Two wrongs don't make a right
In Israel, the defense establishment is burying its head in the sand and refusing to admit a colossal mistake.
"It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong," U.S. President George W. Bush said last week, prior to Thursday's parliamentary elections in Iraq, thus aligning himself with what America has considered an indisputable fact for some time now: There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bush believes that the offensive was justified despite this mistake. The debate on this question is only beginning, but he already closed the argument about the intelligence failure: "As president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq. And I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities. And we're doing just that."
And here is what he said about other intelligence services, including those of Israel: "When we made the decision to go into Iraq, many intelligence agencies around the world judged that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction." Indeed, many top intelligence and army officials in Israel still insist: "We said this at the time and we were not mistaken. The Americans are the ones who are making the mistake now."
Here is an interesting version that does not worry the public in Israel, in the absence of a public debate over the war in Iraq. These senior officials, who are intimately familiar with Israeli intelligence material, still believe that Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction. Not nuclear weapons, of course. Israel never made this claim. The Americans indeed erred in inflating the insubstantial information on nuclear plans. But there were chemical and biological weapons. And if the Americans have decided otherwise, especially for political reasons, they are now making a second error on top of the first error.
Some of these officials have shared their views with their American contacts. "Why didn't we find the weaponry?" the Americans asked. The Israelis told them politely: because most of it was transferred to Syria before the war. Such suspicions have been openly published. All the intelligence services in the West are familiar with photographs of trucks sneaking across the border at night, accompanied by senior Iraqi officers. The problem is that the moment Israel turns an accusatory finger toward Syria, it is immediately suspected of ulterior, political motives. "They can think whatever they want," an Israeli officer says. "Perhaps it is impossible to change their opinion, but it is also impossible to change the truth. Material was transferred to Syria in the dark of the night, on the very eve of the war. Therefore, the Americans did not find it." And this, as suggested above, is the more polite explanation.
The other explanation is expressed in more intimate circles in order to avoid irritating the American friend. But in the course of two weeks, I heard it from three different Israelis who were in positions that had access to intelligence during the war. Some of them are still serving in such positions. "They simply don't know how to search properly," said one. "Do you know how they searched? The forces were sent to a certain location and went into the field without a serious intelligence escort. If there was nothing found under the rock at this location, they simply went home, without bothering to turn over the adjacent rock," another said.
Some of these materials are still hidden in Iraq, the Israeli sources believe. Perhaps they will be found in the future. Maybe not. It is also not completely clear who knows where they are and who is controlling them. The Americans did not find the material transferred to Syria because they did not search there, of course. For many in the American defense establishment who opposed the war, it is very convenient that the material was not found. Thus they can take revenge against their rivals in the administration who disparaged them and ignored their recommendations during the months leading up to the war.
This all means one of two things: In Israel, in the absence of a comprehensive public discussion, the defense establishment is burying its head in the sand and refusing to admit a colossal mistake - a fundamentally wrong assessment of Iraq's non-conventional capabilities. Or, in the United States, due to troubling political circumstances, the public has formulated an opinion about the quality of intelligence material and has forced the administration to confess to an error that was much smaller than what the Americans had believed. "It is already impossible to change the public's opinion in America, unless a giant amount of chemical weapons were to be found suddenly. And the problem is that no one can search for it now," says an Israeli source. President Bush's hands are tied. In the current political circumstances, it is inconceivable for him to order that searches be resumed. In any case, a true, renewed discussion on the quality of intelligence information on the eve of the war will only be possible sometime later in the future, if at all.