War Stories

Was Bush Lying About WMD?

Maybe not. Here’s how they could’ve misread the evidence.

We may never know if Saddam Hussein really had weapons of mass destructionduring the final months or years before his ouster, but it is worth asking why the Bush administration claimed he did with a degree of certainty far exceeding that of U.S. intelligence reports.

Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and the other Pentagon officials who made these claims so fiercely probably weren’t lying. Clearly, they had formed their conclusions first, then went scrounging for the evidence. Clearly, they stretched the evidence they found right up to, and in some cases beyond, the logical limits. However, it’s a fair bet that they genuinely believed that Saddam had these weapons. They probably also believed that the analysts in the CIA and DIA, who were uncertain or skeptical about the matter, just didn’t, or didn’t want to, look hard enough.

In this sense, Rumsfeld and company saw themselves as something like a district attorney who twists the facts a bit to “frame a guilty man”—or like Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state, who admitted in his memoirs that, while pushing for a massive U.S. arms buildup against what he saw as a grave Soviet threat, he made his points “clearer than truth.”

In fact, the history of the Cold War offers many parallels to this pattern, few more enlightening or pertinent than the controversy over the “missile gap”—another case of a threat that everyone perceived as real and immediate (it even helped elect a president) but that, in this case, turned out to be completely false.

It started in 1957, when the CIA’s annual top-secret National Intelligence Estimate stated that the Soviets could deploy 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles by the end of 1960 or, if they built them on a crash basis, even the end of ‘59—500 by the end of 1961 or ‘62. Not only would such an arsenal greatly outnumber the U.S. missile force, it would also be large enough to wipe out America’s entire nuclear arsenal in a surprise first-strike.

This estimate reinforced a report that same year, by a top-level Air Force panel, concluding that the USSR’s primary strategic objective was to destroy so much of our arsenal that we would not be able to retaliate effectively—with the result that “the Soviets might well consider that they would be in a position to initiate general [nuclear] war with very little risk.”

The estimate was based on Air Force Intelligence data, but its numbers—and its underlying assumptions about Soviet aims and motives—were accepted as truth by the entire intelligence community. (The only dissent came from the Strategic Air Command’s intelligence wing, which predicted the Soviets would have not 500 ICBMs but 1,000.)

However, by mid-1958, analysts in the CIA’s science and technology division began to notice something strange: The Soviets were still testing plenty of short- and medium-range missiles, but they were dramatically slowing down their ICBM testing; they’d tested only six ICBMs, all told, and hadn’t tested any for several months. (The United States had a secret radar site in Turkey that looked out across the Black Sea. The Soviets had two missile test-ranges—one for ICBMs, one for shorter-range missiles, both within this radar’s view.)

The CIA analysts wondered: How could the Soviets have 100 missiles in the next couple years when they haven’t been testing any lately?

As a response to this skepticism, Air Force officers started spreading the word, to the press and among Democratic hawks in Congress, that CIA chief Allen Dulles and, by implication, President Dwight Eisenhower were dangerously underestimating the Soviet threat. From this stemmed the widespread charges of the administration’s complacency about a “missile gap.”

The Air Force had a vested interest in the missile gap: The best argument, after all, for a large U.S. arsenal of ICBMs—and thus a large Air Force budget—was that the Soviets were building a still bigger arsenal. In the bureaucratic battles that began to break out, Air Force officers started to stretch the evidence in their favor—arguing that the Soviets were in fact performing a lot of ICBM tests and that the CIA was falsely or mistakenly reporting them as tests of shorter-range missiles. Officers in SAC Intelligence prepared slide-show briefings, in which photos taken by spies inside the Soviet Union—of medieval towers, farm silos, and strange-looking objects plunked down in the middle of nowhere—were interpreted as covert missile sites.

Most of these officers weren’t lying; they probably believed what they were saying. They certainly believed the underlying premise about Soviet first-strike intentions. They therefore asked the same question that the CIA analysts asked: How could the Soviets accomplish their strategic aim—which would require building hundreds of ICBMs over the next few years—and yet test so little? The Air Force officers’ answer was: They can’t; therefore, the CIA must be wrong; the Soviets must be testing a lot more.

