Charles Duelfer says it's a gratifying though sometimes odd experience to have his name associated with the search for weapons of mass destruction. Because he was the principal author of the Iraq Survey Group's final report, in 2004, the document became known as the Duelfer Report. Before that, he spent years working for the United Nations and for American intelligence agencies on Iraqi weapons issues. Duelfer recently spoke with U.S. News about his new book, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, which chronicles more than a decade of his trying to better understand Iraq. Excerpts:
With time, have the issues surrounding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction become clearer or more cloudy?
Things are clearer because we could understand somewhat how Saddam [Hussein] understood the universe. It was difficult to understand that Saddam would do things for irrational reasons; he would do things that were at cross-purposes. He would say he had no WMDs to some and say that he did to others. When I sat in on the debriefing, he told us that he had multiple audiences and was worried about the Iranians and others. It's clearer, but it's clearly complicated.
How were we so confused about Iraqi motives?
We lost a lot by not having an embassy in Baghdad. I was one of the only senior U.S. officials going in and out of Baghdad in the late 1990s, even though I had my U.N. hat on. And I never realized until later how unique my knowledge of Iraq was. You'd think that understanding Iraq was as easy as understanding what was going on in the head of one guy. Now, that one guy was a pretty weird guy. The people in Washington knew little about Baghdad and had a cartoon view of what was going on. I fear that we have the same view of Tehran and North Korea now.
Were there greater misjudgments than the weapons of mass destruction reports?
The Bush administration elected to believe and use the intel community's assessments on WMD, where they were largely wrong, but refused to use the assessments of the internal dynamics of Iraq, which turned out to be right. The second decision by the administration turned out to be far more costly. The decisions that were made about what to do post-conflict seemed to be driven primarily by the external opposition, notably Ahmed Chalabi. Had we pursued the path that the administration articulated before the war, that they only wanted Saddam and his sons to leave the country, that would have been a far easier goal. In the end, the CIA was prohibited from doing post-conflict work, which was a surprise. Then to fire the [Iraqi] Army and to tell the technocrats that they have no future in Iraq were manifestly wrong decisions, which was knowable in advance.
How could they have been so wrong?
The intel community is always going to make mistakes. Why were we so far off on the WMD assessments? Lots of that goes back to the United Nations. For years, the Iraqis lied and dissembled, and the assumption was that they'd continue to do that. There was a good reason for us to distrust them. Then this character [and CIA source] "Curve Ball" was telling everyone exactly what they expected and wanted to hear.
You write that Washington's behavior after 9/11 puzzled Baghdad.
The Iraqis could not understand why the U.S. didn't see the value in reconciling with Baghdad [after 9/11]. The Iraqis thought that things lined up: They were Western-leaning; they were secular; they were in the heart of the Middle East; they have huge oil resources. Iraqis would make quiet entreaties through me and others to the White House saying that they would be our best friend in the region, bar none, if only Washington would talk. Remember, Saddam Hussein made his name in the region as the only guy standing up to the U.S., recognizing that you are judged by the size of your enemies, but he could have easily also enjoyed the prestige of being allied with the U.S.
You write that the WMD issue was also puzzling to the Iraqi leaders.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam used 101,000 chemical munitions, which was no secret. The U.S. once in a while would peep and say chemical weapons were bad, but at the same time we were giving Saddam intelligence that laid out where Iranian troops were massing. Then he would gas the living daylights out of them. If you're Saddam, you wonder: How is it that between August 1990 and April 1991 the U.S. became so interested in weapons of mass destruction?