Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Rockefeller Report: Conclusions

So, what is one to conclude from the Rockefeller Report? As I have said before, the Report does, indeed generally vindicate the Bush Administration's statements about Saddam's alleged arsenal -- but only by wilfully ignoring strong evidence of pressure on the intelligence community to modify its opinions. The Report criticizes the Administration for making unsupported statements about Saddam's ties to Al-Qaeda, his intentions (especially the possibility that he might give WMD to terrorists) and prospects for post-invasion Iraq.

The Republicans on the Committee offer a dissent. They point out that many Democrats at the time (including Senator Rockefeller) had access to the same NIE as Bush and made equally alarmist statements. They also argue that Saddam's intentions and the prospects for a post-invasion Iraq are necessarily vaguer, more nebulous and more subjective than his arsenal and therefore harder to determine. Ultimately, they argue, by criticizing George Bush for disagreeing with the intelligence community on such imprecise subjects, the Democrats are saying that the intelligence community rather than elected officials should make decisions of war and peace. This would only serve to further politicize the intelligence process.

Admittedly, there is some truth to all this. Democrats did, indeed, succumb to the general atmosphere of fear-mongering, though whether they feared Saddam more than their electoral opponents is an open question. But it was the Administration, not the Democrats creating and driving the whole atmosphere of the time, and the Administration that had contact with the intelligence community and was urging them to produce ever more alarmist assessments. Of course the Republicans are right that intelligence analysts are not and should not be policy makers. Although the President and his top officials necessarily have to rely on intelligence reports for technical matters like the best estimate of Saddam Hussein's arsenal and contacts with terrorists, the ultimate decision of whether the risks of war outweigh the risks of inaction are decisions for policy makers, not the intelligence community.

But it would be nice if policy maker assessments of those risks bore some relationship to the real world. The Bush Administration based its decision to invade Iraq on the most hysterical, inflated, far-fetched speculations about the dangers of not invading and the most rosy, optimistic, ill-thought-out predictions about the aftermath of an invasion. The Republicans are right. This is not bad intelligence or even misuse of intelligence; it is simply bad policy making.

Still, the Rockefeller Report is worth something, even if ignores the question of how honest intelligence assessments were in the leadup to the war. Ever since it was determined that Saddam did not have WMD, the position of Bush supporters has been that the President was simply the innocent victim of bad intelligence. Everyone believed Saddam had such an arsenal, they argue. George Bush simply fell for bad intelligence and acted on it. If only he had known better -- well, it is not altogether clear what he would have done if he had known better.

This argument has never been convincing on its face. Before the war Administration leaders were constantly berating the intelligence community for underestimating the danger Saddam posed, urging them to to be more alarmist, and cherry picking raw data for anything to support their views. The Rockefeller Report ignores all that. However, by showing how the Administration ignored uncertainties, dissents, and caveats, insisted without support on an Iraq-Al-Qaeda alliance, and based its assessment of costs and benefits on little more than fantasy, it shows that the Administration was considerably more hawkish than the intelligence community and not simply the victim of its bad advice.

But by failing address to what extent the Bush Administration was responsible for ever more alarming intelligence estimates, the Rockefeller Report remains a whitewash. Here is an Enlightened Layperson's summary, that should make the overall trajectory clear:*

Saddam Hussein, in reality

  • Did not have any nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or active programs
  • Had destroyed all missiles with a range of 650-900 km
  • Did unlawfully possess missiles with a range longer than 150 km
  • Had unmanned aerial reconnaissance drones
  • Supported secular terrorist organizations
  • Did not support Al-Qaeda, although since the US invasion of Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan had begun operating in Iraq and may have been passively tolerated.

Before the push to war began, the intelligence community estimated Saddam:

  • Did not have an active nuclear program
  • Did have an active biological weapons program, although details were not known
  • Might have a small-scale chemical weapons program, but was unlikely to have any more than 100 tons of chemical weapons
  • Unlawfully possessed missiles with ranges longer than 150 km
  • Might have 25-30 pre-Gulf War missiles with ranges of 650-900 km
  • Supported secular terrorists
  • Did not support Al-Qaeda

In the October, 2002 NIE, at the height of war fever, the intelligence community estimated Saddam:

  • Had an active nuclear program and was 5-7 years from building a nuclear bomb
  • Had an active biological weapons program, including mobile labs in trucks
  • Had an active chemical weapons program, though on a smaller scale than before the Gulf War, and had 100-500 tons of chemical weapons, most made in the last year
  • Unlawfully possessed missiles with ranges longer than 150 km
  • Might have 25-30 pre-Gulf War missiles with ranges of 650-900 km
  • Had unmanned drones for delivering chemical and biological weapons and might even be planning to strike the US
  • Supported secular terrorists
  • Did not support Al-Qaeda, although since the US invasion of Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan had begun operating in Iraq and may have been passively tolerated.
  • Was unlikely to attack the US unless his survival was at stake, and was unlikely to give WMD to terrorists, especially ones he did not control.

The Bush Administration alleged or implied Saddam:

  • Had an active nuclear program and was 5-7 years from building a nuclear bomb
  • Had an active biological weapons program, including mobile labs in trucks, unverifiable specifics given
    Had an active chemical weapons program with 100-500 tons of chemical weapons, most made in the last year, unverifiable specifics given
  • Had missiles with ranges of hundreds of miles
  • Had unmanned drones for delivering chemical and biological weapons and might even be planning to strike the US
  • Supported terrorists, either including Al-Qaeda or strongly implied to include Al-Qaeda
  • Might give WMD, presumably including nuclear weapons, to terrorists, presumably including Al-Qaeda.

In short, the intelligence community, even in its most unvarnished assessments, was wrong about Saddam and overestimated his arsenal. However, its unvarnished assessment was more accurate than its assessment after the Bush Administration began the drive to war. And during its drive to war, the Bush Administration did not find even the most alarming intelligence estimates scary enough and either exaggerated, or suggested things that were flatly contradicted. The general trajectory is clear enough. It certainly shows the Bush Administration was no mere victim of bad intelligence. And, although it does not prove political influence on intelligence estimates, it strongly implies such influence.

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*And, FWIW, an Enlightened Layperson's ill-informed pre-war assessment was that Saddam:

  • Did not have nuclear weapons or an active program (I could smell the hype a mile off)
  • Obviously had chemical weapons (after all, he had used them in the past)
  • Might or might not have biological weapons (I was open to persuasion either way)
  • Did not have any delivery vehicles capable of hitting the US
  • Was unlikely to have delivery vehicles capable of hitting Israel
  • Was therefore a threat mostly to his neighbors, who did not seem unduly alarmed
  • Supported secular terrorists
  • Did not support Al-Qaeda.

Based on the foregoing, I opposed the war.

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