Even the CIA analysts were baffled by their own observations. They, no less than Air Force officers, had an alarmist view of Soviet intentions. Therefore, nobody pressed for a change in the 1958 National Intelligence Estimate; it read pretty much like the one in 1957. It was still too soon to draw conclusive inferences.

But by 1960, the absence of evidence had persisted long enough, and the CIA—joined by Army and Navy Intelligence (which had their own motives for fighting the Air Force)—mounted systematic opposition to the Air Force view. The matter was settled later that year when the first Discoverer * photo-reconnaissance satellites started sending back images showing quite conclusively that the Soviets had no more than four operational ICBMs.

John F. Kennedy campaigned for president in 1960 on a platform that assailed Eisenhower for allowing a “missile gap.” (He didn’t know about the Discoverer shots, nor did Eisenhower tell him or any other Democratic critic.) In February 1961, just one month after taking office, Kennedy’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, was briefed on the new evidence, and gave Kennedy the news that there was no missile gap—or, rather, that there was, but the United States, not the USSR, was way ahead.

On Dec. 5, 1962, shortly after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was meeting in the Cabinet Room with some of his top advisers and suddenly started to talk about the old missile gap. “There was created a myth in this country that did great harm,” he told them. “It was created by, I would say, emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon.” Calling himself, in a self-deprecating tone, “one of those who put that myth around—a patriotic and misguided man,” he said, “I want some research … dig up the record. … Otherwise, what it looks like is we, some of us, distorted the facts and created a myth of the gap that didn’t exist.” A lot of people, including Kennedy, “really believed there would be” a gap, he said. Now he wanted to know how that happened. (His secret tape-recording of this meeting was declassified by the JFK Library in February 2002.)

The resulting study was finished in May 1963. Written by a Pentagon aide named Lawrence McQuade and addressed to Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze, the report was titled “But Where Did the Missile Gap Go?” The chronicle of the missile gap that I have laid out here is based largely, though not entirely, on its conclusions. (A partial version of the report, though missing the last few crucial pages, can be found online here. The complete version, which was declassified in 1979, is at the JFK Library. For a fuller history of the missile gap, and of the “bomber gap” that preceded it, see my 1983 book, The Wizards of Armageddon.)

In this past year’s Achesonian campaign to make points “clearer than truth”—the much-reported pressure on the CIA to stiffen its stance and drop its caveats on the question of Iraqi WMD—there are similar patterns. In the beginning, as Rumsfeld has correctly noted, there was little disagreement within official circles over whether Saddam possessed at least the ingredients for biological or chemical weapons and had at least the desire to develop nuclear weapons. Paul Wolfowitz said in an oft-quoted Vanity Fair interview that he saw many reasons for going to war with Iraq, and that he settled on WMD for “bureaucratic” reasons because it was the one rationale that everyone could agree on. The point worth emphasizing here is that, at least for a while, everyone (or nearly everyone) agreed on it. The debates mainly concerned the degree to which Saddam had converted his wishes into real weapons—and, to the extent he had, whether he could be deterred from using them or whether he had to be overthrown. However, as doubts grew, both before and especially after the war, Rumsfeld and his team felt compelled—as the Air Force felt compelled when dealing with the CIA’s slight dissent during the 1958 National Intelligence Estimate, and as Acheson felt compelled when dealing with anti-hawk sentiment in 1950—to turn up the heat, to make their points “clearer than truth.” Rumsfeld even set up his own intelligence outfit, within the office of the secretary of defense, to search for evidence—about WMD and about Saddam’s alleged links to al-Qaida—that he just knew existed.

At his Cabinet Room meeting in December 1962, Kennedy said of the officials who created the missile-gap myth, “There are still people of that kind in the Pentagon. I wouldn’t give them any foundation for creating another myth.” It is extremely doubtful that George W. Bush is currently saying anything like this about his own Pentagon officials—likewise “emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals”—who, at the very least, exaggerated claims about Iraqi chemical, biological, and nuclear programs. But Congress might consider following Kennedy’s example by doing its own study. Call it, “But Where Did the WMD Go?”

[Correction, June 30, 2003: This article initially misstated the name of the spy satellite. It was “Discoverer,” not “Discovery.”]