Kissinger vs Brzezinski on Intelligence Failures
Jude Wanniski
July 16, 2003


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I would have run this transcript of the exchange between Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski on Monday if it had been available, but here it is now. I’ve known Kissinger from the Nixon years and I’ve never seen him so totally crushed in debate, trying to defend the war in Iraq even in light of the “intelligence” failures that provided justification for the war. We see here Zbigniew Brzezinski making mincemeat of Henry, laughing off the idea that weapons of mass destruction will be found, and making the case that “heads must roll” for these failures. The only explanation I have for Kissinger’s pitiful performance is that he has too many clients who expect him to defend the indefensible while Zbig operates out of a Washington think tank and can say what he thinks. Thanks to Wolf Blitzer, a terrific news show.

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Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Let's turn now to two men who have advised U.S. presidents on diplomatic and national security matters. In Kent, Connecticut, the former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. He served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Here in Washington, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser during the Jimmy Carter administration.

Gentlemen, welcome back to LATE EDITION. Dr. Kissinger, should someone resign right now, in the aftermath of this intelligence flap involving Iraq and its alleged nuclear weapons program?

HENRY KISSINGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I don't think anyone should resign. We should analyze where the problem arose, but I don't think this was a central fact in making the decision, and I think we ought to see it in some perspective. The British still maintain that their information was accurate. Some of our people think now that the documents on which it was based were forgeries. So, but I don't think that this was a central element in the president's decision.

BLITZER: At the same time, Dr. Brzezinski, the whole nuclear issue was one of the most, if not the most, important motivation for going to war against Iraq, the fear that Iraq could reconstitute its nuclear weapons capability.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: That was one of the elements. But I think the uranium or the nuclear issue, regarding which there has been such a flap over the last few days, is a symptom of a much larger problem. And I think it is the larger problem that has to be addressed.

BLITZER: What's that problem?

BRZEZINSKI: And the larger problem is that the United States stated, at the highest level, repeatedly, without any qualification whatsoever, that Iraq was armed with weapons of mass destruction. Not just nuclear, but bacteriological and chemical. And that was stated without any ambiguity. In fact it was hyped. It was stated that Iraq is armed with the most dangerous weapons that man has ever devised. And that's why we went to war. This is what we said to the world. This is what we said to the American people.

BLITZER: Well, do you have any doubt about that?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, it's clear that they weren't armed with these weapons. They didn't use them. We defeated their army in the field. We have control over their arsenals. We haven't found them. We're now maintaining that they may be hidden somewhere, which is kind of comical, actually. If they had them, and the were armed to the teeth with them, why didn't they use them? If they didn't use them and hid them, that means they were deterred. And how do you hide all of these hundreds and hundreds of thousands of weapons with which they're armed? The problem is, was that administration misled by very poor intelligence? In which case, some heads should roll in the intelligence community, absolutely, because an intelligence failure at this scale totally destroys American global credibility. Or...

BLITZER: All right. Dr. Kissinger?

BRZEZINSKI: ... or was anyone in the administration hyping it while as the intelligence was qualifying it? And that has to be established.

BLITZER: Well, the intelligence analysts and professionals were more nuanced, whereas the top leadership, you're suggesting, may have been black and white?

BRZEZINSKI: But that's the issue that has to be established because I think the credibility of our system, domestically and internationally, depends on that issue being resolved.

BLITZER: That's a fair point.

What do you say, Dr. Kissinger?

KISSINGER: In 1998, just before attacking Iraq in an air campaign of several days, President Clinton listed specific quantities of weapons of mass destruction that the Iraqis were alleged to have. These numbers were never challenged. They were confirmed by the U.N. inspection team that was there. It was rational to assume that since there was no inspection for five years after that, that if those numbers were correct, that if anything, the quantities must have increased. In last November, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution which assumed that these weapons of mass destruction existed, proof by countries that had their own intelligence (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It is an interesting question. It's an important question to determine of what happened to these weapons of mass destruction.

Secondly, I believe that the war against Iraq has to be seen in the whole context of the international situation that evolved after the attack on September 11th and on the presence of the country that we knew had had these weapons of mass destruction in '98 and then lived for five years without inspection, that had challenged the international system in that region repeatedly, and that was violating the cease-fire that it had signed with the United States. So, I don't think that this was simply a question of weapons of mass destruction when the final decision was made.

BLITZER: All right. Dr. Brzezinski, the point that Dr. Kissinger makes is that in '98, when the inspectors left, at the end of '98, the then-Clinton administration outlined, together with the U.N. inspectors, thousands of pounds of anthrax and VX and mustard gas that they said the Iraqis had never accounted for. And in the years since then, the burden of proof, they say, was on the Iraqis to account, what happened to all of these weapons of mass destruction. Is that not good enough for you?

BRZEZINSKI: It's partially true, but only partially true. There's no doubt that there was such evidence. It is also a fact which most people ignore that both anthrax and VX die, quite literally die, after a while, so they had to be replenished, the weapons have to be reconstituted. The key point, however, is this. The best we had, insofar as knowledge is concerned, was that they may have these weapons therefore. And this is presumably the case that was being made. But this is not what the administration was saying. The administration was saying explicitly, "We know they have weapons of mass destruction. We know that they are a menace and might use them against us." And we all now know that they weren't there.

BLITZER: And in fact the administration, Dr. Kissinger, did say there was intelligence that battlefield commanders had been given authorization for 45 minutes to actually use some of these weapons of mass destruction in case of war, 45 minutes. Obviously they never used it during the case of the major combat that was going on.

Dr. Kissinger, I want you to listen to what the former Vermont governor, Howard Dean, now a Democratic presidential hopeful, is saying. You well know how these kinds of issues can almost get a life of their own, in terms of creating an uproar. Listen to these words.


HOWARD DEAN, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's beginning to sound a little like Watergate. They start throwing people over the side, but the deeper you go, the more interesting it'll be. It's very clear that it may be George Tenet's responsibility, but that information also existed in the State Department, it also existed in the vice president's office. So they will not get away with simply throwing George Tenet over the side.


BLITZER: He says it's beginning to sound like Watergate. That obviously is politics, to a certain degree. But what do you make of what Governor Dean is saying?

KISSINGER: Well, I think it's an outrage to compare it to Watergate. The president was faced with the belief that these weapons existed. From what I saw in the administration, I never saw this evidence questioned in any briefings. Maybe the Iraqis destroyed them in the meantime, and for some obscure reason did not make that public, maybe because they were afraid it might encourage Iran to attack them, or -- I don't know what they might have thought. And they had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate that they had got rid of weapons which we knew they had had.

But the president of the United States cannot take a chance, and say, "Well, maybe they have destroyed them." And he had to act on the best judgment of his key advisers and his own best judgment. And I believe that, in essence, he was right, even if it now turns out that some of these weapons may have been destroyed.

BLITZER: And I think, Dr. Brzezinski -- let me press you on this point, because it wasn't really U.S. intelligence and the president of the United States who argued that the Iraqis did have weapons of mass destruction flat, no nuanced statement there, but it was also the French and the Italians and the Germans and the U.N. They came down with the same point, even though they disagreed with the president on how to go about dealing with the issue.

BRZEZINSKI: Wolf, you could add to that list even me. I attended the same briefings that Henry attended. And I came to believe them, because I don't think that Colin Powell or Condi Rice or Don Rumsfeld would lie to me. So I came to believe that they had weapons of mass destruction too.

The fact nonetheless -- and we cannot evade it -- is, they did not. That is a basic fact...

BLITZER: They did not have weapons of mass destruction?

BRZEZINSKI: They did not. I mean, if they did, show them to me. They didn't use them. They weren't in their arsenals. We have been there for months, and we haven't found them. And, therefore, there's an important issue at stake here. U.S. credibility is now very badly damaged. You say other countries' intelligence services said they have weapons of mass destruction. What you ignore is that most of them said that they had weapons of mass destruction because we had said so, and they trusted us. Our word has been pure; our word has been trusted around the world. It's now very badly damaged.

And our democracy depends on our people being able to trust their leaders. And therefore, the issue we have to establish is, why did our leaders come to believe that something existed that did not? Was it an intelligence failure, or was it a political hype? I don't know which of the two it was. I prefer to think it was the former. But we have to find out for the sake of our democracy, for the sake of our security.

BLITZER: All right, let's take a caller from Ohio. Go ahead, Ohio, with your question.

CALLER: Yes, do you think the administration had a predisposition to promote regime change in Iraq? And do you think that could have influenced their view of the intelligence data?

BLITZER: What about that, Dr. Kissinger?

KISSINGER: I think the administration believed that Saddam Hussein was a threat to security in the region, and they were right. And I think they had a predisposition toward regime change. But I want to make one point with respect to what Zbig said earlier. It is possible that there was an intelligence failure. It is not possible that there was an attack on our democratic systems because the president of the United States acted deliberately in defiance of knowledge that he might have had or should have had.

