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Heat Seeker: George Perkovich, a graduate of UCSC, worked on nuclear-arms-related issues for nearly two decades before co-authoring the 'WMD in Iraq' study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).

Weapons of Mass Deception

UCSC graduate George Perkovich helped to write the study that had the Bush administration scrambling for cover with its indictment of U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq. Now, he tells Metro Santa Cruz how the hawks distorted the case for war.

By Art O'Sullivan

So I'm watching the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) press conference on the BBC in January. The CEIP has just released its bombshell report WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications to a flurry of international coverage, and now its three authors are summarizing piles of evidence that American intelligence on Iraq was systematically distorted, creating a false impression of an imminent threat to the United States. Recognition sets in, and suddenly I hear myself exclaim, "That's Perkovich!"

It was indeed Perkovich--right there on the BBC, knocking the legs out from under the U.S. government's case for war. I knew "Bob" Perkovich when we were both undergraduates at UCSC a quarter century ago. Now going by his first name "George," Dr. Perkovich has authored India's Nuclear Bomb, testified before both houses of Congress on matters of South Asian security and explained nuclear weapons proliferation issues on the PBS Newshour.

He's also gotten caught up in the media whirlwind that has swirled around the CEIP Iraq report. After nearly two decades of working on nuclear-arms-related issues, mainly in Washington, D.C., and the last two years at Carnegie, Perkovich was still taken aback by the phenomenal attention it received around the world. The WMD in Iraq report, which was the first to recommend that an independent commission examine U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq, triggered fallout that only intensified when David Kay, the former CIA adviser for the Iraqi weapons search, resigned later that month. (Tellingly, Kay delivered his much-quoted Feb. 5 address at CEIP headquarters.) The CEIP report caught the Bush administration off-guard--in response to Carnegie's finding that Iraq posed no imminent threat, Colin Powell could only muster: "They did not say it wasn't there." President Bush, who fiercely opposed the independent-commission recommendation at first, finally caved in to intense pressure to appoint one in February.

I caught up with Perkovich by phone at his home in Charlottesville, Va.

Metro Santa Cruz: How did you get involved with the 'WMD in Iraq' study?

George Perkovich: I think it was around February of 2002. Being in Washington, we noticed what would seem to be kind of an inexorable march to war. And my boss, Jessica Mathews, said war is the most fundamental decision that a government, a country, can make, and we're not having enough of a debate in the U.S. There's just kind of this almost unquestioning--in Washington--view that we've got to go to war. And so she said certainly there have to be better choices than doing nothing about the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or going to war. And so we designed in the summer of 2002 an alternative, which we issued in a report that came out in August, that called for a new model of coercive inspections. In other words, if it was assumed that Saddam Hussein would thwart inspections as he had done in the late '90s, the inspectors should go back in, but they should be backed by a really significant force ... and that the terms of inspections basically would not be negotiated any longer with Iraq, but they would be imposed. There'd be no games. Inspectors were going to look anywhere they wanted, anytime they wanted, and they could be backed by force. So we proposed that, it got some debate, but as we all know, the administration proceeded anyway.

So what made you come back to this issue?

This summer, when it started to appear that we weren't finding weapons of mass destruction, and moreover, in the absence of finding these weapons, administration officials and pundits started saying, "Well, we really weren't looking--the reason for the war wasn't only weapons of mass destruction, or it wasn't even the primary reason there, it was to bring democracy to the Middle East, liberate the people of Iraq." That's revisionism already, and so we thought we should go back and document what in fact the administration officials had said in persuading the American people and the international community to go to war, and also to look back at what intelligence assessments had been throughout the '90s and then in 2000, 2001, and then to compare those assessments with this key national intelligence assessment that was prepared in October of 2002. That national intelligence assessment was the key document that the administration and Congress deliberated on in authorizing the administration to go to war. And that document actually had a threat assessment on weapons of mass destruction that was significantly different from the prior intelligence assessments. So in the report we kind of chart those differences and note that administration officials acknowledge there was no new fact that caused the change in assessment, which left it kind of as a mystery--why did the assessment change? And so we tried to explore that also.

Why did the assessment change?

We think it's impossible to conclude definitively, because at some level you get into intentions. In other words, the assessment changed--what were the intentions of the people that changed the assessment, and, for example, were they influenced by political pressure from the administration? In other words, intelligence is supposed to be as objective as possible--nothing's ever wholly objective, but it's not supposed to be influenced by political pressure or policy preference. The intelligence community is supposed to describe reality as best as it can see it.

And yet, the intelligence got skewed in favor of going to war. Why?

