"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
WMD Terrorism

National Academy of Sciences Releases Key Report on Biomedical Research

The National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council released a report October 8 that calls on the U.S. government to institute a formalized screening system to help mitigate the possibility that biomedical research could be used by terrorists to create biological weapons. The council recommends that the Department of Health and Human Services create an independent National Science Advisory Board for Biodefense to lead the effort. The Bush administration supports the move toward more stringent review. At an October 22 conference in Washington, D.C., President Bush’s science advisor, John Marburger III, stated that “no single action by the scientific community could have provided greater reassurance to the public.” The following is an overview of the report’s recommendations and conclusions:

Educate the Scientific Community

At present, awareness of the potential for misuse of biological knowledge varies widely in the research community. Researchers currently working with select agents are already taking steps to contain these agents physically and protect against planned or unplanned harm. But most life scientists have had little direct experience with the issues of biological weapons and bioterrorism since the advent of the Biological Weapons Convention in the early 1970s, so these researchers lack the experience and historical precedent of considering the potential for misuse of their discoveries. We recommend that the professional societies in the life sciences undertake a regular series of meetings and symposia, in the United States and overseas, to provide both knowledge and opportunities for discussion.

Substantive knowledge of the potential risks is not sufficient, however. The committee believes that biological scientists have an affirmative moral duty to avoid contributing to the advancement of biowarfare or bioterrorism. Individuals are never morally obligated to do the impossible, and so scientists cannot be expected to ensure that the knowledge they generate will never assist in advancing biowarfare or bioterrorism. However, scientists can and should take reasonable steps to minimize this possibility.

Review Experiment Plans

We recommend that [HHS] augment the already established system for review of experiments involving recombinant DNA conducted by the National Institutes of Health [NIH] to create a review system for seven classes of experiments involving microbial agents that raise concerns about their potential for misuse.

Experiments of concern would be those that:

1. Would demonstrate how to render a vaccine ineffective.
2. Would confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral agents.
3. Would enhance the virulence of a pathogen or render a nonpathogen virulent.
4. Would increase transmissibility of a pathogen.
5. Would alter the host range of a pathogen.
6. Would enable the evasion of diagnostic/detection modalities.
7. Would enable the weaponization of a biological agent or toxin.

The seven areas of concern address only potential microbial threats. Over time, however, the committee believes it will be necessary to expand the experiments of concern to cover a significantly wider range of potential threats.

[NIH] guidelines require creation of an Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) when research is conducted at or sponsored by an entity receiving any NIH support for recombinant DNA research. All of the experiments that fall within the seven areas of concern should currently require review by an IBC.

Review at the Publication Stage

We recommend relying on self-governance by scientists and scientific journals to review publications for their potential national security risks. The committee believes that continued discussion among those involved in publishing journals—and between editors and the national security community—will be essential to creating a system that is considered responsive to the risks but also credible with the research community. The committee believes that the statement produced by a group of editors from major life science journals in February 2003 is an important step in this process. On the broader question of classification, the committee believes that the principle set out by the Reagan [a]dministration in 1985 in National Security Decision Directive 189—that the results of fundamental research should be unrestricted to the maximum extent possible and that classification should be the mechanism for what control might be required—remains valid and should continue to be the basis for U.S. policy.

Create a National Science Advisory Board for Biodefense (NSABB)

The NSABB would serve as a point of continuing dialogue between the scientific community and the national security community and as a forum for addressing issues of interest or concern. It would provide case-specific advice on the oversight of research and the communication and dissemination of life sciences research information that is relevant for national security and biodefense purposes.

Protect Against Misuse

The federal government should rely on the implementation of current legislation and regulation, with periodic review by the NSABB, to provide protection of biological materials and supervision of personnel working with these materials.

Safeguarding the collections of existing agents is an obvious priority that in large measure is being addressed through recently passed legislation and implementing regulations. The designation of certain pathogens as “select agents” is an appropriate starting point for identifying strains and isolates that need to be secured. It is crucial to avoid well-meaning but counterproductive regulations on pathogens.

In some areas of technology, the limiting ingredient is the existence of trained personnel. General microbiological training sufficient for culturing and growing pathogenic microorganisms at levels of significant concern is available in high school and first[-]year college biology courses; majors in microbiology would be sophisticated enough to grow many select organisms. Moreover, training in basic microbiology is widely available outside the United States. The procedures for admitting foreign students and scientists to the United States for study and collaborative research must reflect the importance of keeping universities as open educational environments. Efforts to identify or control knowledgeable personnel within the United States are impractical, and surveillance of such personnel would not, in our opinion, offer much security.

Develop a Role for the Life Sciences

National security and law enforcement communities should develop new channels of sustained communication with the life sciences community about how to mitigate the risks of bioterrorism. By signing and ratifying the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the United States renounced the use and possession of such offensive weapons and methods to disseminate and deliver them. Given the increased investments in biodefense research in the United States, it is imperative that the United States conduct its legitimate defensive activities in an open and transparent manner. It might be desirable for components of the national security community to establish advisory boards of basic scientists and clinicians with expertise in areas such as viral disease, bacterial pathogens, biotechnology, immunology, toxins, and public health, as well as others in the area of basic molecular biology. These advisory boards could help members of the intelligence and law enforcement communities keep current in relevant areas of science and technology and provide a trusted set of advisors to answer technical questions.

Harmonize International Oversight

International policymaking and scientific communities should create an International Forum on Biosecurity to develop and promote harmonized national, regional, and international measures that will provide a counterpart to the system we recommend for the United States. Just as the scientific community in the United States must become deeply and directly engaged, the commitment of the international scientific community to these issues is needed to implement the recommendations contained in this report.

We do not expect our recommendations to provide a “roadmap” that could simply be adopted internationally without significant modifications or adaptations to local or regional conditions. But any effective system should include all the issues addressed by our recommendations. The committee recommends convening an “International Forum on Biological Security” to begin a dialogue within and between the life sciences and the policymaking communities internationally. Among the topics for this forum are:

• Education of the scientific community globally, including curricula, professional symposia, and training programs to raise awareness of potential threats and modalities for reducing risks as well as to highlight ethical issues associated with the conduct of biological science.
• Design of mechanisms for international jurisdiction that would foster cooperation in identifying and apprehending individuals who commit acts of bioterrorism.
• Development of an internationally harmonized regime for control of pathogens within and between laboratories and facilities.
• Development of systems of review to provide oversight of research, including defining an international norm for identifying and managing “experiments of
• Development of an international norm for the dissemination of “sensitive” information in the life sciences.


Throughout the committee’s deliberations there was a concern that policies to counter biological threats should not be so broad as to impinge upon the ability of the life sciences community to continue its role of contributing to the betterment of life and improving defenses against biological threats. Caution must be exercised in adopting policy measures to respond to this threat so that the intended ends will be achieved without creating “unintended consequences.” On the other hand, the potential threat from the misuse of current and future biological research is a challenge to which policymakers and the scientific community must respond. The system proposed in this report is intended as a first step in what will be a long and continuously evolving process to maintain an optimal balance of risks and rewards. The committee believes that building upon processes that are already known and trusted and relying on the capacity of life scientists to develop appropriate mechanisms for self-governance offers the greatest potential to find the right balance. This system may provide a model for the development of policies in other countries. Only a system of international guidelines and review will ultimately minimize the potential for the misuse of biotechnology.

The full report is available at: www.nas.edu







U.S. Chemical Weapons Program to Miss Deadline

Christine Kucia

U.S. officials informed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last month that the United States will not meet a key interim deadline set by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to destroy nearly half of its chemical weapons holdings. Under the CWC, the United States had agreed to destroy 45 percent of its stockpile by April 29, 2004, but U.S. officials are now seeking an extension to December 2007.

The new deadline means the United States, possessing the world’s second-largest chemical weapons stockpile, will not meet the CWC’s final date of April 2007 for destroying 100 percent of the stockpile and will have to ask for another extension in the future. The convention allows member states to request up to a five-year extension of the final deadline.

Washington’s appeal follows on the heels of multiple requests by Russia, which has the world’s largest arsenal of chemical weapons, to extend its deadline for destroying the country’s 40,000-ton stockpile. Russia destroyed one percent of its chemical weapons in April 2003, three years after the original deadline, and is slated to have just 20 percent completed by 2007. (See ACT, June 2003.)

Washington’s request was forwarded for consideration to the OPCW Conference of the States Parties, scheduled to convene Oct. 20-24.

The Department of Defense blames U.S. delays on “unresolved political and operational issues that forced shutdowns or postponed start-up dates,” according to a Sept. 3 statement. To date, the U.S. program has destroyed approximately one-quarter of the total declared stockpile of 31,500 tons.

Greg Mahall, a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization—the office that conducts U.S. chemical weapons destruction activities—said the program ran into difficulties when disposal experts found munitions and agents in worse shape than previously thought and because new means of disposing of the chemicals were more technically challenging than they expected. He said “earlier [time] projections were somewhat unrealistic” and stressed that the Army wouldn’t sacrifice “safety for schedule.”

A Sept. 5 report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that the U.S. chemical weapons program is “in turmoil” because of “long-standing and unresolved leadership, organizational, and strategic planning issues.” GAO investigators recommend that Pentagon and Army officials develop a strategy and implementation plan with a mission statement, long-term objectives, and clear roles and responsibilities for program leadership. They also suggest adding near-term performance measures and tools that could anticipate internal and external factors that may predict program impediments.

Meanwhile, despite longer timelines for destroying chemical weapons in Russia and the United States, new states continue to join the CWC. The island nation of Sao Tome and Principe in western Africa will formally join the CWC regime on Oct. 9, and Afghanistan will become the 155th state party to the convention on Oct. 24.


Slipped Milestones from 2001 Schedule

U.S. Chemical Weapons Site
Next Project Milestone
Scheduled Date to Begin
New Start Date
# of Months Delayed
Anniston, Ala.
July 2002

July 2003
(began Aug. 9)

Umatilla, Ore.
July 2003
December 2003
Pine Bluff, Ark.
October 2003
April 2004
Johnston Atoll
End of closure process
September 2003
January 2004






U.S. officials informed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last month that the United States will not meet a key interim...