If Zbig was impressed by all the briefings that he and I might have attended, since the president, no doubt, received even fuller briefings, it was absolutely rational for the president of the United States not to want to take a chance that maybe, somehow these weapons had been destroyed but nobody had ever suggested this possibility. If they were, in fact, destroyed, if there was an intelligence failure, then I think there should be some investigation of just exactly what it is that happened with respect to these weapons. But this is not relevant to the decisions that the president made in good faith in acting on behalf of national security.

BLITZER: Do you want to respond, Dr. Brzezinski?

BRZEZINSKI: Yes, I'd like to respond to that. It seems to me the argument is, the president had all of this information to the effect that they may have these weapons, therefore, he acted in good faith. Good and well. The issue is not at this stage whether the president was deliberately lying. The issue, however, is, why did we go to war on the basis of absolutely erroneous information? This is fundamental to our security and to the trust that others have in us.

BLITZER: But when you say absolutely erroneous, it's still possible, isn't it, Dr. Brzezinski, that they'll find weapons of mass destruction? They may have been transported, they may have been sent to a third country?

BRZEZINSKI: Look, that's becoming increasingly ludicrous. Here is an argument: A country is armed to the teeth. It's poses a monumental threat to us. We go to war, we destroy its army, it never uses these weapons, we cannot find them in their arsenals. And now we claim that they may be hidden somewhere or exported somewhere. I mean, that really strains credulity. The point is that we have to find out why there was such a massive misinformation at play, because it affects our security.

BLITZER: All right, Dr. Kissinger, does it strain credulity?

KISSINGER: No, I don't think anybody ever said that they pose a direct threat to the United States. That was not the key issue. The key issue was the existence in a region from which a terrorist attack on the United States had been launched, in which the distinction between national borders as the origin of these attacks had been eliminated by the recruiting of various people, to permit the capability of the production of weapons of mass destruction to exist in a country that had already used them on its own people and on its neighbors, and that had attacked almost all of its neighbors at some point.

It was a prudent decision in the context of the situation that arose after September 11th. And it's reckless to pose this as something that was totally unnecessary because our intelligence had made perhaps an error in finding that these weapons had been destroyed in the few weeks before the attacks started.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Dr. Brzezinski.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, you know, it tells you something about our intelligence if Iraq allegedly had all of these weapons, was so well armed, and then could destroy them without us even knowing about it. I mean, I think that's kind of a preposterous argument.

If we were so well informed that they had them, and we had all these reasons to go to war, and then they destroy them, disarm themselves, in effect, and we don't know about it, it clearly proves my case that there is something fundamentally wrong with the information on the basis of which we operate and on the basis of which we make decisions that we want the rest of the world to trust.

BLITZER: So, let me wrap this up, because we don't have a lot of time left.

Dr. Brzenzinski, how do you resolve this matter right now? What kind of investigation is required?

BRZEZINSKI: I think it's in the interest of the United States, it's in the interest of the George Bush administration, to clarify this issue fully. And making Tenet the fall guy doesn't clarify it. I think we need to establish why there were no knew new answers in the administration's presentation, why there was this alleged certainty about something very important, very fundamental, and why it turned out to have been wrong.

BLITZER: All right. Dr. Kissinger?

KISSINGER: I think if the administration -- one a mistake the administration may have made is that they were convinced that regime change was necessary. They were convinced that there was a strategic geopolitical reason to eliminate the presence of such a regime in that region. They focused on weapons of mass destruction because that seemed to be the point that everybody understood most easily, and it therefore gave the number of weapons of mass destruction that may have existed a disproportionate influence. One should analyze what happened in the intelligence community, but one should not make it as a question of American democracy, nor a question of the ultimately correct judgment of an administration staffed by people that have a lot of experience in the security field and a long record of distinguished service.

BLITZER: But, Dr. Kissinger, a public inquiry, is that called for now?

KISSINGER: I think the first that thing that ought to be done is to assemble a few absolutely trusted people to make an internal report. In due course, there could be a public inquiry, but I really believe we are -- it is absolutely essential that we prevail in Iraq. It is absolutely essential that we retain confidence in what we are doing.

BLITZER: All right.

KISSINGER: And we should, therefore, have some analysis of what our strategic objectives are now and how we got into this particular limited credibility problem...

BLITZER: Dr. Brzezinski...

KISSINGER: ... and not start another nightmare of Vietnam debate.

BLITZER: All right. Let me let Dr. Brzezinski wrap it up, because we only have a few seconds left.

BRZEZINSKI: I think we'll be far more successful in Iraq and far more self-assured about our own system if we address this issue fully, because we'll have international support, and we can clarify this matter. The U.S. credibility, internationally, is now at stake.

BLITZER: Dr. Brzezinski, Dr. Kissinger, thanks to both of you for joining us. Clearly, this issue is not going away.