Iraqi WMD. Some were more wrong than others. But the broadly held view by intelligence practitioners was that Saddam had capabilities that exceeded the limitations placed on him by the United Nations after the 1991 Gulf War. And in fact, Saddam was not fully compliant with the United Nations: He had ballistic missiles that exceeded permitted range limits and he had certainly had a long track record of blocking and deceiving U.N. weapons inspectors. His cooperation was always less than needed. But as it turned out, by 2002, the Iraqi president did not have militarily significant stocks of chemical or biological agents, and his nuclear program had been halted years earlier.
Given Saddam's history, it wasn't crazy for the intelligence community to believe that he would reconstitute his WMD programs. Consider these data points: In the 1980s, Saddam employed massive amounts chemical munitions to the front in his war with Iran. It saved Iraq (and his regime) from Iranian "human wave attacks." Later, in the 1991 Kuwait war, Saddam deployed and authorized the use of chemical and biological missiles and bombs, should the United States advance on Baghdad. It did not; Saddam believed his possession of WMD deterred President George H. W. Bush. So Saddam had two experiences where WMD saved him. That's a pretty good incentive to hang on to as much of it as possible. And for years he did everything possible to do just that-as evidenced by his indisputable track record of lying and deception to U.N. inspectors from 1991 to 1997.
The U.S. intelligence failures on Saddam's WMD have been closely scrutinized for the past decade. Careful, fact-based examinations of the sources and methodologies that caused the intelligence community to serve up grossly wrong assessments highlighted a number of errors. One major flaw was that its analyses all revolved around a single hypothesis -- that given Saddam's track record with WMD, it only made sense that he would continue developing his chemical and nuclear program. With this fixed mindset, the intelligence community tended to see only evidence that supported this possibility. Alternative possibilities fell by the wayside.
U.S. intelligence also fell victim to fabricators who told us what we expected to hear. Most infamously, a defector codenamed "Curveball" spun a very believable tale about mobile biological weapons labs. In a breach of good tradecraft, no one fully vetted this source. Perhaps worse, intelligence reports did not highlight for readers that the assessments were based on relatively few data points.