Why are Missing WMD Like Bad Software?

I’ve been watching the debates on “justifying the invasion” with a lot of interest, as days go by without the WMD ‘smoking gun’ showing up in my morning newspaper.

There is an interesting discussion to have regarding the post-facto moral position, but more important to me is the simpler question of whether we were actively lied to or, as I prefer to put it “wagged like a dog”. I started to talk about some of it below in Freeing Jessica Lynch, and then today, Slate has a piece on the NY Times’ pre-invasion coverage of WMD and whether the Times should review its intel, as the Pentagon appears to be doing.

…none of Miller’s wild WMD stories has panned out. From these embarrassing results, we can deduce that either 1) Miller’s sources were right about WMD, and it’s just a matter of time before the United States finds evidence to back them up; 2) Miller’s sources were wrong about WMD, and the United States will never find the evidence; 3) Miller’s sources played her to help stoke a bogus war; or 4) Miller deliberately weighted the evidence she collected to benefit the hawks. It could be that the United States inadvertently overestimated Iraq’s WMD program. For example, the United States might have intercepted communications to Saddam in which his henchmen exaggerated the scale of Iraq’s WMD progress to make him happy.

And an idea started to form…
My core profession is managing problem technology projects (note: if you have one in the Southern California area, drop me a note at the address on the masthead). I’m currently working on a major ($400K/month project cost) project at a major national corporation…one where they flipped the switch and the system never turned on. They attempted to go live in front of the user community and the software simply didn’t work. How in the world could that happen?

I’m talking to the various project team members, who with few exceptions are bright, competent people, and I realize that somehow no one was willing to stand up to management and tell them “no”. I just saw it in action. This week, we ‘discovered’ a brand new requirement, ten weeks before the go-live date for the relaunch, when we are almost through testing, and the group sat in a meeting with the program director and listened to her explain that fixing this – which is a minor rework, but will effect may parts of the system – is something we can do in the time we have left.

I was one of two people (out of twenty) who suggested that this was probably not a very good idea. Imagine what it would have been like if company management had people-shredders. Everyone else in the room wouldn’t have been silent, they would have cheerfully explained how well it would work and how easy it would be. And me…

And were I a brutal dictator with fantasies of regional domination, I’m sure that getting these weapons would be my highest priority. But I’d rely on my ever-shrinking inner circle to actually do the messy work of managing those programs and measuring their results.

And since the major activites of those folks would be fighting for position and booty (in all senses), the difficult work of actually managing the technical and industrial infrastructure necessary to actually build some of these things would probably fall a bit behind.

So you get ‘Potemkin weapons'; reports, promises, trailers filled with impressive-looking technical equipment, UAV’s that are really just oversized model airplanes. Occasionally, some competent or especially frightened technician might actually produce something – but almost certainly not on the scale that the dictator believes.

So Saddam believes he has them, and from that, we infer that he does, and what is really going on is a bunch of nervous paper-shuffling.

I like this idea, because it fits in with what I know of human nature, and it explains two things (both of which get trumped if they actually find the Secret Underground WMD Factories) – why Saddam would risk war to hide weapons he knew he didn’t have, and why Bush would risk lying about something so crucial, when it would be impossible for the lie not to get caught.

26 thoughts on “Why are Missing WMD Like Bad Software?”

  1. I spent most of your well-thought article wondering if and how this was going to apply to the Administration’s own (public, at least) absolute insistence of the presence of WMD, and here it is.

    So Saddam believes he has them, and from that, we infer that he does, and what is really going on is a bunch of nervous paper-shuffling

    I’m sorry, but I find the notion that the Bush Administration was lead to the belief that Hussein’s regime was in possesion of large quantities of chemical and biological weapons (not to mention a nascent nuclear weapons program) solely on the basis of knowledge (acquired how?) that Huseein himself believed so to be totally unconvincing.