Key Hill Panel Faults Intelligence Community for Flawed Iraq Analysis;

Paul Kerr

As the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) continues without any weapons discoveries and the Bush administration steadily retreats from some of its earlier claims, a key congressional committee has reportedly issued a harsh critique of the intelligence community’s Iraq analysis. The administration has been promising for months that questions surrounding its so far unproven claims about Iraq’s arsenals would be resolved by a report from a CIA task force headed by David Kay, a former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector. But administration officials have recently cast doubt on whether that report will ever be made public.

“I would not count on [public] reports,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters during a press briefing Sept. 22. During a Sept. 28 appearance on FOX News Sunday, Rice said Kay’s “progress report” is “likely not to draw...major conclusions.” She added that the administration “will make known [Kay’s] findings” but did not say if the report would be released to the public.

Bush officials continue to insist that evidence of programs to produce prohibited weapons, as well as weapons themselves, will be found. However, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Conway said during a Sept. 9 press briefing that Iraqi weapons “were not at the operational level.”

The Washington Post reported Sept. 28 that Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and ranking member Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) sent a letter Sept. 25 to CIA Director George Tenet criticizing the intelligence community for lacking the ability to collect new evidence about Iraqi weapons capabilities and relying on “past assessments.” The letter adds that the intelligence community took “the absence of proof” that Iraq had destroyed prohibited weapons as “proof that they continued to exist.” CIA spokesman Bill Harlow called the letter’s findings “premature and wrong,” according to the Post.


During the past few months, administration officials have backtracked from their earlier assertions about Iraq’s weapons. Prior to the invasion, officials vigorously asserted that Baghdad possessed weapons of mass destruction. (See ACT, July/August 2003 and September 2003.) In public statements since June, however, officials have stressed that inspectors are certain to find evidence of weapons programs rather than actual weapons.

Two senior administration officials recently corrected claims they made months ago. During a Sept. 10 press conference, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that his March 30 claim that “we know where…[Iraq’s WMD] are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad” was inaccurate and said he should have stated that “our intelligence tells us they’re in that area.”

Similarly, Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC’s Meet the Press Sept. 14 that he misspoke when he said during a March 16 interview that Iraq had “reconstituted nuclear weapons” and that he merely meant to say Iraq had the “capability” to develop such weapons—a claim he had repeated earlier in the show.

The vice president then went on to make a number of questionable charges. For instance, he said an Iraqi scientist came forward with “full designs” for a gas centrifuge “system,” as well as the “key parts” to “build such a system.” That scientist, however, had hidden the parts since 1991 and an IAEA official said the component set was incomplete and the documents appeared to contain errors. (See ACT, September 2003.) Gas centrifuges can be used to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons.

Cheney also asserted that Iraq possessed mobile units to produce biological weapons, citing the discovery of two trailers that, according to the CIA, were designed for this purpose. A Department of State memorandum, however, expresses doubts about whether the trailers were built to produce biological weapons. (See ACT, July/August 2003 and June 2003.)
Moreover, Cheney stated that he had never seen a 2002 report by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson that calls into question intelligence reports accusing Iraq of trying to acquire uranium in Niger—a key component of the administration’s nuclear weapons charges against Iraq. In a Sept. 16 interview, Wilson argued that he believed the government’s system for getting such information to senior officials would had to have changed significantly in order for Cheney’s account to be true. (See ACT, September 2003.)

As the possibility of finding weapons or significant weapons programs recedes, officials have continued to stress other motives for the Iraq invasion. Secretary of State Colin Powell argued during a Sept. 28 television appearance that Saddam Hussein’s appalling human rights record, along with suspected ties to terrorists and WMD activities, justified the invasion. In a Sept. 5 interview, Richard Haass, the State Department’s recently departed director of policy planning maintained there was “a menu of arguments” for the invasion, including “the feeling that we had to score a geopolitical victory” in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The IAEA Reports

Meanwhile, the IAEA says it had found no evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq by the time it left the country March 18, according to a report summarizing IAEA inspection activities pertaining to Iraq since September 2002 and released during the Sept. 15-19 general conference. However, the report adds that the agency did not have enough time to completely resolve questions over whether Iraq’s capabilities had changed since December 1998, when Iraq stopped cooperating with inspectors.

The report goes on to say that the IAEA would have been able to provide “credible assurance” that Iraq had not revived its nuclear program “within an additional two to three months of continuing verification activities.”

The document also summarizes the agency’s June 7-23 inspection of the Tuwaitha nuclear complex following reports that nuclear material had been looted during the March invasion. (See ACT, July/August 2003). The inspectors estimated that at least 10 kilograms of uranium compounds could have been dispersed but that the materials are not a proliferation concern.





As the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) continues without any weapons discoveries and the Bush administration steadily retreats from some of its earlier claims...

U.S. Biodefense Plans Worry Nonproliferation Advocates

Jonathan Yang

The U.S. government’s efforts to combat bioterrorism are sparking concerns over the dangers enhanced biodefense programs might pose to the nonproliferation regime. New biodefense plans drawn up in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks call for more than a sixfold boost in biodefense funding, with a sizeable portion of the funds going toward the construction of new biosafety level (BSL) 3 and 4 facilities, those capable of handling the most dangerous pathogens.

According to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are plans to fund the construction of one or two new National Biocontainment Laboratories with BSL-4 containment capabilities and four to eight Regional Biocontainment Laboratories with BSL-3 containment capabilities, utilizing a portion of the roughly $1.5 billion budgeted to the NIH for biodefense research in fiscal year 2003. NIAID is evaluating proposals for these new laboratories and plans to announce the grant recipients in September 2003.

Proponents for the new laboratories contend that the increased research capabilities and capacity will help accelerate biodefense research. Opponents argue that the new biodefense laboratories might unintentionally worsen the threat to the United States. One concern is that, although the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) permits such research even as it outlaws offensive biological weapons, it is hard for outsiders to judge whether a country is in fact adhering to the BWC’s restrictions. Opponents fret that, by coming close to this line, the United States risks undermining its attempts to limit or control other countries’ research with materials that could be useful for biological weapons.

The Good and the Bad

Pathogens are categorized into one of four BSL classifications based on the dangers they pose and the availability of treatments or vaccines. Most pathogens that are considered bioterror threats, such as Ebola and smallpox, are categorized as BSL-3 or BSL-4 organisms, meaning they can only safely be worked on in a laboratory with at least the same BSL rating. BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities are specialized to allow scientists to conduct research on organisms within proper containment fields.

The U.S. government contends that new laboratories are needed to conduct additional research on dangerous pathogens. An NIH official claims that, of the existing five U.S. BSL-4 laboratories that are operational or near operational, only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, are capable of dealing with extensive experiments on highly dangerous agents.

Proponents say the new facilities would improve the development of treatments or vaccines before an attack occurs as well as the response to a biological attack. The process of developing and gaining approval for treatments and vaccines requires extensive laboratory research and testing that usually takes years. In the event of a biological attack, however, this process would be further burdened by the urgency for a therapy, given that the agent used might have a high morbidity and mortality rate and spread rapidly, affecting many people. Therefore, the NIAID, the agency in charge of defending the United States from emerging diseases, including bioterror agents, sees expanding not only its number of research grants but also the number of high-containment biological laboratories as a way of both accelerating the current research on potential pathogens and better preparing the country for responding to an emerging disease or biological attack.

Another benefit of expanding the number of BSL-4 laboratories is to help equalize the responses to a threat regardless of where in the United States one occurs. The CDC and USAMRIID are both located on the East Coast, creating a situation where response times to outbreaks on the eastern United States are faster than to outbreaks in the western United States. In choosing the recipients of funds for new laboratories, the NIAID might also consider the locations of the proposals, trying to locate new facilities in regions that currently lack the capabilities in order to create a more equal distribution of major biological laboratories nationwide.

Yet, there are several issues that opponents to this plan cite as reasons to maintain the current number of BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories—already the most capable national network of high-containment biological research facilities in the world—rather than build more. In general, they view an increase in the number of laboratories and the number of trained scientists as an increase in potential leaks of material and expertise. Additionally, a terrorist attack at a BSL-3 or BSL-4 research center aimed at breaching the airtight safety precautions could cause the release of dangerous biological agents into the surrounding communities. Opponents claim that increasing the number of laboratories also increases the number of targets for such attacks.

Lack of Transparency

Arms control experts are particularly concerned with the issues of transparency and precedence. NIAID has been tight-lipped regarding details on what research the new facilities will pursue, requiring that the grant proposals remain confidential. The institute has also indicated that it will limit information on what biological agents are researched at the various facilities. The argument is that secrecy is essential; otherwise, terrorists could search for chinks in the U.S. biodefense armor and exploit them.

Other countries, however, might view this secrecy with distrust, wondering whether the expansion in biodefense research is masking covert biological weapons programs. For example, the U.S. government has acknowledged that its BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories might develop more virulent and robust strains of pathogens for the purpose of developing defenses against weapons officials fear terrorists might employ.

They also worry that the secrecy of the program might establish a dangerous precedent. In the future, if an adversary dramatically increases its biodefense research program without transparency, the United States might question its intentions. Yet, that country would be able to point to the U.S. expansion of its biodefense program as a precedent, leaving the United States with little basis or diplomatic leverage for criticizing the country’s efforts.



The U.S. government’s efforts to combat bioterrorism are sparking concerns over the dangers enhanced biodefense programs might pose...

Anniston Begins Burning Chemical Weapons

Despite vocal opposition from some members of an Alabama community, the Anniston Army Depot began burning rockets that had been filled with sarin nerve agent August 9 and started incinerating the sarin itself August 31. The action was a first step in a seven-year plan to incinerate 2,254 tons of sarin, VX, and mustard agent stored at the site.

As of early August 28, the Army had drained and destroyed 695 M-55 rockets. On August 31, the Army began burning the sarin that was drained.

The Anniston chemical weapons disposal facility was completed in 2001 and is designed to incinerate the chemical agents and related weaponry. Some members in the local community oppose incineration and want the Army to use different disposal technologies. With the facility already completed, however, the Army has decided to proceed with incineration, arguing that it would be more dangerous to continue storing the chemical agents. An initial start date of August 6 was delayed when opponents asked a court for a restraining order against the Anniston disposal facility. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the request August 8, and the Army began destruction operations the next day.

