Sunday, July 20, 2008

Rockefeller Report: The Contents

Following up on my last post, what does the RockefellerReport actually show? And what can an Enlightened Layperson find by reading between the lines?

The Rockefeller Report focuses on eight main areas, nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons, weapons of mass destruction (generally), delivery vehicles, ties to terrorism, Saddam's intentions, and the prospects for Iraq following an invasion. It reaches 16 conclusions. It focuses on five main speeches, George Bush's speech to the United Nations, his 2003 State of the Union speech, Colin Powell's speach to the UN, and two earlier speeches, one by Cheney and one by Bush, although it also includes snippets of other speeches. The Report takes the speeches in chronological order and compares them to the intelligence then available. At the end (over Republican objections) it concludes by showing the reality as discovered after the war.

Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear weapons are extremely capital intensive to produce and difficult to conceal. Not surprisingly, then, during the 1990's and 2000, the intelligence community consistently concluded that international inspectors had destroyed or neutralized Saddam's nuclear infastructure and that he did not have an active nuclear program, although he might wish to resume it at some time in the future.

A shift began in 2001 even before the 9/11 attack as the CIA began to consider that Saddam might be reviving his nuclear weapons program. Their main evidence was his purchase of aluminum tubes that might be used for uranium enrichment and other "dual use" items. Suspicions escalated in 2002 as the buildup to war continued, culminating in the October, 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concluded that Saddam had resumed his nuclear weapons program and was about 5-7 years from producing nuclear weapons. Interestingly, the notorious uranium forgeries played a only a minor role. Of the five speeches, only one (the State of the Union) mentioned the alleged uranium purchase. The aluminum tubes, on the other hand, were central to the assessment.

The main pieces of evidence cited in the NIE cited that Saddam had revived his nuclear program were (1) purchase of aluminum tubes and other dual-use technology, (2) meeting between Saddam and nuclear scientists, and (3) apparent activity at nuclear sites. The Department of Energy, the agency that knew most about uranium enrichment, dissented, saying that the tubes appeared to be for artillery rockets. Despite the DOE's expertise, its dissent was relegated to a footnote and excluded from the executive summary. Allegations about activity at nuclear sites are too vague to evaluate. (Indeed, one observer (can't find cite) watching Colin Powell's address to the UN immediately knew there was no solid evidence when he displayed diagrams instead of satellite photographs. Needless to say, the Report does not address that).

Committee Conclusion: Statements about Saddam's nuclear program "were generally substantiated by the intelligence community estimates, but did not convey the substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community."

Enlightened Layperson reading between the lines: Administration statements may have been "generally substantiated by the intelligence community estimates," but those intelligence estimates reek of political influence. After years of believing the Iraqi nuclear program was haulted, the intelligence community changed its mind just when the Bush Administration was pushing for war. The main basis for the change was Saddam's purchase of aluminum tubes that the agency most familiar with nuclear weapons did not believe were suited for uranium enrichment. That opinion was duly buried. Substantiated by the intelligence means nothing if that intelligence was the result of political pressure.

Biological weapons. Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons are extremely difficult to detect. Bioweapons are measured in liters and can be grown in inconspicuous places (such as mobile trailers). Bioweapon materials, personnel and facilities are indistinguishable from legitimate medical research. Accordingly, the intelligence community throughout the 1990's and 2000 worried a great deal about Iraqi biological weapons and believed that Iraq had retained its bioweapons and resumed production. What the Report does not emphasize is that the intelligence community had no actual evidence of biological weapons, only the speculation and paranoid that flourishes in the absence of real information.

The main actual evidence of a bioweapons program were reports from three (by some accounts four) defectors who claimed to have seen mobile bioweapons labs in trucks and rail cars. The intelligence community began giving credence to these reports in 2000, i.e., before George Bush was elected. One of the defectors was the notorious "Curveball." The CIA agents working most closely with "Curveball" expressed doubts about his credibility, but these doubts did not make it up the chain of command. Another defector was Major General al-Assaf, determined by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to be a fabricator in April or May of 2002. He was nonetheless named as a source in the October, 2002 NIE. The Report does not identify the other defector(s). There were occasional references to satellite photographs of bioweapons facilities but, like the alleged satellite photographs of nuclear facilities, these never amounted to anything.

Committee Conclusion: Statements about biological weapons were "substantiated by the intelligence information," though they did not discuss intelligence gaps.

Enlightened Layperson reading between the lines: These statements were, indeed, subtantiated by the intelligence information, but that information was based on little more than speculation and paranoia. The fabricators added a few specifics, but did not change the intelligence community's overall conclusions. The question, then, is, how much credence should be given to intelligence information that is almost pure speculation.

