May 1 2004

From Speculation to History

'Saddam's bluff' becomes conventional wisdom--with no evidence presented

Late last January, chief U.S. weapons-hunter David Kay left his post, saying that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and that most likely none would ever be found. For pro-war pundits and editorialists who had spent months issuing periodic reminders that Kay still had not yet finished his work, and that we should all wait for his final judgment, Kay’s final judgment, when it came, was uncomfortably final: “It turns out we were all wrong,” he mournfully told a Senate committee (CNN, 1/28/04).

But for many pundits, embarrassed by their confident assumptions that Iraq was one big chemical weapons dump, Kay left a glimmer of hope in his wake. Somehow a myth has grown up that Bush administration officials and the media, whose collective error on the WMD issue was so stunningly complete for so long, might actually have been wrong through no fault of their own. According to this theory, the blame for the U.S.’s intelligence failure should be laid at the feet of none other than Saddam Hussein himself.

One version says that although he had no WMD, Saddam engaged in an elaborate ploy to convince us he did, so as to maintain a deterrent. Another version, somewhat confusingly, says he thought he had WMD because his corrupt scientists lied to him about their progress. And sometimes the two theories are combined. The basic premise has been around in one form or another since last year (see Extra!, 1-2/04), but after David Kay finished his work in January, it has become semi-official history.

“Kay has now offered the most novel and convincing explanation for why U.S. intelligence . . . misjudged what Iraq possessed,” wrote columnist Charles Kraut- hammer (Washington Post, 1/30/04). “It was a combination of Iraqi bluff, deceit and corruption far more bizarre than heretofore suspected. Kay discovered that an increasingly erratic Saddam Hussein had taken over personal direction of WMD programs. But because there was no real oversight, the scientists would go to Hussein, exaggerate or invent their activities, then pocket the funds. Scientists were bluffing Hussein. Hussein was bluffing the world. The Iraqis were all bluffing each other.”

Never mind that before the war, the same Krauthammer was insisting that the reason no weapons had been found was that the U.N. was refusing to shuttle these same scientists out of the country so they could eagerly spill the beans about the massive arsenal (Washington Post, 1/10/03): “Everyone knows that the only way to find weapons is to question Iraqi scientists under conditions of protective asylum outside Iraq,” he wrote as the U.N.’s Hans Blix was searching the country.

And forget the obvious fact that Iraqi officials practically pleaded with the world to believe their 12,000-page declaration of December 2002, which stated that Iraq had no WMD. The country’s U.N. ambassador and chief U.N. liaison gave televised press conferences to stress this point (CNN, 12/6/02, 12/8/02) and Saddam Hussein himself gave an exclusive interview to Dan Rather to deliver the same message (CBS, 2/25/03). But the U.S. media, too clever to fall for such lies, scoffed at the denials.

One way or another

According to the theory that seems to be emerging as the new conventional wisdom, Iraq’s media messages were part of an elaborate and devious plan to convince the world that Saddam Hussein really did have WMD—or, if he himself was being duped by his own scientists into believing he had weapons that didn’t exist, then these messages were deceitful attempts to conceal weapons Hussein thought he had. So if the U.S. invaded Iraq on the false premise that it was armed with WMD, it wasn’t because of mendacious U.S. politicians or gullible media. It was because Saddam Hussein was lying—one way or the other. Which is all the more reason to conclude that he really was a threat after all.

In part, the theory emerged from an inaccurate reading of a major Washington Post exposé, “Iraq Arsenal Was Only on Paper” (1/7/04), on the non-existent state of Iraq’s arms. It offered evidence that the country’s weapons scientists, finding themselves with little to do in the absence of serious WMD programs, busied themselves with pen-and-paper research into weapons designs and then exaggerated their findings to their bosses to free up more money for their work. But the piece never claimed that Iraqi leadership believed that any actual weapons were being produced.

The source usually cited for the theory was David Kay himself, as in the Krauthammer column quoted above. Yet despite his access to reams of captured documents and detained Iraqi officials, Kay has never put any evidence on the record to substantiate the notion that Saddam was bluffing.

Said by friends to be devastated at the absence of the WMD on which he staked his professional reputation (L.A. Times, 2/1/04), Kay has, instead, tacitly allowed himself to be portrayed as having found solid evidence for the theory. In congressional testimony and in two post-resignation TV interviews (MSNBC Hardball, 1/28/04; Larry King Live, 2/11/04), when asked whether he believes Saddam was trying to inflate perceptions of his arsenal, Kay has given vague and noncommittal answers.

Since he is supposed to be a methodical investigator, it was often assumed that he was endorsing the notion based on the detailed data he collected. For Kay, and for other officials who anonymously endorsed the theory in interviews with reporters, it was a convenient perception for the public to have. What better way to avoid responsibility for the weapons failure than for the blame to fall on Saddam Hussein?

