There’s No Room for Error In Dealing With Tyrants

“We were almost all wrong,” David Kay told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. Mr. Kay, of course, is the former head of the Iraq Survey Group, charged with finding Saddam Hussein’s W.M.D.

What were we all wrong about? Not Saddam’s hypothetical willingness to use W.M.D.: He gassed his Kurdish subjects back in the 1980’s.

Nor were we all wrong about his efforts to obtain W.M.D. after the first Gulf war. As Mr. Kay told the committee: “We have discovered hundreds of cases, based on both documents, physical evidence and the testimony of Iraqis, of activities that were prohibited” under U.N. resolutions 687 and 1441-the former directing Saddam to dismantle his W.M.D. programs, the latter giving him one last chance to comply with the former. Iraqis have testified, Mr. Kay said, “that not only did they not tell the U.N.” about their W.M.D. programs, “they were instructed not to do it, and they hid material.” Saddam’s scientists defied U.N. prohibitions because Saddam told them to, and they lied about it because Saddam told them to.

What we were all wrong about was our belief, going into this year, that Saddam’s scientists had actually produced W.M.D. The erroneous “we” was a big group: It included American intelligence analysts and the Bush administration; ditto the Brits. It also included the Coalition of the Unwilling. Jacques Chirac, as Mr. Kay reminded the committee, “referred to Iraq’s possession of W.M.D.” The Germans also “certainly … believed that there were W.M.D.”

Why did we all get it wrong? Why, particularly, did America get it wrong (one cannot speak for Europe)? One obvious explanation is that we found what we wanted to. George W. Bush had identified Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea, as a dangerous rogue state as early as 1999, when he was running for President; Sept. 11 plus W.M.D. would provide the ideal excuse for toppling it. Therefore, our intelligence analysts found W.M.D.

David Kay dismissed that explanation. After talking to “innumerable analysts,” Mr. Kay “did not come across a single one” who felt he had been misled by what the military calls “inappropriate command influence.”

So what did go wrong? Our intelligence faced a screen of interlocking pathologies: bluster and cupidity. Saddam could not admit to the world that his W.M.D. programs were laggard, since his prestige depended on his potential to smite or defy his enemies. It now seems that Saddam’s scientists were meanwhile stringing him along about the progress of their work, assuring him that “yes, O modern Saladin, the Baghdad bomb is within our grasp,” while pocketing the appropriations-Mussolini meets the Good Solider Schweik. Could better spy satellites have unraveled the imposture? Yet the C.I.A. relies on technological analysis too much as it is. But how could better HUMINT (human intelligence) have penetrated this screen, since all the humans on the ground were lying to each other?

The debate within and around the intelligence community is going to become very technical, and very turf-driven. The conservative defense analyst Frank Gaffney suggested that David Kay replace George Tenet as head of the C.I.A. That possibility will guarantee that Mr. Tenet’s energies are not focused on the task at hand.

Certainly, we want better intelligence rather than worse. Certainly, when we want a picture of some part of the world, we want to see what’s there, not what isn’t. If there are structural or intellectual problems in the way we gather intelligence, or personal shortcomings among our intelligence gatherers, we want them corrected. But we will lose sight of a bigger issue if we make intelligence per se the most important question before us.

Mr. Kay touched on the bigger issue in his testimony: “Certainly proliferation is a hard thing to track, particularly in countries that deny easy and free access and don’t have free and open societies,” he said.

If bad intelligence led us to miss a Brazilian or an Italian or an Australian W.M.D. program, we would be upset. But we would not be devastated, because those nations pose no threat to us, or to their neighbors. They are at peace with the world, and because they are democracies with free discussion, we could track any tilt toward hostility. It is unfree, un-open societies, Mr. Kay suggests, that pose the danger.

I would add a refinement. China is neither free nor open, and it has had nuclear weapons for decades-a bad thing for us, and for its neighbors. Yet though China considers Taiwan a rebellious province, and has had abominable relations at various times with India, Vietnam and the old Soviet Union, it has not nuked them. Superpower status confers on it the stability of a deterrable state. The societies that are most to be feared are tyrannical, closed and volatile, whether because they are led by auto-cultists (North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq) or zealots (Iran), or because they have under-the-table connections with terrorists. Saddam’s Iraq had those connections. (So does today’s Iran, but one problem at a time.) Abu Nidal lived in Baghdad, and met his maker there before the American invasion. Iraq was involved, via bomb builder Ramzi Yousef, in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

The world is not an American court of law, where the accused is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If a furtive despotism with proclaimed grudges against us pursues W.M.D., then it must understand that it is living on borrowed time. We may use that time by coaxing it diplomatically, as we are doing with Libya and North Korea. We may use that time by isolating it economically and technologically, as we did for many years with Saddam’s Iraq. But when time runs out, we are justified in resorting to force.

Who understands that justification, and who is willing to act on it? This is the black-velvet backcloth against which politics unfolds post-9/11. Howard Dean went up like a Fourth of July rocket, and came down like the sparks. John Kerry, John Edwards and Wesley Clark will all, they hope, have their day. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, George W. Bush’s conservative base grumbles over a tally of derelictions, from amnesty to spending to arts funding. It is all important, squalid and exciting. And it all, somehow, doesn’t mean a damn thing.

There’s No Room for Error In Dealing With Tyrants