The U.S. ‘intelligence failure’ and Iraq’s UAVs

There is a persistent myth that there was an “intelligence failure” leading up to the Iraq war. That is to say, the intelligence community was responsible for providing policy makers in the White House with flawed intelligence, which they then based their decision upon.

There are two notable problems with this interpretation. First, it ignores statements made by government officials not supported by any available “intelligence”, flawed or otherwise. Second, it dismisses without consideration the distinct possibility that the “intelligence community” may have simply given policy-makers what they wanted to hear. That is to say, the assumption that there was some sort of “failure” in intelligence ignores the question of whether policy was based upon intelligence or whether the “intelligence” was based upon policy.

There is a simple method which may be utilized to discern the truth of the matter, whether there was an “intelligence failure” or not. All one need do is examine what the American people were told about any particular aspect of the case for war and compare those claims to the actual evidence available at the time.

Notice I said “evidence”, not “intelligence”. The CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), for instance, contained “key judgments”. This is not “evidence”. They are conclusions that have been drawn supposedly based on evidence. This is not an unimportant distinction, since the claim has often been made that administration statements on Iraq were supported by the available “intelligence”, often with reference to the NIE’s key judgments. In other words, we are told, “The CIA told us so.”

But the only way to assert that their claims were supported by the available intelligence would be to interpret the word “intelligence” to include erroneous conclusions such as those in the NIE key judgments. But let us be clear: “judgments” are not “intelligence.” That fact has been pretty well successfully blurred by the government and the media in an effort to obfuscate the issue and to propagate the myth of the “intelligence failure”. So let us use the word “evidence” in lieu of “intelligence”, since that is really what we mean.

Let us examine a hypothesis: The administration’s claims were not supported by the available evidence. This is easily demonstrable, and pretty well generally accepted by now by more and more of the population (some of us recognized this long before the invasion began). But the myth of the “intelligence failure” persists, necessitating further examination of the matter.

Take the case of Iraq’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for instance, which began to be featured prominently in the media in the fall of 2002. “Today,” we could read in The Washington Post that September, “Iraq’s drones loom even larger [than in 1998] as the Bush administration weighs a possible new strike against Saddam Hussein.” The article referred to drop tanks for fighter aircraft that had allegedly been converted to carry chemical weapons rather than fuel.[1]

On October 7, President George W. Bush declared, “We’ve also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We’re concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States.”

According to Senator Bill Nelson, prior to the Congressional vote on the resolution granting the President the authority to enforce U.N. resolutions through the Security Council, members of Congress were told that Iraq could deliver anthrax to U.S. cities using UAVs.[2] Nelson testified:

I was told that not only did he have the weapons of mass destruction and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard of which they would then drop their WMD on eastern seaboard cities.  You can see all the more why I thought there was an imminent threat.[3]

On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell included UAVs in his presentation to the United Nations. He showed a picture of an Iraqi Mirage jet aircraft he claimed was spraying “simulated anthrax”, and that spray tanks capable of dispersing chemical or biological weapons were “intended to be mounted on a MiG-21 that had been converted into an unmanned aerial vehicle, or a UAV.” He added that that “UAVs outfitted with spray tanks constitute an ideal method for launching a terrorist attack using biological weapons.”

Then, after speaking of jet aircraft allegedly having been converted into UAVs, he later spoke of aircraft designed as UAVs, much smaller and lighter than a jet aircraft. These, he said, “are well suited for dispensing chemical and biological weapons. There is ample evidence that Iraq has dedicated much effort to developing and testing spray devices that could be adapted for UAVs.”

“According to Iraq’s December 7 declaration,” he said, “its UAVs have a range of only 80 kilometers. But we detected one of Iraq’s newest UAVs in a test flight that went 500 kilometers nonstop on autopilot” in a “race track pattern”. That is to say, it “was flown around and around and around in a circle.”