Chemical weapons. Chemical weapons programs are less conspicuous than nuclear programs, but more conspicuous than biological weapons programs. Large scale production is detectable, but small-scale production can be concealed within the legitimate chemical industry. Up to 2002, the intelligence community believed Iraq had a residual portion of its pre-Gulf War chemical weapons. It was confident that no large-scale production was underway, but suspected small-scale production concealed in the civilian chemical industry. The general estimate was that Iraq's chemical stockpile was 100 tons or less. The intelligence community also had some doubts whether Iraq could produce nerve gas without external resources, but believed it readily produce mustard gas.

This assessment remained generally the same throughout most of 2002, but abruptly shifted with the release of the NIE in October, 2002. Suddenly the 100 tons or less of chemical weapons became 100 to 500 tons, much of it produced in the last year. The NIE produced actual evidence for suspicion of at least one chlorine plant -- that it was producing more chlorine than needed, its equipment was being buried for concealment, and it employed people linked with past chemical weapons production. The Report does not list any other evidence cited to support claims about increased production. The NIE acknowledged that Iraqi production capacity was probably below Gulf War levels.

Committee conclusion: Statements about Iraq's chemical weapons were "substantiated by intelligence information" but did not reflect the intelligence community's uncertainty whether actual production was going on.

Enlightened Layperson reading between the lines: The intelligence community's assessment of Iraq's chemical weapons combines all the weaknesses of its report on nuclear weapons and its report on biological weapons. Like the report on nuclear weapons, it shows a suspicious escalation during the push for war. Suddenly a stock of under 100 tons becomes 100 to 500 tons, most of it recently made. The possibility of small scale production suddently becomes a certainty. Like the report on biological weapons, it is based on fear and speculation in the absence of verifiable evidence.

Weapons of mass destruction. The committee added a separate section on references to "weapons of mass destruction" when it was not clear whether public speeches referred to nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. It finds such references generally substantiated, but showing greater certainty than the actual intelligence judgments. It also reports that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made unsubstantiated statements about underground facilities. This section adds nothing to the nuclear, chemical and biological sections.

Delivery vehicles. Unlike the reports on weapons, the section on delivery vehicles does not discuss the intelligence community's pre-2002 opinions on Iraq's delivery vehicles. In 2002 before the October NIE, the intelligence community generally believed that Iraq retained a small number (25-30) of pre-Gulf war missiles with ranges of 625 to 900 kilometers. It also believed that there were newer missiles with ranges of 150 to 300 km. Finally, it believed the Iraqis might be in the early stages of work on missiles with ranges of 750 to 3000 km. All of these would violate UN resolutions setting a maximum range of 150 km. UN weapons inspectors ultimately confirmed that Iraq did, indeed, have missiles exceeding the 150 km maximum range. All of the longer-range, pre-Gulf War missiles had been destroyed.

The October, 2002 NIE repeated these findings and also reported that Iraq was developing and testing small to medium sized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's, or drones). The NIE's opinion was that these drones were probably for delivering biological weapons. Furthermore, the Iraqi procurement network was seeking route planning software about the United States, leading the NIE to conclude the drones might be used to deliver biological weapons to the United States. The Air Force dissented, saying that the drones appeared better suited to reconnaissance. Like the DOE dissent about the aluminum tubes, the opinion of the agency with the most technical knowledge was relegated to a footnote and excluded from the executive summary.

Unlike other intelligence reports, which became increasingly alarmist as war approached, in this case the intelligence community began backing off its more extreme conclusions. In January, 2003, the new NIE began hedging and qualifying its opinions about the UAV's. The Airforce continued to dissent, saying that the drones appeared to be reconnaissance, and this time was joined by Army Intelligence and the DIA.

Committee conclusions: Statements about missiles were "generally substantiated by the intelligence." Statements about UAV's being used for chemical or biological attack were "generally substantiated by the intelligence but did not convey the substantial disagreements or evolving views that existed in the intelligence community." Statements that the Iraqi government was considering using UAV's to attack the US were "substantiated by intelligence judgments at the time, but these judgments were revised a few months later."

Enlightened Layperson reading between the lines: Intelligence assessments of the missiles were unproblemmatic and even relatively accurate. The UAV's are a different matter altogether. Like the aluminum tubes, the intelligence community ignored the opinions of the agency with the most technical knowledge and buried its dissent. This smacks of political pressure to produce an alarming result. As for the prospect of Saddam using these drones to attack the US, I concur with this war opponent, "I mean, for crying out loud, at one point our rulers declared that Saddam Hussein might attack America with remote-controlled model planes. You didn’t have to wait to bounce that one off the folks at your next MENSA meeting to judge its likelihood." The intelligence agencies appear to have figured this out and backed off their own conclusion for fear of looking foolish.