Things happened that we believe require further investigation. For example, the Pentagon created its own Office of Special Plans, as it was called, which was a small cell in the Pentagon, to produce its own intelligence. And we know from the record that Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld and others felt that the intelligence, the assessments being produced by the CIA were, in their view, of poor quality, dubious, and they basically suggested that they thought the CIA was biased against war, and was thereby producing erroneous assessments, and this office was going to correct that by finding facts that they believe the intelligence didn't give enough emphasis to, and in essence creating kind of an alternative assessment. That's highly unusual.

Who decided to do that?

As far as we know, the secretary of defense and civilians working directly under him. This office was headed by the undersecretary of defense, Douglas Feith, and to their credit they were fairly unabashed about it. In other words, this wasn't really secret. ... What happened here is they turned the intelligence process into almost an advocacy contest, almost like a court model, where they said the CIA is a defender, in their view, the defender of kind of a soft assessment on Iraq, and so these guys were going to produce kind of a more prosecutorial set of arguments.

Do you have the impression the Bush administration has not been honest with the American people?

What we say is that there was systematic misrepresentation of the threat. There are four elements to that, and they're very clearly laid out in the report. The easiest thing to document about misrepresentation is that intelligence, including this key 2002 estimate, but the stuff prior to that also, the intelligence had lots of caveats. People weren't certain. We hadn't been on the ground since 1998. There was a lot of ambiguity. And so in these assessments they would say, "we believe" or "we assess that" Iraq may have restarted a nuclear weapon program. "It's possible that Iraq has chemical or biological weapons." But the administration's statements--from the president, the vice president, other officials--dropped all those caveats and qualifiers, and thereby made much more unambiguous, unqualified statements--many more statements that suggested certitude where in fact there was doubt. And that's a form of misrepresentation of what the intelligence actually said.

What about the creation of the term 'weapons of mass destruction?'

Another key misrepresentation of the threat was that they conflated nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons into this simple term of "weapons of mass destruction." That conflation ended up being very misleading. The best intelligence was that Iraq was far from getting nuclear weapons now, and had not reconstituted a significant nuclear weapon program. Nuclear weapons are by far the most dangerous threat. Chemical weapons are problematic, but they're not really weapons of mass destruction. I mean you could kill people on a city block, you can do harm with chemical weapons, but you can't wipe out a city or defeat a country or defeat an army with chemical weapons. But if you lump these two things together and talk about "weapons of mass destruction," you can convey an impression that the threat is as great as that posed by nuclear weapons, when in fact you might be talking about chemical weapons. And so that conflation allowed for an exaggerated sense of how great the danger from Iraq was.

Were there other exaggerations?

There was misrepresentation of inspectors' findings in Iraq in ways that made what were relatively minor threats appear dire. Inspectors found things that demonstrated Iraq's noncompliance with UN resolutions, which was unacceptable and needed to be redressed, but many of these discoveries did not amount to the grave security threats that administration officials often portrayed them to be.

What were your findings about the supposed link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein?

Perhaps the most important misrepresentation was the unquestioned assertion that Iraq, if it had weapons of mass destruction, would give them to Al Qaeda terrorists. That assumption is key to the whole argument of why we had to go to war now. Because, the argument was Al Qaeda terrorists were not deterrable, and so if they were highly likely to be given weapons of mass destruction, then we were highly likely to be attacked by those weapons. And yet, the CIA itself concluded that it was highly unlikely that Saddam would give weapons of mass destruction to Al Qaeda. There is no historical basis for the assumption that he would, there is no logical basis for the assumption that he would. This was perceived by the CIA, it was perceived by experts on Iraq, and yet the assumption that he would give them to Al Qaeda was basically unchallenged. ... Sen. Graham from Florida did challenge this assumption, and he was basically ignored. . . .

He's on the Intelligence Committee.

A very sober guy. And so one of the things we suggest is that the failure here was not just of Republicans or the Bush administration, it was a governance failure. The Congress as a whole, the media and American citizens didn't pick up on Sen. Graham's doubt, for example, and demand a much fuller, more open debate on this question of: Would Iraq give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists? It was just kind of assumed, and yet that was the key assumption that really rationalized the need for war in March 2003.

How does the Army War College Report, which was released after the Carnegie Report and was also critical of the administration's Iraq policy, fit into this picture?

