Cover Story 10/14/02 Why War?
President Bush says Saddam Hussein is too dangerous to leave in power, but many question the rush to attack
BY KEVIN WHITELAW AND MARK MAZZETTI
Two months before Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990, U.S. News labeled Saddam Hussein "the most dangerous man in the world." At the time, the United States knew that he had a massive military machinethe largest army in the Middle Eastgrand regional ambitions, and vast stores of chemical munitions. He was spending billions on a program to develop biological and nuclear arms and exotic long-range-delivery systems. As it turned out, Saddam was even stronger than anyone knew. After the American-led coalition's swift victory in the Gulf War, it took weapons inspectors an additional four years to uncov- er the extent of Iraq's biological weapons program. They also found that Saddam was just a year away from reaching his holy grail: a nuclear bomb.
Now, 11 years later, Washington once again is contemplating war with Baghdad. But is Saddam still the biggest bad guy on the planet? Twelve years of economic sanctions have crippled his economy. His army is poorly trained and equipped, his air force virtually nonexistent. But Saddam continues his obsessive quest for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and many believe he is ruthless enough to use them. Since the September 11 attacks, aides to President Bush fear that Saddam might conspire with terrorists to deliver a new blow against the United States. "Our view is that the regime must be disarmed or destroyed," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage tells U.S. News. "The unrelenting drive to possess weapons of mass destruction brings about the inevitability that they will be used against us or our interests."
For the strongest proponents of war, removing Saddam isn't just about his weapons. Saddam, they point out, is a man who stocks his library with books on Stalin, supports Palestinian terrorists, and imagines himself as a messianic leader, the sword of the Arabs. Ridding the Middle East of Saddam, the White House believes, could transform the entire region. So, this week, Congress is again poised to give a president named Bush the sweeping authority to go to war. Still, the passion of the Senate debate suggests the depths of ambivalence over how much of a threat Saddam really posesand about the risks of war.
Guessing game. The administration's argument for war rests more on its judgment about Saddam's intentions than on hard evidence of advances in his military capabilities. Bush is not possessed of the kind of indisputable evidence that presidents have used to justify past wars. There are no photos of Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait. There isn't the equivalent of the U-2 surveillance photos that revealed Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. The administration may still offer new information as the president and his senior advisers make the case this week for the use of force against Iraq. But nearly a dozen intelligence officials throughout the U.S. government tell U.S. News that they know of no new secret information that would suggest Saddam is on the threshold of a major breakthrough such as acquiring a nuclear weapon. Says a senior administration official: "This is not hinged on any imminent threat of an Iraqi deployment of weapons of mass destruction."
What has changed, apparently, is not the threat from Iraq but America's tolerance of it in the wake of 9/11. Much of the rest of the world, however, doesn't see Saddam as a clear and present danger, and Bush is having trouble convincing skeptical leaders that the risk of leaving Saddam to his own devices is so great that war is the only alternative.
One reason for the doubts is that the picture of Saddam's military might is incomplete. The threat assessment rests on judgments about what he might be able to do in the future. U.S. intelligence can do little more than guess when, and even whether, Saddam could develop a nuclear weapon. The received wisdom among several intelligence services is that, barring Saddam's ability to buy enough fissile material on the black market, Iraq's scientists would need several years before they could develop and deploy a homegrown nuclear device. "If left unchecked," says a new 25-page report released by the CIA late last week, "it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."
Power base. That assessment hasn't changed in several years. At a closed-door hearing last month of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Chairman Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, asked top intelligence officials whether there was any new information in the past six months about an increased or more urgent threat from Baghdad. Their answer, Graham says, was "not much."
There's another hitch. The U.S. intelligence community can't predict what forces a war might unleash. "We're looking at risks in acting now and risks in not acting now," says Gary Milhollin, who tracks Iraqi weapons for the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
What is known is that Saddam's power base is Iraq's brutal internal security organizations. His Special Republican Guard force of some 30,000 remains fanatically loyal and would pose a tough military challenge, especially in a scenario involving urban warfare in downtown Baghdad. Saddam's other stronghold is Iraq's underground scientific community, which Western intelligence agencies say is working harder than ever to build more weapons of mass destruction. U.S. intelligence services also have clear evidence that Iraq's global efforts to acquire components for weapons of mass destruction haven't slowed appreciably.
