Bolton: A Prime Mover of the Iraq WMD Fiasco

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by Greg Thielmann

The president-elect who repeatedly taunted his Democratic opponent for supporting the Iraq invasion and whose transition team recently dismissed a CIA assessment by noting, “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” is reportedly considering John Bolton to be deputy secretary of state. Bolton is, of course, one of these “same people.” If Donald Trump chooses to nominate a prime mover of the Iraq WMD fiasco for a key State Department position, he will really outdo himself in converting the ironic into dark comedy.

John Bolton served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs from 2001 to 2005. During this period, Bolton was a champion for unilateral and violent resolution of international differences, his views more closely aligned at the time with those of Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld than with those of his nominal boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Bolton does not suffer from the intellectual laziness or attention deficit disorder of the president-elect. He was a voracious reader and energetic participant in the policy process at State. Even his critics acknowledge his positive contribution in launching the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a multilateral effort to mitigate trafficking in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) material. But Bolton’s ideological approach and grating manner damaged the international standing of the United States and the foreign affairs function of the U.S. government during his State Department tenure.

I was a firsthand witness to the negative consequences of Bolton’s style and substantive approach while serving as director of the office in the State Department’s intelligence bureau (INR/SPM) responsible for monitoring Iraqi WMD issues. As my office delivered to him the heavy volume of sensitive information provided by the intelligence community, he demonstrated a penchant for quickly dismissing inconvenient facts and rejecting any analysis that did not serve his policy preferences.

John Bolton was a key player in the early machinations toward war of the George W. Bush administration. Senior British officials accurately chronicled what was happening in their secret “Downing Street” memo to Prime Minister Blair in July 2002 when they reported that “the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.” As the path to war was paved throughout the fall, Bolton knew very well how the administration was misrepresenting to the public the more nuanced details of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraqi WMD. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence exhaustively documented these distortions in a series of bipartisan reports following the 2003 invasion.

Moreover, Bolton was privy to the detailed reasoning behind INR’s prescient dissent in the top secret NIE on Iraqi WMD, which warned that “the available evidence was inadequate to support the judgment that ‘Iraq is currently pursuing…an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.’”

INR has had a long and distinguished history of bringing to senior State Department officials sensitive, all-source intelligence and skillfully interpreting that intelligence. Although responsive to the broad policy interests and specific needs of the State Department customers, the bureau’s leadership has also established a storied tradition of firmly protecting the independence and integrity of INR’s civil servants and foreign service officers in their analyses. This protection extended to conclusions that sometime contradicted assumptions on which foreign policies were based and justified.

INR’s willingness to dissent from conventional wisdom and majority opinion is an occasional irritant—not only to the policy bureaus of the State Department, but to other agencies seeking to achieve consensus in coordinating intelligence community assessments. But history vindicates the institutional value of such independence. It enabled INR to provide valid warnings of the other agencies’ excessive optimism about the Vietnam War in the 1960s, their overestimation of Soviet military power in the 1970s and 1980s, and their false conclusion that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program in 2002.

I can also attest to the pattern of behavior Bolton exhibited, which was later characterized by INR’s Assistant Secretary Carl Ford as “kiss up and kick down.” This included not just disregarding important information, but actively trying to suppress independent analysis. As undersecretary in Colin Powell’s State Department, Bolton ran into a stone wall in trying to intimidate INR and squelch its independence. But if Trump succeeds in promoting Bolton to deputy secretary under a chain of command totally lacking in government experience, a purge of career professionals in the secondary and tertiary levels of the department seems likely. In that case, the wall protecting INR is likely to crumble. The loss will then not only be grievous to the foreign affairs function of the U.S. government, but to its intelligence function as well.

Greg Thielmann is a 25-year veteran of the Foreign Service, serving two tours in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He subsequently worked as a senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a senior fellow of the Arms Control Association. Photo of John Bolton by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

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8 Comments

  1. John Bolton was a member of the Project for the New American Century … and that, by itself, should disqualify him.

  2. Allouez, I think John Bolton would be a dreadful choice. He knowingly conspired to set up the illegal invasion of Iraq, by deceiving the American public (re: WMD). However, he apparently was under the delusion Iraq would be a strong ally of Israel, in the wake of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Wrecking Iraq was not his intention.

  3. Virgile, would you elaborate on what you say above? I’m not sure I understand your meaning.

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