Bolton: A Prime Mover of the Iraq WMD Fiasco

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.

Guest Contributor

Articles by guest writers.



  1. One fairly can say John Bolton literally conspired to deceive the American public re: Iraqi WMD, with intent to set up the idiotic US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Canning. Of course it is fair. A lot more than that is fair and critically necessary to say. It’s not too difficult to sort out John Bolton’s brand of conservatism. It’s flat out Israeli. He is, functionally, an undisguised neocon-Zionist regardless of how he got there and irrespective of any other mandates of his inner world. In his case it doesn’t matter except in the process of vetting candidates for critical foreign policy positions. I’ve never seen any daylight between him and the Likudish crazies in Israel/AIPAC. He should have been gently steered to other career paths. He should have not have been positioned to have any hand in the lead-up to the Iraq War. He’s just too conflicted.

    Don’t the American people, whose interests should *at least* predominate, have a right to see him in our Middle East policy’s rear view mirror? How about a tour as Secretary of Agriculture? His affinity for red states’ politics should make that a pleasant experience.

    And how about all those guys like Dennis Ross and Mr. Indyk, both of whom obviously suffer from conflicts of interest whether they obviously violate the rules or not? Mr. Canning is spot-on; it IS idiotic to give deeply conflicted men such as Bolton senior roles in matters of war and peace in which the interests of the American people must be primary. By far the most dangerous problems of governance for the U.S. lie in the realm of foreign affairs.

  3. John Bolton may have actually believed the neocon nonsense that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would produce a democracy in Iraq, allied to Israel. Bolton’s foolishness helped bring the present catastrophe to Syria.

  4. It’s conceivable he was a true believer without conflicts then, but you are too kind. It dovetailed perfectly with Israeli policy which was and still is in fact to make the rubble bounce among her enemies in the region, to borrow U.S. troops to accomplish it if at all possible and in the end to break them up into tiny, weak and ineffectual fragments with Israel left as the regional hegemon.

    Bolton’s described as a voracious reader while at State the first time. Has he not been been reading since, i.e., cumulatively through the entire era of Israel’s New Historians, and must he not understand the giant injustices done? Yet what he’s learned just doesn’t seem to matter. It is outweighed by *something*. My personal opinion is that he exhibits both a conflict of interest and a heart of ice.

    Mr. Thielman’s brief essay will be a powerful source for the scholars of our travail in this black age. We owe him our thanks for describing what was going on inside State at the time and for doing it so trenchantly. He certainly has my thanks.

  5. Bolton, as a deputy secretary of state will work under Tillerson. They both are on the extreme opposite sides when it comes to Russia and regime change in the ME.
    If Trump hires him, it is possible that he wants an insider to the Neo-cons so he can be aware of their plans and fight them off.
    Will the neo-cons be fooled? Will Bolton accept the role of an indict?

Comments are closed.