Powell also suggested these UAVs could be used to mount an attack against the United States: “Iraq could use these small UAVs which have a wingspan of only a few meters to deliver biological agents to its neighbors or if transported, to other countries, including the United States.”[4]

Claims about the UAVs were parroted by the media, with no attempt whatsoever at serious critical evaluation. Alternative interpretations, scenarios, or viewpoints were marginalized or dismissed altogether. “Iraq could be planning a chemical or biological attack on American cities through the use of remote-controlled ‘drone’ planes equipped with GPS tracking maps, according to U.S. intelligence,” FOX News told us in one example. “The information about Iraq’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program has caused a ‘real concern’ among defense personnel, senior U.S. officials tell Fox News. They’re worried that these vehicles have already been, or could be, transported inside the United States to be used in an attack…”[5]

In contrast, Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector for the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), in his report to the Security Council on March 7, 2003, only briefly mentioned the UAVs. “Inspectors,” he reported, “are also engaged in examining Iraq’s programme for Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs). A number of sites have been inspected with data being collected to assess the range and other capabilities of the various models found. Inspections are continuing in this area.”[6]

The fact that Blix had not declared the UAVs a weapon of mass destruction designed to deliver chemical or biological warfare agents, or even declared them a violation of U.N. resolutions led to one inevitable conclusion, judging by media coverage: Blix was covering for the Iraqis by keeping things from the U.S. and from the world.

This was far more convenient than to suggest the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, there was nothing to the UAVs, that just maybe there wasn’t actually any evidence that they were intended to be used to disperse chemical or biological agents. This was inconceivable, apparently, beyond comprehension, simply not among the available possibilities.

For instance, the after Blix’s presentation, the White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, said that the issue of the UAVs “was not discussed by Mr. Blix in his oral presentation”, prompting one reporter to ask, “And do you believe that Blix intentionally buried this information?”[7]

The assumption, of course, was that there was something to “bury”. This was typical of the kind of questions being asked by respectable “journalists” from mainstream media organizations.

Further examples could be chosen virtually at random. But let’s take the White House press briefing from the very day of Blix’s report to the Security Council on March 7th. Here’s a sampling of the questions asked that day by so-called “journalists” from the mainstream media:

“What was your reaction to the Hans Blix report this morning, Ari? Did it help or hurt your case?”

“Ari, what do you think about what the French said, what some of the other countries said: give the inspectors more time? Is that fairly predictable now, their response?”

“If that [intervening in Kosovo without U.N. Security Council authorization] worked so well, then why do you want the United Nations to take action [to pass a second resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq]? Why not just do it [wage war on Iraq]? (Mr. Fleischer’s response? “Because the President would like them to be relevant.”)

“Does he [the President] have any confidence that Saddam Hussein would bring forward these weapons in a week’s time?”

“Ari, two questions. One, a war for peace is the headline for my editorial. And I agree what President said last night, as far as Saddam Hussein is a concerned and he has, indeed, run of time.”[8]

Notice the underlying assumptions in each question. Notice also that alternative, less presumptuous questions such as the following were noticeably absent:

“Hans Blix did not come to the same conclusion as the Bush administration regarding the UAVs. Is this because UNMOVIC has not found any evidence that the UAVs are intended to disperse WMD?”

“The majority in the Security Council, not to mention the General Assembly, do not feel that war against Iraq is justified at this time. Why does the U.S. consider Iraq such an imminent threat when most of the rest of the world does not?”

“How can the Bush administration claim that invading Iraq would be ‘enforcement’ of U.N. Security Council resolutions when most members of the U.N. Security Council is opposed to the use of military force against Iraq at this time?”

“Does the President have any actual evidence that Saddam Hussein really has these weapons, much less that he is capable of or intends to use them upon the United States?”

To be fair, one reporter did ask the following question: “There now appears to be a majority of members of the Security Council who believe it is not yet time to go to war. Why then does that make the U.N. irrelevant, instead of simply differing with the United States?”

The response, predictably, had something to do with “the fact that Iraq has biological weapons and Iraq has chemical weapons”. The logic being employed was perfectly clear: the U.N. could make itself “relevant” by authorizing the U.S. to implement “regime change”. If it would not “authorize” such aggression—as such acts are defined under international law—then it would be “irrelevant”.

