Foreign Policy Blogs

On WMD and the Origins of the Iraq War

Rafid Ahmed Alwan, known by the codename Curveball, invented a story about Iraqi chemical weapons labs. (Photo:

Rafid Ahmed Alwan, known by the codename Curveball, invented a story about Iraqi chemical weapons labs. (Photo:

The tenth anniversary of the Iraq War is upon us, and we have been inundated with reminiscences and reflections on the war’s conduct and especially on its origins. One that struck me in particular came from Charles Duelfer, who argues that the Bush administration’s case for war — in particular, the part concerning weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — was not a lie, “It was just wrong.”

Duelfer knows a thing or two about WMD. He led the team that scoured Iraq for them after the invasion, and he forthrightly reported what he found, or rather, did not find. I tend to agree with his premise, that the administration’s case was not a lie, in the sense that Bush and company believed in the essence of what they said. Even the public admission by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that the public case for war focused on WMD only because that is what they could get the bureaucracies to agree on does not necessarily mean that they did not believe it. On the contrary, that was the piece of his argument that many bureaucrats and officials did believe.

Nevertheless, it is not enough to say they believed it and leave it at that, for a great deal of distortion and incompetence went into making the case. And the consequences — an unnecessary nine-year war, 4,400 dead Americans, 32,000 seriously wounded Americans, unknown numbers of dead Iraqis (estimates range from 100,000 to 600,000) — set a high bar for justification.

First of all, rather than being convinced by incoming intelligence, many of those who argued the case for war within the administration had been making the same argument in the 1990s, when they were out of government and presumably had no access to classified intelligence. Wolfowitz then went on to propose fomenting and arming an Iraqi insurgency on about Feb. 1, 2001, just days after the administration had taken office. Less than a week after 9/11 he called for war against Iraq, not because he thought Iraq was responsible for 9/11 but because he saw it as an opportunity for “getting governments out of the business of supporting terrorism.” That, evidently, was part of the argument that other officials found unconvincing.

In making his case, Duelfer repeats the commonly used argument that U.S. intelligence was not alone in its erroneous assessment. “Intelligence agencies around the world erred in their assessments of Iraqi WMD.” This is true, and yet he leaves out two key points. First, most of those intelligence agencies got their information from us, so the notion that they agreed on the basic facts does not take us very far. Second, very few of those countries came to the conclusion that the facts presented an adequate case for war. The British were an exception in that they agreed to join us in the war, but this was a political calculation made by the Blair government to stay on the good side of the United States. Far from being convinced by the argument, the head of British intelligence, “C” (in James Bond movies he may be called “M,” but in real life his name is “C,” or in this case Sir Richard Dearlove), reported in July 2002 this assessment of his recent meeting with U.S. officials.

Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.

Duelfer also cites the Iraqi defector initially known by the codename “Curveball” (later identified as Rafid Ahmed Alwan), the source of false claims about mobile biological weapons labs. He points out that U.S. intelligence did not vet Curveball and failed to highlight that this information relied on a single source. In fact, Curveball was not an asset of U.S. intelligence at all, but rather of German intelligence (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND). The only U.S. intelligence official (from DIA) who had met him questioned his reliability. Several CIA officials say they objected to using his information. In autumn 2002, the BND indicated that they had not been able to verify a single claim that he had made. (As it turned out, Curveball had invented the entire story in the belief that it would help him get asylum in Germany.) To be sure, the fact that some CIA officials doubted Curveball’s reliability and objected to using his information is not the same as saying “the CIA really knew everything all along.” Yet it seems that saying the administration relied too much on a “single source” fails to encapsulate all the problems associated with Curveball.

Finally, Duelfer, like everyone else, notes Saddam Hussein’s history of obstruction and deception regarding WMD. This is also certainly true. Hussein did obstruct and deceive, and apparently on those few occasions when he suddenly decided to act in good faith, he took it personally when no one believed him. The problem here—as Duelfer admits, and which is truly a difficult problem to deal with in a world of limited information—was that our interpretation of his behavior was based on unfounded assumptions: 1.) that he was as obsessed with the United States as we were with him and 2.) that his intentions toward the United States were inherently aggressive. (Let’s leave for another occasion the ludicrous assumption that he was about to turn over weapons of mass destruction to terrorists who, in fact, viewed him as an enemy to be overthrown. Duelfer does not make that argument.) As it turned out, much of Iraq’s manipulation was directed not at the United States but at Iran, which Hussein assumed would attack Iraq if he ever publicly admitted that he had disarmed. Beyond that, Hussein believed that Iraq and the United States were natural allies in the struggle against Iran and that, if he could only hold out long enough, George Bush would eventually realize this and seek accommodation.

In sum, the problem was not that leading members of the Bush administration lied, but that they believed too much in what they wanted to be true. They saw evidence of it everywhere, including places where no evidence existed, which turned out to be most places. So convinced were they that they had no compunction about exaggerating or distorting what evidence they did have in order to bring the public around to support for the cause, and in the wake of 9/11 the public was receptive. (While considerable attention was devoted to the question of how to sell the war to the public, former CIA analyst Paul Pillar notes that the administration never stopped to ask whether invading Iraq was actually a good idea.) The problem, of course, was exacerbated by a world in which information is scarce and countries engage in secrecy, deception and manipulation. Yet the Bush people proved all too willing to “connect the dots” by assuming “facts” that they could not find, and those “facts” always confirmed what they already believed and justified what they already wanted to do. Evidence that consists largely of one’s own prejudices and preconceived notions is hardly a suitable basis for war. But I guess they didn’t lie.


Want to read more?

Scott C. Monje, The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History (Greenwood Press, 2008).

Paul R. Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (Columbia University Press, 2011).



Scott Monje
Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.

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