In a compromise with local opponents who have expressed concern over safety issues, however, the Army does not plan to begin full-scale destruction until early October, when a project to “over-pressurize” local schools, hospitals, and some other community facilities is slated for completion. For example, some schools close to the depot are undergoing renovations to install a system that could pump filtered air into a sealed room in case of a chemical release. Under the agreement with the community, until the over-pressurization project is complete, the Army will only operate the liquid incinerator on weekends or after 6:00 p.m. and before 6:00 a.m.

The United States is destroying its entire chemical weapons arsenal as part of its obligations under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC requires member states that possess chemical weapons to destroy their stockpiles by April 2007, although it allows for a possible extension until April 2012. Given the Anniston depot’s seven-year estimate and the fact that many other sites have not yet started operations, many analysts have said the United States will miss the 2007 deadline. The United States has so far destroyed about 26 percent of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Status of ERW Instrument Remains Uncertain

Diplomats negotiating a new agreement on cleaning up abandoned and unexploded munitions will not likely decide on whether it should be legally binding until the last days of the talks.

The negotiations are taking place within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which regulates or bans the use of weapons judged to be indiscriminate or “excessively injurious.” Comprising 90 states-parties, the CCW has four legally binding protocols addressing incendiary weapons; blinding lasers; nondetectable-fragment weapons; and mines, booby traps, and other devices.

In the current negotiations, the United States stands virtually alone in urging for a political outcome that is not legally binding. Although some countries have suggested they do not have a strong preference, they are seen as simply not wanting to disagree with Washington publicly at this time, according to Western diplomats.

Speaking at the latest round of talks June 16-27 in Geneva, Edward Cummings, head of the U.S. negotiating team, repeated a March statement that Washington has a “comprehensive objection to all language that implies a legal character to the instrument.” Cummings was commenting on a Dutch draft of the instrument with terms, such as “high contracting parties” and the verb “shall,” that the United States had previously singled out as unacceptable. (See ACT, April 2003.)

Other outstanding issues pertain to who should be responsible for cleaning up explosive remnants of war (ERW)—the term used to describe munitions on the ground that remain potentially lethal after the fighting stops—and what should be done about existing ERW that has been dormant for years and possibly decades, such as unexploded World War II bombs in the Egyptian desert.

The Netherlands plans to circulate a revised ERW draft in September or October for review by other governments before negotiators meet November 17-24. The understanding, according to one diplomat, is that the text of the instrument will be largely completed and then a decision will be made on whether it should be legally binding.

What Happened to Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction?

“It’s sort of puzzling that you can have 100 percent confidence about WMD existence, but zero certainty about where they are.” —Hans Blix to the Council on Foreign Relations June 23, 2003

With a new and perhaps final phase of the U.S. and British search throughout Iraq for Saddam Hussein’s delinquent nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons now well underway, it might be too early to reach a final verdict on the existence of such weapons. But as each day passes with no evidence of a “smoking gun,” the carefully worded series of analytical assessments by the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) increase dramatically in credibility. Despite pressure from the Bush administration to declare that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), UNMOVIC concluded that, after only a few months of investigations and little practical help from either Iraq or U.S. intelligence officials, they had insufficient evidence to prove the case either way. At the time, those conclusions rankled some in Washington certain that Saddam Hussein possessed a WMD arsenal, that continued UNMOVIC inspections would be unable either to locate them or prove they were destroyed, and that possession of those weapons by Saddam posed an unacceptable and immediate threat to U.S. national security interests.

After all, top Pentagon officials were sure that Baghdad held tons of weaponized chemical and biological weapons and had not only proscribed SCUD missiles but also a clandestine, active program to obtain a nuclear weapons capability. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld summed up this attitude in a March 30 interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC television, stating bluntly that, when it came to weapons of mass destruction, “We know where they are.” With senior administration officials making such definitive statements at such a sensitive time, operational commanders, poised to invade Iraq on the command of President George W. Bush, were right to expect that these chemical weapons would be used on the battlefield by Iraq’s elite units, and if not, then certainly such massive WMD holdings would be quickly overrun. In June, the Los Angeles Times quoted the head of the U.S. Army’s initial search program as saying, “Frankly, we expected to find large warehouses full of chemical or biological weapons, or delivery systems.”1 Throughout the hostilities, however, the Iraqis never used such weapons on the battlefield, and U.S. and British forces did not come across any as they advanced. Months after the termination of hostilities, they have yet to be uncovered.

The U.S.-led coalition’s inability to discover the alleged hidden caches of unconventional weapons cannot be ascribed to any lack of trying on the part of the U.S. Army itself. Indeed, search mechanisms put in place prior to the war were innovative and extensive. Three different approaches were devised. The first step was the designation and deployment of Task Force 20, which has been described as a covert Special Forces unit. Comprised of specialists drawn from the U.S. Army’s Delta Force, elements of Task Force 20 were inserted into Iraq prior to the main invasion. With a broad and flexible mandate, its top priority was the uncovering of WMD caches on a “target of opportunity basis,” using the twin elements of mobility and surprise. Next came Site Survey Teams, drawn from specially trained regular army personnel. They were created and attached to military mainline units earmarked for the initial invasion. Finally, the Pentagon unveiled the 75th Exploration Task Force, a “rear echelon” operation. Formerly an artillery brigade based at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Task Force 75 was reconstituted by the Army’s Central Command prior to the invasion as a follow-up element behind the main invasion force. Its specific focus was also on the search for proscribed weapons caches. [See Table 1.]

During the period of active hostilities, these various specialist elements collectively searched more than 230 suspect sites. From UNMOVIC’s inspection records in New York, it is clear that some of these sites were the same facilities and laboratories that the UN inspection groups had already scrutinized. In a number of cases, detailed reports on them had already been inserted into the archives at the UN headquarters in New York. With the commencement of hostilities, and an overall strength of more than 900 specialists supported by tens of millions of dollars of detection and laboratory equipment, the U.S. mission-specific units swept through Iraq as part of a comprehensive and intensive program of WMD searches. With the support of additional facilities, both in theater and at home, these teams were unable to find any working unconventional weapons, long-range missiles, bulk storage of either chemical or biological warfare agents, enrichment technologies, or hidden equipment needed to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program. Put simply, the search teams came up empty-handed.

More recently, as these search teams were in the process of being quietly withdrawn, Pentagon planners decided to replace them with yet a fourth model, this time designed to reinvigorate the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This new mandate focused upon a more coordinated approach to account for the elusive WMD inventory. The Pentagon appointed Major General Keith W. Dayton, a senior manager with the Defense Intelligence Agency, to head up an Iraq Survey Group (ISG) based in Baghdad. With an overall strength of more than 1,400 specialists in Iraq, the new task force was designed to focus, in a more analytical and measured approach, on coordinating and extending the continuing search. Ironically, the CIA, meanwhile, called upon David Kay, a former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector, to join the ISG as an adviser to provide expertise on methodologies. The ISG is expected to create some sort of compatible background of evidence to substantiate the administration’s contention—factual or not—that WMD inventories really do exist in Iraq.

What the Pentagon seems to have forgotten is that the task of effective accounting for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and associated developmental programs is not a new one. The UN Security Council, under U.S. leadership, first assigned that task more than a decade ago to the IAEA and to the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) immediately after the conclusion of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. That same mandate, with updated details, was given to UNMOVIC eight years later when the Security Council created it under Resolution 1284.


It is often said, sometimes with dubious authority, that Baghdad never cooperated in the UN quest to account for its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. In fact, that is not entirely correct. Immediately following the termination of hostilities in 1991, Iraq did cooperate in a significant fashion. Not only did Iraq turn over militarily significant holdings of weapons of mass destruction to the United Nations as instructed, but it also participated effectively in a follow-on destruction process. The destruction of proscribed weapons and of associated facilities was carried out mainly by Iraq but under constant supervision by UNSCOM and the IAEA. Data from the archives in New York bear out the contention that UN inspectors proved to be extremely successful in effectively accounting for the disposition and ultimate destruction of nuclear materials and associated facilities as well as of proscribed missiles and of chemical weapons.

By the mid-1990s, significant quantities of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs had been destroyed or rendered harmless under UN supervision. In 1996 the IAEA was able to report to the Security Council that no nuclear weapons had been manufactured in Iraq, that proscribed nuclear material had been removed from the country, and that no clandestine nuclear weapons program remained. During that time frame, UNSCOM was also able to account to the Security Council for 817 of the 819 short-range SCUD missiles known to have been in the Iraqi inventory. Indeed, UNSCOM itself had destroyed 48 SCUD missiles and 50 warheads and used material balance techniques reinforced by an extensive excavation program to confirm that Iraq had destroyed the rest. The inspectors were able to provide final proof by comparing missile and engine numbers with documentation the supplier states provided to UNSCOM.

Likewise, in the early 1990s, Iraq turned over to the United Nations more than 40,000 proscribed chemical warheads, half of which were drained and consequently destroyed by Iraq, again under UNSCOM guidance. Add to that the supervised destruction by Iraq of an additional 700 tons of bulk chemical weapons agents, some 3,600 tons of precursor chemicals, and more than 100 pieces of equipment used to produce chemical weapons, and it is clear that significant military quantities of chemical weapons had indeed been identified by Iraqi authorities and destroyed during the period between 1991 and 1996. Moreover, UNSCOM inspectors were able to extrapolate from some excavations of Iraq’s declared sites that claims made by Iraq of unilateral destruction were reasonably accurate.

To be sure, Iraq later directed a complex and active denial and deception campaign to mislead UN inspectors. Further, the inspectors’ record on unmasking Iraq’s biological weapons was particularly weak; although UNSCOM had managed to confirm the existence of a biological weapons program after their first inspection at Salman Pak in 1991, biological weapons inspections became a priority only after the 1995 defection of Saddam’s son-in-law.2 Still, if UNSCOM, and later UNMOVIC, had been allowed by either Saddam or the United States to proceed with their work unhindered in 1998 and 2003, their plans called for devoting the greatest attention and monitoring the most sites in the biological weapons sector.

