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On Point

"Walk back the cat"

by Austin Bay
October 1, 2003

The following column is the first in a three-part series.

Time to walk back the cat -- except this is a tiger of a subject with a very long tail.

"Walk back the cat" is spy slang for retracing the train of evidence and assumptions until the double agent, the false source or the analytic error is identified. The cat unraveled the ball of string. Rewind the twisted yarn to find the flaw.

The objective is correcting mistakes so they don't happen again. After a fault-ridden story runs, newspapers review their fact-checking process. It's painful, but credibility matters. Intelligence failures, however, exact a more heinous price. Pearl Harbor and 9-11 illustrate the costs of intel debacles.

This column starts a three-part series on Western intel assessments regarding America's long war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And I mean long. Thirteen years is the proper metric for The Saddam War, which began on Aug. 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Iraq's attack on Kuwait surprised the United States. It was an intel flop based on the assumption Saddam was bluffing. Iraq had pulled the trick before, putting troops on Kuwait's border. Short hours before the Iraqis moved, the "he's bluffing" assumption held sway. Then Iraqi military radio traffic spiked and Saddam's tanks rolled.

Walk back -- Kuwait showed Saddam didn't always bluff, even if he risked war with America.

Israel's June 1981 air attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor isn't the first "cat track" regarding Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs. Iran suspected Saddam might seek nukes.

After concluding Saddam was building the bomb, Israel destroyed Osirak. It received global condemnation for its pre-emptive attack. However, the Middle East, from Riyadh to the ayatollahs' Tehran, was relieved. In 1981, Iraq's neighbors knew if Saddam had a nuke, he'd use it.

Track to 1984. ABC News documented Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. Iran claimed 80,000 chemical casualties from mustard gas, and possibly nerve gas. Saddam didn't bluff when it came to using chemicals against enemies.

His enemies included many Iraqis. Halabja is a damning track. In 1988, troops under Gen. Ali Hassan Al-Majid used gas to kill 5,000 Kurds in Halabja. The message: Weapons of mass destruction helped Saddam retain internal power. Revolt by Shias or Kurds could be stopped with gas dropped on defenseless villages.

Iranian casualties and Halabja established not only Saddam's chemical capability, but culpability.

Kuwait and the 1991 Iraqi rain of missiles on Israel and Saudi Arabia led to U.N. Resolution 687. It established the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspection regime. Resolution 687 required the "destruction, removal or rendering harmless under international supervision" of chemical and biological weapons and "all research, development, support and manufacturing facilities."

Iraq couldn't "acquire or develop nuclear weapons or ... material" or components for "research, development, support or manufacturing facilities." Missiles with a range over 150 kilometers were forbidden. Resolution 687 was the United Nations at its best, a diplomatic strike on a despot with a demonstrated appetite for mass destruction.

Enforcing 687, however, meant prosecuting a "slow" war. The brunt of that taxing job fell on the Clinton administration. Next week's column backtracks events and assumptions from 1994 through September 2001.

But lift the cat to late April 2003. I wrote: "Yes, it matters. ... Accounting for Saddam's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs is absolutely essential if America intends to achieve victory in the War on Terror."

Based on my own estimate of manpower and equipment available for the U.S. weapons survey in Iraq, I wrote, "Early September is a fair date for drawing conclusions about Saddam's weapons."

It's October. Past record and behavior said Saddam had programs and weapons. If weapons were found, we'd know about them.

"The missing evidence" isn't simply a corrosive political problem for the Bush administration. It's a huge hole in what is otherwise a looming strategic U.S. success in post-Saddam Iraq. Nukes and chemicals give gangs of fanatics the means to kill millions. If our intelligence can't reliably identify weapons stockpiles and the process of proliferation, the next 9-11 will be far more terrible.

Looking forward is why "walking back" is such a deadly serious and necessary business.

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