    Billmon has an excellent post listing some of the claims made by Bush and other Administration officials, as well as other hawkish associates thereof, and several commenteers have contributed to the list. Basically, if the people making these statements believing them to be true, including those which cited American intelligence, and if American intelligence itself believed this to be true (and we know that there was quite a bit of dissent within that community), then we’re faced with the prospect that we were all duped by accident into believing this, because the people responsible for faking Iraq’s WMD program to Hussein did such a good job that they fooled us too.

    Honestly, I’d rather believe that my government just lied to me about it, rather than believe they were fooled hook, line and sinker by Dr. Germ. It would be an outrage, but at least it wouldn’t be embarrasing.

    I also strongly question why this conjecture has, as far as I can tell, been solely created and floated by Americans trying to explain the absense of Iraqi WMD. Why have none of the Iraqis involved in the non-programs come forward? At this point, they have nothing to lose or fear by telling the truth. Yet as far as I’ve read they continue to state that there was no active program and the stockpiles were destroyed. Why would they still claim this?

    I would suggest as a more likely scenario that much of what American intelligence there was supporting WMD claims was provided by Iraqi expatriots with huge axes to grind and much fortune to be made in a post-Hussein Iraq with powerful American liberators to help install them in power.

  2. clue –

    …partially explains my problem #2 (Bush) i.e. he chose to believe expats and others with agendas, but I’d still be anxious about facts coming out afterwards; but not #1, i.e. why did Saddam act as he did, which looked even to Blix like he was working to hide something?

    A.L.

  3. Sorry Clue, but I’ve gotta side with A.L. on this. If the stories about WMD were a lie, the whole damn world was in on it. No serious thinking people argued they weren’t there at all. Every government, on both sides of the debate pretty much agreed they had WMD, they just argued about how to deal with it.

    Hell, we KNOW they had them, they used the damn things twice, on a major scale! Where did they go?

    I’ll say this much: I support Bush and the war, but if it comes out that we do have evidence right now and we’re sitting on it until the opposition embarasses itself, I’m not exactly going to be happy. I mean, I’ll be as happy as the next guy if the opposition is sidelined, but this doesn’t seem like an issue to play politics over.

  4. A.L. my problem with #1

    1) Miller’s sources were right about WMD, and it’s just a matter of time before the United States finds evidence to back them up;

    is not so much that Hussein acted as though he had WMD, but that the Administration and the Pentagon repeated claimed that they had very specific intelligence about the type, quantity and location of WMD in Iraq. Unless all of the offending toxins were moved (and, one hopes, our satellite surveilance would have easily identified tankerfuls of chemicals being shipped to Syria, regardless of what some would have us believe) between the time the purported intelligence was gathered and the time we were able to inspect the sites ourselves, the intelligence was just plain wrong.

    Unless a secret underground mountain of chemical weapons is found somewhere in Iraq, I just don’t see how the administration can logically spin this in their favor (note my use of the term “logically”, as distinct from “successfully”). The only question to be asked of any of the number of people who clamored for war based on the threat of Hussein’s WMD will be whether they were lying or were simply, tragically wrong.

  5. TomK:

    If the stories about WMD were a lie, the whole damn world was in on it.

    Not really. I’m not claiming they were a lie, but it was in fact the hawkish arms of the American and British administrations who were providing the reasoning and citing their own intelligence. Most of the rest of the world (and significant constituencies within those countries) was and remains fairly skeptical of those claims.

    Hell, we KNOW they had them, they used the damn things twice, on a major scale! Where did they go?

    A large quantity–nobody can claim “all”, but many claim “most”–of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons were destroyed during the inspections between 1991 and 1998 (correct me if I’m wrong on the dates). I’m not going to claim that the inspections were robust or successful enough to identify and eliminate all of their WMD, but the did eliminate a lot and probably kept enough pressure on Hussein that he had to focus his efforts on concealing production capability and scientific knowledge, not arsenals.

    this doesn’t seem like an issue to play politics over.

    What issue that effects people’s lives is? But that’s what happens.

  6. My lord, just saw this on CNN.com

    Disarming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime of suspected chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons was a primary reason the Bush administration gave for launching the war. No such weapons have yet been found.

