Special Guest: Charles Duelfer
“I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds,” nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer is reported to have said after an atomic test in 1945. Over 60 years later, our world has yet to shatter–but not for lack of opportunity. As elder statesmen push for a global nuclear-weapons-free-zone and their successors struggle to prevent both Iran from acquiring those same weapons and North Korea from test-firing missiles that can deliver them, how is the American layman to make sense of the nuclear threat? Is prolilferation inevitable or can it actually be stopped? For some answers, we turned to Charles Duelfer, the MIT-trained arms control expert who formerly headed the Iraq Survey Group. He is the author of the recently released memoir, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq. (See Appendix for the full transcript of our interview.)
Things are actually better than many predicted just a short time after Oppenheimer saw his first mushroom cloud. The sense among many back then was that dozens of states would soon go nuclear, but containment has been surprisingly successful. “Obviously, this is not cause for insouciance,” Mr. Duelfer cautions, “but it demonstrates that the inhibitions to acquiring such weapons are larger and the benefits smaller than many think.”
In fact, when it comes to threatening humanity’s survival, Mr. Duelfer believes “it is more likely that humans wipe themselves out in more prosaic ways, such as overpopulation and overconsumption of limited resources.” The Cold War-era balance of terror “under which it was conceivable that the massive nuclear stockpiles of these two countries could be launched and the world destroyed in a sudden conflagration,” he explains, ” is now gone.”
Annihilation aside, Mr. Duelfer is skeptical of the nuclear negotiations recently announced between the US and Russia. Although greeted with celebration in the halls of the UN, he predicts that “the impending dialogue between the US and Russia on strategic nuclear forces will begin to highlight a link to conventional force levels that did not complicate earlier negotiations.” In short, our counterparts will be reluctant to reduce their own nuclear forces in light of the “enormous preponderance of US conventional forces.” Domestic politics will ensure that any discussion of conventional constraints will be tricky business.
What did the world learn from the Iraq experience? “Saddam is dead and Qaddafi is not,” he notes. Some countries may take the lesson that forsaking WMD is a healthy and wise decision. On the other hand, it is precisely our “huge conventional military dominance” that may encourage fearful regimes to acquire a nuclear deterrent. But can the Libya experience be replicated in Tehran and Pyongyang? “Probably not.”
Summarizing the work of ISG, Duelfer emphasizes that the group’s report offers rare insight into Baghdad’s operational methodologies and into the evolution of the Saddam regime’s views on WMD development across a multiyear timeframe. While Duelfer’s October 2004 Congressional testimony confirming that the United States was “almost all wrong” in its weapons allegations aroused frustration in many circles, Duelfer insists that the point of ISG was never to find a WMD, but rather “to find the truth.” In this respect, Duelfer suggests the group undoubtedly succeeded even as numerous ISG participants had been “substantially involved in pre-war estimates that judged Iraq would have significant WMD stocks.”
We encourage our readers to peruse the full transcript below and welcome discussion especially on the lessons for the intelligence community.
1. The Iraq Survey Group will be remembered for one conclusion: confirming that there were no WMD stockpiles in Saddam’s Iraq. But the actual report concluded that Saddam’s strategic intent was not benevolent and your predecessor, David Kay, has said he felt Saddam’s Iraq was “even more dangerous” than previously believed because Saddam was losing control. What are your thoughts on the ISG’s legacy?
ISG had an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the inner workings of a regime that was had been extremely difficult to fathom from the outside. I wanted to understand and record the relationship of the regime to WMD over time, not just determine whether WMD stocks existed in May of 2003. If we were to learn from the tragedy of Iraq, I believed it was important to understand the inner workings of the regime to include why Saddam at certain points elected to have and to use WMD and at other times elected not to have WMD. I also wanted to understand what his intentions were for the future-which, it turned out, included the desire to reconstitute WMD capacity when conditions permitted. I believe ISG was successful in detailing the operations and methodologies of the Saddam regime. We looked at how decisions were made, how resources were accumulated and allocated (to include the manipulation of the UN oil-for-food program). We recorded how Saddam exercised leadership (which was often implicit rather than explicit). The ISG report remains a rich resource for understanding how Baghdad looked at the universe and how they misapprehended events and made their own miscalculations. The ISG work is a great case study for intelligence analysts. It is used to illustrate the risks of mirror-imaging, of tending to see or collect only data which confirms a prevalent hypothesis, and points to the effects of mindsets and biases that were developed over decades both in Washington and Baghdad. It is my hope that the data recorded in this report will also inform academic work as well as future policy in other areas. I insisted that the report be entirely unclassified for these reasons.
2. What was the reaction within the ISG when there were no stockpiles discovered? At what point did you decide there were none?
I suspected there would not be much to find when a key senior Iraqi turned himself in to US authorities in soon after the invasion. This senior Iraqi, Dr. Amer al-Saadi gave an interview to a television reporter just before turning himself in and stated that the world would soon learn that Iraq had no WMD. This was a person who would probably be in a position to know about any clandestine programs and he was speaking in full knowledge that the US would soon be combing Iraq. If there was concealed WMD, he could not have spoken so categorically to the press.
