Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Operation Desert Snipe

The Snipe Hunt is an American folk tradition, a rite of passage for the novice outdoorsman ... an elaborate practical joke which ends with the initiate crouching alone in the woods, in the dark, literally "holding the bag", waiting for the nonexistent Snipe.

What if we sift through all the sand in Iraq without finding WMDs? (That means hundreds of tons, as advertised ... not lab samples, training rounds or inventory strays.) We're alone in the woods, in the dark, holding the bag. Paraphrasing NYT's Tom Friedman, we will have gone to war on the wings of a snipe.

Too early to call it a night. It's a big desert, our last candle hasn't flickered out, and the mocking call of the snipe still echoes hauntingly in the distance, but ... the original standard WMD thesis is strictly defunct.
Saddam Hussein had extensive, active, advanced, clandestine chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. UN inspectors couldn't find WMDs because they were inept, or corrupt, or because Saddam played the shell game so masterfully. US intelligence pinpointed dozens of high-value target sites, hundreds of intermediate-value sites and thousands of low-value sites. Chemical and perhaps biological weapons were deployed to commanders in the field, who had orders to use them against invading Coalition forces. Special Forces teams were dropping in to secure and neutralize high-value sites in advance of the ground assault, with high-tech analytic Mobile Exploitation Teams (MET's) close on their heels.
Six weeks ago, it was beyond the pale to suggest otherwise. Today the man in the street doesn't exactly care much about WMD's ... but he's curious. The men in the hawk's nest -- and some of their media enablers -- care a lot. Alternative explanations are being spun out so rapidly, they're not even kept on the same page.

In public, Bush and Blair -- as they must -- still insist WMDs will turn up. Behind closed doors, staff are obliquely, deniably huffing into trial balloons, testing branches of the contingency that never earned a spot of Rumsfeld's contingency sheet. What if there are no WMDs?

A Washington Post embed reports analysts here and in Washington are increasingly doubtful that they will find what they are looking for in the places described on a five-tiered target list ... strategy is shifting from the rapid "exploitation" of known suspect sites to a vast survey that will rely on unexpected discoveries and leads.

Come what may later on, Blair's dossiers, Powell's "solid intelligence", and Rumsfeld's "bulletproof evidence" are dead letters. C'est la vie, c'est la guerre.

Operation Desert Snipe is a marvelous case study in one of CP's pet themes -- collective self-deception. The plot spoilers were there all the time. "Everybody" was so sure, and so wrong. Down the page, we'll retrace the divergent arcs of evidence and attitude that brought us to this pass, and we'll sample some of the surviving alternative theses ... but first, a rundown of Truth or Consequences.

The joke is on us, but does it matter any more? We won, didn't we?

Yes, we won ... and yes, it still matters, else high officialdom wouldn't be clinging gamely to the original premise. And the PR labs wouldn't be working overtime testing damage control solutions.

From August's "what's all this frenzy about a war?", to September's "you don't introduce new products in August", through November's election victory over an opposition "soft" on Saddam, through the winter games of spinning Blix on ice, through Powell's PowerPoint prestidigitation in February, to a no-time-to-vote forced March, we plied the crowd with predictable fare. We loosened them up with liberation cocktails. We circulated tray after tray of Saddam-as-Hitler appetizers. We dutifully jotted down orders for commercial or strategic side-dishes. But the main course was always a grand sterling-covered platter of sizzling Snipe a la Bush.

No WMD, no War Powers Resolution. No WMD, no UN Res. 1441. No WMD, no Coalition of the Willing. No WMD, no Azores ultimatum. Everything hinged on Iraq's possession of WMD, and her intransigent refusal to give them up. Scratch the surface of any auxiliary casus belli, and chances are you'll find a circular argument: "Saddam is evil and dangerous. How do we know? Because he has WMDs. How can we be so sure he has WMDs? Because he's evil and dangerous."

"If she floats, she's a witch ... burn her at the stake! If she drowns, the poor thing's innocent." Did we go to war because Iraq failed a test she could only pass by surrendering artifacts she did not possess and could not reacquire?

Did we run Hans Blix off the case because he was ineffective? Or because he was too effective?

Why were we in such a hurry to dis-arm little Ali? Did we face an unacceptable risk that Saddam would pass nukes to terrorists? Or an unacceptable risk that the moment would pass without incident?