Beyond that, the particulars of his arsenal remain a mystery. Ever since U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998, the United States has been forced to track Saddam's weapons program with imagery taken from spy satellites and from aircraft flying over Iraqi territory. Those were the same techniques used in the years before the Gulf War, and they missed the mark by a mile when it came to judging the progress of Saddam's quest for the world's most dangerous weapons. Administration hawks suspect today's intelligence estimates are not much better. "When people say, 'Why now?' they imply that somehow it will be better later," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz tells U.S. News. "We don't know when it will be too late with Saddam, and he's dangerous already."
A surprising amount of the intelligence-gathering involves guesswork. Without inspectors on the ground, the CIA and the Pentagon train satellites on so-called dual-use facilities around Iraq to assess whether the plants might be producing chemical or biological weapons. One intelligence official describes the method this way: "We know where his fertilizer plants are and can judge how much fertilizer is actually needed for Iraqi agriculture. If there are more trucks going in and out of the plant than are needed for fertilizer production and distribution, you begin to ask yourself, 'What, exactly, are they producing?' "
Any judgment about Saddam's current arsenal starts with what U.N. inspectors were able to learn about what he had at the end of the Gulf War. From there, intelligence officials subtract the large amounts destroyed by inspectors, then add back their projections of what Iraq might have been able to build clandestinely since. Not surprisingly, the result is a series of wide-ranging estimates. "Either Saddam is a threat now or he's not and our intelligence agencies, at $30 billion a year, should be able to tell us that," says Milhollin. "They're not, so we have to act on assumptions."
Iraq's chemical weapons program is best understoodbut it's also the least threatening because chemical agents are chiefly a battlefield weapon that U.S. troops are equipped to deal with. Iraq liberally fired artillery shells filled with mustard gas, sarin, and other nerve agents in its eight-year war against Iran. And Saddam proved his brutality by turning the same weapons on his own Kurdish population in 1988.
Iraq's biological arsenal is more worrisome. Saddam produced a range of agents from anthrax to botulinum toxin, one of the deadliest known substances. As weapons of terror, these agents are easy to make and could kill thousands. But biological weapons are very difficult to wield, and intelligence officials are split over the quality of Saddam's technology to deliver them. U.N. inspectors believe that before the Gulf War, Saddam fielded biological agents in warheads on long-range missiles. But these systems were primitive, and most of the deadly agent would have burned up on impact. Though Iraq has continued its missile research over the years, it is unclear whether there's been much progress.
Iraq's missiles can carry chemical, biological, or conventional armaments. Saddam is believed to have just a few dozen long-range Scud missiles of questionable accuracy left over from the Gulf War that could threaten either U.S. forces in the region or Israel. "One good thing is that his current means of delivery are degraded," says a senior administration official. Iraq is working on extending the reach of its short-range missiles beyond what the U.N. allows. In addition, Iraq has been testing devices like drone airplanes, new artillery shells, and airborne sprayswhat the Pentagon calls "Saddam's science projects"to better disperse deadly agents. In particular, the CIA reports that Iraq has modified a Czech-built L-29 unmanned aerial vehicle. Such a weapon might have little use in a battlefield scenario, however, given superior U.S. ability to shoot down slow, low-flying aircraft.
The real fear is that Saddam might acquire a nuclear weapon. Iraqi scientists have the know-how to build a bomb; they lack only the enriched uraniumthe nuclear fuelwhich is the biggest stumbling block for any program. A British report last month on Saddam's capabilities judged that sanctions had so far stymied his efforts. "While sanctions remain effective," the report said, "Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon." But that sanctions regime, put in place after the Gulf War, has been disintegrating, and a thriving smuggling trade provides Saddam with new opportunities.
