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Twenty years ago in Iraq, ignoring the expert weapons inspectors proved to be a fatal mistake

Robert Kelley with scientists from the French Atomic Energy Commission’s military applications division (CEA-DAM), during inspections in Iraq, December 2002. Photo: Petr Pavlicek / IAEA
Robert Kelley with scientists from the French Atomic Energy Commission’s military applications division (CEA-DAM), during inspections in Iraq, December 2002. Photo: Petr Pavlicek / IAEA
Robert E. Kelley

Let me begin by saying, we were almost all wrong, and I certainly include myself here.’—David Kay, Head of the Iraq Survey Group, during testimony to the US Senate, 29 January 2004

The case for invading Iraq in March 2003 was built on three basic premises: that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD); that it was developing more of them; and that it was failing to comply with its disarmament obligations under a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions. All of these premises were based on scraps of unreliable information. None of them was true.

David Kay was one of the loudest voices outside the United States government advocating a new invasion of Iraq in the years and months leading to the second Gulf War. As a former nuclear inspector who had worked in Iraq in 1991, after the first Gulf War, he became a popular TV pundit and was even called to testify before Congress, talking up dubious claims about new Iraqi WMD programmes.

It was not surprising, then, that Kay should be chosen to head the Iraq Survey Group (ISG)—the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mission to find and disable those putative WMD programmes—once the US-led multinational coalition had toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and turned Iraq into an occupied state.

The ISG found no WMD in Iraq, and returning to Congress to testify on 28 January 2004, Kay admittedwe were almost all wrong’. He blamed a lack of human agents inside Iraq in the months before the war, and analysts being under pressure to draw conclusions based on inadequate intelligence. True, the intelligence Kay and many others in Washington, DC, London and other capitals had chosen to listen to was inadequate and flawed. But there was plenty more information that they ignored, much of it coming from many weapons inspectors working inside Iraq—including US nuclear experts—under UN mandate for four months in 2002–2003.

Experts on the ground: the UN inspectors

I was in Iraq in those final months before the 2003 invasion as Deputy for Analysis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Action Team tasked with the nuclear side of the weapons inspections, while the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) worked in parallel, looking for biological and chemical weapons, as well as illicit missile programmes. We studied a few outstanding questions regarding the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme that had been discovered and dismantled in the early 1990s; we looked for new evidence and investigated leads and suspicions passed on to us by national governments; we inspected many sites and interviewed Iraqi scientists and officials in person; and we analysed the data. By early 2003 we knew at a very high level of confidence that there was no nuclear weapons effort of any kind in Iraq, and we were regularly passing this information back to the UN Security Council. We were not wrong.

I had been an IAEA inspector in Iraq in 1992–93. The UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and the IAEA Action Team carried out hundreds of person-days of inspections in Iraq. We discovered nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes and methodically destroyed them—even to the extent of blowing up entire factories and laboratories and bringing special nuclear materials out of the country. In the 1990s, the US, British, French, German and other governments freely provided excellent intelligence on where to look and what to look for. By 1998, even though Iraq had stopped cooperating with the inspections, there was general agreement that the Iraqi WMD programmes were completely dead, with only a few questions unanswered.

A major turning point in the US approach to Iraq was the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Al Qaeda, operating from Afghanistan, was identified as the source of the attacks, and the invasion of Afghanistan launched weeks later. The administration of new US President George W. Bush then tried, with very little credible evidence, to link Iraq to the attacks. After intense campaigning led by the USA, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1441, ordering Iraq to immediately allow UNMOVIC and IAEA weapons inspectors back into the country in November of 2002. Aware that the war drums were beating, Iraq complied.

However, the Bush administration included many senior policy makers who had no use for the United Nations and made their distaste clear. As the months went by, we watched them repeat stories about Iraqi WMDs and covert WMD programmes that we knew to be false—and that we had even specifically debunked—in order to build public and diplomatic support for an invasion.

Two tales about centrifuges

One of the most best-known false narratives used to build the case for invasion concerned consignments of and tenders for aluminum tubes. In around 2001, CIA analyst ‘Joe’ noticed an attempt by Iraq to purchase high-strength aluminium tubes that he suspected could be used in building centrifuges to enrich uranium for weapons. The claims were soon investigated and dismissed within the US Intelligence Community and the subject died. UNSCOM and the IAEA had investigated earlier evidence in the 1990s of identical tubes that were already in Iraq in the thousands. Although they had a vague circumstantial similarity to tubes on export control lists, they were for conventional military use and experts had ruled out that they could be useful for centrifuges.