In other words, the U.N. could be “relevant” by defying the very principles upon which it was founded.

An interesting thought experiment is to imagine that, rather than simply accepting every pronouncement from the White House, the Congress, the media, and the public in general had actually questioned the things they were being told.

Imagine, for instance, that instead of accepting that Iraq was capable of attacking U.S. cities with chemical or biological weapons launched from a UAV, the likes of Senator Nelson had actually dared to ask a few questions that may just, perhaps, have had some relevance. For instance, if it was assumed that the UAVs being referred to were jet aircraft carrying modified drop tanks, then how would Iraq get such aircraft close enough to the U.S. to launch an attack? Does Iraq have any aircraft carriers from which to launch such an aircraft? And, supposing, just to humor the notion, that Iraq actually had such a capability, how would an Iraqi jet get anywhere near U.S. airspace without being noticed, or penetrate U.S. airspace without being immediately shot down? How could an aircraft from Iraq possibly be a threat to the U.S.?

Or, assuming the UAVs being referred to were not modified jet aircraft designed to be piloted by a human being, but of the smaller, lighter type actually designed specifically as unmanned drones, then how could it carry such a large and heavy drop tank as was alleged the jet aircraft version would carry? Or, assuming such a UAV could actually carry a significant enough amount of chemical or biological agent to be considered such a grave threat, how would Iraq get it into the U.S., particularly with the known limited range such UAVs were said to have?

It’s hard to imagine that Senator Nelson was really as gullible as he pretends to have been. Such feigned naiveté hardly seems plausible. Far more likely, Mr. Nelson simply sought to avoid accepting responsibility for his own actions, for voting to authorize the President to use force against Iraq, by placing the blame upon someone else by feigning ignorance.

Another relevant question that would be asked in a free thinking society would have been: Who are the top experts in the U.S. on our own UAVs, and what do they have to say about Iraq’s drones?

The answer to that question was not unknown by government officials touting Iraq’s UAVs as some sort of threat to the United States. The logical experts to ask for the best analysis of Iraq’s UAVs would be the U.S. Air Force, which has its own fleet of drones. And the answer one would have found, if one were to have asked such a question, would have been that Iraq’s drones were not designed or intended to disperse chemical or biological weapons, but were designed and intended for surveillance.

Take the CIA’s NIE from October, 2002, for instance. This was a document White House officials claimed to be basing many of their statements upon. Indeed, the NIE says that Iraq is “working with unamanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which allow for a more lethal means to deliver biological and, less likely, chemical warfare agents.” The NIE said that the UAVs were “probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents”. The NIE even said, “Baghdad’s UAVs could threaten Iraq’s neighbors, US forces in the Persian Gulf, and if brought to, or into, the United States, the US Homeland” (emphasis in original).

An intelligent, thinking person who was trying to decide whether to the U.S. should go to war or not would have asked questions such as the following: How did the CIA arrive at this conclusion? What evidence do they have to support these judgments? How do experts at the Air Force feel about this assessment?

The NIE made known the Air Force “dissent” with regard to the CIA’s judgment about the UAVs. Air Force analysts agreed that “although CBW delivery is an inherent capability” (which is a bit like saying that the U.S. postal service has the inherent capability to deliver anthrax), the Air Force did not believe Iraq’s UAVs were intended for that purpose, but that they had a “primary role of reconnaissance”.[9]

“Iraq,” the Air Force said in the NIE, “is developing UAVs primarily for reconnaissance rather than delivery platforms for CBW agents…. CBW delivery is an inherent capability of UAVs but probably is not the impetus for Iraq’s recent UAV programs.”[10]

In fact, the NIE’s section on biological warfare disclosed that “we have no information linking the current UAV development with BW delivery”.[11] This was not from any “footnote” of “dissent”, but an admission from the CIA and the “intelligence community” that no evidence actually existed to support their own “judgments” regarding the UAVs.