    Did I miss school the day where the administration informed us that Hussein was suspected of having radiological and (gulp) nuclear weapons? Somebody forgot to give me that memo?

    Did CNN get taken over by the restrained voices of Debka?

  7. So, what HAS Dr. Germ been up to? Was she no more than a sparkling dinner conversationalist to be at Saddam’s right hand constantly?

  8. Sorry…#1 was my #1 “why Saddam would risk war to hide weapons he knew he didn’t have…”; sorry for the confusion…

    Ah, much clearer. And a good question.

    I have three questions in return.

    1: What is the evidence that he was hiding something?

    2: How can there have been evidence that he was hiding something but yet, to date, nobody has found what he was hiding or where he was hiding it? One suspects the evidence of being largely anecdotal and not based on harder data, say surveillance or reconnisance.

    3: If he did have WMD to hide, what explains his failure to either openly declare and destroy them to prevent war, or to use them in battle to either make a heroic (in his mind) last stand or go out (in his mind) in a blaze of glory?

    I ask the questions, of course, because I don’t believe that he would mislead the US into believing he had WMD without actually possesing them, either. But I don’t see alternatives based on the predication of his posession of WMD as any less stupidly suicidal.

  9. Clue, I tend to agree with AL on this. Saddam had a program all right, but it was far less spectacular than most people believed. I also think that we(Bush, Blair and co.) “knew” this, or were fairly certain of it. Their plan to reshape the ME(yes, there is one, and is shaped by neo-cons) involved removing Iraq as a first step. To get Iraq out of the way, the US realized help from other nations would be really nice. This meant the UK in particular, with Poland and Australia helping as well. The problem is, Blair leads a party with strong socialist tendencies. This means he would have trouble going after Saddam unless he could get support from his party. So he and Bush went to the UN, and when the UN(lead by the axis of weasels) balked, Blair got the domestic support he needed. And WMD was the issue at the UN. Hence the trupming of WMD as the main issue.

  10. Might want to consider how difficult it can be to find WMD’s when you look at Japan’s covering up of research into atom bombs during WWII.

    Don’t know about you, but I didn’t even know that Japan even considered making the atom bomb.

    If it took that long for at least some details of Japan’s research to come light, what does that say about searching for WMD’s in Iraq?

    I postulate that we’ll find scraps here and there, maybe even an actual WMD, but I think most of them were either destroyed or sent elsewhere.

  11. I’ve been meaning to ask this on a blog for a while:

    It seems to be an article of faith among most bloggers that, of course, the administration will blurt out anything it discovers about WMD programs just as soon the evidence is available. Why do you believe that?

    A related question. According to the Centcom list 27 of 55 of “Iraq’s most wanted” are in custody, including as I recall “Dr. Germ”, “Mrs. Anthrax”, the chief of staff of the Republican Guards and others who might reasonably be expected to know something about Iraq’s WMD programs. I have yet to see a single news story about what, if any, information they’ve revealed or even where they are. Have I missed a big story, or is it possible that information just isn’t leaking out? If it’s the latter, how do you reconcile that with belief that the administration will tell all?

  12. mike aks-

    Why do you believe that?” (that the Administration will broadcast WMD discoveries)

    Because it will effectively silence the opponents of the war…

    A.L.

  13. A.L. –

    Based on Bush’s behavior over the past couple of years, I don’t think he’s all that interested in silencing the opponents of the war. I suspect he’d be perfectly happy to continue to gather information until all his “ducks are in a row” before making anything public, even if that means putting up with a lot of chatter from the opposition in the meantime. If this president has shown anything, it’s that he remains focused on his long-term objectives and pays little attention to short-term criticism and opposition.

    J.G.

  14. Clue:
    3: If he did have WMD to hide, what explains his failure to either openly declare and destroy them to prevent war, or to use them in battle to either make a heroic (in his mind) last stand or go out (in his mind) in a blaze of glory?

