On Point: "Walk back the cat"

by Austin Bay
October 1, 2003

The following column is the first in a three-partseries.

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

"Walk back the cat" is spy slang for retracing the train ofevidence and assumptions until the double agent, the false source or theanalytic error is identified. The cat unraveled the ball of string. Rewindthe 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-checkingprocess. It's painful, but credibility matters. Intelligence failures,however, exact a more heinous price. Pearl Harbor and 9-11 illustrate thecosts of intel debacles.

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

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

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

After concluding Saddam was building the bomb, Israel destroyedOsirak. It received global condemnation for its pre-emptive attack. However,the Middle East, from Riyadh to the ayatollahs' Tehran, was relieved. In1981, Iraq's neighbors knew if Saddam had a nuke, he'd use it.

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

His enemies included many Iraqis. Halabja is a damning track. In1988, troops under Gen. Ali Hassan Al-Majid used gas to kill 5,000 Kurds inHalabja. The message: Weapons of mass destruction helped Saddam retaininternal power. Revolt by Shias or Kurds could be stopped with gas droppedon defenseless villages.

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

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

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

Enforcing 687, however, meant prosecuting a "slow" war. Thebrunt of that taxing job fell on the Clinton administration. Next week'scolumn 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 weaponsprograms is absolutely essential if America intends to achieve victory inthe War on Terror."

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

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

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

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

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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