Lowry baselessly pinned failures of Iraq postwar plan on faulty U.S. intelligence


In an August 5 speech before the Young America's Foundation's National Conservative Student Conference, National Review editor Rich Lowry falsely blamed intelligence failures for America's lack of planning for a postwar Iraq. He asserted that intelligence agencies harbored a vision of Iraq as the "most sophisticated, modern country in the Middle East," but "we had no idea of the nature of Iraqi institutions and society, ... no idea the electricity basically didn't work."

But, while the U.S. intelligence community has been blamed for faulty reporting on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities, Lowry's assertion that the intelligence community failed to provide adequate warning about postwar Iraq is false: Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the CIA, the State Department, and other agencies produced detailed assessments of the challenges American forces would face in the aftermath -- from rebuilding critical infrastructure to shaping a future government. And, contrary to Lowry's suggestion, news reports indicate that the Bush administration and the Defense Department failed to take such assessments into account.

An October 17, 2004, Knight Ridder article suggested that the administration's failure to plan for the postwar situation in Iraq occurred despite a consensus opinion among intelligence agencies:

[T]he administration's planning for postwar Iraq differed in one crucial respect from its erroneous pre-war claims about Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and links to al Qaida. The U.S. intelligence community had been divided about the state of Saddam's weapons programs, but there was little disagreement among experts throughout the government that winning the peace in Iraq could be much harder than winning a war.

News reports have thoroughly documented attempts by intelligence agencies to warn the White House of the dangers of a U.S.-led occupation. These assessments make clear that the intelligence community was well aware of the state of "Iraqi institutions and society." In early 2003, for example, the CIA's National Intelligence Council -- "the Intelligence Community's (IC's) center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking" -- reported to senior administration officials that the White House's plan to institute democracy in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime represented a misleadingly "rosy picture," according to an August 14, 2003, Boston Globe article:

The intelligence community's doubts were fully aired to top Bush administration officials in the months before the war in multiple classified reports. The National Intelligence Council, which represents the consensus view of American spy agencies, reported to top policy makers at the start of the year [2003] that "what the administration was saying was a rosy picture," said a senior intelligence official who read the report and asked not to be named. "The report's conclusions were totally opposite."

In May 2002, the CIA began "what would become a long series of war-game exercises, to think through the best- and worst-case scenarios after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein," according to James Fallows's article in the Jan./Feb. 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. These exercises assessed the "risk of civil disorder after the fall of Baghdad" and led the CIA to doubt that a smooth transfer of sovereignty would occur in Iraq:

The CIA also considered whether a new Iraqi government could be put together through a process like the Bonn conference, which was then being used to devise a post-Taliban regime for Afghanistan. At the Bonn conference representatives of rival political and ethic groups agreed on the terms that established Hamid Karzai as the new Afghan President. The CIA believed that rivalries in Iraq were so deep, and the political culture so shallow, that a similarly quick transfer of sovereignty would only invite chaos.

The CIA reiterated its doubts in a March 2003 report to top policy makers, according to the August 14 Boston Globe article:

The CIA's March report concluded that Iraqi society and history showed little evidence to support the creation of democratic institutions, going so far as to say its prospects for democracy could be "impossible," according to intelligence officials who have seen it. The assessment was based on Iraq's history of repression and war; clan, tribal and religious conflict; and its lack of experience as a viable country prior to its arbitrary creation as a monarchy by British colonialists after World War I.

In April 2002, the State Department convened a similar effort: a task force to consider the questions likely to confront a post-Hussein Iraq. Thomas Warrick, special adviser to the department's Office of Northern Gulf Affairs, headed the Future of Iraq Project and called on the expertise of Middle East specialists at the State Department and the CIA, as well as numerous Iraqi exiles. The $5 million project ultimately produced 13 volumes of reports on a range of crucial issues: the rebuilding of infrastructure, the shape Iraqi democracy might take, the conduct of transitional justice, and the spurring of economic development. According to an October 19, 2003, New York Times article, the task force's conclusions mirrored those of the CIA:

Their findings included a much more dire assessment of Iraq's dilapidated electrical and water systems than many Pentagon officials assumed. They warned of a society so brutalized by Saddam Hussein's rule that many Iraqis might react coolly to Americans' notion of quickly rebuilding civil society.