    More than prevent (this particular) war, had he been willing to give them up, he could have gotten rid of the no-fly zone, the inspectors, the ‘oil for palaces’ program. By 1993 he could have been shut of the whole ‘sovereignity violating’ mess and begun reconstruction of his (probable) WMD, so we could have had a different war.

    The best guess I’ve seen is that he sees/saw himself as the natural leader of the Arab states, and to give up these important and valuable assets would lower his status.

    I suspect the reports of deals made with field commanders, as well as threats of retribution to them if they might use WMD, account for their non-use. So would less-than-expected availability and/or effectiveness, consistent with A.L.’s conjecture.

  15. I think A.L.’s on the mark here–for both sides. Saddam’s people blew stuff out of proportion to him, and then W.’s blew stuff out of proportion to him. Not that W.’s had the same incentive (torture) to exaggerate, but every member of a bureaucracy wants to give the boss what he wants. My guess is that facet of human nature was operating on all sides, kind of like a cascade.

    That being said, I’m still convinced he thought he had WMD. His actions simply make no sense otherwise. I have literally seen no rational explanation for his behavior for the last ~5 years that takes as a premise that he had no WMD.

  16. Here’s a *link* from today’s Observer (UK) that indicates my suggestion that we might be sitting on evidence could be right (hope I did that html link thing right. If not, here’s the money graphs:)

    “Stung by claims that the Government exaggerated the threat from Saddam, Blair said he was waiting to publish a ‘complete picture’ of both intelligence gained before the war and ‘what we’ve actually found’.

    Asked if he knew things he could not yet reveal, he said: ‘I certainly do know some of the stuff that has been already accumulated as a result of interviews and others… which is not yet public, but what we are going to do is assemble that evidence and present it properly.’ ”

    Link came via Rantburg.

    From the rest of the story it seems Tony Blair is under greater pressure to produce some evidence of WMD than Bush.

  17. clue asks:

    1: What is the evidence that he was hiding something? Well, simply, his unwillingness to openly cooperate with the UN over a twelve-year period…

    2: How can there have been evidence that he was hiding something but yet, to date, nobody has found what he was hiding or where he was hiding it? One suspects the evidence of being largely anecdotal and not based on harder data, say surveillance or reconnisance. First, my point in the post was that he (Saddam) thought he had something he didn’t. Surveillance would have shown behavior characteristic of having them, but the ‘facts on the ground’ wouldn’t have been there…

    3: If he did have WMD to hide, what explains his failure to either openly declare and destroy them to prevent war, or to use them in battle to either make a heroic (in his mind) last stand or go out (in his mind) in a blaze of glory? As I noted, he thought he had WMD; think of the cargo cult ‘airplanes’…why didn’t they use them to fly to other islands? Because they weren’t real

    A.L.

  18. Robert Crawford:

    Good point- why is it that the “WMD Hoax” crowd doesn’t consider that? Is that “ancient history”, and, as such, not worthy of consideration?

  19. Well that is all very interesting, the original article and the postings. However everyone has missed two key points.

    1) Sadam benefited by having the world believe he had WMD. Everyone knew that had had them at one point and that he had used them. So even if he didn’t have them, if everyone thought he did, why it is every bit as good as actually having them. So no one wanted to mess with Sadam, he had WMDs. (Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?)

    2) Lots of leaders other than GW Bush thought Sadam had WMD. However none of them thought it was enough of a threat to start a major war. Only GWB (and his side-kick Tony Blair) thought Saddam’s WMD were a “clear and present danger” and worrysome enough of a threat to justify killing thousands of people.

    So the question is not what evidence did those two have that Saddam had WMD, but what evidence did they have that the WMD were of such immediate threat that the UN weapons inspectors could not be allowed to complete their tasks?

  20. No, that’s a completely idiotic question based on premises known not to be true.

    The weapons inspectors could not complete their tasks, since Saddam (unlike, say, South Africa) was not cooperating. There goes your premise… but the rest nicely illustrates why the Left is being listened to less and less in the USA.