I would urge your readers to see if they can download that. It's a brilliant strategic assessment by a man named Jeffrey Record who had a long career in the Senate Armed Services Committee as a well-known military strategist. He goes through exhaustive and wonderfully insightful analysis of many questions. One of which was: Was Saddam deterrable? And the answer is: Since 1991, he certainly was deterrable, and you could argue he was deterrable even before that. In other words, one of the counterarguments is: "Well, he invaded Kuwait, so that shows he's undeterrable." But in fact, there was a criticism of the ambassador to Iraq in 1990 for giving the impression to Saddam that we wouldn't stop him if he went into Kuwait.

Right, she said it was an 'Arab matter' and that the U.S. doesn't get involved in those.

Yeah. There's evidence, and it was widely argued at the time, that in fact the U.S failed to send a strong enough signal to Saddam, and so he went into [Kuwait] thinking that we wouldn't hammer back. So he miscalculated. But that doesn't [mean] that he was undeterrable; it [means] that we didn't deter him. So anytime that he faced a decisive signal that if he did something he'd get hammered for it, he's shown evidence that he was deterrable. And so the Army War College assessment documents that, then analyzes the risks of "preventive war"--in other words, of going to war, attacking another country in the absence of an imminent threat. [Record] talks about why that's to the disadvantage of the U.S. to create that kind of precedent. It undermines your legitimacy. It gives other countries the signal that they can do the same thing--whether it's India vs. Pakistan, Russia vs. Georgia--kind of pick your country. And he says that's a strategic mistake. The third important argument he makes: The war on terrorism is in fact a strategic priority of the United States, but Iraq wasn't a significant threat in the war on terrorism. Al Qaeda's the threat in the war on terrorism--and kindred groups-and yet they weren't operating in Iraq, and so we spend all of this energy and all of this force and everything else on a war that wasn't central to the war on terrorism, thereby dissipating both our resources to fight the war on terrorism [and] dissipating whatever good will we had after Sept. 11 to fight the terrorists. And he says the absolute imperative of strategy is to minimize your number of enemies and increase your number of allies. And by going into Iraq, we did the opposite: we increased the number of our enemies, and we reduced the number of our allies. And he says that's a huge strategic error.

Why did Saddam Hussein act as though he had these weapons of mass destruction, even as he was denying it? Was he pretending to have them for some reason?

This is a hugely important question, and we don't know the full answer. ... One can only hope that in the interrogation of Saddam that's going on now, he's in fact answering this. ... Kenneth Pollack wrote a very influential book (The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq) before the war saying, in his view, there was no option but to go to war, to remove Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction. So now he's writing this really wonderful article in The Atlantic saying, "OK, how were I and others wrong about this?" And the big question is your question: If Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction, as we now seem to be finding, why the hell didn't he come clean? Why did he act as if he did? [Pollack says] right after the Kuwait war, [Saddam] thought he could get away with keeping some of his capability. What happened is the international inspectors--UNSCOM--from '91 onward were much more effective than he had anticipated, and so over the years they found and destroyed a great deal of capability. They wiped out his nuclear program, they destroyed lots of stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, they caught the Iraqis in a number of lies, and that led them to further capabilities that they destroyed. All of this surprised him. And he had a hope that he would--by resisting and pointing out that his people were starving and children were dying for lack of medical attention and so on--that he'd make the international community basically give up and lift sanctions and stop the inspections. And so he had a motive to try and keep some capability. But he didn't succeed in that. The inspectors were doing better, and he was losing capability. And also, Pollack talks about it, Saddam is always worried about his internal strength in Iraq. He always feared his opponents in Iraq. And in the past he had used chemical weapons on his own people as a way to destroy adversaries and keep them under control. So he worried that, if it were known he didn't have these capabilities, it would be more likely that there would be massive resistance by the Iraqi people and/or his own army.

The Kurds ...

...And the Shia. And so to protect himself, the argument goes, he felt that he needed to maintain the impression he had these capabilities so none of his own people would come after him. And also to maintain this sense of strength within the Arab world, that others couldn't mess with him because he still had these weapons. Around 1996, he uncovered a U.S.-backed coup, killed the plotters ... and so his internal position got stronger. So that could have been a time when he could have said, "OK, I'll come clean now. You've actually wiped out my capability, I don't have anything left. I'm coming clean. Lift sanctions." Pollack suggests, though, that the problem then was, if he tells his people and the world, "I don't have this stuff any more," his people say, "Why the hell for five years then did we starve and our children die, if you didn't have this? You led to our suffering by pretending to have this capability--you're a bad leader." And so this could've then given him an incentive to continue with the bluff, because [he thinks] "I basically have lied too long, my people have suffered for it. I've got to maintain the lie, or I'm going to be exposed and my people will turn against me." That's, in a nutshell, a plausible answer but, we won't know until--if and until--he explains himself.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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