Dr. David Kay, Chief Weapons Inspector in Iraq: "We Got It Very Wrong."

The most destructive element of a totalitarian regime goes far beyond the tragic deaths of an untold number of people; it is the constant perpetuation of fear, for this destroys any willingness for a state’s people to cooperate or exhibit trust, resulting in the most depraved level of corruption. This downward spiral was evident in Iraq throughout the 1990’s, embodied by Saddam Hussein’s constant lying, cheating and stealing in the face of United Nations (U.N.) inspections.

These and other revealing insights were delivered by Dr. David Kay, the Former Chief U.S. Weapons Inspector in Iraq, who spoke to a packed audience at the Kennedy School’s Forum on Monday, March 22.

The failure of U.S. troops to locate any significant stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in the aftermath of the recent war led the Bush Administration to name Kay as the head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG).

The ISG was charged with the task of finding credible evidence of these weapons or weapons development programs. In a report issued in October 2003, the ISG concluded that it was unable to locate any stockpiles of actual Weapons of Mass Destruction anywhere in Iraq.

Kay revealed that under the porous umbrella of twelve years of U.N. sanctions, Saddam had amassed some $6.5B in illicit funds through the oil-for-food program. But rather than put this money to use to improve the lives of his populace by constructing new hospitals and schools, he chose to tighten his stranglehold by simply building more palaces.

But why didn’t Saddam use these funds to advance his nuclear weapons program? The answer to this fundamental question, according to Kay, was that he never had to. Saddam proved his wanton cruelty and demonstrated his willingness to use WMDs by attacking the Kurds of Northern Iraq with chemical weapons in 1988. He did everything he could to infect downtown Tel Aviv with a chemically-tipped SCUD missile during the opening hours of the 1991 Gulf War. So it is not surprising that the Iraqi dictator’s long list of enemies, from the Kurds to the Shia factions from within, and of course the U.S., became as infected by Saddam’s deceit as the Iraqi people. Even when Saddam may have been telling the truth in claiming he had discarded his illegal arms, these different parties refused to believe those claims; we became wedded to our own deep mistrust.

As clear and articulate a speaker as he was, Dr. Kay seemed to concentrate most on whether or not Iraq had nuclear weapons capability, with little mention of the other components of a WMD program. In addition to nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction include chemical arms like mustard gas and nerve agents like SARIN and VX.

Any discussion of WMDs also assesses the capability to manufacture and “weaponize” biological toxins like botulism, smallpox and anthrax. Many of these poisons can be fabricated in a standard university biology lab.

Along these lines, Dr. Kay related a comical tale that hints at the absurd climate of fear that Saddam’s lackeys worked in. With the U.N. hot on its heels, Iraqi soldiers chose to dump a 500-liter drum of anthrax in the only place it could quickly find–right alongside one of the Iraqi dictator’s many presidential palaces. Rather than inform Saddam that they disposed of the deadly toxins in his own backyard, they kept this secret and only revealed it under the hot glare of American interrogators. This anecdote hints at an underlying problem: did Saddam and his top generals, in the words of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, “fully know what they didn’t know?”

Perhaps the organizational mess was so pervasive, that certain weapons programs existed without Saddam’s full knowledge.

True to the spirit of any effective HBS case discussion, Dr. Kay back-stopped his analysis with a list of implications and an action plan for the U.S. intelligence community. He invoked the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba during the Kennedy Administration as an example of a public admission of poor decisions from the highest echelons of government. President Kennedy and his most senior advisors engaged in an open “mea culpa” to restore domestic credibility. Because intelligence assessments are only useful when they are believable in the eyes of decision-makers, America’s ability to warn other countries of legitimate, impending threats and enlist their support for war will be constrained without a similar public inquiry into what went wrong in estimating Iraq’s WMD program.

Kay mentioned the chilling reality in Iran to underscore this point. Iran has already been caught producing enriched uranium by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Iranians are far along the path towards developing a long-range missile. But the C.I.A.’s claims are quickly discarded by key constituents when Iran claims American agents may have planted the illicit material. David Kay’s remarks and the ongoing search for truth emphasized that this self-criticism is both useful and necessary.

According to Kay, there is no denying that President Bush and his administration made a dangerous gambit in going ahead with the war, and it increasingly appears as if the justification for such action is questionable. But when intelligence is uncertain, as it so frequently is, Kay believes that the prudent leader will err on the worst possible assumption. In this case, the assumption is that Saddam Hussein would have possessed stockpiles of deadly weapons had he been left in place, and the consequences of not removing Saddam would have been catastrophic.