The Stakes
Bad enough if we were deceived. Worse if we deceived ourselves. Worse yet if we knew it all along, and deceived others. The downside is substantial. (Maybe that's why we never faced up to it.) We called the shot, we called it wrong, and there are consequences.
Intelligence impacts are unavoidable. We won't trust our own stuff ... and that uncertainty will cost us dearly somewhere down the road. Foreign agencies won't trust our stuff. Our several agencies won't trust each other. Buckpassing antics, and the leakage that goes with them, will intensify. Local law enforcement won't trust national intelligence. And we'll think twice before paying retail for Israeli intel "product".

Heads will roll ... first whistle-blowers, then scapegoats, then whole ranks of intel leadership will be laid waste for spinning or being spun, for twisting arms or caving in ... or for not caving in. Career professionals who played it straight are already alienated, retired or bureaucratically gulag'd.

Individual agents will get the idea it's just a cynical game, and cynically lower their resistance to temptation.

CIA Director Tenet makes a good fall guy (and he can be recycled as a West Bank special envoy). Powell is damaged goods. Despite appearances, parallel forces are converging invisibly on the Colossus of Rumsfeld. The whole neocon ideological aerie is destabilized, and we can't begin to guess how the surrounding ecosystem will adjust.

There will be investigations and hearings, for show and for real, for politics, for justice and for history. The unexcavated backlog of questions from 9/11 is still piling up. Dots will be connected. There will be spectacular disclosures, and quiet burials ... new Woodwards and Bernsteins and Deep Throats.

Intel community uprisings are inevitable. They're already underway in the UK, with the arrest of a deliberate leaker, and "fairly serious rows" at top level over intel findings "spiced up to make a political argument".

A considerable roster of familiar talking heads, prize-winning journalists and best-selling authors will see their reputations go up in smoke. (Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to slow them down a whit.)

France will laugh their collective derriere off, perhaps deriding us as a pathetic bunch of ketchup-eating attack monkeys!

UK (who signed on for disarmament, not liberation) may undergo regime change. So might Spain, Australia and eventually Italy. Partners in future coalitions will be harder to recruit.

Economic and legal consequences may ensue. Reparations? Who would enforce them? International trade bodies, perhaps. Torts? Bad cases make bad law, and the extended consequences for global rule of law (and hence commerce) may exceed expectations.

US no longer ranks as leading citizen in the community of nations. We're now the muscular, loudmouthed, gun-toting paranoid sot at the end of the block ... the new "serial miscalculator". Nobody wants us at their garden parties, nobody wants our opinion on neighborhood disputes, and nobody wants their kids to grow up to be like us.
What if "the goods" turn up later, neatly consolidated in a subterranean vault? The Coalition is almost as fully discredited. We wagered blood, treasure and sacred honor on the proposition that we knew what Saddam had, where he kept it, and how to prove it. We swore the stuff was field-deployed. We swore it all with a straight face ... the same face that now croaks "it is not like a treasure hunt".

Potential winners include presidential aspirants Bob Graham and John Edwards. Both hold minority seats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Graham in particular has hinted at improper variances between public and classified intelligence postures. He can't say much directly, but he may lure Bush into verifiable self-serving lies against the classified truth. (Bush, for his part, seems susceptible enough.) The rules of triangulation then change considerably.

We may learn to walk more humbly amid the wastelands of imperfect information and credulous social consensus. That's the big "we", all of us, given fresh object lessons in how wrong we can be when we're as certain as we can be.

Evidence and Inference
Last summer CP raised hackles by suggesting there was as much as one chance in a hundred that Saddam had already folded his WMD tent. On the eve of war, we put the odds at three in ten. (The estimate would have been higher, but we gave deferential weight to conclusions formed by reputable insiders.) Today the odds are better than seven in ten that Iraq had no significant WMD, and ten in ten that the standard thesis is false.

The possibility was always there, staring us in the face.
Technically, our affirmative case was far from conclusive. The net amount of WMD materiel acquired, less materiel destroyed or degraded, was always well within the margin of error for ordinary bulk inventory accounting. Foreign intelligence knew it, antiwar activists knew it, foreign press knew it, but US war fever mentality excluded it. The remainder of the case rested on mind-reading Saddam's perfidious intentions ... always a dangerous game.

Tactically, Saddam might have contrived to deal us a PR blow by covertly destroying residual stocks and inviting the inspectors in ... while preserving the ability to brew them up again later. [Only enriched nuclear material and biological seed cultures are physically compact and expensive enough to justify preservation.]