It is also true that Iraq’s failure to produce specific and authoritative documentation did not permit either UNSCOM, or later UNMOVIC, formally to confirm that Baghdad had indeed destroyed these weapons. There is no clear reason—only speculation—as to why Iraq, facing sanctions and then war, did not produce this documentation. But UNSCOM and UNMOVIC also cautioned on a regular basis that declaring material as “unaccounted for” was not the same thing as saying that those materials continued to exist—caveats that Washington routinely ignored.

In retrospect, therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that one of the most significant reasons that U.S. and British troops have not found nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons or proscribed missiles in Iraq is that, following the 1991 Gulf War, the bulk of these weapons and associated facilities were destroyed either by the United Nations or unilaterally by Iraq. Thus, significant quantities of proscribed weapons (nuclear, chemical, or missile) simply did not exist. On top of that, any attempt by Baghdad to regenerate its proscribed weapons programs was effectively inhibited by the package of other UN control measures in operation since 1991. These measures included a severe sanctions program initiated in 1991, the export/import monitoring mechanism that followed, the UN escrow funds into which all Iraqi oil sales revenue was directed, the strict management of those funds by the UN Office of the Iraq Program, the interdiction operations at sea undertaken under UN mandate, and a number of other control mechanisms. Although relatively unknown to the general public, these control mechanisms operated effectively throughout the decade of the 1990s. In combination, they served to prevent any significant reactivation of WMD programs on the part of Iraq.

Today, there is scant disagreement within the international community that the removal of Hussein from power is good for the international community and ultimately will be good for the people of Iraq. Although other considerations for going to war have been raised and might have validity in their own right, however, the fact remains that it was the possession of weapons of mass destruction that was alleged to constitute an immediate threat to the United States. Therefore, it is important for the United States and its wartime partners to have the opportunity to re-evaluate and confirm aspects of the decision-making process that led them to abandon the policy of containment, to withdraw their support for a very successful UN inspection program, and to initiate hostilities against Iraq on March 18.

The Road Ahead

Although Iraq remains in turmoil and domestic security is uncertain, closure for the WMD issue could, in itself, be achieved without great difficulty through the internationalization of the search and analysis process. The first step might be an invitation to UNMOVIC and the IAEA to return to Baghdad to tie up loose ends and resume UN weapons inspections as part of a cooperative search process under a broadened but inclusive UN mandate. It is the only way to remove continuing doubts about the existence of such weapons in Iraq. In such a cooperative process, the quantitative aspects of accounting for Iraq’s weapons could be finalized in a technically correct manner without prejudice to the United States and its allies or to the United Nations.

Moreover, with virtually unlimited funding, no apparent time constraints, and easy access to top specialists in a variety of science and technology disciplines, the ISG’s investigative activities have the potential to contribute significantly to our understanding of what happened in Iraq. This contribution, however, is likely to be in terms of providing corroborative support rather than in new revelations. That Hussein expended billion of dollars and employed thousands of specialists in a variety of WMD programs is already well documented by the United Nations in Vienna and New York. That he directed a complex and active “denial and deception” program to mislead UN inspectors is a matter of public record.

But in the future, the experience gained in such a cooperative effort between the U.S.-led coalition and the United Nations, both in Iraq and in New York, could pay real dividends in rethinking principles essential to the use of nonproliferation as an instrument for international security. These relate specifically to a revamping of the Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament (NACD) process.3

Experience gained by the U.S.-led forces and inspectors in their various approaches to weapons inspections in the aftermath of the 2003 occupation of Iraq could prove supportive in designing an international framework to combat terrorism and to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. More broadly, a cooperative research effort could develop a new and improved set of guidelines for more intrusive inspection procedures. These could then be applied to other problem countries, such as Iran and North Korea, suspected of possessing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. After all, any long-term solution with these states will require some sort of effective international verification regime.

Alarming as they may be, the concerns over Iran and North Korea are but part of a much larger problem. There is an increasing perception that the international mechanisms developed over several decades to control nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are insufficient and in danger of crumbling. Most recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking to a joint session of Congress July 17, called for “a new international regime on the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

Such a regime could better implement existing prohibitions on nuclear weapons, maintain the ban on chemical weapons, and introduce new methods to control biological agents and missiles. Certainly the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty itself needs to be strengthened. A new, more intrusive inspection arrangement can be drawn up by extrapolating from the experience gained by the IAEA’s Action Team from 1991 to 1998 (now referred to as the Iraq Nuclear Verification Group [INVG]), as well as its more recent activities in Iran and in North Korea. In this regard, the ISG could use its unique inspection activities as the coalition contribution to fine-tuning and upgrading the safeguard regime to make it more effective.

Two quite capable inspection regimes have already been laid out for implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague is vigorously implementing the CWC while the CTBT Organization (Preparatory Commission) has deployed a network of detection technologies worldwide and is currently conducting onsite inspection practice as well as developing inspection techniques.

The final and least effective multilateral WMD agreement is the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), a U.S. initiative of the Nixon era. In the climate of counterterrorism today, the BWC should be perhaps the most important. For a variety of reasons, however, it continues to be neglected, and its verification provisions can only be described as “token” at best. Negotiators have met with little success in their attempts to add “teeth” to the clearly token verification provisions of the treaty.4

Within the context of the current situation in Iraq, the continuing and apparently escalating instability suggests that a quick resolution of the WMD issue would be welcomed by all interested parties, including the United Nations, the coalition partners, as well as others such as the provisional administrative authority now emerging in Iraq. The Security Council has expressed in Resolution 1483 (2003) its determination to revisit at some stage the comprehensive mandates of UNMOVIC and the IAEA as set forth in earlier resolutions.

UNMOVIC, as a subordinate body of the Security Council, has continued to meet its specified obligations under those parts of its present mandate that, under present conditions, remain operative. UNMOVIC’s strong analytical capability centered in New York has been applied to scanning the physical archives of UNSCOM and UNMOVIC as a means of creating an improved electronic format that will significantly enhance the future potential for search, analysis, storage, and instant retrieval of relevant information. To maintain and increase its operational readiness status, UNMOVIC’s photo interpreters have continued to process and exploit postwar commercial satellite imagery, where available, for more than 750 sites of interest. Although unable to ensure the integrity of its physical infrastructure in Baghdad, UNMOVIC nevertheless is maintaining its core of experienced technical experts in New York with an operational mission to retain and refine their specialized skill base and knowledge, recently upgraded by field experience. A roster of trained international experts remains available to supplement UNMOVIC operations as required. Thus, by continuing to exercise a high degree of operational readiness, UNMOVIC in New York and the IAEA’s INVG in Vienna continue to provide the Security Council with its own powerful, professional, in-house capacity to cooperate in a credible fashion with others interested in resolving at short notice outstanding issues vis-à-vis weapons of mass destruction, should the Security Council so decide.

In relation to the broader field encompassing the threats posed by global nuclear proliferation in all its aspects, the UNMOVIC and IAEA experience in Iraq, focused exclusively on the proliferation aspects of weapons of mass destruction, can provide a classic case study in the application and development of forensic inspection and analysis processes designed to contain the threat. Clearly, future nonproliferation scenarios are likely to differ significantly both in detail and in substance from the specifics of the Iraq experience. Thus, the United Nations should be prepared to initiate a comprehensive stock-taking of control mechanisms spawned from the ensemble of existing treaties against WMD proliferation and take advantage of unilateral and bilateral initiatives in this area. Discipline-oriented specialist groups such as the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Australian Group might play a role. In the final analysis, the international community, in its collectivity, must commit itself under Security Council guidance and leadership to deal systematically with these global threats—thereby creating, again in the words of Blair, “a new international regime on the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

Return to Text

Table 1.


The Administration’s Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction

• Force 20: Force 20 was a covert group comprised of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force specialists who entered Iraq prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Force 20’s objective was to uncover WMD caches on a “target of opportunity” basis, employing both mobility and surprise to achieve their mission.

• Site Survey Teams: Consisting of specially trained Army personnel, the Site Survey Teams were placed with the initial invasion force in Iraq.

• 75th Exploration Task Force: Considered a “rear echelon” operation, also with the objective to find weapons caches, the Pentagon created this task force prior to the war as a follow-up element to the main invasion. The 75th Exploration Task Force was formally an artillery brigade based at Fort Still, Oklahoma.

• Iraq Survey Group (ISG): Headed by Major General Keith W. Dayton, a senior manager with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the ISG was formed in recent months to replace the three previous search forces. The ISG has around 1,400 specialists, including David Kay, a former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector. Utilizing a more analytical and measured approach to the weapons search, the ISG has been employed as the administration’s lastest attempt to find evidence to substantiate their claims that Iraq possessed and was in the process of producing weapons of mass destruction prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom.


1. Bob Drogin. “Banned Weapons Remain Unseen Foe,” Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2003, p. 1.

2. Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and the head of the Iraqi biological weapons program, defected to Jordan in 1995. The defection prompted Iraqi officials to admit that Iraq had weaponized biological agents, and they began to provide information on the program.

3. The NACD process is an umbrella concept designed to include not only the nonproliferation regime and initiatives but also the panoply of international treaties and agreements in the broader sense.

4. An Ad Hoc Group began meeting in 1995 to negotiate a BWC protocol designed to create a verification system. In March 2001, the group presented a legally binding draft protocol with the support of many countries, but the United States rejected it.

Frank Ronald Cleminson is a former UNSCOM inspector and a member of the College of Commissioners of UNMOVIC. After joining Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 1982, he helped establish a Verification Research Program and later served as senior adviser on verification.

Rumsfeld Reprise? The Missile Report That Foretold the Iraq Intelligence Controversy

Greg Thielmann

In recent weeks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has come under fire for his part in the Bush administration’s misuse of U.S. intelligence to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But Rumsfeld’s tendency to hype selective portions of intelligence that support his policy goals was already familiar to intelligence professionals. They remember his chairmanship of a 1998 congressionally chartered commission charged with evaluating the nature and magnitude of the ballistic missile threat to the United States. As with Iraq, Rumsfeld’s work on ballistic missiles often ignored the carefully considered views of such professionals in favor of highly unlikely worst-case scenarios that posited an imminent threat to the United States and prompted a military, rather than diplomatic, response. Just as is likely to be the case with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), time has proven Rumsfeld’s predictions dead wrong.