    Why go in? “Probable cause”. That’s all you need to secure entry (and shoot your way in, if resisted) even as a policeman under the rule of law. Which does NOT characterize the international order – it is an anarchy, and thus the rules are “Wild West.” As one sees all over the globe, if one looks at the actions and not the words of the major states opposing the Iraq war.

    Bush & co. had probable cause – as you admit. 9/11 changed Americans’ beliefs, which changed public willingness to remove the threat before it became a problem. There isn’t even a valid legal counterargument, since the cease-fire no longer applied given that its terms had been breached by Saddam. Hence America was at war, and it chose to pursue that by actively going to war in Iraq with consistent majority support and a Congressional resolution.

    Acting on the international stage, a resolution of Congress is all the USA needs. Did others believe there were sufficient grounds? Yes, about 30+ other countries did, which is why they signed on to the war. Your point #2 is so transparently untrue that it removes you as a rational debating opponent: Britain, Australia, Poland were all very much a part of this war, as were others.

    Which brings us to the final problem: point #2 is irrelevant anyway. No other nation has to agree. Once a Congressional resolution is passed, the USA need not justify its actions to anybody at all unless your leaders decide to do so for operational reasons.

    Welcome to reality. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

  21. The only person to speak up will be someone who doesn’t give a shit about keeping his/her job.

    Of course no one wants this sort of person on the team.

    Thus the need to bring in outside scalpers.

    What management wants is harmony. What it needs is truth.

    Of course if you follow my career you will see that I’m one of the unpopular truth tellers.

    And I will mention it again: computers and software have become much too complicated. This causes all kinds of other problems the foremost of which is security. And the #2 is reliability.

  22. I seem to recall a large find of yellow cake uranium stolen from Saddams Nuclear labs just as the war ended.

    This is proof positive that Saddam was not interested in nuclear weapons.

    Of course if we forget about the labs and the yellow cake then of course Saddams interest in nukes is implausable.

    It just depends on what universe you live in and how often reality smacks.

  23. Truth-telling and business: If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. If he demands integrity, give him loyalty.

    On the WMDs. At the very least Saddam knew what Ansar al-Islam was up to in the north. The ricin know-how came from somewhere. Ansar tried to launch ricin attacks in several Western European countries.

    As Dan Darling pointed out, if that’s not the definition of an imminent threat, I don’t know what is.

  24. It seems to be an article of faith among most bloggers that, of course, the administration will blurt out anything it discovers about WMD programs just as soon the evidence is available. Why do you believe that?

    Reading history the 21st century way, I like to call it.

    People here asked why Iraqis didn’t come out and say Saddam moved his weapons to Syria or what not. Well, the thing is, they were still afraid of Saddam. Because Saddam wasn’t dead, we hadn’t chopped his head and showed it to everyone in the country. We didn’t put him up against a wall and used M-82 Barret .50 cal ammunition to slice off his limbs on national tv. Nor did we show him on trial and then show his head being blown open by an 9mm Beretta.

    The atmosphere of fear is not something most Westerners can understand. Europe has some taste of it now, of course, if you watch the blogosphere. So it is not surprising that they only are speaking out about Syrian weapons movement and Denial, now, rather than in 2003. The time you were speaking in.

    As for why people assume Bush will say what he knows. The simple truth is because we don’t think Bush has enough propaganda expertise to do anything else in the information war. He is not as slick, as professional, nor as experienced as Al Qaeda in information warfare. Nor does he hire people who are, to do his propaganda for him.

    So he will always take the direct route, and be on the defensive in the information war. We don’t expect him to be anything else, because Bush is static. From there comes his stubborness and inflexibility.

    Based on Bush’s behavior over the past couple of years, I don’t think he’s all that interested in silencing the opponents of the war. I suspect he’d be perfectly happy to continue to gather information until all his “ducks are in a row” before making anything public, even if that means putting up with a lot of chatter from the opposition in the meantime. If this president has shown anything, it’s that he remains focused on his long-term objectives and pays little attention to short-term criticism and opposition.

    That may be a benefit to an MBA business clique, but it is a huge disadvantage in the propaganda war.

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