Strategically, Saddam had enough experience to appreciate the limited practical value of chemical weapons. Biological weapons were an expensive hobby. He certainly coveted nukes (whose strategic value increased tenfold when we went after Iraq and passed on North Korea) but his program was probably stalemated, and his options for using nukes were never as inviting as best-selling table talk pretended.

We really should have had a clue, shouldn't we? We did. Let's start at the shallow end of the open-source swamp.

Iraq told us they had nothing left. Take that with a large grain of salt ... the same officials swore "there are no infidels in Baghdad" ... but we played the same source cards high and low. When Saddam's in-law Kamel defected, we took his portrait of WMD programs straight to the bank. When Kamel told us the programs had been scrapped (as senior officials confirm in the post-Saddam era), we buried the story.

If we had a mountain of direct evidence, as claimed, Powell could have brought the Security Council more than a few shiny nuggets of fool's gold. He didn't.

More decisively, the very first week of renewed UN inspections produced unambiguous, direct categorical refutations of specific unhedged high-profile intelligence claims made by both US and UK.
Bush personally voiced specific accusations -- with supporting visual aids -- of "new construction" at Al Furat's former uranium enrichment plant. On-site inspection found no new construction ... only weathered rebar protruding from construction abandoned ten years earlier ... not the sort of thing you can readily counterfeit. Iraq suggested that corrosion on unprotected material gave it a different ("new") visual cast. Alternatively, improved high-resolution imaging capabilities may have exposed long present ("new") detail. Embarrassing either way.

Blair's Dossier fingered the al-Daura vaccine plant as a locus of resurgent bioweapons efforts. On the ground, no trace of anything resurging -- malevolent or benign. Again, politically-spun intelligence leads to embarrassment ... except for those who are incapable of embarrassment.
We were deep in the grip of war fever, and flashing neon warning signs of cooked intelligence went by the boards. Jane's Defence Weekly (2003-03-05) diagnosed a case of "incestuous amplification ... where one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation".

If we had a large portfolio of direct, reliable evidence, we should have fed UNMOVIC more than "shit, shit and shit" for leads. A single verifiable tip would have done wonders for US credibility, and would not have given away the store (unless the shelves were practically bare).

Did we share our best intel with UN inspectors? There is controversy on this point. We said we couldn't (UNMOVIC was bugged, inspections would be a tip-off, disclosure would spoil sources & methods or compromise targeting data, Special Forces would be put at risk). We said we had done ... at least for all high and medium-value sites. After-class chatter suggested neither was entirely true, and we never played straight with anybody, least of all ourselves.

The strongest inference flows directly from the infertility of US intelligence ... from the pattern of haystacks torched and needles not found when the ashes were sifted.
Suppose -- per the standard thesis -- Saddam had major WMD research, production, inventory and deployment programs. That implies thousands of incriminating points of presence ... physical artifacts, persons, documents, messages. And suppose -- again per standard -- that we had immense stocks of specific leads ... some direct, some inferential, but altogether thousands of points of interest.

We wouldn't expect a perfect match, but what were the odds that these two lists would not overlap at a single point? Not likely. After probing enough points of interest, we'd have to hit some points of presence ... even if our suspect list was cranked out by monkeys with typewriters.

Benchmark illustration: US troops have already discovered caches of US currency, approaching a billion dollars worth ... stumbling on them in unlikely places, without looking for them, quite by accident. In case Saddam had 1,000 times as much WMD as he had cash, we should have found some by now.
CP could elaborate the damning Bayesian statistics here, but it comes down to a simpler rule of thumb: if a proposition is true and important, it's highly probable you can prove it without resort to probability theory. A universe of stubborn, contrary facts was screaming for attention, and we turned a deaf ear.

A endless series of slapstick intelligence antics led up to Snipe Season's opening gun. Home-brewed ricin in London ... a balsa wood Drone of Mass Destruction ... missiles that "could hit the US" (provided they were shipped here first) ... forged uranium transfer documents and the aluminum tube follies ... "mobile labs" that on firsthand inspection proved to be food testing trucks ... an intel dossier plagiarised (typos and all) from student papers with times, places and conclusions changed to bolster the argument.

Categorical refutation of a single highest-confidence intelligence estimate should have premised a discreet inquiry. Umpteen such events in rapid succession should premise an Inquisition.

