What David Kay really said

Posted: Jan 30, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Before the great hunt for scapegoats begins, let's look at what David Kay has actually said about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

First, and most trumpeted, he did not find ``large stockpiles of newly produced weapons of mass destruction.'' He did find, as he reported last October, WMD-related activities, from a very active illegal missile program to research and development (``right up until the end'') on weaponizing the deadly poison ricin (the stuff found by London police on terrorists last year). He discovered ``hundreds of cases'' of U.N.-prohibited and illegally concealed activities.

Significant findings, but still a far cry from what the administration had claimed last March. Kay has now offered the most novel and convincing explanation for why U.S. intelligence -- and, for that matter, U.N. inspectors and the intelligence agencies of every country that mattered -- had misjudged what Iraq possessed.

It was a combination of Iraqi bluff, deceit, and corruption far more bizarre than heretofore suspected. Kay discovered that an increasingly erratic Saddam had taken over personal direction of WMD programs. But because there was no real oversight, the scientists would go to Saddam for money, exaggerate or invent their activities, then pocket the funds.

Scientists were bluffing Saddam. Saddam was bluffing the world. The Iraqis were all bluffing each other. Special Republican Guard commanders had no WMDs, but they told investigators that they were sure that other guard units did. It was this internal disinformation that the whole outside world missed.

Congress needs to find out why, with all our resources, we had not a clue that this was going on. But Kay makes clear that Bush was relying on what the intelligence agencies were telling him. Kay contradicts the reckless Democratic charges that Bush cooked the books. ``All the analysts I have talked to said they never felt pressured on WMD,'' says Kay. ``Everyone believed that (Iraq) had WMD.''

Including the Clinton administration. Kay told The Washington Post that he had found evidence that Saddam had quietly destroyed some biological and chemical weapons in the mid-1990s -- but never reported it to the U.N. Which was why Clinton in 1998 declared with great alarm and great confidence that Iraq had huge stockpiles of biological and chemical arms -- ``and some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal.''

The intelligence failure is quite spectacular, but its history is quite prosaic. When the U.N. inspectors left in 1998, they assumed that the huge stockpiles of unaccounted-for weapons still existed. What other assumption could they make? That Saddam had destroyed them and not even reported that to the very agency that could have then vindicated him and gotten sanctions lifted?

Secretary of State Colin Powell correctly makes the case that this very fact -- the concealment of both the weapons and their possible destruction -- clearly justifies the legality of the Iraq War, since the terms of the 1991 cease-fire placed the positive obligation on Iraq to demonstrate its own disarmament. And that it clearly and repeatedly failed to do.

But beyond the legal question is the security question. People forget that when the Bush administration came into office, Iraq was a very unstable situation. Thousands of Iraqis were dying as a result of sanctions. Containment necessitated the garrisoning of Saudi Arabia with thousands of ``infidel'' American troops -- in the eyes of many Muslims, a desecration (cited by Osama bin Laden as his No. 1 reason for his 1996 Declaration of War on America). The no-fly zones were slow-motion war, and the embargo was costly and dangerous -- the sailors who died on the USS Cole were on embargo duty.

Until Bush got serious, threatened war and massed troops in Kuwait, the U.N. was headed toward loosening and ultimately lifting sanctions, which would have given Saddam carte blanche to regroup and rebuild his WMDs.

Bush reversed that slide with his threat to go to war. But that kind of aggressive posture is impossible to maintain indefinitely. A regime of inspections, embargo, sanctions, no-fly zones and thousands of combat troops in Kuwait was an unstable equilibrium. The U.S. could have either retreated and allowed Saddam free rein -- or gone to war and removed him. Those were the only two ways to go.

Under the circumstances, and given what every intelligence agency on the planet agreed was going on in Iraq, the president made the right choice, indeed the only choice.