Links to terrorism. Saddam Hussein had long standing and well known ties to various terrorist groups, especially secular groups attacking Israel. Al-Qaeda was a different matter. The CIA believed that, although there had been periodic contacts between Al-Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence, these contacts were "mutually wary" and, at most, attemts to exploit each other. Unlike its assessments about Saddam's arsenal, the intelligence community did not change its mind about his association with Al-Qaeda.

In the buildup for war, two changes did take place. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, some Al-Qaeda fighters fled to Iraq. Most moved to Kurdish areas outside Saddam's control and joined the Islamist Kurdish organization, Ansar al-Islam. Some, however, went to Bagdad. The CIA was not able to determine the degree of complicity by the Iraqi government. Although it found no evidence of active collaberation, given the nature of Iraq's security apparatus, it seemed unlikely they could operate without passive acquiescence. In addition, captured Al-Qaeda fighter Ibn al-Shayk al-Libi said that Iraq had been training Al-Qaeda fighters in chemical and biological weapons. The intelligence community had grave misgivings about these statements, that were almost certainly the product of torture.

Administration officials responded to all this with a game of insinuation. They would mention Saddam Hussein, support for terrorism, Al-Qaeda and 9/11, implying a connection without stating one. Or they described contacts between Iraqi intelligence and Al-Qaeda that were technically accurate but suggested a stronger connection that existed. Republicans dissented from these views, insisting that the Committee should take Bush officials' statements at face value and not look at what they implied. Republicans also pointed out that the CIA approved various speeches about terrorism, so they must have supported the conclusions.

Committee conclusions: Speeches about Iraq's support for terrorist groups other than Al-Qaeda were substantiated by the intelligence, as were statements the Iraq was giving safe haven to Al-Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan. Statements and implications that Iraq and Al-Qaeda had a partnership, and that Atta met with Iraqi officials in Prague were not substantiated. Statements about contacts between Al-Qaeda and Iraqis were substantiated, but created a deliberately misleading impression of collaboration.

Enlightened Layperson reading between the lines: The intelligence community allowed itself to be pressured on Saddam's arsenal, but on his ties with Al-Qaeda the intelligence community remained firm. This is probably a sign the intelligence community was more confident in its judgment about Al-Qaeda than about WMD. The main shift in its assessment, about Al-Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan to Iraq, was based on real-world changes and not on paranoia or pressure. Before the US invasion of Afghanistan, Saddam's police state was able to prevent any Al-Qaeda cells from forming in Iraq. That fact that Al-Qaeda operatives were arriving in 2002 does, indeed, suggest at least passive tolerance. And, after all, since the Bush Administration was making absolutely clear that it intended to invade Iraq soon, it should not have been suprising that Saddam was accepting any allies he could find. The Committee Republicans are being deliberately obtuse about what a speech can imply, especially to low information voters, without actually saying.

Intent. Administration officials repeatedly warned about the danger of Saddam giving WMD to terrorists. The intelligence committee repeatedly assessed such a danger as unlikely. Although intent is inherently difficult to evaluate, the intelligence community believed it unlikely that Saddam would attack the US unless he believed his survival was at stake, or that he would share powerful weapons with terrorist organizations he could not control. The majority found that such statements were "contradicted by available intelligence information." The Republican minority dissented, saying that the Bush Administration was only saying that it was possible for Saddam to give WMD to terrorists, not assessing the likelihood. In the wake of September 11, we need to consider such possibilities.

Enlightened Layperson reading between the lines: It is entirely possible that the Bush Administration did not take the threat of Saddam giving WMD to terrorists seriously and actually went to war for some other reason. But it was this threat that Bush emphasized over and over to fearmonger Americans into supporting the war, this threat that was ultimately persuasive. The Republican dissent is absurd. Of course it was physically possible, if Saddam had had WMD, for him to give them to terrorists, including Al-Qaeda. All sorts of things are physically possible. But when people obsessively warn about a certain danger in speech after speech and ultimately (appear to) go to war over that danger, it is not asking too much to expect that danger to have some reasonable degree of probability. Otherwise there is no limit to the number of wars we would have to wage to head off all manner of remote but physically possible dangers. The Republicans do have a point that intentions are far more nebulous than physical capacity. I will address that in my next post.

Post-War Iraq. Matching Administration officials' far-fetched alarmism about the dangers Saddam Hussein posed were their extraordinary indifference to problems that might arise after an invasion. The intelligence community was less optimistic, warning that creating democracy in Iraq would be difficult but doable and require a great investment of time and resources. The did also warn about the danger of violent conflict unless the occupying power acted to prevent it. The Rockefeller Report finds that Administration statements about post-war Iraq "did not relfect the concerns and uncertainties expressed in the intelligence products." The Republican minority, understandably, wants to avoid the entire subject.

Next: An Enlightened Layperson's Overall Assessment of the Rockefeller Report.

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