The “Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States,” chaired by Rumsfeld and released in July 1998, was one of the most influential congressionally mandated reports in recent memory. The presentation of the Rumsfeld Commission report and the unexpected attempt by North Korea to launch a satellite one month later combined to create a political tidal wave that ultimately engulfed one of the most successful arms control treaties in history, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The report also led to massive increases in spending on defenses against ICBMs rather than on domestic spending, other defense priorities, or more urgent defenses against short- and medium-range missiles. Because the Rumsfeld report had such a significant impact on U.S. foreign and defense policy, it is worth checking the report’s predictions against current realities.

To do so on the report’s fifth anniversary is particularly appropriate because of the report’s emphasis on how much the missile threat could grow during a five-year period. The report concluded that any nation with a well-developed, Scud-based missile infrastructure would be able to flight-test an ICBM within about five years of deciding to do so. It further asserted that North Korea and Iran were seeking this capability in order to deliver weapons of mass destruction. Yet, since the report’s release, none of the emerging missile states have flight-tested a missile with even half the range of an ICBM. The report that helped kill the ABM Treaty was spectacularly wrong about its principal premise. “Happy Anniversary” greetings are not in order.

The report’s central and most clarion warning is contained in the first paragraph of its unclassified Executive Summary :

The newer ballistic missile-equipped nations [North Korea, Iran, and Iraq]…would be able to inflict major destruction on the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq). During several of those years, the U.S. might not be aware that such a decision had been made.1

The report further states that North Korea and Iran place “a high priority on threatening U.S. territory, and each is even now pursuing advanced ballistic missile capabilities to pose a direct threat to U.S. territory.” Such language created the strong impression that the five-year clocks of North Korea and Iran were already running. Moreover, the estimate of a five-year timeline from the development decision point to the initial ICBM capability was said to apply not just to the three countries that President George W. Bush would later label the “axis of evil,” but to any nation “with a well-developed, Scud-based ballistic missile infrastructure.”

The Rumsfeld Commission strongly implied that movement from single-stage, short-range ballistic missiles to multiple-staged ICBMs is a straight-line, relatively rapid, and predictable progression. This notion is both ahistorical and unrealistic. Missile development programs of even the most advanced industrialized states have advanced in fits and starts, encountering serious programmatic setbacks along the way. Even after the development secrets of long-range missiles have been unlocked by other states, it can take many years to move beyond the rudimentary short-range missiles represented by the Soviet Scud model. Those countries today that seek to build missiles that can deliver a sizeable payload on target to the other side of the globe must still overcome significant technological hurdles. These include, among others, the use of staging, developing, or acquiring sophisticated guidance systems and mastering high stress atmospheric re-entry. Moreover, emerging missile states also have to seek foreign help in an environment where most potential suppliers have pledged to withhold assistance.

The report also warned ominously about the scope, pace, and inscrutability of ballistic missile proliferation and, in a harbinger of Iraq, dismissed the ability of intelligence professionals to monitor developments. “The threat to the U.S.…is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community.” The report identified a new danger from “alternative ballistic missile launch modes,” such as sea-launched, short-range ballistic missiles and third-country basing schemes. Furthermore, the report concluded that the Intelligence Community could no longer be expected to provide ample warning of threatening developments. “The Intelligence Community’s ability to provide timely and accurate threats of ballistic missile threats to the U.S. is eroding.… The U.S. might have little or no warning before operational deployment.”

Reverent Attention From the Pundits

Such a unanimous conclusion about the future by nine prominent experts (Rumsfeld, Dr. Barry M. Blechman, General Lee Butler, Dr. Richard L. Garwin, Dr. William R. Graham, Dr. William Schneider Jr., General Larry Welch, Dr. Paul Wolfowitz, and The Honorable R. James Woolsey) was hard to challenge at the time, particularly after North Korea appeared to underscore their findings with the flight of a three-stage Taepo Dong-1 space launch vehicle on August 31, 1998. Commentators and pundits soberly intoned about the heightened peril. The new missile powers were declared more dangerous than the old. Their strategic ballistic missile potential was said to be emerging rapidly and their governments were presumed to have already taken the decision to develop ICBMs, leaving little time for remedial action. A typical example of the report’s uncritical reception was provided by Brookings Institution President Michael H. Armacost: “[T]he potential ballistic missile threat to the American homeland has increased as missile delivery system technology has proliferated, as noted in the Rumsfeld Commission report.”2 Most relevant to the actionable strategic policy issue of the day, many pundits concluded that the new threat could only be reliably addressed by deploying ballistic missile defenses outside of ABM Treaty limits.

The Intelligence Community Bends

The intelligence community had been judged harshly by elements of Congress for the alleged sanguinity of its past assessments of foreign ballistic missile developments. Yet, an attempt to get a more forward-leaning professional assessment on missiles by appointing a commission chaired by former CIA director Robert Gates did not succeed in fundamentally altering previous intelligence judgments. After passing a new law, which broke with the congressional tradition of naming commission members proportionately between the parties, the Republican majority did succeed in appointing a new commission under Rumsfeld and naming six of its nine members. In an apparent effort to mollify Republican congressional critics, the intelligence community adopted a more alarmist tone in its next full-blown National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the subject in 1999, “Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015.” This NIE lowered the threshold for identifying a new missile threat. The previous standard of “initial operating capability,” still used by the U.S. military, was discarded in favor of using the first flight test of either a missile or a space launch vehicle as the key milestone. This new milestone was inelegantly dubbed “initial threat availability,” but its exact meaning was elusive. Did it mean, for example, the first fully successful flight test? Would the proliferant state have confidence that the missile would work without a fully successful test or even after only one successful test? Not surprisingly, adoption of the new criterion meant that missile systems under development would now be considered “a threat” significantly earlier than before.

The impact of the definitional change was made dramatically clear in the NIE’s treatment of the August 1998 Taepo Dong-1 launch. The North Korea section of the unclassified summary’s Key Points began by assessing that “North Korea could convert its Taepo Dong-1 space launch vehicle [SLV] into an ICBM that could deliver a light payload…to the United States.” The tone implied that a quasi-ICBM threat already existed. One would have to read deeper into the document to learn that this system failed even to place its small satellite in orbit. If the system were to be converted from an SLV into an ICBM, the North Koreans would also have to learn how to construct a warhead that could be brought back through the atmosphere successfully, undamaged by the considerable heat and vibration of re-entry, and then could be directed to hit its target. These requirements each pose discrete engineering challenges — and mastering them is far from a foregone conclusion for a country that has no long-distance instrumented test range and no long-range missile development experience.

The NIE featured warnings of what “could” happen more prominently than projections of what was “likely to” happen. The result echoed that of the Rumsfeld Commission, heightening concerns about technically possible but wholly implausible scenarios. Thus before presenting what analysts judged were Iraq’s most likely capabilities, the NIE declared that “most analysts believe Iraq could test an ICBM that could deliver a lighter payload to the United States in a few years based on its failed SLV or the Taepo Dong-1,” which could be imported from North Korea. While readily absorbing the alarm inherent in the expression “in a few years,” readers were less likely to note that neither scenario made much sense, nor was anyone predicting that either would happen. A similar argument was advanced with Iran. In neither case did the report explicitly state what analysts well understood: a lighter payload would necessarily be a non-nuclear one and lack significant military impact. Buried toward the end of the report was the clarification that, when it came to larger payloads, analysts were divided between “likely before 2010” to “unlikely before 2015.”

The NIE did a better job than the Rumsfeld Commission of accurately describing the awesome but declining strength of Russian strategic forces and of describing the relative numerical insignificance and qualitative weaknesses of any ICBMs that might emerge from North Korea, Iran, or Iraq. It described the Russian ICBM threat as “considerably more robust and lethal than that posed by China, and orders of magnitude more than the threat posed by other nations.” The Rumsfeld report’s Executive Summary is focused almost exclusively on emerging ballistic missile threats to the United States although the commission was mandated by Congress to assess “existing and emerging” threats. In passing quickly over Russia, the Rumsfeld report’s summary acknowledged that the number of missiles in the inventory was “likely to decline further” but stated that intelligence estimates on Russia were “difficult to make.” According to the NIE, Russian strategic forces would “decrease dramatically.” The commission warned that “the risk of an accident or loss of control over Russian ballistic missile forces…which now appears small…could increase sharply and with little warning.” The NIE judged the chance of an unauthorized or accidental launch as “highly unlikely so long as current technical and procedural safeguards are in place.”

Still, the NIE conformed to the principal Rumsfeld Commission theme that the threat from newer ballistic missile-equipped nations was broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly than previously reported by the intelligence community. Particularly in its presentational aspects, the NIE repeated the commission’s emphasis on ballistic missile threats from North Korea, Iran, and Iraq over those from Russia and China. The threat from emerging states was emphasized up front in the list of “Key Points” in the unclassified summary and the sections of the main body, relegating the much more potent Russian and Chinese missile arsenals and the dramatic decline of Russian strategic forces to a secondary position. A reader of the NIE’s Key Points learns that the United States will most likely face new ICBM threats from North Korea and Iran by 2015 and that a North Korean Taepo Dong-2 ICBM “could be tested at any time.” But the same reader would have to read between the lines of the Key Points or to perform an exegesis of the discussion section to realize that the net ballistic missile threat to the United States through 2015 was expected to fall by thousands of warheads.

Subsequent intelligence community proclamations and products maintained fealty to the broad thrust of the Rumsfeld Commission report. For example, CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin told a space and missile conference in Huntsville, Alabama, on August 21, 2001, that:

[A] number of countries hostile to the United States are on a path that seems likely to expose America to an increased intercontinental [ballistic missile] threat…Some emerging missile states have already decided to go beyond medium-range weapons and develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.3

The only intelligence entity voicing public dissent on these themes was the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). According to INR Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Tom Fingar, testifying in an open session of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on February 7, 2001, “INR assesses that, among states seeking long-range missiles, only North Korea could potentially threaten the U.S. homeland with ballistic missiles in this decade, and only if it abandons its current moratorium on long-range missile flight testing.”

