As the U.S. prepared to go to war in Iraq last winter, the most compelling reason advanced by George W. Bush to justify a new kind of pre-emptive war was that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, chemical and biological arms weapons of mass destruction (WMD). "There's no doubt in my mind but that they currently have chemical and biological weapons," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in January. "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons," said Vice President Dick Cheney in March. That Iraq might have WMD was never the only reason the Bush Administration wanted to topple Saddam. But it was the big reason, the casus belli, the public rationale peddled over and over to persuade a skeptical nation, suspicious allies and a hostile United Nations to get behind the controversial invasion. And while that sales pitch fell flat overseas, it worked better than expected at home: by late March, 77% of the public felt that invading U.S. troops would find WMD.
But eight weeks after the war's end, most of that confident intelligence has yet to pan out, and a growing number of experts think it never will. Current and former U.S. officials have begun to question whether the weapons will ever be found in anything like the quantities the U.S. suggested before the war if found at all and whether the U.S. gamed the intelligence to justify the invasion.
For now, WMD seems to stand for weapons of mass disappearance. Smarting from the accusations that they had cooked the books, top U.S. officials fanned out late last week to say the hunt would go on and the weapons would eventually be found. CIA officials told TIME that they would produce a round of fresh evidence for increasingly wary lawmakers as early as next week. After dispatching dozens of G.I. patrols to some 300 suspected WMD sites in Iraq over the past two months, only to come up empty-handed, the Pentagon announced last week that it will shift from hunting for banned weapons to hunting for documents and people who might be able to say where banned weapons are or were. But it is clear that the U.S. is running out of good leads. "We've been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad," Lieut. General James T. Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said last week. "But they're simply not there."
Wherever they are, the missing weapons are beginning to cause trouble elsewhere. Overseas, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is under fire from critics for overstating the case for war (see related story). The accusations came at an awkward moment for Bush, as he began a seven-day diplomatic trip to smooth over relations in Europe and seek peace in the Middle East. Moreover, mistrust about the Iraqi intelligence was growing just as the Administration began to make a similar case against Iran. In order to defend the credibility of his agency, CIA Director George Tenet took the unusual step of issuing a statement last Friday dismissing suggestions that the CIA politicized its intelligence. "Our role is to call it like we see it, to tell policymakers what we know, what we don't know, what we think and what we base it on. That's the code we live by." Asked to translate, an intelligence official explained that if there was a breakdown on the Bush team, it wasn't at the agency. "There's one issue in terms of collecting and analyzing intelligence," he said. "Another issue is what policymakers do with that information. That's their prerogative."
One of the oldest secrets of the secret world is that intelligence work involves as much art as science. While it is difficult, dangerous and expensive to snoop on our enemies with satellite cameras, hidden bugs and old-fashioned dead drops, knowing what all that information really means is the true skill of intelligence work. The information is often so disparate and scattershot that it amounts to little without interpretation.
And interpretation has long been the speciality of the hard-liners who fill so many key foreign-policy posts in the Bush Administration. Unlike his father, who ran the CIA briefly in the mid-'70s and prided himself on revitalizing an embattled spy corps, George W. Bush dotted his foreign-policy team with people who have waged a private war with the CIA for years, men who are disdainful of the way the agency gathers secrets and what it makes of them. Working mainly out of the Pentagon, the hard-liners have long believed that America's spy agency was a complacent captive of the two parties' internationalist wings, too wary and risk averse, too reliant on gadgets and too slow to see enemies poised to strike.