But suddenly, in September 2002, the same story leaked to the media and the old allegations were back. Experts from the IAEA, the US National Laboratories and the EU pointed out that the tubes were identical to those used in Italian NATO-standard Medusa air-to-ground rockets that Iraq had started trying to reverse engineer in the 1980s for ground-to-ground use.

At around this time a friendly source leaked internal CIA correspondence to the IAEA showing that the CIA was completely aware that the tubes matched those used in Medusa rockets. Nevertheless, ‘Joe’ and his colleagues stuck to the centrifuge story. It was even repeated by President Bush in his January 2003 State of the Union address and by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his infamous February 2003 briefing to the UN Security Council aimed at demonstrating that Iraq was not complying with Resolution 1441—one of the most decisive moments in the build-up to war.

Colin Powell
US Secretary of State Colin Powell briefs the UN Security Council on claims about Iraqi WMD, 5 February 2003. He claimed: ‘What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence’ Photo: US Government/Wikimedia

One of several mistakes the CIA made was to only ask the US National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC) to comment on whether the tubes could be for an Iraqi rocket. NGIC replied that ground-to-ground rockets did not need such high-specification tubes. They were apparently unaware of Iraq’s attempts to copy and repurpose the Medusa design. Had the Air Force Research Laboratory been brought in, it could have identified the tubes as suitable for Medusa rockets.

In Iraq, the weapons inspectors investigated the story in the field. The IAEA nuclear inspectors educated themselves thoroughly about small rockets. We also gained access from the Iraqis to every aspect of their rocket programme: procurement records, manufacturing, testing and military stockpiles. We thus easily identified the likely true purpose of the tubes—which was later confirmed by the Iraq Survey Group.

Centrifuges also featured in another piece of misinformation communicated by President Bush during this period. In an address to the nation in October 2002, President Bush showed satellite imagery of a repurposed facility at Al Furat, a former centrifuge manufacturing site from the Iraqi nuclear programme that was dismantled in 1991. He implied that this was evidence that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear programme, apparently unaware that UNMOVIC had free access to the site and had known for many years that it had been converted to a surface-to-air missile system repair facility. Satellite images could not determine this, but UNMOVIC could. By relying on old information and satellite images, and ignoring the reports of highly qualified eyewitnesses in the field, desk-bound analysts had once again come to an incorrect, but politically useful, conclusion.

The preferred sources

Kay’s lament that there were no human agents recruited in Iraq during the months leading up the war overlooked the fact that the USA and the IAEA put some of the most qualified analysts into the inspection teams. While ignoring the inspectors, the CIA and others in Washington were not only relying on obsolete data but also a few highly unreliable clandestine sources. These included an Iraqi defector, Rafid al-Janabi, known as Curveball. Curveball had been granted asylum by Germany in 2000 and made claims about Iraq having mounted facilities for manufacturing biological weapons in trucks that were moving around the country to escape detection. Germany’s federal intelligence service doubted his veracity. Nevertheless, when Germany passed on the source notes, US analysts took Curveballs’s stories at face value, without vetting them.

Curveball’s distortions were leaked to the public, in some cases by an ‘intelligence cell’ in the Pentagon staffed by people with no intelligence experience. This cell worked by cherry-picking items from raw intelligence that supported political positions—particularly Iraq’s supposed links to the 11 September attacks and the existence of WMD programmes. Curveball’s highly dubious claims were also repeated in Powell’s February 2003 Security Council briefing as established fact.

Another favoured defector source, whose stories leaked to the New York Times in 2001, was Adnan al Haideri. He claimed to have worked on a number of facilities that he believed were to be used for WMD development, in particular painting them with hard epoxy that would be easy to decontaminate. In fact, some of these locations were already known in the early 1990s and had been inspected. Nevertheless, the UN inspectors revisited the sites in 2002 and found them to be harmless.

It is also worth noting that much of the ‘intelligence’ favoured by the upper echelons in Washington came from the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC was a dissident group headed by Ahmed Chalabi who was a fierce opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime, was favoured by Iran and was determined to be the post-war leader of Iraq. His intelligence was largely unverifiable political stories and intrigues, supposedly from inside sources in Iraq.

