Iraq WMD Intelligence Errors Show Value of Verification

By ACA Intern Matt Sugrue

In his mea culpa op-ed for the Washington Post, Matt Miller reflects on how he, and others, was convinced by faulty intelligence that Saddam Hussein was pursuing nuclear weapons. Without opening up all of the failures leading to the U.S. decision to invade, I would like to extract one important lesson as it applies to the current need for the Senate to pass New START.

While there has been plenty of evidence that the Bush administration did not provide a faithful rendition of the available intelligence before the invasion and had, in fact, decided to invade long before March 2003 Miller charitably concludes that:

I don’t believe President Bush misled the country about these facts, because many other sources held the same view of Hussein’s capabilities.

One source that President Bush was not heeding were the UN inspectors that had returned to Iraq in November 2002.  We now know that on issue after issue, the highly trained and experienced inspectors had a more accurate understanding of the Iraq WMD picture than the Bush administration.  Moreover, we know that Saddam Hussein was deterred from his WMD aspirations by the fear of detection.

To be sure, the national technical means that the United States possesses are very well equipped to provide information about foreign weapons programs. However, they are not perfect and mistakes can be made – particularly in the absence of confirmation by up-close inspection.

The Iraq experience holds some important lessons for monitoring Russian strategic forces. Before drawing them out, a few caveats are necessary: (1) the United States already knows Russia has nuclear weapons; (2) The U.S. and Russia are unlikely to go to war over an intelligence error over Russia’s nuclear stockpile numbers or capabilities.

But as with Iraq between 1998 and 2002, there is no on-the-ground verification regime in place regarding Russia’s nuclear forces. As a result, U.S. military planners are forced to increase their hedges against worst-case scenarios. New START, however, includes verification procedures that will put boots on the ground at Russian nuclear sites, and allow U.S. intelligence agencies to corroborate information provided through national technical means. Corroboration will go a great distance towards preventing intelligence errors, which translates into greater confidence regarding Russia’s nuclear program for policymakers. The more confidence policymakers have that they know what is happening with Russia’s nuclear program the more able they are to make sound decisions regarding U.S. national security.

Thus our past experience with Iraq carries a very relevant and obvious lesson for our dealings with Russia today: U.S. national security is undoubtedly enhanced by the ratification of New START and the subsequent implementation of the treaty’s verification regime, which will restore up close and personal inspections of Russia’s nuclear forces.

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