My guidance as the head of the ISG was not to find WMD. It was to find the truth. In that we succeeded. Many ISG members had been involved in producing the pre-war estimates that judged Iraq would have significant WMD stocks. There was a natural desire to have these judgments turn out to be correct. But that was not the case, my sense was that most of the ISG analysts who spent substantial time in Iraq were gratified to investigate and record the inner workings of the regime-to include where it was headed with WMD. It is also worth recalling that Iraq was NOT in full compliance with the UN disarmament resolutions. They did have a ballistic missile program that exceeded the UN limits.
3. Are there any lessons to learn from the ISG experience in terms of either production or consumption of intelligence?
There are many lessons about both the collection and analysis of intelligence as well as the use or interpretation of intelligence by policy-makers, and even average citizens. For example, there was an understandable expectation that Saddam would have WMD. A harded mindset developed over the decades prior to the 2003 war. WMD saved Saddam in the war with Iran in the 1980’s (he used 101,000 chemical munitions to offset Iranian “human wave” attacks). Saddam believed that his possession of WMD deterred the US from going to Baghdad in 1991. And the years of cat and mouse with UN inspectors where Iraq actively interfered with inspections also added to the hypothesis that Saddam was hiding WMD and that he had every incentive to keep it. This mindset on the part of US analysts shaped the information that was collected and how it was interpreted. There was no competing hypothesis that was being tested. This bias produced the tendency to only collect and record data which supported the prevalent hypothesis. The intelligence community has responded to this massive failure of analytic tradecraft by mandating that competing hypotheses be maintained to test the rigor of analysis.
Hopefully, consumers of intelligence have also learned to be careful in interpreting what intelligence assessments say. I would recommend that policy-makers who receive intelligence assessments take a course in how intelligence is collected and assembled into judgments. If they had a better idea of how spies work, technical collection systems operate, and how all that stuff gets homogenized into an agreed report, they would have a better sense of how to evaluate such material.
One other lesson is perhaps that the US lost a lot by not having an embassy in Iraq. The US was almost entirely dependent upon the UN for information about Iraq WMD during the 1990’s. Washington did not have any contact with senior Iraqis and had no direct knowledge of what was going on in Baghdad. This produced a very costly gap in understanding.
4. How should we think about nuclear proliferation — as an inevitable process that always happens with technology that people desperately want, or as something that can be prevented?
The Saddam experience suggests both good and bad aspects of the nuclear proliferation issue. Saddam was deposed not when he had WMD, but when it turned out he did not. Other governments looking at Saddam’s fate could easily conclude that if he had not invaded Kuwait before he finished his nuclear weapon, he might be alive and well in Baghdad today. This could affect decisions in Tehran and Pyongyang. However, Saddam is dead and Qaddafi is not. Somehow Qaddafi concluded that it was in his interest to forsake WMD. Can the circumstances that led to Qaddafi’s decision be replicated in Iran and North Korea? Probably not. Curiously, the invasion of Iraq may reinforce the will of Iran and North Korea (and others) to obtain nuclear capacity. The huge conventional military dominance of the US gives a major incentive to those countries that may fear being the object of unwanted US attention. Unless the US is willing provide other equivalent security assurances, it is tough to beat having a nuclear deterrent…and the more countries that have even limited nuclear capacities, the greater the risk that uncontrolled access to nuclear weapons may result.
5. What does the world look like — how does it function — if the non-proliferation regime breaks down and more states go nuclear? Does humanity survive?
I don’t see a radical ramping up in the number of countries seeking independent nuclear arsenals. Looking backwards, the predictions made in the 1960’s of dozens of nuclear weapons states has not come to pass. In the sixty years since the first nuclear test, we have only a handful of nations with nuclear capabilities. Obviously this is not cause for insouciance, but I think it demonstrates that the inhibitions to acquiring such weapons are larger and the benefits smaller than many think. Regarding the survival of humanity, I think it is more likely that humans wipe themselves out in more prosaic ways, such as overpopulation and overconsumption of limited resources, disease, etc. The former balance of terror between the US and USSR, under which it was conceivable that the massive nuclear stockpiles of these two countries could be launched and the world destroyed in a sudden conflagration, is now gone.
6. Are there any macro themes or other issues related to WMD that you are concerned about that are receiving little attention?
I suspect that the impending dialogue between the US and Russia on strategic nuclear forces will begin to highlight a link to conventional force levels that did not complicate earlier negotiations. With the enormous preponderance of US conventional forces, and our track record of using them, the Russians (and indeed other countries) will have a greater reluctance to pare down nuclear systems independently of conventional force reductions. The recent burst of enthusiasm for nuclear negotiations will soon be tempered by this resulting complication. The US is not likely to want discuss constraints on its conventional force composition or deployments, if for no other reason than it will be a contentious domestic issue.