Could Iraq have hidden nuclear weapons programmes from the UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commision) inspectors?
Well, building a nuclear weapon is an immensely complicated undertaking. Is it possible to hide a weapon from the inspectors? Absolutely not. It would be detected. There’s no way Iraq could have built a bomb in secret. Is it possible for Iraq to have disguised technology that could be used for nuclear research? Yes, that’s possible, but that’s not a nuclear weapons programme.
But Iraq’s a big country.
We had forensic investigation capabilities: radiation is emitted and is easily
detected. And research and development requires infrastructure. You don’t do this in a cave or in a hole in the ground. You need a facility with access to electricity, water, road networks and homes. Factor that in and you find that actually, Iraq’s not that big at all.
What about hiding products, though?
Sure, but again you need road networks and storage facilities. It’s a big country, but it’s not an insurmountable problem.
Do you agree that a country should be able to launch a pre-emptive strike to avert a potential threat?
A couple things have to occur. One; you have to be within a framework of law. Alternative sources of mitigation must be attempted and exhausted. A pre-emptive strike must be the last recourse. Second, the intelligence can’t be questionable. No speculation or guesswork: just unimpeachable statement of fact. If you go in and fumble it, you’ve discredited the notion of pre-emption.
So important American sources like (head of the Iraqi National Congress) Ahmad Chalabi and (high ranking defector) Khidir Hamza weren’t unimpeachable?
Every intelligence source has to be evaluated. With technical intelligence, you need a database of imagery to compare with what’s happening on the ground. And human intelligence traditionally has some checks and balances built in. Does the source have access to the information he or she claims? Do they have a record of reliable reporting? Can the information be corroborated elsewhere?
But Chalabi and Hamza don’t pass any of the tests. Chalabi’s a known fraud with political motivations. He doesn’t pass the common sense test and his information not only fails to be corroborated by imagery and data: it’s contradicted by them. And yet they believed it anyway.
And Hamza was just an outright liar. He wasn’t who he said he was. He should never have been trusted. Ever. So I have no use for these gentlemen. I find them culpable in the deaths, not only of 560 Americans, but also over 60 British soldiers and 10,000 Iraqis.
What was the relationship between UNSCOM and the American intelligence services like?
UNSCOM is a creature of the American intelligence services. It was created with a two-fold purpose. First, it was part of a process to legitimise economic sanctions. Sanctions would be lifted if Iraq were found to be disarming, and the vehicle for determining compliance was UNSCOM. Clearly, you can’t have a finding of compliance come forward, because that wrecks your entire containment strategy, so UNSCOM was always seen by the US as a vehicle for sustaining Iraqi non-compliance.
It was also a vehicle for putting political pressure on Iraq by humiliating the Iraqi government, while collecting intelligence. From the very beginning, the CIA infiltrated the UN weapons inspections. When I came in to create an independent intelligence unit, the US opposed this, because they saw it as a direct threat to what they were trying to accomplish.
Isn’t it inevitable that govern-ments will sometimes be frustrated by the intelligence?
There’s always going to be a conflict. What’s required is integrity on both parts. A policy-maker should say “I want to review Iraq”, and intelligence officers should lay out all the data, not just what their bosses want to hear. The policy-makers review this, digest it, and formulate policy. It’s okay if it deviates from what they’ve been told, because it’s an educated deviation.
With Iraq, the policy-makers had already reached the conclusion that Saddam had to go, and turned to the intelligence community and said “create the evidence that backs this up.” And when you base your conclusions on unreliable or discredited sources, you’re pretty much saying that you have no reliable information.
We want cheap oil. But if you have an intelligence report that’s telling you that your policies are going to destabilise the Middle East, you should pay attention, or you’re going to get stung. And if you make a decision in the name of the people that elected you, that decision should be in their best interest, honestly reached and honestly described.
Can you explain your involvement with Operation Mass Appeal?
In the fall of 1997, UNSCOM was in a very difficult confrontation with the Iraqi government. The Iraqis said the inspectors were operating under false premises: that they were spying for the US and for Britain. And the Iraqis were dead right. But the inspectors were dead right too, because the Iraqis were not being totally forthcoming. So we found ourselves with a public relations problem. Normally we operate in the shadows. We didn’t want anyone to know who we were, or what we did.
But the Iraqis had gone public and world public opinion was tilting towards the Iraqis. So we did a couple things. We worked very closely with CNN and the CIA to produce a one-hour special called Impact. Then MI6 approached with a programme called Mass Appeal, where they take what’s known as unactionable intelligence. This is data without enough specificity for inspections: nuggets of information which could be of value if published in the press around the world, to change public opinion.
But during the Hutton Inquiry, they said that MI6’s job wasn’t to persuade the British public. Intelligence services shouldn’t be using data that may be inaccurate to sway public opinion. It’s one thing to carry out a covert programme in a target country, but to do it in your own home shouldn’t
The full version of this interview appears in this week's Friday Thing.