Contrary to popular misconception, the Air Force was not alone in its dissent. The UAV analyst from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which also participated in the creation of the NIE, later informed the Senate Committee on pre-war intelligence that he agreed with the Air Force’s assessment, but that he had declined to join in the Air Force’s dissenting footnote

Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts informed the Committee that they also agreed with the Air Force that the UAVs were intended primarily for reconnaissance, but also declined to make this known in the NIE.

A CIA UAV analyst told the Committee that “some of Iraq’s UAVs were in fact developed for reconnaissance and as aerial targets”, and others reported that “they did not believe that CIA’s assessments about the UAVs were accurately represented because the NIE did not address the reconnaissance mission.” This was because “those roles fell outside the scope of the Iraq WMD NIE.”[12] In other words, evidence which did not support the CIA’s “judgments” was deliberately ignored.

In another NIE on “Nontraditional Threats to the U.S. Homeland Through 2007”, the DIA, Air Force, and Army all agreed that “BW delivery is an inherent capability of most UAVs and that Iraq may choose to exploit this capability, but they note that the evidence is unconfirmed and is not sufficiently compelling to indicate the Iraqis have done so. There is information, however, on procurements that indicate a reconnaissance mission for the UAV program is more likely.”[13]

In other words, the Air Force footnote was not “dissent”, but regarded by the majority of the intelligence community as sound analysis.

How can this be explained? Why, if there was not evidence for it, would they make such alarming assertions so strongly in the October NIE, even suggesting these UAVs could be used to strike cities on the east coast of the United States? Can this honestly be explained as an “intelligence failure”?

Indeed, there does seem to have been an intelligence failure, but it was not on the part of the CIA. Rather, it was on the part of the U.S. Congress and a great many of the American people who supported the U.S. aggression against Iraq based upon the evident deceptions given to them by their own government.

Return to Colin Powell’s presentation before the U.N., and his claim that Iraq’s UAVs were intended to disperse CBW, that there was “ample evidence” of this. What exactly was this evidence? And why did the experts at the Air Force obviously not agree that “ample evidence” for this exists? And why would Colin Powell, or any other administration official, keep the Air Force’s dissenting view from the public? And why, like the Air Force analysts, had the U.N. weapons inspectors also not arrived at this same conclusion as Powell and others in the Bush administration?

This was not Powell’s only deception regarding the UAVs. Take, also, his claim that Iraq’s UAVs had a range of 500 kilometers, as opposed to the 80 kilometers claimed by Iraq in its December 7 declaration. Only, Powell himself noted that this was in “racetrack mode”, in which the drone was flown “around and around and around in a circle”. For this sleight-of-hand he was depending upon the ignorance of his audience, which was principally the American people, most of whom know little or nothing about such drone aircraft.

Being unmanned aerial vehicles, they necessarily function by the use of a guiding signal. That guiding signal has a limited range. According to the Iraqi government, the range of their UAVs was 80 kilometers. Powell noted that an Iraq drone had flown much longer than that in a circle. In other words, it was traveling around the source of the guiding signal. This demonstrated that the UAVs could carry enough fuel for longer flights, but it did not demonstrate that they were actually capable of a range greater than that which Iraq declared.[14]

Of course, Powell conveniently neglected to mention this in his presentation. In summing up the matter of UAVs in his book, Hans Blix wrote, “The U.S. administration had concluded—almost certainly wrongly, it now appears—that the drone was a violation of the Security Council’s resolution. At UNMOVIC we were not ready to make that assessment. This angered Washington, despite the fact that it must have been known that the U.S. Air Force itself did not believe the Iraqi drones were for the delivery of biological and chemical agents.” And, as Blix also notes, the Air Force was “the greatest repository of U.S. expertise on drones”.[15]

And what about the threat to the “homeland” posed by these drones? The Senate Committee reported that “The only intelligence reporting that demonstrated any possibility that Iraq may have intended to use the UAVs to attack targets within the U.S. was reporting that Iraq was trying to procure U.S. mapping software for its small UAVs. The NIE said the procurement effort, ‘strongly suggests that Iraq is investigating the use of these UAVs for missions targeting the United States.’”