What Has Happened

Looking around in the summer of 2003, five years after the Rumsfeld Commission completed its report, one sees a very different world than the one predicted. There have been no ICBM flight tests by any of the newer ballistic missile-equipped nations. As of this writing, North Korea has still not flight-tested its Taepo Dong-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM)/ICBM, an event which the 1999 NIE predicted would probably take place that same year. In fact, none of the ballistic missiles flight-tested by the proliferant states have so far reached the 3,000-kilometer-range floor of the intermediate-range ballistic missile category. The total number of long-range ballistic missiles in the world, meanwhile, has fallen to roughly half of Cold War highs and the number of countries with active long-range programs has also declined. [See Chart 1.]

There is no doubt that ballistic missiles still hold attraction for a number of countries. The Rumsfeld Commission explained that “emerging powers…see ballistic missiles as highly effective deterrent weapons and as an effective means of coercing or intimidating adversaries, including the United States.” But the manifestation of this interest has primarily been seen in the category of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. According to a 2002 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reckoning, 22 of the 35 nations with ballistic missiles have missiles with ranges of 300 kilometers or less; only 11 have missiles with ranges of more than 1,000 kilometers.4 Five of these countries are nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon states; four more are either friendly or at least not hostile to the United States. The remaining two states, North Korea and Iran, have single-stage, 1,300-kilometer-range missiles—the North Korean Nodong and its Iranian derivative, the Shahab-3. Neither poses an imminent ballistic missile threat to population centers in the United States, thousands of kilometers away. [See Chart 2.]

This analysis does not dispute that the existing ballistic missiles of proliferant states can pose a threat to U.S. forces, interests, or allies, nor does it argue for indifference to ongoing development programs for longer-range missiles. But efforts to develop and deploy defenses against these threats were not limited by the ABM Treaty. The Rumsfeld Commission report was specifically charged with assessing another kind of ballistic missile threat: that posed by strategic ballistic missiles, on which the ABM Treaty did pose limits. The salient policy question was therefore supposed to be whether and how soon a new strategic ballistic missile threat would emerge.

There is a general consensus among U.S. government and academic experts that both North Korea and Iran have development programs for longer-range missiles and for nuclear weapons. There is no consensus on whether the longer-range ballistic missile programs are on an immutable track to deployment and, if so, what the timetable for testing and deployment would be. On the fifth anniversary of the Rumsfeld Commission report, however, we can reach the tentative conclusion that the commission was either wrong about the intent of emerging missile states to develop and deploy ICBMs or wrong about the speed with which they could do so. It is also possible the commission was wrong about both. Moreover, none of the “plausible scenarios” for other, non-ICBM ballistic missile threats to the United States identified by the commission have materialized.

So What?

For the Rumsfeld Commission to have erred in its principal warning is an important symptom of deeper problems, but it is hardly an impeachable offense in and of itself. Indeed, it is unreasonable to expect either congressional commissions or intelligence agencies to predict the future with complete accuracy. Excessive concern about avoiding mistakes in prognostication can turn clear, insightful analysis into overly qualified mush. Properly done, the commission’s report could have helped its consumers understand trends, put dangers in perspective, and revealed underlying truths. The shortcoming of the Rumsfeld Commission report was not so much its inability to foresee specific missile development timelines as it was its failure to educate Congress and the public about an important and complicated issue. Instead of elucidating a security concern, it sounded a false alarm. In the process, it fostered a polarization of the intelligence community on the warning function, emphasizing possible but highly unlikely outcomes. Moreover, the Executive Summary of the report blurred the distinction between a real, tactical ballistic missile threat to U.S. forces and interests and a hypothetical future threat to U.S. territory from “rogue state” strategic ballistic missiles, just as the administration recently blurred the distinction between Iraq and the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. This morphing of the threat was later matched by the Bush administration’s morphing of the response to the threat. Under Rumsfeld, the rhetorical, programmatic, and budgeting distinction between ballistic and tactical missile systems has been virtually eliminated in the administration’s analysis.

WMD Payloads: Apples and Oranges

The Rumsfeld Commission report also exaggerated the threats that Iran and North Korea could pose to the United States by blurring crucial distinctions on the ability of each country’s missiles to carry different payloads—from nuclear to chemical and biological weapons. The report asserted baldly that “a successfully launched ballistic missile has a high probability of delivering its payload to its target compared to other means of delivery.” But it didn’t make clear that these countries were far from producing missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, far and away the most destructive payload, in terms of both the number of human victims and the amount of material damage. Because nuclear weapons require far more missile throw-weight than do chemical or biological weapons, developing a nuclear-tipped ICBM is an especially challenging way for North Korea or Iran to threaten the United States. The Rumsfeld report also did not explain that ballistic missiles are not an optimal means of delivering biological and chemical weapons. Biological weapons pose particular technical challenges in surviving the high temperatures of ICBM warhead re-entry. The deadly effects of chemical weapons are confined to the area of use, requiring more accuracy, and are critically weather dependent. Moreover, many types of chemical weapon agent are lethal for only a short period.

Rather than spelling out the relative dangers posed by the different weapons and evaluating the ability of Iran and North Korea to use ballistic missiles as delivery platforms, three categories of unconventional weapons were lumped together under the catchall label “weapons of mass destruction.” Such unqualified assertions mislead the non-expert reader about the basics of missile physics, contributing to the subsequent distortion of such events as North Korea’s unsuccessful Taepo Dong-1 space launch effort. In the latter case, the intelligence community was surprised by the addition of a small kick motor and satellite to the payload of the anticipated two-stage medium-range ballistic missile. Although North Korea failed to place the satellite in orbit, extrapolations of the system were made by strategic missile defense advocates to describe the Taepo Dong-1 as an intercontinental weapon, which could launch a “WMD”—meaning a chemical- or biological-weapon—warhead to the United States. Critics derided such a fantasy weapons payload as the “golf ball of death.”

If the Rumsfeld Commission had given a fair assessment of the dangers posed by ballistic missiles, far fewer of the foreign ballistic missiles projected by the commission to be a “serious threat” to the United States would have seemed so. Add to that the fact that the accuracy of rudimentary Iranian or North Korean ICBMs would be so poor as to prevent them even from reliably targeting cities and the report’s claims that such missiles have “a high probability of delivering its payload to its target compared to other means of delivery” would have come undone. Certainly, these nations would have been better off using simpler technologies to spread chemical or biological weapons even as the 1999 NIE pointed out. On the penultimate page of the unclassified summary’s discussion section, six advantages of nonmissile WMD delivery options for emerging ballistic missile states were listed, including less expense, greater accuracy, greater reliability, greater effectiveness for biological weapon dissemination, greater ability to avoid missile defenses, and greater ability to avoid retaliation by masking the source of attack.

Dulling Intelligence

The Rumsfeld Commission report, in addition to the U.S. intelligence community failures to provide tactical warning of the May 1998 Indian nuclear tests and the August 1998 North Korean missile launch, put intelligence agencies on the defensive. Intelligence officials were subsequently grilled during congressional hearings on previous ballistic missile threat assessments. The press criticized the failures of previous intelligence assessments to predict what happened. The intelligence community got the message and showed in subsequent ballistic missile assessments that it would not again be outdone in forecasting threats. But by making its projections more “worst case” and less qualified, these estimates became less useful for decision-makers, who have a greater need to know what is probable than what is theoretically possible. By making assessment criteria less precise, intelligence projections also became less useful for analysts and planners throughout government. The intelligence analysis, which predicts that “anything can happen,” may not be proven wrong, but neither will it be very useful. A similar dynamic emerged with intelligence assessments of Iraq. If a capability could not be disproven, it was assumed to exist. “Faith-based analysis” was characteristic of Rumsfeld in both cases.

Ignoring Deterrence

The Rumsfeld Commission report asserted that “emerging powers see ballistic missiles...as an effective means of coercing or intimidating adversaries, including the United States.” A number of U.S. officials, both in the Clinton and in the Bush administrations, have repeatedly claimed that the United States would not have come to Kuwait’s aid if Saddam Hussein had possessed nuclear weapons. (Such rhetoric would appear to have damaged U.S. deterrence much more effectively than any weapons developments occurring in the new missile states.) The report did not elaborate on why these states believed that strategic rather than shorter-range ballistic missiles were necessary to achieve this effect, but one can assume the authors were contending that only by credible threats to the American homeland would the United States be deterred from intervening in areas where its core interests were not engaged. Recent events, however, remind us that perceived threats to the American people can increase rather than discourage public support for U.S. military action abroad.

Logic would argue that any deterrent advantages for “rogue state” leaders of ballistic missiles with unconventional weapons could be achieved with shorter-range systems since the feared U.S. invasion force would likely be within range. For emerging missile powers to anticipate effectively intimidating the United States with threats of a direct missile attack against the American homeland is a dubious proposition. There is no empirical evidence that even the most erratic foreign leader would believe himself immune from such an attack. After all, the last time U.S. territory was attacked by a foreign state, the aggressor state was utterly defeated and then occupied, losing two cities to nuclear detonations in the process, and its ring-leaders were hanged. When a nonstate terrorist organization based in another country attacked America on September 11, 2001, the United States sent troops to the ends of the earth to overthrow that country’s government.

The problem with emerging missile powers using or threatening to use strategic ballistic missiles against the United States is that it cannot be done anonymously. There are no plausible scenarios for disguising the source of an ICBM attack on the United States. The sophistication of U.S. ballistic missile early-warning assets and the inability of emerging missile states to target those assets leaves little doubt that the origin of an ICBM attack would quickly become known. Devastating retaliation and the end of the attacker’s regime would have to be assumed.

Sabotaging Arms Control

The Clinton administration assumed that for it to win congressional approval for future reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces that it would need some kind of strategic missile defense. In 1996, the Clinton administration sought to demonstrate this support by designating National Missile Defense (NMD) as a acquisition program. Prior to the Rumsfeld Commission report, however, the president had not yet made a deployment decision and Congress had not mandated system deployment. The Rumsfeld report and the North Korean missile launch that summer provided a huge impetus to the effort to develop and deploy strategic missile defenses and a rationale for withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. The report’s dubious assertions that the new missile states could have ICBMs within five years of a deployment decision and that there would be little warning in advance of a flight test created a new sense of urgency. Although Clinton ultimately postponed the expected deployment decision in 2000, the die had been cast. It made little difference that the ABM Treaty did not preclude the deployment of defenses against the short- and medium-range missiles, which had experienced dynamic growth. Nor did it matter that there was a nearly universal desire internationally for retention of the ABM Treaty and that Russia had made START II implementation contingent on adherence to the ABM Treaty. Bush announced before the end of his first year in office that the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty, without even selecting a system architecture that would explain the necessity for withdrawal. Six months later, the treaty was gone, and with it, the START II agreement that would have verifiably halved the number of U.S. and Russian strategic weapons.