The follies continued after the ground campaign got underway. A warehouse full of SCUDs in one news cycle evaporated by the next. A "nerve agent" cache was a pesticide dump. Buried "chemical warheads" near a northern airfield failed the acid test. Likewise a half-rack of MLRS rockets. Special Forces broke down a terrorist camp in Kurdish territory and found recipes for "three kinds of chlorine gas" (probably the same three kinds you'd produce at home if you ignored the warning labels on household bleach). Numerous CW "finds" were defensive -- gas masks and atropine injectors -- and often past shelf-date.

No inspection regime can find everything ... but no concealment regime can hide everything either. UNMOVIC probed aggressively starting in December. Special Forces probed more aggressively prewar. There's no concealment regime left, we've probed scores of high-value targets, hundreds of medium-value targets ... and we are still batting 0-fer. At some point the question morphs from "Where are the WMDs?" to "How did we let ourselves swallow that WMD line without de-baiting it?".

Attitudes, Opinions, Reinvented Expectations
We've followed the arc of evidentiary inference from plausible surmise to untenable fixation. Now let's review the arc of opinion ... that's where we find the real smoking gun of collective gullibility.

From the beginning, prominent hawks described Saddam's WMD programs in great detail, and with uncompromising certitude ... but the evidence was classified, war proponents were not the most sober judges of risk and opportunity, and doubt lingered in the air like the scent of dead woodchuck under the porch.

A Labor Day sales blitz turned the tide. Cable news networks hopped on the bandwagon with "Showdown" this and "Countdown" that. Ken Pollack's Threatening Storm gave protective cover to more liberal, multilateral hawks. A light-weight space-age composite of auxiliary casus belli was molded to reinforce the creaky WMD superstructure. By weight of sheer repetition, Saddam grew bigger and deadlier. We've got to get him before he gets us!.

In February, "reluctant warrior" Colin Powell presented a WMD-rich case to the UN Security Council. CIA Director (and reputed foot-dragger) George Tenet sat behind him, vouching with his very presence. To those who hungered for conviction, this was the clincher ... though it consisted entirely of photos out of context, loose paraphrases of translations of dialect audio intercepts (also out of context), artist's renderings of things not seen, and offhand reference to evidence never presented.

For such worthies as Slate's Tim Noah and Fred Kaplan, "take the phrase 'nerve agents' out of the wireless instructions" was a smoking gun. [Your humble Provocateur found it no more dispositive than "take the phrase 'floppy disks' out of the database instructions".]

At this point, most hawks quit treating doves with anything resembling civility, and many "reluctant hawks" -- still rejecting the standard thesis -- bowed to fait accompli and found cognitive comfort in an array of even more inventive arguments in favor of war.

Two or three days before the shooting started, the winds of punditry shifted perceptibly. Talking heads openly hedged their bets ... musing aloud: "What if we don't find WMDs?". Candid speculation would no longer affect the outcome, but it could serve as a reputational safety harness.

In prewar press backgrounders, Special Forces were scheduled to drop in silently and secure key WMD sites in advance of the visible war. A full moon later, the past has changed a bit. Those plans disclosed on background? They never existed. We never expected quick results ... are you out of your mind? It's a big country ... not as big as Texas, but a mighty big country ... and there are thousands of places we haven't looked yet, and may not get around to looking for a year or more. And we don't expect to find anything by looking ... somebody will have to tell us.

Before the war, a majority of John Q. Public would have insisted on finding WMDs. Postwar, an overwhelming majority (6 or 8 of 10, depending which poll you like) no longer gives a hoot. We won, get over it!

Public expectations are still open to post-traumatic reinvention, especially if Iraqi democracy goes sour, shocks to national security crop up elsewhere, or the economy stays soggy. Which trumps which ... the "I've been had" effect? Or the "I'll be damned if I'm ever going to admit I've been had" effect?

Prewar or postwar, hawk, dove or undecided, man-on-the-street" opinion was remarkably uniform on one count. Everybody and his cousin assumed the Coalition was prepared to plant WMD evidence if necessary. Maybe everybody and his cousin sees too many movies. Or then again, maybe not.
... the CIA has exaggerated nearly all aspects of the WMD program in Iraq in order to support the administration. ... US planted Vietnamese uniforms and supplies in the Parrot's Beak area of Cambodia to make a case for the still secret war ... planted caches of weapons in Central America to justify and widen the war against the Sandinistas ... collaborated on a "finding" of boats on the Salvadoran coast in 1981 to link the FMLN to the Sandanistas ... essentially "planted" intelligence on the Papal Plot in 1985 and falsified a national intelligence estimate on Iran in 1986. (Mel Goodman, ex-CIA)
The planting prospect was -- and is -- discussed with remarkable openness. METs were composed with this concern in mind (though they excluded CIA -- the most independent branch). UNMOVIC is on the outside looking in, and Russia is reluctant to drop UN sanctions until UNMOVIC completes its mission.