The fire last time

The true origins of the “Saddam-fooled-the-world” theory are actually a bit mysterious. Last May, a pro-war academic consultant at MIT wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post offering up the theory (“No Weapons, No Matter. We Called Saddam’s Bluff,” 5/11/03). But he didn’t claim to have any new information backing it up and his flimsy piece didn’t get much attention. His “proof” consisted entirely of a single bogus, easily debunked claim: that after the first Gulf War, “Hussein regularly threatened to engulf his enemies in a ‘sea of fire.’ No one knew what he was really trying to do,” Michael Schrage wrote. “That was precisely his point.”

But Hussein’s “sea of fire” quote dates from before the Gulf War, when he threatened to blow up Saudi oil wells if attacked (Toronto Star, 11/9/90). The phrase doesn’t reappear in any Hussein statement made since 1991, according to Nexis.

More influential were two “Saddam-fooled-the-world” leaks from anonymous high-level administration officials. The first came in late August 2003, when the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story by Bob Drogin (8/28/03) quoting a senior intelligence official who said that “former Iraqi operatives” had posited the existence of a fantastically elaborate deception operation.

The official’s story went like this: Would-be Iraqi defectors “were shown bits of information and led to believe there was an active weapons program, only to be turned loose to make their way to Western intelligence sources. Then, because they believe it, they pass polygraph tests . . . and the planted information becomes true to the West, even if it was all made up to deceive us.” This formulation has the double benefit of putting the blame on Hussein while excusing the Pentagon’s reliance on the word of dubious exiles.

Calling the bluff

The second leak appeared in October 2003, one day before David Kay was scheduled to give his first major congressional briefing. The Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus and Dana Priest (10/1/03) cited “people familiar with his planned testimony” as saying that Kay would tell Congress the next day that he was “pursuing the possibility that the Iraqi leader was bluffing, pretending he had distributed [WMD] to his most loyal commanders to deter the United States from invading.”

According to the article, “Kay has examined prewar Iraqi communications collected by U.S. intelligence agencies indicating that Iraqi commanders—including Ali Hassan Majeed, also known as ‘Chemical Ali’—were given the authority to launch weapons of mass destruction against U.S. troops as they advanced north from Kuwait.” Supposedly, it was this intelligence that had prompted Bush to announce shortly before the war (2/6/03): “We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons, the very weapons the dictator tells the world he does not have.” According to the article’s sources, however, these were not actual chemical weapons, but figments of a Saddam Hussein bluff.

One day later, Kay delivered his testimony, and the text of his statement shows that he said exactly the opposite (CIA website, “Statement by David Kay,” 10/2/03): “We have also acquired information related to Iraq’s CW [chemical weapons] doctrine and Iraq’s war plans for OIF [the invasion] but we have not yet found evidence to confirm prewar reporting that Iraqi military units were prepared to use CW against Coalition forces.”

Hours after Kay testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee, CNBC anchor Alan Murray teased an upcoming segment about the story (10/2/03): “Was Saddam Hussein bluffing about having weapons of mass destruction? Senate Intelligence Committee Chair-man Pat Roberts tells us what the man leading the hunt for those weapons testified today.”

But Roberts swiftly shot down the Post leak. Murray asked him: “Senator, there’s a theory that’s been going around in the last few days about the possibility that Saddam Hussein was bluffing, trying to convince the world, maybe trying to convince U.S. intelligence forces, that he had more weapons than he actually had in order to deter an invasion. What do you think about that theory?”

“I don’t think there’s much to that,” Roberts replied.

Bluffing-related activities

Three months later, Kay gave his valedictory testimony in which he finally confirmed there were no WMD in Iraq. Here he finally seemed to come out and endorse the bluff theory—though his endorsement came in a rather elliptical form: A senator quoted something Kay had presumably said behind closed doors, and Kay seemed to accept the implication that it constituted an endorsement of the theory.

Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) prefaced a question to Kay with this:

You are quoted [as] saying that you believe Hussein had been pursuing a course of constructive ambiguity—this before the war—bluffing about having weapons to give the illusion of power and to put up a deterrent. And your quote was: “Saddam wanted to enjoy the benefit of having chemical or biological weapons without having to pay the costs.”

Inhofe then asked, rather astutely: Isn’t it a contradiction to say, on the one hand, that Saddam erroneously believed he had WMD, and on the other hand that he knew he had no WMD but bluffed the world into believing he did?