Bilateral strategic arms control was not the only victim. Withdrawing from the ABM Treaty was one of the first in a long series of major U.S. policy decisions flying in the face of world opinion—spending precious political capital and lowering the reservoir of international support needed in moments of crisis. The full-bore pursuit of strategic missile defenses will have cost the United States tens of billions of dollars in obligations over five fiscal years. It has diverted attention and resources from the greater threat posed by terrorist attack. It has even siphoned funds from the tactical ballistic missile defense programs that would address a real and present danger to U.S. forces.

The Rumsfeld Commission report also weakened the NPT regime by ignoring progress made over the previous decade in nonproliferation efforts and implicitly denigrating the potential effectiveness of existing international instruments. So fixated was it on the empty half of the glass that it became completely blind to the full half. Moreover, by emphasizing how dire it would be for the United States to face off against even one unreliable, inaccurate ICBM with a biological- or chemical-weapon warhead, the report gave heart to the missile program advocates in hostile states that their efforts would yield a great political dividend in deterrent value.

The end result of both the Rumsfeld Commission report and subsequent intelligence estimates was to distract their consumers from the most serious security threats to the nation, leading to misallocation of resources, America’s estrangement from its allies, and a weakening of the nation’s deterrent. With five years’ hindsight, it is apparent that the impact of the Rumsfeld report were policies that actually worsened the security problems facing the nation. Now, in the aftermath of a war propelled by dubious threat assessments from the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz Pentagon, it is difficult to avoid being overcome by a powerful sense of déjà vu.

Ballistic Missiles: Who Has What?

China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the only countries that have deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). The table below depicts the status of the missile programs other countries have. None of the countries listed below have ever flight-tested an IRBM or an ICBM.

Countries With IRBM or ICBM Programs
Countries With Deployed Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles
North Korea
North Korea
Saudi Arabia

1. Iran has flight-tested the Shahab-3 several times with mixed results. A handful of Shahab-3s with an estimated range of 1300 kilometers, are believed to be available if Iran decided to deployed them.

Sources: Arms Control Association and the Central Intelligence Agency


Missile Ranges
Short-range ballistic missile (<1,000 km)
Medium-range ballistic missile (1,000-3,000 km)
Intermediate-range ballistic missile (3,000-5,500 km)
Intercontinental ballistic missile (5,500+ km)

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Developments Since the Rumsfeld Commission Report

The Rumsfeld Commission contended that the ballistic missile programs of Iran and North Korea posed “a substantial and immediate danger to the U.S., its vital interests and its allies.” The commission’s report insinuated that both countries could possibly develop and flight-test an intercontinental ballistic missile within a five-year period of choosing to do so, particularly if they received foreign help. Below is the current status of the Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile programs.


Iran has flight-tested and is in the “late stages” of developing its medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missile. It is estimated that the Shahab-3 could travel up to 1,300 kilometers.

Iran is working on the Shahab-4 and the Shahab-5, both of which are expected to have greater ranges than the Shahab-3. Neither has been flight-tested, and the Shahab-5 is reportedly in the very early stages of development.

North Korea

The longest-range missile North Korea has deployed is the Nodong-1, which has an estimated capability of delivering a payload of up to 1,300 kilometers.

North Korea has conducted one flight test of the Taepo Dong-1, which has an estimated range of up to 2,000 kilometers. That sole flight test occurred in August 1998 and was a failed effort to put a satellite into orbit.

North Korea is working on a Taepo Dong-2, which, if successfully built, is estimated to have the capability to strike the continental United States. The missile has not been flight-tested.

North Korea declared a missile flight test moratorium in September 1999 and has reiterated that pledge several times since, the last at a September 2002 North Korean-Japanese summit. Pyongyang flight-tested short-range missiles earlier this year, but the White House said the tests were not covered by the moratorium, which Washington has always interpreted as applying to long-range ballistic missiles.

Sources: Arms Control Association and the Central Intelligence Agency

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1. The report’s executive summary is available at www.armscontrol.org.

2. James M. Lindsay and Michael O’Hanlon, Defending America: The Case for Limited National Missile Defense (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2001), p. vii.

3. John E. McLaughlin, “Watch for More and More Medium- and Long-Range Missiles,” International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2001.

4. Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002), p. 73.

Greg Thielmann retired in 2002 as director of the Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs Office in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.



Intelligence: The Achilles Heel of the Bush Doctrine

Gregory F. Treverton

There is not yet a clearly articulated “Bush doctrine” of national security. Yet the pointers so far, especially the victory in Iraq, suggest the shape of one that is stunning in its ambition. Focused on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the emerging Bush doctrine is anticipatory, pre-emptive, and, if need be, unilateral. Yet the emerging doctrine is bedeviled at its core by legitimacy and capacity, including, critically, the capability of U.S. intelligence. Although the United States has the military power to take out whatever miscreant state it chooses, it still lacks the ability to precisely locate and pre-emptively target WMD, despite all the technical wizardry of its intelligence. Indeed, even determining whether a potential adversary, such as Iraq, is developing and deploying nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons will continue to prove difficult. Taking out a foe’s real or suspected WMD is likely to continue to require taking out the foe.

Parsing the Bush Doctrine

In his 2002 national security strategy, President Bush was explicit about acting first:

We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they can threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends. …To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively.

Or, as he put it more colorfully in his speech to the nation on March 19:

We will meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of fire fighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.

He had foreshadowed the new strategy in his speech at West Point in June 2002:

By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem; we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it.

In making its case for war, the administration did not point to a specific set of deployments or threats that would have constituted the grounds for “anticipatory self-defense” under international law. Instead, the administration argued that, given its nature, Iraq would pose a threat to international peace if it came to possess WMD—an argument that hinged on the link between the nature of the Iraqi regime and its internal and external behavior. As Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address, “The gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, democratic France might be trusted with nuclear weapons, but Saddam Hussein surely could not. He could not be deterred with any certainty. Nor could Saddam be trusted not to transfer weapons to other rogue states or terrorist groups, even though the evidence connecting Saddam to terrorism was weak at best. Thus, he had to be denied access to them. In Bush’s words: “We must work together with other like-minded nations to deny weapons of terror from those seeking to acquire them.”

The Limits to Muscular Pre-emption

Although it is logical to meet the WMD threat now with military force abroad so that first responders at home do not have to, the emerging Bush doctrine of pre-emption or preventive war places stresses on intelligence that it cannot bear. America’s capacity for “ISR”—intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—is unparalleled, truly in a class by itself. It is also improving rapidly. However, its shortcomings actually mirror the techniques used in enemy WMD programs. Existing ISR is not good at detecting objects that are hidden under foliage, buried underground, or concealed in other ways. Nor is it good at precisely locating objects by intercepting their signals. Would-be proliferators can exploit these weaknesses, taking pains to conceal their facilities or change the pattern of activities at weapons sites, as India did before its 1998 explosion of a nuclear weapon.

None of the limitations on U.S. intelligence-gathering capacity will ease dramatically, at least not soon. Progress is most apparent in locating moving objects using satellites and, especially, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—and, soon, expendable optical sensors launched from airplanes—though sorting out such objects from other “traffic” or ground clutter will continue to remain demanding. Predator and Global Hawk UAVs came of age in Iraq.1 They flushed out Iraqi air defenses, targeted missiles, and provided real-time video surveillance of every mission. The armed version of the smaller, lower-flying Predator fired more than a dozen Hellfire missiles, and it was a Predator operated by the CIA that blasted a car in Yemen last fall, killing a suspected al Qaeda operative and five others.

Locating and targeting moving objects better will surely be important at the opening of any war, especially one involving the possible use of WMD. That capability, though, will not greatly help the United States to pre-emptively destroy nascent WMD facilities. Other technical innovations in intelligence will help identify suspicious facilities in the future. Hyperspectral imagery, for instance, can contribute to what is called MASINT (measures and signatures intelligence) by permitting analysts to identify the composition of facilities and their emissions. But such capabilities remain limited today.

Reading the Intelligence Record

Iraq and North Korea point to the limits of the administration’s emerging national security strategy. Months of scouring have yet to produce more than possible husks of proscribed WMD in Iraq, demonstrating the limits of strategic intelligence. The United States’ tactical wartime intelligence was impressive, however. As in Afghanistan, with absolute air supremacy, U.S. intelligence had layers of sensors, from satellites to UAVs to the tactical intelligence aboard warplanes, supporting both advance special operations forces and advancing main force units. John P. Abizaid, whom President Bush has nominated to head U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 25, “Intelligence was the most accurate that I’ve ever seen on the tactical level, probably the best I’ve ever seen on the operational level, and perplexingly incomplete on the strategic level with regard to weapons of mass destruction.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations before the war contained indications of the range of U.S. sources, especially imagery and intercepted communications between Iraqi leaders.2 In intercepted communications, Iraqi officials spoke of concealing “forbidden ammo” and made references to “nerve agents.” Powell showed satellite photographs of buildings, said to be chemical and biological weapons bunkers, with “decontamination trucks” parked outside. Another set of aerial photographs, said to have been taken two days before inspections began in November, showed a convoy of trucks and a crane, which Powell said indicated pre-inspection “housecleaning.”

The latest advance in what used to be called “all source analysis”—that is, putting together indicators from the various intelligence sources, or INTs—and what later was called “fusion” is now “multi-INT.” It involves teams of computer-savvy analysts, using today’s robust communications capabilities, to very quickly put together satellite and aircraft imagery (or IMINT) with intercepted signals (or SIGINT) and any human-source intelligence (or HUMINT), such as defector reports or interviews with recently captured Iraqis.

