War Stories

The Art of Camouflage

David Kay comes clean, almost.

David Kay’s remarks over the weekend—that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction before the war and that U.S. intelligence agencies missed the signs that would have told them as much—held few surprises for anyone who’d closely read his official report on the matter last October. (Click here for one such close reading.)

Kay was the CIA’s chief weapons inspector until he resigned last week. The difference between his report of last fall and his statements of recent days is that he was still on the Bush administration’s payroll when he wrote the former and a free agent when he made the latter. It’s the difference between obfuscation and clarity—political allegiance and public candor.

The discrepancy is not so much a comment on David Kay or George W. Bush as a general caution on how to read official reports.

For example, in an interview conducted late Saturday and published in today’s New York Times, Kay says, “I’m personally convinced that there were not large stockpiles of newly produced weapons of mass destruction. We don’t find the people, the documents or the physical plants that you would expect to find if the production was going on.”

Iraq’s weapons and facilities, he says, had been destroyed in three phases: by allied bombardment in the 1991 Gulf War; by U.N. inspectors in the half-decade after that war; and by President Clinton’s 1998 bombing campaign. (Clinton’s airstrikes, by now widely forgotten, were even at the time widely dismissed as a political diversion; they took place during the weekend when the House of Representatives voted for impeachment. But according to Kay, they destroyed Iraq’s remaining infrastructure for building chemical weapons.) Kay adds that Saddam tried to resuscitate some of these programs, but—due to sanctions, fear of inspections, and lack of resources—he was not able to do so.

Kay made these same points in his report last October, but it was easy to overlook them—in fact, the reader was meant to. Kay didn’t exactly lie in the report; the points were there if you looked carefully; but he did his best to camouflage them.

There are tried and true methods to this art of camouflage. The idea is to deploy vague rhetoric and unchallengeable facts that seem menacing at first glance but on close inspection have no significance. The hope is that, if you play this game well enough, nobody will inspect them closely enough to notice.

For instance, Kay began his report by noting that Saddam Hussein’s WMD program “spanned more than two decades” and “involved thousands of people and billions of dollars.”

You had to read the next several pages to realize that these thousands of people and billions of dollars also “spanned more than two decades”—that, at least since 1991, nowhere near that much money or manpower was involved at any one time. You also have to read on to realize that, whatever the level of endeavor, its results were nil. In short, Kay wasn’t lying. But he was setting a diversionary tone, at the top of the report, to please his bosses and give them ammo for sound bites.

Another example: Kay wrote, in a breathless style, that Saddam had set up “a clandestine network of laboratories and safehouses within the Iraqi Intelligence Service.” Buried in the paragraphs to follow was Kay’s conclusion that these labs and safehouses didn’t produce anything of note. Similarly, the report warned that Saddam “may have engaged” in “research on a possibleVX-stabilizer” (italics added), but said nothing about whether he actually developed any such thing or even possessed VX.

My favorite example of Kay’s attempt to trump substance with style: Saddam’s scientists “began several small and relatively unsophisticated research initiatives … that could have been useful in developing a weapons-relevant science base for the long-term.” This description is so vague, it would accurately describe the act of reading a textbook on nuclear physics.

Kay did his job well. His report did not tell lies. But it puffed up enough smoke to let President Bush proclaim it as a justification for the war. Bush cited, with particular enthusiasm, the bit about Saddam’s “clandestine network of laboratories and safehouses”—a phrase containing four words designed to raise the hair of anyone who’s ever glanced at a spy novel.

Now that Kay has quit, he can tell the same story—but without the smokescreen.

In the Times interview, Kay does add one dimension to his tale—and it is the newest, most intriguing aspect of them all. In the late 1990s, it seems, Saddam took personal control of Iraq’s WMD program. As a result, Iraqi scientists started going to him directly with proposals of fanciful weapons systems, for which Saddam paid them heaps of money. As Kay puts it, the WMD program turned into a “vortex of corruption.” Saddam was deluded with fantasies; the scientists pocketed the money and filed phony progress reports on fake weapons systems.

Kay says the CIA’s biggest failure lay in missing this internal deception. Though the Times piece doesn’t say so, it’s quite likely that the CIA itself was deceived, intercepting some of these phony reports and treating them as credulously as Saddam did. In any case, in the Times interview, Kay calls for an overhaul in the way the agency processes intelligence.

It is significant that Kay wrote nothing about the Iraqi scientists’ deception campaign—and issued no such call for radical reform of the U.S. intelligence community—in his report last October. The omissions are the ultimate indicators that the report’s main goal was to please and protect his employer.

Even now, Kay falls short of making a full break with the Bush administration. He continues to state that Iraq was a danger to the world, worth going to war against, even if not for the same reasons that Bush claimed. He tells the Times, “We know that terrorists were passing through Iraq. And now we know that there was little control over Iraq’s weapons capabilities. I think it shows that Iraq was a very dangerous place. The country had the technology, the ability to produce, and there were terrorist groups passing through the country—and no central control.”

This is a puzzling sequence of non sequiturs. Terrorists may have been passing through, but Kay—who bases his other conclusions on interviews with many Iraqi scientists and examination of many documents—found nothing that suggests any contact between terrorists and scientists. The disarray of Saddam’s rule may have meant there was “little control over Iraq’s weapons capabilities,” but, as Kay says elsewhere, there was also little in the way of Iraqi weapons. Having “the technology” is not the same thing as having the weapons; “the ability to produce” is not the same thing as producing.

It will be interesting to watch where David Kay goes next. On one level, he’s come clean, but on another, he’s still playing his old games.