Monday, March 20, 2006

Valuing Sources

NBC News would like folks to believe that this particular source, Naji Sabri, Iraq’s foreign minister under Saddam, was more reliable than Iraq's other sources. Yet, the body of the article paints a different picture.
But on that very trip, there was also a secret contact made. The contact was brokered by the French intelligence service, sources say. Intelligence sources say that in a New York hotel room, CIA officers met with an intermediary who represented Sabri. All discussions between Sabri and the CIA were conducted through a "cutout," or third party. Through the intermediary, intelligence sources say, the CIA paid Sabri more than $100,000 in what was, essentially, "good-faith money." And for his part, Sabri, again through the intermediary, relayed information about Saddam’s actual capabilities.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.

The sources say Sabri’s answers were much more accurate than his proclamations to the United Nations, where he demonized the U.S. and defended Saddam. At the same time, they also were closer to reality than the CIA's estimates, as spelled out in its October 2002 intelligence estimate.

For example, consider biological weapons, a key concern before the war. The CIA said Saddam had an "active" program for "R&D, production and weaponization" for biological agents such as anthrax. Intelligence sources say Sabri indicated Saddam had no significant, active biological weapons program. Sabri was right. After the war, it became clear that there was no program.

Another key issue was the nuclear question: How far away was Saddam from having a bomb? The CIA said if Saddam obtained enriched uranium, he could build a nuclear bomb in "several months to a year." Sabri said Saddam desperately wanted a bomb, but would need much more time than that. Sabri was more accurate.

On the issue of chemical weapons, the CIA said Saddam had stockpiled as much as "500 metric tons of chemical warfare agents" and had "renewed" production of deadly agents. Sabri said Iraq had stockpiled weapons and had "poison gas" left over from the first Gulf War. Both Sabri and the agency were wrong.
So, Sabri said that he needed more time to build nuclear weapons. Just how much time was Sabri talking about? One year? Five years? Could the US take the risk of that uncertainty? At what point does the amount of time trigger a response?

These are all questions that have been playing through the blogosphere and the halls of Congress since after 9/11. And no one has come up with any better way of dealing with such threats than to deal with them before they become imminent.

It is still clear from Sabri that Saddam sought WMD, sought to obtain nuclear weapons, and Sabri didn't have the kind of access that the article would like to assert.

So how do we assess Sabri's statements? You have to piece them together with all the other sources that the US had. Did Sabri have access to secret weapons programs? Would he even be privy to such information? What makes Sabri any more trustworthy than anyone else who provided information to the CIA?

And just what could the CIA act upon with this supposed information? And it's not like anyone is talking to NBC News either:
NBC News repeatedly requested comments about this report from Sabri, either in written form, by telephone or in person. NBC News contacted Sabri several times by phone, and hand delivered a letter to a representative of his, explaining in detail the substance of this report, including the details about weapons of mass destruction. Sabri confirmed he received the letter, but repeatedly refused to comment in any way, neither confirming nor denying any of the information in this report.

So did the CIA. The agency also would not comment on Sabri, or answer why it discounted or ignored Sabri's assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.
Maybe the reason that the CIA discounted or ignored the assessment was that the other information was considered more reliable and trustworthy than Sabri. It's not like there wasn't substantial information over the course of the 1990s that leaned towards a resumption of WMD programs, illicit operations, and Iraq flouting the cease fire rules.

No comments: