Friday, January 30, 2004

Asterisk and Dagger

Two small points about WMD and intelligence failures:

1. The very concept of WMD is a weasel. Nuclear weapons are all that counts. Chemical weapons have been around since 1915. They are hardly apocalyptic relative to, say, cluster bombs, and bacteriological weapons have proven a comprehensive flop. By lumping these very dissimilar weapons together, our government is able to claim that almost any regime it doesn’t like may be going in for WMD since bacteriological and chemical weapons can be produced in easily hidden boutique factories. If a nation had to undertake the development of nuclear weapons to earn the title rogue, it would be much harder to invent imaginary threats because it takes a huge, hard to hide physical plant and an immense expenditure of resources to produce even simple atomic bombs.

2. I think the evidence is pretty clear that the Bush and Blair administrations pressured the intelligence community to tart up the evidence of WMDs in Iraq—Kay and Hutton are hardly credible judges of the matter— but it is worthwhile recalling that the intelligence community has long been in the business of overestimating military threats. It was obvious, even at the time, that Reagan era estimates of Soviet military capabilities were grossly overstated and were designed to further the political purposes of the administration, the financial interests of the defense contractors, and the career interests of the military. In this respect, the current anger of old intelligence pros is a bit ironic, though the Bush folks probably have gone beyond the old limits. Cheney’s visits to the CIA headquarters were quite unprecedented, for example; and I can’t recall any previous administration that outed an operative to punish a whistleblower as in the Valerie Plame case.

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