The working group studying transitional justice was eerily prescient in forecasting the widespread looting in the aftermath of the fall of Mr. Hussein's government, caused in part by thousands of criminals set free from prison, and it recommended force to prevent the chaos.

Also, in January 2003, the Army War College, which studies military actions and provides detailed analyses of potential conflicts, produced a report warning that a U.S. occupation of Iraq would face "a number of unique challenges rooted in the special circumstances and political culture of that country":

Iraq political institutions have never been well-developed, and Iraq has a strong tradition of instability and violence in resolving political disputes. The instability was brought under control and violence institutionalized only after Saddam Hussein achieved power and established a regime of unprecedented brutality. Pre-Saddam instability may emerge in the aftermath of the dictator's removal. In particular, tensions among Iraqi religious, ethnic, and tribal communities are expected to complicate both the occupation and efforts to build a viable postwar government.

Reports from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research concurred with these conclusions, predicting that instability would follow the invasion and hamper the reconstruction efforts. Similar projections had surfaced in 1991 following the first Gulf War. Indeed, it was the prospect of "incalculable human and political costs" in a postwar Iraq that prevented former President George H.W. Bush from invading the country and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Then-secretary of state James A. Baker shared the senior Bush's reservations. "Removing him [Hussein] from power might well have plunged Iraq into civil war, sucking U.S. forces in to preserve order," Baker wrote in 1999. "Had we elected to march on Baghdad, our forces might still be there."

According to the October 17 Knight Ridder article, however, the current White House failed to heed such warnings:

A half-dozen intelligence reports also warned that American troops could face significant postwar resistance. This foot-high stack of material was distributed at White House meetings of Bush's top foreign policy advisers, but there's no evidence that anyone ever acted on it.

"It was disseminated. And ignored," said a former senior intelligence official.

An August 10, 2003, Boston Globe article painted a similar picture of the White House's reaction to the warnings, reporting that "intelligence officials, former military officers, and national security specialists" said the Bush administration cast aside such intelligence reports and "instead clung to the optimistic predictions of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group headed by Ahmed Chalabi, who left Iraq in 1958."

The Future of Iraq Project received similar treatment from the Defense Department, according to a November 2, 2003, New York Times Magazine article:

[T]he Defense Department, which came to oversee postwar planning, would pay little heed to the work of the Future of Iraq Project. Gen. Jay Garner, the retired Army officer who was later given the job of leading the reconstruction of Iraq, says he was instructed by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to ignore the Future of Iraq Project.

Garner has said that he asked for Warrick to be added to his staff and that he was turned down by his superiors. Judith Yaphe, a former C.I.A. analyst and a leading expert on Iraqi history, says that Warrick was ''blacklisted'' by the Pentagon. ''He did not support their vision,'' she told me.

Deputy secretary of defense Paul D. Wolfowitz has since acknowledged in a July 23 Washington Post article in that in their postwar planning, defense officials made several assumptions that "turned out to underestimate the problem."

From Lowry's August 5 speech before the 27th annual National Conservative Student Conference in Washington, D.C.:

LOWRY: Our intelligence community is not where it should be, obviously. And I think George Tenet should have been fired [as director of Central Intelligence] on September 12. And I think it was a travesty that Bush gave him -- what did he give him? The Medal of Freedom? It's just a joke. And by any measure that was an intelligence failure.

And everyone focuses on the intelligence failure in Iraq having to do with weapons of mass destruction. But in some ways the more costly error was we had no idea of the nature of Iraqi institutions and society. We had a picture of Iraq prior to 1991, or maybe earlier, where, you know, it's the most sophisticated, modern country in the Middle East. Instead, we get there and there's no functioning government, and Saddam for 10 or 15 years had done everything he could to prop up fundamentalist Islam and to prop up the tribes. So the theory of the war was you go in there, cut the top off the government, then you have this government kind of working there, nicely functioning, the police are on duty, and then you replace someone at the top and you leave and the story's over.

It wasn't anything like that, and that was an extremely costly error. We had no idea the electricity basically didn't work. I mean, things that you'd know by walking down the street, we did not know, and it's been extremely costly. And I just don't have great hopes for intelligence reform because what it requires is a whole different culture. And that's much harder than shifting around boxes, as we did to create this national intelligence director.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.