On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor in Spanish Cuba, taking down over 250 sailors. In March, a naval court of inquiry began an investigation, and after 18 days of proceedings, including examining the wreck, hearing from specialists, and interviewing survivors and witnesses, court determined that the USS Maine had been sunk by a mine. All the experts agreed. The court also said it could not fix blame for the mine. One anonymous source blamed Spain. An ultimatum soon followed, and within weeks the two countries were at war. Main combat operations ended in three months, but an insurgency continued in the Philippines for four years, resulting in an additional 4,200 dead Americans. But the question remained: Did Spain blow up the Maine? In 1911 a War Department investigation posited that an internal explosion that set off the magazines caused the sinking. This raised a ruckus, and the Navy Department insisted that the cause was an external mine. A joint Army-Navy board eventually affirmed the original explanation, but since then the accident theory has gained acceptance. So does that discredit the entire war? When the issue resurfaced in 1911 the Washington Post opined, "Whatever may have been the cause of the wreck of the battleship Maine, whether an exterior or interior explosion, the people of the United States may reflect with a clean conscience that this was but one of the many causes of the Spanish American war. ...At any rate the war has been fought and is over."
I thought about this in relation to the release of the 600-page report from the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. There is a lot to learn from it. The commissioners employed a very straightforward methodology, comparing prewar intelligence reports and estimates with information obtained during and after the war, looking for gaps, as well as successes, and figuring out how we got it wrong or right. The latter half of the report discusses needed reforms in the intelligence community, and does so in a more sophisticated way than the higher profile 9/11 Commission Report. The continuing salience of the WMD issue requires renewed attention to strengthening intelligence capabilities. Not surprisingly, the report's first section ends with a discussion of the two most prominent WMD threats, Iran and North Korea. Of course, the analysis does not benefit from documents showing the true extent of their weapons programs -- no "post conflict" with them yet. Moreover, the findings in those sections are classified. But it shows that the commissioners were seized of the issue and their focus was forward, not backward.
The report was wide ranging, looking at a variety of current and former WMD threats, including Libya and various terrorist groups. One intriguing intelligence failure cited in the report was misestimation of al Qaeda's WMD program -- that is, it was taken too lightly. The report states that analysts failed to note how strongly bin Laden to acquire and use radiological weapons, and underestimated the scope of the active bioweapons program. Al Qaeda was more dangerous than we thought.
However, the Iraq chapter made the headlines. The WMD intelligence that supported the war rationale was "dead wrong." We now get to enjoy another round of the press and other critics flogging the administration. Progress in Iraq be damned, since a large-scale functional WMD program wasn't discovered the war was illegitimate. A poll released March 15 showed 53 percent now believing the war was not worth fighting (down from 56 percent in December). Of course, like the war with Spain there were other reasons for the conflict, primarily three -- human rights, international aggression, and Iraqi links to terrorism. In 2003, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz said that the decision to emphasize WMDs over these other factors was a political call. The WMD issue allowed the U.N. to be invoked more easily. Of course, one could also have used enforcement of the Oil-for-Food provisions in UNSCR 1360 as a rational for intervention, and that would have been hailed a great victory since it turned out the corruption in that program was much greater than anticipated (it was suggested here in November 2001). But the intelligence community said they had the goods, and the WMD argument moved forward.