NEW YORK -- Why have U.S. political leaders and intelligence agencies turned out to be so wrong about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction?
Despite years of warnings from the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA that Saddam Hussein was hiding an illicit arsenal, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. The weapons failure has become the top political issue in Washington, and a blue-ribbon panel has been formed to come up with answers. Was the intelligence failure an honest, unavoidable mistake or was information manipulated to serve a political agenda?
No answer to that question can be complete without looking at the astonishing tale of Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, the highest-ranking defector to leave Iraq. His story leaves no doubt that Washington misled the American public for years about Iraq's WMD. And it also suggests something unexpected: The pattern of lying began not under President Bush but during the Clinton administration.
U.N. weapons inspectors, meanwhile, were caught in the middle. Dependent on continued U.S. cooperation for their mission's success, they could not afford to alienate the most powerful U.N. member -- the United States -- by contradicting the steady flow of alarmist claims coming from Washington.
On Aug. 8, 1995, Mr. Kamel, son-in-law of Mr. Hussein and head of Iraq's secret weapons programs, arrived in Jordan ready to tell the West everything he knew about WMD. Weapons inspectors learned that the Iraqis had been lying for years because although they claimed they had never weaponized biological agents or produced VX nerve gas, Mr. Kamel revealed they had done both before the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
The defection of Mr. Kamel, who was executed on his return to Iraq in 1996, forced Iraq to admit to these programs. But when Iraqis were asked about the weapons stockpiles that the programs had yielded, they insisted they all were destroyed in the summer of 1991, after the war. As proof, they showed inspectors diaries and inventory records documenting the destruction and even took them to disposal sites where forensic testing confirmed that weapons had been buried. But there were gaps in Iraq's evidence, and the inspectors officially refused to accept Iraqi accounts. When inspectors left Iraq in 1998, these "unaccounted for" stockpiles were the basis of the U.S. claim that Iraq still was hiding an illicit arsenal.
As President Clinton waged a showdown with Iraq over U.N. inspections in 1997 and 1998, he and his senior officials repeatedly invoked Mr. Kamel and his revelations as proof Iraq still was hiding WMD.
"In 1995, Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law, and the chief organizer of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program, defected to Jordan," Mr. Clinton said in a major 1998 speech. "He revealed that Iraq was continuing to conceal weapons and missiles and the capacity to build many more."
It was only a year ago during the worldwide debate over U.S. plans to invade Iraq that the truth about Mr. Kamel finally emerged. The transcript of his August 1995 briefing with U.N. inspectors was leaked -- first to Newsweek (which published a brief item about it) and then posted to the Internet. In it, he confirmed that Iraq had lied about its pre-1991 weapons programs.
But when he was asked what happened to the weapons stockpiles Iraq had produced, the answer he gave was the same as the Iraqi government's -- and the opposite of what the Clinton administration told the world: "All weapons -- biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed," he said.
The destruction took place in the summer of 1991. He confirmed this claim during interrogation about each weapons program.
Thus, for years U.S. officials publicly accused Iraq of lying about its weapons stockpiles even though privately they knew that Iraq's story had been corroborated by the very defector whom they pointed to as proof that Iraq was lying.
It was a systematic pattern of dishonesty that continued up to the eve of the U.S. invasion in March. In the months before the war, Iraqi officials repeated their statement -- that all weapons were destroyed -- at numerous news conferences and in official documents. But U.S. officials dismissed the denials as propaganda.
"They've repeated the biggest lie of all -- the claim that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared in a March 2003 speech in Washington.
Yet remarkably, in the same speech, Mr. Powell again recited the story of Mr. Kamel, without revealing that the general had confirmed the weapons had been destroyed:
"In 1995 or thereabouts, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, who knew a lot, defected, and he spilled the beans. He let it be known that the Iraqi regime had VX [nerve gas] and, as a result of what he told the international community, what he told the inspectors, the Iraqi regime was forced to admit it."
Many U.N. inspectors privately suspected in the 1990s that Iraq was telling the truth when it said the weapons were destroyed.
But they faced a dilemma of their own. The Security Council had ordered them to eliminate 100 percent of Iraq's WMD and to provide proof it was destroyed. But because Iraq had destroyed many of its weapons secretly, much of the evidence could not be documented.
To overcome the impasse, the inspectors could have told the Security Council that while its mandate of 100 percent verifiable disarmament was not achievable, they could offer assurances that Iraq had been sufficiently disarmed so that it no longer posed a meaningful threat.
Yet doing so would have put the inspectors on a collision course with the Security Council's most powerful member, the United States, which was sure to argue that anything less than total certainty was unacceptable. Such a confrontation would have fatally weakened the inspections process and deepened divisions at the Security Council.
Throughout the process, the inspectors were subject to intense pressure from Washington not to give Iraq a clean bill of health. According to Ron Cleminson, a senior Canadian arms control expert who served on the U.N. Special Commission's (UNSCOM) College of Commissioners throughout the 1990s, the inspectors could have declared Iraq disarmed of nuclear, missile and chemical weapons as early as 1992, but Washington's hard-line position prevented such a move.
"I used to say: 'You know, we basically know among ourselves there are no weapons and we're unlikely to find any,'" Mr. Cleminson said in an interview. "My take on it is that this information was known, and in spades. But this stuff was being pushed on a political level. They [in Washington] were just absolutely ignoring what was obvious. My guess is that with full American cooperation and without all this politics, [UNSCOM's mission] could have been wrapped up in three to four years."
The Kamel affair still remains uninvestigated. CIA Director George J. Tenet and President Bush continue to insist they had every reason to believe Iraq was still hiding its old weapons stockpiles before the war began.
But the questions remain: What were the CIA's internal assessments of Mr. Kamel's testimony? Did the Clinton administration tell Congress and its intelligence committees the truth about the defector's revelations, or did it mislead them as it misled the public?
The administration's intelligence commission has an obligation to come up with answers.
Seth Ackerman, a freelance journalist, has extensively researched the history of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He is a contributor to Harper's and was a staff member of FAIR, the media watchdog group.