Iraqi cooperation with the inspectors

Often overlooked is the highly cooperative attitude of the Iraqis during the inspections in 2002–2003. They saw clearly that they were being blamed for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that there was likely to be a war and saw full cooperation as a last chance to prevent it. They negotiated reasonable terms for inspections by UNMOVIC and the IAEA in 2002 and 2003 and provided full access to people, places and information linked to nuclear activities.

An example of this cooperation concerned one of the highest-profile pieces of misinformation to emerge from Washington in the run-up to war. Claims started circulating in around 2000 that Iraq was seeking to import semi-processed uranium ore, called yellowcake, from Niger, and that this was for developing nuclear weapons. In fact, Iraq already had sufficient uranium stockpiled for peaceful uses had it wished to divert some for a weapons programme. Nevertheless, the claim was leaked to the media and cited in public statements by senior government figures, including President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address.

The source documents that the yellowcake story was based on were held back from the IAEA for several months, until someone in the US State Department passed them on unofficially in an attempt to undermine the CIA’s claims. It took the IAEA Iraq team leader only hours to demonstrate that the documents were crude forgeries. Iraq gave the IAEA inspectors full access to interviewees and records to confirm the story.

The inspectors’ unwelcome evidence

We soon came to realize that none of the findings of our inspections were making it back to the most important audience in the United States: US policy makers. I discussed this with a contact I had at the US mission in Vienna. He advised me to give up because ‘they don’t want to hear what you have to say’. ‘They’ were presumably all the people in the chain between us and the ultimate decision makers in Washington. As the weeks of inspections went by, the people in this chain, from the bottom to the top, evidently learned what kind of news would be welcomed by their superiors and what would not.

US organizations like the CIA, the National Photographic Interpretation Center and the Department of Energy (DOE) that had supplied the UN inspectors with solid intelligence in 1991 were now muzzled. We were receiving far more information and engagement from other governments. When we passed back our findings to US government sources through the UN, they were generally ignored.

The UNMOVIC and IAEA inspectors were derided by the CIA and others as international flunkies unable to understand what Washington knew. In his State of the Union address, President Bush claimed that the Iraqi scientists we were interviewing were intelligence officers who had been coached in what to say—despite the fact that we knew some of their bona fides from inspections in the 1990s. On the day we were told to pack up and leave Baghdad, as the bombing was about to start, I was preparing for a meeting with Jaffar Dhia Jaffar, the head of the Iraqi nuclear programme dismantled in 1991.

Analysts in the CIA and the ‘intelligence cell’ at the Pentagon no longer interacted with the inspectors and their findings. This was all the more remarkable that the UN inspectors were ignored given that a very large fraction of the new inspectors in 2002 came from the US military and the national nuclear weapons laboratories of the DOE. Most had been involved in earlier inspections. They had a broad grasp of the issues raised and solved in previous years. They had access to classified US intelligence and had many days’ experience in the field, first in the early 1990s, and then in 2002 and early 2003.

The CIA and Pentagon analysts also disregarded information from other branches of government, such as opinions on nuclear issues from experts in the DOE. Instead they were making faulty judgements based on data that was often decades old, trying to solve problems that had been resolved in the early 1990s, along with claims from unreliable defectors. Anything that did not align with their conclusions was ignored. Politics, compliance and groupthink prevailed. It is sobering to think that one junior CIA analyst prevailed in the falsehood that aluminium tubes were for a nuclear weapons programme. His credentials to make the claims were virtually non-existent, yet he convinced colleagues and superiors that his interpretation was right and the DOE nuclear experts were wrong.

Who were ‘we’?

The claim by David Kay—'we were almost all wrong’—reflects how most people still think of the events of 2002–2003: as a story of faulty and inadequate intelligence, rather than robust and reliable intelligence information ignored.

The weapons inspectors had credibility that dwarfed that of Curveball and other defectors, who clearly had much to gain by fabricating intelligence about the Iraqi regime, as well as that of desk-bound analysts poring over out-of-date information and satellite photos.

The result of all this was a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and fueled years of instability in Iraq and around the region. The CIA spent a billion dollars looking for Iraq’s non-existent WMD programmes in 2003–2004 only to find that UNMOVIC and the IAEA had got it almost perfectly right. A succession of later inquiries and commissions into the intelligence failings in Washington and London rarely asked why the UN weapons inspectors were ignored. So far the lesson seems to have been lost on the policy community. This should not happen again.


Robert E. Kelley is a Distinguished Associate Fellow at SIPRI.