Kay’s answer seems carefully ambiguous: “I actually don’t see [the contradiction],” he said. “I think it’s he knew he had the capability. He wanted to enjoy the benefits of others thinking he had it.” In other words, Hussein wasn’t trying to fool the world into thinking he had weapons that he lacked; according to Kay, Hussein wanted others to know about whatever weapons capability he did have—presumably the nebulous “weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities” that Kay has repeatedly cited. Kay didn’t object to Inhofe calling that a “bluff,” but it’s hardly the normal way that word is used.

Meanwhile, in the real world

Yet in the aftermath of this testimony, the “Saddam’s bluff” theory catapulted its way into the status of fact, or at least persuasive theory. It was cited in a Newsday editorial (2/1/04):

Hussein may have deluded himself, or was putting on an act, or was conned by subordinates into thinking he had more WMDs than he actually had and, in turn, his enemies were tricked into thinking exactly the same by his denials, bluffs and stone-walling tactics.

CNN‘s intelligence reporter recited (2/23/04): “Given a secretive strongman capable of bluffing and too little credible intelligence, the dangers of miscalculation were all too real.” And U.S. News & World Report (2/29/04) wrote that “Kay has turned up evidence of acts of self-deception or bluffing among the Iraqi leadership.” Other mentions of it abounded (e.g., Boston Globe, 2/1/04; Washington Post, 2/1/04).

Despite all the confident talk of Iraqi bluffing, no one seems ever to have offered any actual examples of when it took place. The Iraqis, after all, publicly insisted over and over again, for years, that they had no weapons of mass destruction. And despite claims, as in a Washington Post editorial (6/4/03), that Saddam “repeatedly refused to provide evidence that he had destroyed” his missing weapons, the Iraqis not only turned over military diaries and inventory records to document the destruction (UNSCOM report, 1/25/99), but actually brought the inspectors to the disposal sites, where huge quantities of destroyed chemical and biological weapons were identified by U.N. scientists (though, crucially, the amounts could not be quantified). The problem was less that Iraq failed to provide any evidence, than that the media hardly reported it.

Iraq was never able to prove that its WMD had been destroyed—but not because the regime didn’t want to prove it. Rather, it was for exactly the reason Iraq always cited: The destruction had been done secretly and most of the records were destroyed. That is what a senior Iraqi weapons official, Dr. Alaa Saeed, told the L.A. Times‘ Drogin (New Republic, 7/13/03): In 1991, his boss “ordered him to destroy all his original notes and records” about the secretly destroyed weapons. Then, in 1994, when it came time to submit a report to the U.N. on the chemical weapons program, “We had to do it mostly from memory. We worked day and night for six months. Maybe we could collect a piece of paper here and there or check labels on some equipment. Maybe some numbers were not right.” He could not even correct the reports later as new documents were discovered: “Because then we will look like liars. And that will make Iraq look bad.”

Those do not sound like the words of a man involved in a diabolical plot to deceive the world into thinking Iraq had WMD. They sound like the words of someone desperately trying to prove that the WMD were gone. As Iraq’s U.N. liaison explained to the foreign press corps in a live televised news conference more than three months before the invasion (CNN, 12/8/02): “When you remove something completely, it no longer exists. And if you want to do it properly, you also remove all of the evidence [that] it ever existed. And that’s what we did and retrospectively, it was a mistake.”

The uses of deception

The “Saddam-made-us-think-it” hypothesis clearly has an appeal that allows it to live on despite a near-total lack of evidence—and that’s its ability to transfer responsibility for WMD delusions toward Hussein and away from either U.S. officials or the compliant media. If Iraq was trying to pretend that it had banned weapons, how was anyone to know that it did not?

Yet somehow Kay’s former colleague Scott Ritter knew it: “Iraq has been fundamentally disarmed,” he said before the war (War on Iraq, 2003). And somehow former top U.N. inspector Rolf Ekeus knew it: “In my view, there are no large quantities of weapons. I don’t think that Iraq is especially eager in the biological and chemical area to produce such weapons for storage” (Arms Control Today, 3/00). Several other U.N. inspectors at least suspected it: “[An] inspector said his colleagues think it possible that Iraq really has eliminated its banned materials” (L.A. Times, 12/31/02). Even a senior U.S. intelligence analyst was on the right track: “[He] said one explanation for the difficulties inspectors have had in locating weapons caches ‘is because there may not be much of a stockpile'” (Washington Post, 3/16/03).

All of which suggests something the press still has not fully come to terms with: that ignoring evidence that Iraq was free of WMD was a conscious decision. Ahmed Chalabi, one of Washington’s prime sources for fictitious weapons reporting, has even glorified this misdirection: “We are heroes in error,” he told the London Telegraph (2/19/04), in a startling admission that got little play in the United States. “As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We’re ready to fall on our swords if he wants.”

In other words, the “mystery” of Saddam’s missing weapons is much less a mystery than a scandal.