by Austin Bay
October 1, 2003
The following column is the first in a three-part
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
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.