Twenty years since the invasion in Iraq: why were the weapons inspectors ignored?

4 mins read

Robert Kelley with scientists from the French Atomic Energy Commission’s military applications division (CEA-DAM), during inspections in Iraq, December 2002. Photo: Petr Pavlicek / IAEA

Twenty years ago today, the United States and its allies disregarded the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) expert weapons inspection team and went ahead with a military invasion of Iraq. Uttryck meets with Robert E. Kelley, former Deputy for Analysis of the IAEA Action Team, virtually from Vienna to talk about the months leading up to the invasion. 

Robert E. Kelley is a former nuclear weapons analyst at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory and IAEA Director of the nuclear inspections in Iraq in 1992 and again in 2001. He is now a Distinguished Associate Fellow at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

– I want to make sure I say it, the Iraqis were very cooperative. You’ll hear a lot of people who weren’t there saying that they weren’t or that they were hiding things, that was not true. Back in 1990-1991 there was a lot of obstruction, but in 2002 they cooperated very, very much. 

On the morning of March 20th, 2003, President George Bush gives the order to strike Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s ties to the terrorist organization Al Qaeda and his alleged possession of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are said to be a direct threat to the United States and its allies, despite being unable to provide evidence for either claim. Robert E. Kelley, former Deputy for Analysis of the IAEA Action Team, says that ignoring the expert weapons inspectors proved to be a fatal mistake.

You mention that the Bush administration relied on false evidence to justify the invasion, pointing to dated information and satellite images from desk-bound analysts. Why were the reports of the eyewitnesses in the field ignored?

– I’ve thought about it a lot, and looking back on it our communication was not that good. We collected a lot of information, we analyzed it carefully, but we didn’t summarize it. When [Director General of the IAEA] ElBaradei said that the IAEA inspectors found that the aluminum tubes were for conventional rockets, and not centrifuges used for nuclear weapons, that was it. There were no details about the measurements or analysis we did in order to prove our conclusion, or that we had educated ourselves on them, seen drawings of them, found out how they were made, and knew their costs. Nobody said “this is why you should listen to these people”.

The story of the aluminum tubes, despite being concluded by the IAEA to be for conventional military use and not nuclear weapons production, was repeated both by President Bush in his January 2003 State of the Union address and by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his February 2003 briefing to the UN Security Council. Kelley describes how the IAEA intelligence fell on deaf ears. 

– As soon as we got the UN painted on our forehead, that really hurt. There was a pretty strong bias in much of Washington against the UN, especially in the more conservative side of the government. At this time, John Bolton was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs in the Bush administration, and famously stated that if the UN Secretariat building in New York “lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”. So we knew that we were sending information in the wrong direction and that it wasn’t going to be received. 


Two USMC AH-1W provides close air support during Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

In your opinion, what was the level of credibility and accuracy of the intelligence provided to the inspection team by the U.S. intelligence agencies prior to the US invasion in 2003?

– It was atrocious, it was wrong, it was out of date, and it was biased by people who had their own reasons for giving us information that wasn’t true. They allowed their political and personal opinions of the Iraqis to color the whole thing. George Bush wanted a war, so anything that they could use to start one was important. We had our first briefing from the CIA in the summer of 2002, that’s when it was becoming clear that we were going to go back, and they started showing us pictures of facilities. But we knew more about these facilities than they did, and they had labeled them all wrong. The first thing you gotta do is get their names and their functions straight, so we were getting real garbage.

An important source of information held high by the CIA were defectors such as Rafid al-Janabi, also known as “Curveball”, with perceived knowledge of the alleged Iraqi nuclear weapons programmes. What did he, and others like him, have to gain from providing dated or incorrect information to the U.S. and Germany? 

– They were anti-regime. They had left the country because they were no longer welcome, they had personal vendettas against the government and made up stories to make themselves seem important.

Yet, despite evidence pointing in a different direction, U.S. officials continued to publicly make claims about the Iraqi nuclear weapons of mass destruction and covert nuclear weapons programs in order to build public and diplomatic support for an invasion.

– I would say as clearly as possible that the invasion was not justified by the information at the time. 

How was the story of the aluminum tubes kept alive once there was evidence of it being used for conventional weapons, and not centrifuges necessary for nuclear production?

– The CIA knew an awful lot more than they were letting on. I once received drawings of the rockets the aluminum tubes were for, that the Iraqis wanted to copy, with the CIA fax number on the edge of the document. Then the guys in Washington want to tell you that these tubes cannot be used for rocket missiles. That’s when you know that you’re facing a very difficult problem, when somebody tells you that a rocket you’re looking at can’t exist. 

How do you feel now about the 20-year-mark of the war in Iraq, and what lessons can be learned from the inspection process and the subsequent invasion?

– You have to ask yourself questions like what lessons were learned, what was written down and who were the people who transferred through. I’ll give you an example, all the people involved in South Africa are either dead or retired like me. The agency didn’t write things down, but the answer to the Board of Governors was “our guys went to South Africa, they spent quite a few weeks there, they followed the right things, and the program is definitely dead”. That’s not enough detail. There should have been lots more documentation. So looking back on it now, all communications and documentation strike me as a big one.

The last U.S. soldiers left Iraq in 2011, ending a military mission that destabilized much of the Middle East and left hundreds of thousands Iraqi civilians dead. No evidence to support the claims of a covert weapons of mass destruction program were ever found. 

By: Lycke Holmén

Image: Petr Pavlicek / IAEA

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