Shop till you drop. If Saddam managed to obtain enriched uranium on the black market, the CIA estimates it would take him less than a year to build a bomb. But obtaining that fuel isn't easy, and after more than two decades of shopping, Iraq has not found what it is after. Failing that, Iraq could enrich its own stock of non-bomb-grade uranium, but that doesn't appear to be an urgent threat. German intelligence says it would take three to six years, while the British say it would take at least five years.
One way to enrich uranium would be to use a centrifuge, a fairly primitive device. Saddam's pursuit of that route was at the center of a behind-the-scenes debate over the significance of a recent seizure in Jordan of aluminum tubes bound for Iraq. It is a case study in the difficulty of sorting and interpreting intelligence. Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that the tubeswhich U.S. News has learned intelligence officials believe came from Pakistanwere destined for use in an Iraqi centrifuge to enrich uranium. Privately, however, intelligence experts at the Department of Energy and the State Department dissented, arguing that the tubes were probably intended for use in conventional artillery systems. The debate continues, although administration officials insist that the consensus view of the intelligence community is that they were meant for the nuclear program. "What turnip truck do you think we fell off of?" says one. "There's no doubt about whether they could be used for gas centrifuges."
The bottom line for many in the Bush team is that Saddam is bound, at some point, to acquire a nuclear weapon. And the administration does not feel it can let that happen. "What puts the urgency in this is that we feel the strategic intelligence on Iraq might be pretty good, but the lack of tactical intelligence is what tripped us up on 9/11," says Armitage. "This president is not going to wait for an attack from Iraq."
Which raises another question: Would Saddam actually use any of these weapons against Americans? Least likely would be a straightforward missile attack with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Such a strike would bear Saddam's return addressand would prompt an immediate all-out assault to remove him. Experts on intelligence and Iraq are almost unanimous in their belief that survival is Saddam's first priority. "He won't engage in an activity that he knows with certainty will result in his death," says Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. One reason Walker and others are so sure: In the Gulf War, Saddam refrained from using his chemical or biological arsenal, largely because then President Bush made it clear that doing so would bring an overwhelming American response.
A more likely scenario, one tinted by America's experience on September 11, is that terrorists would somehow gain access to weapons in Saddam's arsenal. Intelligence gleaned from the war in Afghanistan demonstrates how seriously al Qaeda has been pursuing these capabilities. Certainly there are places other than Iraq where terrorists might seek such weapons, including Pakistan or Iran. But Bush administration officials are convinced that Saddam would eagerly arm terrorists if he thought he could keep his involvement a secret. Top Bush aides including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld floated sketchy reports of Saddam's contacts with al Qaeda, suggesting this might be further cause for taking the war on terrorism to Saddam. But most intelligence officials are very skeptical that there is an active alliance. "What we've seen here is a gross politicization of the available intelligence, either presented in an intentionally skewed way or taking things that are true and presenting them in a way that's misleading at best," says one intelligence official.
Of course, Saddam wouldn't need to use nuclear weapons to be dangerous. Just the threat they pose could change the region's balance of power. "If he had nuclear weapons, he would see it as enabling him to resume his lifelong ambitionto dominate the Arab world, destroy the state of Israel, and punish the United States," says Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst on Iraq and top White House official.
Who knows? The sometimes-confused intelligence about Iraq doesn't just complicate the debate over whether to go to war; it makes it difficult for military officers to plan for war. Col. Tom Hyde heads Checkmate, the Air Force's planning office that has been trying to figure out how to neutralize Iraq's weapons; after all, the military wants to make sure Iraq doesn't use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. forces or allies. Yet given the spotty intelligence about where weapons are hidden, Hyde has more questions than answers. "What does he have? We're unsure," he says. "When will he use it or will he use it? We're unsure again. That's the thing I spend the most time scratching my head about." During the Gulf War, Iraq managed to fire off about 90 Scud missiles with conventional warheads at targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Yet this time around, the military has a fleet of unmanned Predator and Global Hawk drone aircraft that can scour western Iraq for Scud launchers and feed the targeting information to fighter planes. The Pentagon believes it can do a better job of playing defense against Saddam's depleted missile force.
