David Kay: WMDs That Never Were, A War That Ever Was

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In 2004, almost a year after the start of the Iraq War, David Kay resigned his post as the United States' chief weapons inspector in Iraq. Kay said his group had found no evidence that Iraq had stockpiled chemical and biological weapons before the U.S.-led invasion. His findings were at odds with assertions from the Bush administration at the time. Host Liane Hansen talks with Kay about the conflict in Iraq since then.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In 2004, almost a year after the start of the Iraq War, David Kay resigned his post as the United States' chief weapons inspector in Iraq. Kay said his group had found no evidence that Iraq had stockpiled chemical and biological weapons before the U.S.-led invasion. His findings were at odds with assertions from the Bush administration at the time.

We spoke with David Kay the weekend after his resignation reverberated around Washington and the world. And this is what he said.

Dr. DAVID KAY (Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies; Former Chief Weapons Inspector, Iraq Survey Group): Because of the breakdown of social and political order at the end of the war, and rioting and looting continued unchecked for at least two months, we're going to be left with ambiguity as to what we found. My summary view, based on what I've seen, is that we are very unlikely to find stockpiles, large stockpiles of weapons. I don't think they exist.

HANSEN: We've invited David Kay back to the program. He's now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and he's come into our Washington studios.

David Kay, it is really nice to see you again.

Dr. KAY: I'm very happy to be here with you.

So here we are, eight years after the Iraq War began. America's combat mission there has since ended. The weapons stockpiles were never found, they likely never existed. Do you feel vindicated?

Dr. KAY: Vindication is not the emotion that I felt for the last eight years at all. I first went to Iraq in 1991, after the first Gulf War, so I've had a great deal of contact with the Iraqi population over the years. I'm profoundly sad about what has happened to their society.

Now, let me be clear. Probably the largest portion of blame for that belongs to Saddam Hussein who tore the civil society apart to maintain power. On the other hand, we didn't do a good job either. And so, it's much deeper. It's sadness. It's also a strange sense of foreboding.

We've taken our eye off Iraq. We're now worried about Afghanistan. I'm actually far more concerned about the state of survival and stability in Iraq, as we leave Iraq by the end of the year.

HANSEN: How did that experience change you? I mean for a time, you were caught in the middle of a political fight about the pretense for the Iraq War?

Dr. KAY: Well, as is inevitable in this city, you lose some friends by what position you take on various issues. I discovered - although it really wasn't a new discovery - that candor is one of the values not valued in Washington.

Oh, what I miss most are the friendships that were shattered by that; just had staked too much of their career on there being weapons of mass destruction. And not only didn't we find them, we found they didn't exist prior to the war.

HANSEN: How do you think that kind of faulty intelligence can be prevented, moving ahead?

Dr. KAY: Well, I think it requires people who understand societies that they're making predictions and analysis about far deeper. We had very few people who are really experts in Iraq. I'm actually, right now, quite fearful for the future of U.S. intelligence.

The intelligence service has been merged essentially because we're at war with the Defense Department. And it's a combating terrorism organization, not one that looks strategically around the world to warn political leaders of what is over the horizon and they may have to deal with.

HANSEN: Where does al-Qaida figure into your threat assessment, given the fact that Osama bin Laden is dead?

Dr. KAY: Oh, al-Qaida is going to remain a threat, but I think that's where I worry about intelligence. You deal with that threat that you see right in front of your nose. And you forget, it's coming from a society that's in transition. And in some parts of the transition, the Arab Spring looks mildly optimistic.

On the other, there are others - the demographic status in that whole region is one that's genuinely frightened. I mean, to realize that Yemen at the end of this century, if the course doesn't change, will be the second largest country in the Middle East and yet it has no economy at all. There are frightening things there.

HANSEN: Do you think the U.S. is taking proper action to address the threats you've outlined? I mean you've given your criticism of the intelligence community, but otherwise in terms of, say, foreign-policy, diplomacy.

Dr. KAY: Well, look, I think what you have to deal with is far larger than what I've just described. I think on the horizon you've got to deal with China and India, as they emerge. You're also going to have to deal with something we haven't dealt with in a very long time; and that's the decline of a major power, Japan.

If you look at the demographics, the economy, as well as its exposure to natural events - such as the earthquake and resulting reactor disaster - we haven't recognized what is the result of a decline of a major power, in terms of Asian stability. So there's a lot on the horizon out there to worry about.

I am worried too much we focus on al-Qaida, jihadists. And we, of course - and I understand why - we're worried about what happens to Afghanistan because of the large American presence there.

HANSEN: I know that you've turned your attention to a different focus - and no pun intended in recent years. On your website you write: It quickly became clear that if you tell the Emperor that he is not wearing clothes, you should not expect the president's tailor and valet to ask you to design the next wardrobe. Time for a new passion.

For you that passion is photography. What does it do for you?

Dr. KAY: Well, look. It's just the nature of my personality. Something has to fire me continuously. That's just the way I am. I can't sit back and relax.

HANSEN: Does it keep you sane, optimistic?

Dr. KAY: Well, it's certainly - not everything. I've spent a lot of time over the last few years taking photographs for families at Arlington National Cemetery - that's not optimism. Although I am amazed at how families cope with losses, losses they didn't anticipate and often don't understand. But I am impressed by the resilience that I see there.

I think the American people should really be proud, not only of the courage and heroism of the people on the battlefield but their families who are behind living, and those who are left by tragic deaths. It's something that deeply moves you but moves you in a very positive way.

HANSEN: David Kay is the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq. He's now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Thanks for coming in. It's really good to see you again.

Dr. KAY: Thank you, Liane, very happy to be here.

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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