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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

U.S. Intelligence on WMDs in Iraq

Q: What was known to U.S. intelligence and Congress about WMDs in Iraq before the vote to go to war?

A: Senior U.S. intelligence officials believed, incorrectly, that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and germ weapons and was developing nuclear weapons. They also agreed Saddam Hussein wouldn’t give such weapons to terrorists unless attacked. Few members of Congress read the full 92-page report with all its qualifications and dissents.


What was "known" will no doubt continue to be debated by historians for a long time to come, but what senior U.S. intelligence officials said they believed was spelled out for House and Senate members in a top secret National Intelligence Estimate in Oct. 2002, just days before Congress voted on a resolution authorizing the Bush administration to use force against Iraq. The full report remains classified, but much was made public July 18, 2003, in a White House background briefing months after the fall of Baghdad.

Among the "key judgments" in the report was this:

NIE: We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.

All of that turned out to be wrong, as we now know. The reasons for this massive intelligence failure have been the subject of reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee and a bipartisan presidential commission.

One senator, Bob Graham of Florida, then chairman of the intelligence committee, has said that reading the full, classified 2002 NIE led him to vote against the war resolution. He had urged his colleagues to read the entire 92-page classified report prior to the vote. Graham said in a National Public Radio interview in June 2007 that he found the report to be "pocked with dissent, conditions, [and] minority opinions on a variety of critical issues."

Graham was one of the few who disbelieved the report’s conclusions, however. And it’s not at all clear that more lawmakers would have doubted it had they read the full report. The unclassified portions do make clear that not all intelligence agencies agreed on all points. The Department of Energy’s technical experts didn’t agree that some aluminum tubes bought by Iraq were for use in uranium-enriching centrifuges, saying they were more likely for use as rocket launchers. And the State Department’s intelligence experts said they saw no "compelling case" that Iraq had an "integrated and comprehensive" program to get nuclear weapons. But even the State Department skeptics saw evidence of "at least a limited effort to maintain and acquire nuclear weapons-related capabilities." And the rest of the intelligence community expressed "moderate confidence" that Iraq "is likely to have a [nuclear] weapon by 2007 to 2009."

Few members of Congress read all of those comments, however. The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest reported in 2004:

Washington Post: No more than six senators and a handful of House members read beyond the five-page National Intelligence Estimate executive summary, according to several congressional aides responsible for safeguarding the classified material.

In 2007 the Washington, D.C., newspaper The Hill surveyed current and former senators and reported that 22 of those who were serving in 2002 sent word they had read the full report. Since it would be embarrassing now to admit not reading it before voting on such an important matter, we suspect that number is inflated. But whether the true number is six or 22, it’s clear that only a small minority of the 100-member Senate read this important intelligence summary in full.

Among those who later admitted to not reading the full report were Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Chris Dodd, and Republican Sens. Sam Brownback and John McCain. All of them voted in favor of the war resolution, and all later ran for their respective party’s 2008 presidential nomination.

–Brooks Jackson


Director of National Intelligence. "Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction," National Intelligence Estimate October 2002. portions declassified, 18 July 2003.

Priest,  Dana. "Congressional Oversight of Intelligence Criticized; Committee Members, Others Cite Lack of Attention to Reports on Iraqi Arms, Al Qaeda Threat." Washington Post, 27 April 2004.

Healy, Patrick and Marc Santory. "Aide Says Edwards Misspoke on Reading Classified Iraq Report." New York Times, 1 June 2007.

Smith, Ben. "McCain and Dodd respond on NIE." Politico.com, 25 May 2007.

Raju, Manu, Elana Schor and Ilan Wurman. "Few senators read Iraq NIE report." The Hill, 19 June 2007.