Hide and Seek, by Charles Duelfer
The Never-Ending Story
Hide and Seek:
The Search for Truth in Iraq
By Charles Duelfer
Public Affairs, 560 pages, $29.95
On May 29, 2003, less than three months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush proclaimed,“We have found the weapons of mass destruction.” The supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in this case were two trailers that were thought at the time to be the mobile biological weapons laboratories the U.S. intelligence community had long thought were part of the Iraqi WMD program. It was later determined that the trailers were used to process hydrogen for weather balloons, not to produce biological weapons.
Three years later, at a press conference in June 2006, then-Senator Rick Santorum announced to the world that “we have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chemical weapons.” Santorum, joined by then-chair of the House Intelligence Committee Pete Hoekstra, cited declassified portions of an intelligence report which noted that coalition forces had found approximately 500 pre-Gulf War chemical munitions that had somehow escaped destruction by the Iraqis and the United Nations after the Gulf War and were being discovered on a regular basis by coalition forces in the ammo dump that was postwar Iraq. This turned out not to be the smoking gun that Santorum and Hoekstra had hoped for—a discovery that would have validated the Bush administration’s decision to go to war to, in the President’s words, “disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.” The chemical munitions were a potential hazard to coalition forces but not evidence of an illicit Iraqi stockpile.
Perhaps no single intelligence failure has been as damaging to U.S. foreign policy as the flawed 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which stated, “We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.” The failure of coalition forces to find WMD stockpiles in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion has had a far-reaching impact on U.S. foreign policy, damaging the credibility of the United States and potentially making it more difficult for a U.S. President to convince the American people, let alone the rest of the world, of an imminent threat posed by the next country attempting to acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons (witness the international community’s current standoff with Iran).
Intelligence assessments about other countries’ WMD programs are notoriously difficult for the U.S. intelligence community to get correct. Five years prior to the Iraq NIE, the U.S. intelligence community was caught off guard when India conducted a series of nuclear tests. U.S. NIEs about the state of Iran’s nuclear program have been constantly revised over the years.
Examining how exactly the U.S. intelligence community got this key question wrong is thus a topic relevant to future U.S. foreign policy that has not yet been done justice, six years after the start of the war. The origins of the Iraq War have become fodder for conspiracy theorists, but there has been a dearth of serious accounts comparing what was known prior to the invasion about Iraq’s WMD and missile programs with what was discovered in its aftermath.
Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq thus has much promise. The book’s author, Charles Duelfer, is a man who has familiarity with the vagaries of intelligence, having spent the better part of three decades tracking other countries’ illicit activities for the U.S. government. In the 1990s, he found himself seconded to the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), serving as its deputy chairman for seven years. UNSCOM, created by the United Nations Security Council resolution that ended the first Gulf War, was tasked with ensuring that Iraq verifiably destroyed its weapons of mass destruction and their means of production.
Because of the nature of his position at UNSCOM, and the Iraqis’ sporadic cooperation with the agency, Duelfer had regular encounters with Iraqi officials and was based for a time in Baghdad. This resulted, as he notes, in him becoming “virtually the only senior American official who regularly dealt with the regime.”
The regime he dealt with was, for most of the 1990s, under a cloud of suspicion. Much as other countries possessing or seeking WMD who have been brought before the Security Council since, Iraq vacillated between cooperation with the United Nations and blatant obstruction, allowing inspectors access, but when confronted with evidence that its declarations about its pre-Gulf War activities were incomplete or in some cases falsified, officials would lash out angrily and cease any cooperation.
In addition to having to contend with Iraq’s obstructionism, UNSCOM’s work was also hampered by its creators on the Security Council. By 1995, key members of the Council, including Russia and France, were attempting to lift portions of the sanctions to open up access to Iraq’s oil fields to their national companies. As Duelfer recounts, the United States wanted the sanctions to be maintained to contain Saddam until he could be forced from power, not solely to force Saddam to cooperate with UNSCOM. The Clinton administration was often focused on other issues, including the President’s domestic political problems as a result of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It was at the same time of President Clinton’s impeachment in December 1998 and after repeated instances of Iraqis blocking UNSCOM inspections that the United States carried out a four-day bombing campaign against suspected Iraqi WMD sites in an operation called Desert Fox.
Desert Fox and the ongoing stalemate between UNSCOM and Iraq led to UNSCOM’s demise, as the French and Russians maneuvered to create a new organization they felt would get them one step closer to relaxation of the sanctions. UNSCOM’s tactics and repeated confrontations with Iraqi officials over access combined with the absence of a smoking gun showing Iraqi WMD made many on the Security Council uncomfortable. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) was created by the Security Council in December 1999. Duelfer notes that the French and Russians had essentially implemented what Iraq had been trying to achieve for some time:
[Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq] Aziz had for years been trying to metamorphose the coercive disarmament mechanism into an arms-control mechanism. The French and Russians were offering him one. Arms control under UNMOVIC replaced the forced disarmament agenda of UNSCOM.
As the Bush administration entered office in 2001, its newly appointed officials found a weakened sanctions regime under attack by members of the Security Council. Iraq artfully used its proceeds from the Oil for Food program, created in 1995 in response to accusations that the sanctions were hurting the Iraqi people, to ensure that its patrons on the Security Council were rewarded. Early indications were that Secretary of State Colin Powell was open to renegotiating the sanctions and putting what he called “smart sanctions” in place. But after the attacks of September 11, 2001, it became clear that the Bush administration was not interested in allowing Iraq to remain an open problem. Duelfer writes that in Baghdad, “regime leaders thought the 9/11 attacks would increase the momentum of support for Iraq in the Security Council as well as making America realize that it was not omnipotent and needed to be more pragmatic in the Security Council and the Middle East.” Saddam was horribly mistaken.
Duelfer returned to his WMD roots in January 2004 when he was asked by the Bush administration to replace David Kay as head of the Iraq Survey Group, the entity tasked with producing the definitive report on the pre-war state of Iraq’s WMD programs. In September 2004, he released what has colloquially become known as the Duelfer report, a voluminous account of Iraq’s WMD activities. Its primary conclusion was that no stockpiles existed prior to the war, but that
Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability—which was essentially destroyed in 1991—after sanctions were removed and Iraq’s economy stabilized, but probably with a different mix of capabilities to that which previously existed. Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability—in an incremental fashion, irrespective of international pressure and the resulting economic risks—but he intended to focus on ballistic missile and tactical chemical warfare capabilities.
Given Duelfer’s work in Iraq and decades of experience on the subject of Iraq’s WMD programs, one would think that he would have profound insights to share on the perils of intelligence community assessments, but unfortunately Hide and Seek is more about the politics at the United Nations, the interagency politics in Washington, and stories about friends and acquaintances Duelfer made in Baghdad than about the lessons learned from the intelligence community’s failure to accurately assess Iraq’s pre-war WMD activities.
The most useful section of the book covers Duelfer’s years at UNSCOM, which were responsible for his powerful sense in 2003 that the status quo was indeed unacceptable. His account is a good refresher about the perils of any activity carried out by a UN bureaucracy, but also about the ability of members of the Security Council to be influenced by the countries under suspicion, much as China and Russia have prevented stringent sanctions from being placed on Iran despite its repeated violations of Security Council resolutions.
The section on UNSCOM is also a useful reminder of the many potential problems with international attempts to verify the absence of WMD programs, something that may be tried again if Iran attempts to cut a deal with the Obama administration that allows it to maintain some sort of supposed peaceful nuclear work for the price of increased international verification of its activities.
And then the disheartening tale of this decade—of deceits and deceptions, and warring analyses, and problematic intelligence—will be told anew.