Subsequent assessments, however, acknowledged that Iraq “may have ordered the U.S. mapping software unintentionally. Based on the new information, the DIA, the USAF, and the Army all chose to include a footnote noting that they interpreted ‘recent reporting to mean that the purpose of the Iraqi request for route planning software and topographic database was to acquire a generic mapping capability – a goal that is not necessarily indicative of an intent to target the U.S. Homeland.’”[16]

The media also began to disclose more information previously withheld from the American people. The Associated Press, for example, reported that according to Bob Boyd, director of the Air Force Intelligence Analysis Agency, “the Air Force believed Iraq’s UAV programs were for reconnaissance, as are most American UAVs. Intelligence on the drones suggested they were not large enough to carry much more than a camera and a video recorder”. Air Force analysts were also “unconvinced” that the acquisition of mapping software indicated sinister designs on the U.S. “because maps are frequently bundled with such software.”[17]

The Washington Post similarly reported in September 2003 that “In negotiating the wording of the NIE, Air Force officials agreed to acknowledge that Iraq’s UAVs had an ‘inherent capability’ to dispense chemical or biological weapons. But they considered this prospect highly unlikely and inserted language saying the ‘primary role’ of the aircraft was reconnaissance. ‘What we were thinking was: Why would you purposefully design a vehicle to be an inefficient delivery means?’ Boyd said. ‘Wouldn’t it make more sense that they were purposefully designing it to be a decent reconnaissance UAV?’”[18]

But why did it take over a year to begin to see the gaping holes in the administration’s claims? Why did such reports not appear in the media prior to the invasion of Iraq? Why would the American media make so much of claims of Iraq UAVs being used to attack cities on the east coast with chemical or biological weapons and so little made of the fact that the U.N. had not drawn the same conclusion? Why was the analysis of the Air Force kept from the public, and not sought ought by the media? And why was their analysis largely perceived by the intelligence community as being correct, and yet was relegated to a “footnote” of “dissent” in the National Intelligence Estimate?

And how could this possibly be described as an “intelligence failure”? It’s a difficult conclusion to draw. Far more obvious and simple an explanation is that the U.S. government had a policy of “regime change” for Iraq and the “intelligence community” played its role in implementing that policy. There was no intelligence failure, in other words, but an intelligence success.

This is not to say that all analysts were involved in some large conspiracy. That would hardly be necessary. It was enough to ignore evidence which didn’t fit the official policy line and to propagate, embellish, exaggerate, and manipulate the rest. It was enough to relegate sound analysis to the “footnotes” of “dissent” and to place claims that the intelligence community admittedly had “no information” to support in the “Key Judgments” portion of the NIE.

Of course, Iraq’s UAVs were not the charge against Iraq. But they provide an instructive example of official deceit in making the case for war. A simple analysis of what was said compared with the evidence available to support such claims reveals not that policy was made based upon flawed intelligence, but rather that flawed intelligence was a result of official policy towards Iraq.

[1] Joby Warrick, “Uncertain Ability to Deliver a Blow”, The Washington Post, September 5, 2002; Page A01

[2] “Senators were told Iraqi weapons could hit U.S.”, Florida Today, December 15, 2003!NEWSROOM/localstoryN1216NELSON.htm

[3] Transcript of David Kay testimony before Senate Armed Services Committee, January 28, 2004

[4] U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Addresses the U.N. Security Council, February 5, 2003

[5] “Iraqi Drones May Target U.S. Cities”, FOX News, February 24, 2003,2933,79450,00.html

[6] Hans Blix Briefing to the UN Security Council, March 7, 2003

[7] “Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer”, The White House, March 10, 2003

[8] “Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer”, The White House, March 7, 2003

[9] “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction” CIA National Intelligence Estimate, October 2002

[10] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq

[11] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report

[12] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report

[13] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report

[14] Hans Blix, “Disarming Iraq” (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London 2004) p. 222

[15] Hans Blix, p. 227-228

[16] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report

[17] “Iraqi Drones Not For WMD”, Associated Press, August 24, 2003

[18] Bradley Graham, “Air Force Analysts Feel Vindicated on Iraqi Drones”, The Washington Post, September 26, 2003; Page A23