Home / Robert Farley / Uncertainty Kills

Uncertainty Kills

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U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Bob Houlihan – Public Domain

Interesting find by Politico, but gets a key part of the story fundamentally wrong:

The [Joint Chiefs of Staff] report was an inventory of what U.S. intelligence knew—or more importantly didn’t know—about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Its assessment was blunt: “We’ve struggled to estimate the unknowns. … We range from 0% to about 75% knowledge on various aspects of their program.”

Myers already knew about the report. The Joint Staff’s director for intelligence had prepared it, but Rumsfeld’s urgent tone said a great deal about how seriously the head of the Defense Department viewed the report’s potential to undermine the Bush administration’s case for war. But he never shared the eight-page report with key members of the administration such as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell or top officials at the CIA, according to multiple sources at the State Department, White House and CIA who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. Instead, the report disappeared, and with it a potentially powerful counter-narrative to the administration’s argument that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons posed a grave threat to the U.S. and its allies, which was beginning to gain traction in major news outlets, led by the New York Times.

The article goes on to contrast the uncertainty described in the report with the public statements of Bush administration officials. It’s fair to acknowledge that there’s a significant disjuncture between the certainty with which the Bush admin publicly described intel, and the much more mushy reality of what the US intelligence community (IC) could prove. That said, in other cases officials made the case for war in terms of uncertainty; Condi Rice’s “Mushroom Cloud” comment was premised on precisely these terms.

And inside the administration, the uncertainty regarding the state of Iraqi WMD was viewed as a cause for war, in and of itself. Charles Duelfer is very good on this point; he was far from certain that Iraq had WMD, but he favored war because it was impossible to tell for sure. That may sound a bit crazy, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 this kind of argument carried a lot of weight within the national security community. To the extent that arguments were used strategically within the administration (not everyone was convinced that invading Iraq was a good idea; Colin Powell is the best example, but there are others) the “we don’t have enough intel to prove what Iraq is doing” case tended to support the hawks.

And so it’s really not the case that the distribution of a document raising caveats about the state of intel on Iraq might have slowed the rush to war; uncertainty was one of the key talking points of hawks within the administration (above and beyond all of the other reasons they wanted to invade Iraq). Rumsfeld may have decided not to distribute the report simply because he felt it unnecessary at that point to add to the case for war.

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