- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

In early January, my Carnegie Endowment colleagues and I released a report detailing systemic flaws in U.S. intelligence and decision-making regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Guesses were allowed to masquerade as facts, actual facts were few and far between, and when the CIA correctly doubted that Saddam Hussein would transfer WMD to terrorists such as al Qaeda, the administration and most of Congress ignored it.

Since the report hit the World Wide Web, we have been swarmed by reporters, talk-radio hosts and political junkies asking one question: “Did U.S. officials lie about WMD?”

Truth be told, I would sleep much better if lying explained how we got the WMD and terrorist threat so wrong in Iraq. Unfortunately, the situation is much worse.

The accountability machine will grind forward to determine whether anyone lied, but we should not delay acting upon the undeniable fact that Washington and London experienced systemic failures in theirdecision-making processes. The world’s leading intelligence services failed to detect and comprehend the nature and scale of the threat in Iraq. Parliamentary bodies failed to rigorously scrutinize their executives’ cases for abandoning inspections after four months and going to war. The U.S. media, with important exceptions, gave too much credulity to popular wisdom. Think tanks dropped their responsibility to question assumptions and explore contrary “what ifs. ”

Instead of obsessing on “who lied,” we would be better off figuring out how to fix the system. Iraq is not the last time the United States and the international community will have to decide whether to use force to remove a threat whose exact dimensions and imminence are uncertain.

First, we must find out how and why intelligence agencies were so ignorant of the realities of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapon capabilities. Some individuals and agencies did better than others, and some assessments were better than the vital October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. What accounts for the differences? Why were the more accurate analyses downplayed and the worst accepted? What can be done to improve collection and evaluation of intelligence?

This examination must be conducted on a nonpartisan, independent basis. The CIA will conduct its own inquiry, which is laudable but insufficient. Congress will investigate, but cannot be expected to escape partisan spin.

Second, we must dissect the national security establishment’s assumptions about theWMDandterrorist threats we face. Sloppy assumptions led to narrow policy debates.

Not all WMD are equal. Nuclear weapons are incomparably more threatening to innocent life and international orderthanchemical weapons. Biological weapons could some day destroy life on a massive scale, but turning theoretical potency into effective wide-scale dispersion is extremely difficult. The conflation of diverse threats into a single buzz-term “WMD” clouds our assessment of threats, and therefore our decisions about what risks to run to counter them and what the costs would be.

Similarly, there was and is no basis for assuming that “axis of evil” states cannot be deterred from transferring WMD to terrorists. Congress and think tanks should inquire whether and how our understandably passionate contempt of dictators and terrorists distorts our assessments of the actual threats they pose. Do greater threats emanate from commercial proliferators in “friendly” Pakistan and unsecured nuclear facilities in former Soviet states?

Third, the policy of pre-emptive (preventive) war needs a user’s manual. Military attack on another state in the absence of an imminent threat is widely considered to be aggression. Imminence is a useful standard for pre-emptive or anticipatory self-defense precisely because an imminent threat is one that can be seen. Bush administration officials purposely never said that Iraq posed an “imminent” threat, although they used rhetoric to convey that immediate military action was necessary.Byattackingaless-than imminent WMD threat, and being wrong about it, the United States has exacerbated international mistrust and wariness of military options to remove threats.

As Henry Kissinger has suggested, the United States should seek to regain trust in its leadership for future enforcement cases by inviting international negotiation to develop guidelines for the use of force against less-than imminent threats.Intheabsence of a cocked and loaded gun, can intelligence ever be certain enough to warrant military attack? What standards of threat assessment should be established? What timely means can be devised to gain international authorization of military action?

It is much simpler and more entertaining to play the who-lied game, but the world’s greatest power should demand more from itself. The initiatives suggested here can help fix a system — not a political party — that failed. No self-respecting government should shirk responsibility for learning from its mistakes, even if it feels that the outcome of its actions is ultimately right.

George Perkovich is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-author with Jessica Mathews and Joseph Cirincione of “WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications.”

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