One intelligence tip on the eve of the war resulted in the attack on Baghdad, which was targeted at Saddam—though that appears to have been a “single-source” tip from an individual. Throughout the war, the communications problems that had hampered U.S. operations in earlier conflicts, including Afghanistan, were much less in evidence. There was much better intelligence coordination between ground and air forces, enabling air strikes against enemy ground forces with fewer casualties to friendly forces.3 In the fog of war, American forces were occasionally surprised and sometimes made mistakes, but U.S. intelligence told them where enemies were and allowed them to target foes with precision weapons to a degree unprecedented in the annals of warfare.

Still, however the debate over prewar intelligence turns out, it was plain that U.S. intelligence was far from good enough to identify, let alone target, specific Iraqi biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons with any precision. Whether Iraq successfully hid evidence of its WMD, moved the weapons on the eve of the invasion, or didn’t have many to begin with, the United States could not locate weapons of mass destruction—before or after the war.

And, in many respects, Iraq was a convenient case if not an easy one. Not only had the United States and its intelligence been working on the country solidly for more than a decade, it also had been Iraq’s ally during Baghdad’s war with Iran. Iraq’s prominence among U.S. national security concerns ensured regular collection of all kinds against Iraqi targets, and U.S. analysis had a constancy and depth during the 1990s that distinguished Iraq from many others. Moreover, while weapons inspectors with the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, left Iraq in 1998, their years of work provided at a baseline for later efforts by the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC.

Pre-empting Against North Korea

The North Korea case is a harder one still for the would-be pre-emptor. As one illustration, U.S. intelligence has judged since the mid-1990s that North Korea had enough plutonium to build one or two hidden nuclear weapons.4 But it has had little idea where those weapons, if they exist, might be located in North Korea’s mare’s nest of underground tunnels.

The most recent North Korean crisis also serves as a reminder of how hard it is for intelligence to know of, let alone locate and still less target, incipient WMD programs. Over the summer of 2002, U.S. intelligence concluded that, in addition to its known plutonium facilities, North Korea was operating a covert uranium-enrichment program. The program apparently began in the late 1990s, but U.S. intelligence only confirmed its existence during 2001 by monitoring activities, such as North Korea’s extensive purchases of materials for construction of a gas-centrifuge enrichment facility. The CIA contended in November 2002 that the facility was at least three years from becoming operational, but analysts believed that a completed facility could ultimately produce sufficient fissile material for “two or more nuclear weapons per year.”5

Sheer numbers and warning time compound the problem of taking out North Korea’s WMD. For delivery vehicles, it has an estimated 12,000 artillery tubes and 2,300 multiple rocket launchers that, from their current emplacements, are capable of raining 500,000 shells per hour on U.S. and South Korean troops. Five hundred long-range artillery pieces are able to target Seoul, which is only about 20 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.6

By one estimate, much of North Korea’s forward-based force is protected by over 4,000 underground facilities in the forward area alone, including tunnels under the demilitarized zone that would enable the North Koreans to rapidly insert forces behind the defenders. Warning times for U.S. and South Korean forces would be short—24 hours or less—if North Korea invaded using this forward-leaning posture.

Not surprisingly, recent history is also cautionary about pre-emption. The last major nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula erupted in 1993, when North Korea was caught extracting bomb-making plutonium from spent reactor fuel produced by its 5-megawatt research reactor at Yongbyon. The United States came close to war, and there was much talk in Washington and Seoul about “surgical strikes” against these nuclear facilities. In the end, the Clinton administration took the path of negotiation. Given the proximity of the North and its weaponry, the death toll from war could have run into the hundreds of thousands, with large-scale casualties among the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea. The eventual result was the Agreed Framework of 1994, under which the United States agreed to provide fuel oil and two light-water reactors in return for North Korea suspending its nuclear program.7 The Bush administration, however reluctantly, is likely to be forced down a similar negotiating path when dealing with Pyongyang.

International Inspections

The cases of North Korea and Iraq suggest both the value and the limits of on-site inspections, such as those conducted by UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in buttressing national intelligence. On the down side, no system of international inspection can be foolproof, not least because nations can dismiss the inspectors, as North Korea did with the IAEA late last year. And inspectors will almost always be too few in number and too limited in their ability to conduct surprise inspections anywhere in a country. UNSCOM’s years of inspections in Iraq in the 1990s were a cat-and-mouse game, a constant struggle between Iraq’s restrictions and UNSCOM’s struggle against those restrictions.

Indeed, according to one analyst, it would not be possible to verify a North Korean commitment to freeze or dismantle its uranium program.8 Instead of running 3,000 centrifuges at one site to produce several bombs’ worth of uranium per year, groups of centrifuges could be hidden in some of the country’s thousands of caves. Unlike North Korea’s declared plutonium production facilities, whose locations are known and whose operation can be detected by satellite, much of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program appears to be out of sight at indeterminate underground locations. With centrifuge enrichment technology, there is much less need to centralize production at a single site than is the case for plutonium production, so it is more difficult to determine whether a country has acquired the requisite equipment.

Yet the contrast between the two countries also suggests the value of on-site inspection. There is little baseline data on Pyongyang’s nuclear activities. In contrast, although the UNSCOM inspectors were harassed, they did fan out across Iraq for seven years, from l991 through l998, visiting both declared and undeclared sites. In contrast, IAEA inspectors conducted only one routine inspection of North Korea’s declared nuclear facilities, and that was 10 years ago.

Other circumstances no doubt will circumscribe how closely U.S. intelligence can cooperate with international inspectors, but the experience in Iraq drives home the desirability of doing so when possible.9 As the prospect of war loomed, the earlier sensitivities about information sharing between U.S. intelligence and a UN body, UNMOVIC, diminished. U.S. U-2s, along with other allied aircraft, began flying reconnaissance for UNMOVIC, giving the inspectors much more capacity to see developments at suspected facilities over time.

If the United States contemplates preventive or pre-emptive action, in principle it will want the widest possible international support and authorization for doing so. Yet, as the Iraq example demonstrated, that is precisely what it cannot get. The problem arises not from the fecklessness of the UN but rather from asking nations to take hard, potentially dangerous decisions about dealing with threats that have not yet materialized, and whose imminence is a matter of judgment.

In those circumstances, the United States will want to make the best case it can. Ideally, it will want an “Adlai Stevenson moment,” a moment like that in 1962 when the U.S. ambassador to the UN brandished incontrovertible images of Soviet missile bases in Cuba taken from a U-2 spy plane. Otherwise, even if intelligence is good enough to undertake the military pre-emption, the United States will run the risk of looking like a bully who wants rules to apply to others but not itself.




1. Eric Schmitt, “In the Skies Over Iraq, Silent Observers Become Futuristic Weapons,” The New York Times, April 17, 2003. The various UAV programs are comprehensively surveyed in a new CRS report. See Elizabeth Bone and Christopher Bolkcom, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress,” (Washington: Congressional Research Service, April 25, 2003).


2. Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus, “Satellite Images, Communications Intercepts and Defectors’ Briefings,” The Washington Post, February 5, 2003.


3. Ronald O’Rourke, Iraq War: Defense Program Implications for Congress, (Washington: Congressional Research Service, June 4, 2003), pp. 59-60.


4. See U.S. National Intelligence Council, “Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat Through 2015,” December 2001, at https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/missilethreat_2001.pdf.


5. “CIA Report to the U.S. Congress on North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Potential,” November 19, 2002, as published at http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/nuke/cia111902.html.


6. Willis Stanley, “From Vietnam to the New Triad: U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Korean Security,” March 11, 2003 at http://www.nautilus.org/VietnamFOIA/analyses/StillValid.html#Stanley.


7. For background on the framework, see Jonathan D. Pollack, “The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework,” Naval War College Review, Summer 2003.


8. Henry Sokolski, “Contending With a Nuclear North Korea,” December 23, 2002, available at http://nautilus.org/fora/security/0228A_Sokolski.html.


9. Damian Carrington, “Spy Planes ‘Significant’ Boost to Weapons Inspections,” The New Scientist, February 17, 2003, available at http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993399.



Gregory F. Treverton is a senior analyst at RAND and associate dean of the RAND Graduate School. He was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council in the first Clinton administration, and his Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information was published in 2001 by Cambridge University Press.






Blair Faces Fight Over Intelligence on Iraq

Kerry Boyd-Anderson

While the Bush administration faces congressional hearings on the use of prewar intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is fighting for his political future as questions arise over the failure to find any clear evidence of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq.

The recent controversy revolves around a dossier Blair released in September 2002 detailing Iraq’s alleged efforts to continue developing biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Blair cited Iraq’s pursuit of such weapons as the primary justification for the U.S. and British invasion of that country. The dossier was approved by the Joint Intelligence Committee, which includes the heads of the British intelligence agencies and provides assessments to the prime minister.

Although some skeptics questioned the dossier’s claims from the beginning, the current row began in early June when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) quoted “a senior British official” saying that Blair’s office had revised the September dossier “‘six to eight times.’” In particular, the unnamed official criticized the prime minister’s office for including information in the report—“Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government”—claiming that Saddam Hussein’s military planning would allow for some of his chemical and biological weapons “to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.” According to the BBC, the official said the intelligence services had not included that statement in the original draft because of doubts about its reliability.

The debate over the September dossier follows earlier disclosures about another report released in February on Iraq’s attempts to deceive inspectors. That dossier included 12-year-old information copied from a thesis by a U.S. graduate student.

Blair has forcefully denied that his office tampered with the evidence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs or that there is any serious breach between the intelligence community and the Cabinet.

In response to concerns over the use of intelligence by the Blair government, the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee are launching investigations. Opposition leaders also called for an independent inquiry, expressing concern that the two committees would not be objective. The Intelligence and Security Committee, in particular, reports to the prime minister, who decides whether to make the committee’s reports public. The opposition, however, lost a June 4 vote to hold an independent inquiry 301-203. Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith also asked Blair to release the original dossier that the Joint Intelligence Committee provided before it was publicly released in September; Blair has so far refused to do so.

Blair has offered full cooperation with the investigation by the Intelligence and Security Committee, promising to provide the committee with all Joint Intelligence Committee reports and to publish the parliamentary committee’s final report. Blair insists that more time is necessary to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but that they will be be found.


While the Bush administration faces congressional hearings on the use of prewar intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, across the Atlantic...


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