Once the shooting war started, WMD "discoveries" were a breathless staple of war coverage.
CNN would tease a "disturbing new development". Judy Woodruff put on her best "disturbing new development" facial expression, cued "disturbing new development" theme music, and tossed it to Wolf Blitzer for a barrage of "smoking gun" overkill. An expert talking head popped up at the push of a button, reliably confirming "this looks like the Real McCoy", and internet message boards lit up with the cries of the gloat-hawk.

Every day, another "disturbing new development" quietly bit the dust. Rarely an obituary -- perhaps some mumble about "inconclusive tests". Slickly edited "smoking gun" video packages stayed in news rotation for hours or days after the respective spoilers came in.
Thirty days on, the news climate changed. After a virtual Olympiad of false starts, the smoking guns stopped smoking. Newshounds no longer salivated on cue, and damage control experts took over.

So we haven't found any WMD. There are plenty of reasonable explanations ... depending how warm the audience is. Try one of these on for size:
Saddam had WMDs, which were incinerated in coalition attacks. Funny, that's what Saddam said last time ... at least in part ... and we didn't buy it then. Probably true, in part ... but too convenient, on the whole.

We found WMD, but it's so secret we can't reveal it. Not credible ... not even if there's a Carlyle Group logo on every item.

WMD are hidden so well nobody has found them yet ... the "vault thesis". Incompatible with the standard thesis, and equally devastating to US intel reputation ... but faintly plausible. The goods could be consolidated in a relatively small volume. The technicians and forklift operators -- like Pharoah's pyramid architects -- could have been buried along with the goods. Saddam had the only key, and he's not talking. There are no seed cultures. (They'd require power supplies for controlled environments, and rotation of growth media.) There's no fissile material. (Gamma survey would find it despite shielding, and it there'd be a big, dirty production site somewhere ... US hasn't even figured out how to decontaminate its own WW II extraction facilities.)

Saddam slipped the goods across the border into Syria months ago. Unlikely from a number of perspectives, but plausible. Promoted by Israeli intel, which has its own agenda. Incompatible with the main corpus of prewar "solid intelligence", and suffers from most of the "vault thesis" plot spoilers.
There are a couple of late entrants in the reinvention derby. Most prominent is a report by NYT's Judith Miller, embedded with MET Alpha. In this version, an informant reveals that Saddam ordered all WMD destroyed just days before the war. So ...
Saddam brought a superpower down on his head rather than surrender these WMDs? Then he destroyed the same precious WMDs rather than use them against the superpower? As in the vault thesis, he does this without leaving major production-residue signatures. And ...

US intel was comprehensively wrong on every detail ... but coincidentally correct on the central premise ... but almost all of that evidence no longer exists. And ...

The story -- pre-cleared with the military -- reaches us through a chain of biased sources: a surprise witness (who tells us everything we want to hear, complete with an al Qaeda connection), one or more military intelligence operatives, and an embedded reporter who hasn't met the informant or seen any evidence, and who laid her reputational neck on the line with the WMD hawks a long way back.
Only a prize-winning, best-selling subject-matter specialist could get a piece like this printed in the Podunk Herald. Miller is a journalistic rock star -- deservedly so -- but she's stuck in the desert, holding the bag, waiting for the snipe, while a goddamn real biological terror -- SARS -- bounces around the globe. In short, this report walks like a fish, quacks like a fish, and smells like a fish.

On yesterday's Nightline, Ted Koppel spotted what may be a more promising explanatory trial balloon -- "all's fair in love and war". By this thesis, we were never serious about WMD. WMD was never anything more than a necessary selling tool for war. War was necessary and salutary as an "object lesson" to lesser beings, reminding them (for their own good) that the US is big and tough. Why now? "9/11 changed everything". Why Iraq? No special reason ... Iraq presented itself as an adversary of convenience. Koppel gathered unabashed supporting testimony from B-list neocon hawks, including former CIA Director Woolsey.

So no WMDs -- and no apologies! You've been had, John Q. Public, and it's for your own good! Same for you, Coalition of the Willing! A disturbing new development, but this looks like the Real McCoy! Over to you, Wolf ...