One obstacle, however, is that many of the research labs and storerooms for Saddam's weapons program remain hidden. When President Clinton launched a four-day bombing raid of Iraq in 1998 to destroy Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction program, strike planners could identify so few sites that only 11 of the 97 targets were related to his weapons program.
Even if the Pentagon can find the sites, many are concerned that airstrikes might disperse deadly agents into civilian areas or close to U.S. forces. Intelligence confirms that Saddam has located many of the chemical and biological production facilities in densely populated areas, which could be put at risk if they become targets of the U.S. Air Force. Much of his production is now done in mobile laboratories that one official likened to "ice-cream trucks." And then there's what military offi-cers sometimes refer to as the "Samson scenario": If Saddam were attacked and thought he was going to be killed, he might then loose his arsenal and bring the temple down around him. "We're moving ourselves into a self-fulfilling prophecy," worries one intelligence official.
So is Saddam still the most dangerous man in the world? Many experts don't see him as the most urgent threat. "In my judgment, international terrorism is a much greater and more urgent threat to the people of the United States than Saddam Hussein," says Senator Graham, who receives regular classified briefings as head of the intelligence committee. A war with Iraq, he and others argue, could jeopardize further progress in taking out al Qaeda. In recent months, the United States has made good headway in the war, capturing a number of al Qaeda operatives with the help of foreign intelligence services. That cooperation could be put at risk. In particular, U.S. intelligence officials worry that a unilateral attack by the United States or a bloody, prolonged conflict could destabilize shaky governments in places like Jordan and Pakistan, two key allies in the war on terrorism.
Even when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, Iraq is not the most capable country among those in Bush's "axis of evil." North Korea already has one, and perhaps two, nuclear weapons, according to the CIA. It is also the world's most active proliferator of missile technology, a fact that helped justify the Bush administration's push last year for a missile defense system. And Iran is the worst offender on the short list of state sponsors of terrorism. "In terms of the lives of America's sons and daughters, Saddam does not pop up to me as the greatest threat," says Greg Thielmann, who just retired from running the proliferation office at the State Department's intelligence bureau.
In the end, a surprising amount of the threat assessment about Iraq comes down to a psychoanalysis of Saddam. The dictator is widely seen as pathologically aggressive and completely remorseless. That he surely is. In 1982, a small band of armed attackers sprayed Saddam's motorcade with gunfire as it passed through the village of Ad Dujayl, killing several bodyguards, but missing the main target. As Gen. Najib al-Salhi, once a leader in Iraq's Republican Guard, recalls, Saddam rounded up and killed scores of families in the village and burned down their homes. As a final message to those who might challenge his rule, Saddam had all the village's date trees chopped in half.
Cornered. While most Saddam watchers agree he is ruthless, they insist he is not crazy. "He is a rational and political calculator who can reverse himself on a dime if his regime is threatened," says psychologist Jerrold Post, who used to profile Saddam for the CIA. "But he can become extremely dangerous when he is backed into a corner."
Another risk is that Saddam's regime of fear is so enveloping that his aides withhold information he does not want to hear. "Saddam consistently miscalculates catastrophically," says Pollack, who lays out a case for war in his new book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. "He takes actions that he does not realize are suicidal." Saddam has intimidated, tortured, and even killed so many advisers that he remains surrounded by sycophants. David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector, recalls a Foreign Ministry official telling him about a meeting with Saddam soon after the Gulf War where the Iraqi leader asked his advisers if he really had to comply with U.N. inspections. His aides, petrified to respond, remained silent. Then one official finally spoke up, timidly reminding him that Iraq had agreed to the inspections in U.N. resolutions. Hours after the meeting, he was told that Saddam had sent him a present. Fearing the worst punishment, he found instead a Mercedes, with a note thanking him for speaking honestly. The Mercedes had been stolen from Kuwait.
That sort of unpredictability can cut both ways. What is known about Saddam Husseinand the fear of the unknown is proving to be a persuasive and powerful argument to a nation still haunted by September 11. Says Pollack: "We just don't know exactly when he is going to get a nuclear weapon and we just don't want to be wrong."