In recent weeks, the Trump administration raised an alarm about Iran mounting missiles on boats in the Persian Gulf and potentially putting U.S. ships in danger. Citing intelligence about an increased threat from Iran, it sent B-52 bombers, an aircraft carrier and several warships to the gulf. The State Department last week also ordered a partial evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, citing an “increased threat stream” in the region.
As the drumbeat for war in Iran gets louder, I can’t help but recall the way intelligence was presented prior to the tragic 2002 vote in Congress to authorize war in Iraq. As the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee then, I read the intelligence carefully. I traveled to Britain to discuss it, and analysts there also validated it. Consequently, I joined 295 colleagues in the House and 77 in the Senate in a broad bipartisan consensus to authorize the use of military force.
I was reasonably sophisticated at the complicated business of intelligence, but it wasn’t always easy. Members of Congress basically have to play 20 Questions in order to get briefers to provide crucial information needed to make a decision.
The intelligence provided prior to the Iraq war was compelling.
In early 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations Security Council, assuring it that “every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources.”
He then showed satellite images purporting to reveal how Iraq had been concealing its weapons of mass destruction. He held up a vial meant to represent one teaspoon of anthrax, toxic enough on its own to kill several people, and claimed Saddam Hussein had enough anthrax to fill “tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons.”
He described Iraq’s “mobile production facilities used to make biological agents”: trucks and train cars where weapons could be produced in unprecedented quantities. He described Iraq’s alleged nuclear, missile and drone programs. Finally, he confidently drew links between Baghdad and Al Qaeda, in particular calling out a previously unknown terrorist named Abu Musab Zarqawi.
I have no doubt Powell believed what he was saying, but our intelligence turned out to be dead wrong, and I was wrong to vote to authorize the war. Thousands of American deaths and trillions of dollars later, Iraq is still a mess, which has permitted Iran to expand its malign reach throughout the Middle East.
Much later, Powell would call his U.N. speech a “great intelligence failure” and a “blot” on his record. Zarqawi, whose name was mentioned in the speech 21 times, would go on to found the organization now known as Islamic State, and by some accounts, the speech helped Zarqawi rally supporters. “Curveball” — the Iraqi defector whose account the White House relied on for much of its intelligence — has since admitted he lied extensively.
Still, Powell’s speech was as convincing as it was wrong. The day after he delivered it, the Washington Post’s Mary McGrory, a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War, published a column titled simply, “I’m Persuaded.” Many of us were, though it all looks much different in hindsight.
When I realized the scope of our intelligence failure, I joined the effort to reform the U.S. intelligence enterprise in 2004. One key element of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act was correcting how we do National Intelligence Estimates.
Today, sources are required to be vetted, disagreements among agencies are featured prominently, and the final product is red-teamed. At this writing, there are no reports of an intelligence estimate on the Iranian situation, and no declassified summary has been released.
Now, as tensions with Iran spiral, with the U.S. military sending the bombers, carrier and warships to the region in response to unspecified threats — possibly attacks on Saudi Arabian oil tankers — I fear we are facing another “Iraq moment.” That’s the phrase Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, used recently to express what is on so many people’s minds. In contrast, another senator was less cautious, saying he only knows what he has read in the newspaper. Not even close to a responsible statement.
What happens next in Iran affects what we will be able to do elsewhere in the world. I worry about the various signals we are sending to Venezuela and North Korea. In Venezuela, efforts at removing President Nicolas Maduro short of the military option seem stalled, which may empower Iran to think we are bluffing. And North Korea, which has lots of nuclear weapons and is testing short-range missiles, may get the impression that we will eventually repudiate any deal with them and possibly call for regime change. Clearly our Iran strategy is causing collateral damage.
In 2003, weeks after the start of the Iraq war, Gen. David H. Petraeus posited the question: “How does this end?” That’s an important question today when thinking about Iran: How would a war against Iran end? We need a plausible answer before we start one.
Jane Harman is president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former U.S. congresswoman from California. This column was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.