This man lobbied the US to invade Iraq over ‘WMDs’, but had the courage to admit his mistake

David Kay, the seasoned weapons inspector who said “We were all wrong” about the pretext of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was a man of integrity

David Kay, well known for his aggressive inspection style, strong views about Iraqi compliance with disarmament obligations and strong views, showed true grit. At the end of it all, he stood up to the whole world and faced them with the reality that they had all been wrong regarding Iraq.

When I arrived in New York in September 1991, 16 UNSCOM weapons inspectors had been in Iraq, beginning in May. Most of the inspections had been conducted in accordance with the on-site inspection template born of the American experience in implementing the intermediate nuclear forces (INF) treaty, which had entered into force in July 1988 and represented the world’s first foray into on-site inspection as a means of arms control compliance verification.

This template amounted to a gentleman’s agreement, so to speak, where one side provided a thorough declaration of the locations and materials covered by an agreement giving the inspections authority (in the case of Iraq, this meant Security Council resolution 687, passed in April 1991, mandating the creation of UNSCOM and its disarmament mission), and the other side agreed to verify the completeness of that declaration, and oversee the disposition of the material involved, in a manner which respected the sovereignty and dignity of the inspected party.

There were some exceptions to the template. When Iraq provided UNSCOM with its declaration regarding its holdings of proscribed chemical, biological, nuclear, and long-range ballistic missiles (collectively known as weapons of mass destruction, or WMD), many nations who examined this declaration were taken aback by what was not included – Iraq had denied any involvement in either nuclear or biological weapons activities, and had significantly under declared its chemical and long-range ballistic missile capabilities.

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American intelligence detected evidence of large devices, known as “calutrons”, that were used by Iraqi to enrich uranium. They were not reported by Iraq. A UNSCOM-authorized inspection team, consisting of an inspector from the International Atomic Energy Agency and an IAEA representative, visited a site where the calutrons could be seen by US intelligence satellites. David Kay (an experienced safeguard inspector) led the inspection team that arrived at the spot identified by Americans. However, they were not allowed to enter the building for the next three days. Once the team was allowed to go inside, there was nothing to be found – all the materials had been removed by the Iraqis.

American satellites found a convoy loaded with the calutrons in a Baghdad military camp. According to inspection protocols, the inspection team must give the Iraqis advance notice that they intend to visit the site. David Kay took his inspection team to the appropriate site this time without giving the Iraqis any advance notice. The armed guards blocked the entry to the site for the inspectors upon arrival. Two inspectors scaled a nearby watchtower to see the inside of the facility. Two inspectors climbed a nearby watchtower to observe the Iraqis pulling the trucks out from the back of camp. They radioed the information to the rest. One inspection vehicle chased the vehicles and was soon found alongside almost 100 heavy-laden trucks. Before they could take dozens of photos, inspectors were stopped by Iraqi soldiers. They fired warning shots above their heads.

It was too late. After the UN Security Council threatened military force, a lengthy diplomatic dispute between Iraq’s inspectors and the UN Security Council ended. Iraq finally admitted that there was an unreported program for enrichment of Uranium, but did not deny that the effort was related to a nuclear weapons program.

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David Kay conducted an inspection of the site in July. He was able, in part, to find inconsistencies within the Iraqi narrative. These inconsistencies were matched by a new technical picture that emerged from forensic investigations and analyses. The results led Kay to believe there was indeed a weapons program. 

David Kay led another inspection team into Iraq in September. This inspection was different – instead of IAEA safeguards inspectors and nuclear specialists, the team consisted of a large number of US special forces and CIA paramilitary operatives trained in the art of sensitive site exploitation – in short, how to uncover documents and other materials hidden in a site. Armed with precise intelligence provided by Iraqi defectors, David Kay’s team was able to discover an archive of sensitive nuclear documents, including some which proved the existence of a nuclear weapons program. Kay’s team took possession of the documents but was prevented from leaving the site by armed Iraqi guards. 

Through his many satellite-telephone interviews, David Kay has become a popular name. After several days of negotiations, the Iraqis relented and released both the inspectors, as well the documents. However, they were again forced to rewrite the nuclear declaration to admit that there was a nuclear weapon program.

David Kay was the man responsible.

The first “met”David Kay, UNSCOM’s duty officer in September 2001. We spoke over the phone. David later arrived in New York to consult with me. I was too scared by the legendary figure of David Kay to speak to him. 

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David Kay’s high profile proved too much for the stolid bureaucracy of the IAEA, and soon afterwards, he left the IAEA for calmer pastures in civilian life.

My own reputation as an inspector grew. My involvement in the standoff I faced with Iraq was evident in 1992 when the group I had organised and where I served the operations officer were involved in days-long standoffs. Iraq prevented us from entering a ministry building that contained its WMD-related material. That fall, I conceived, organized, and led a pair of inspections which helped uncover the truth about Iraq’s undeclared ballistic missile force. Later, I took the lead in investigating Iraq’s so-called concealment mechanism, used to hide information and material from the inspectors. My teams were frequently involved in conflict with Iraqi officials and security forces during this operation. This often led to Security Council intervention that was similar in nature than the intervention David Kay initiated in the summer 1991.

People accused me of looking like David Kay. I took that as an compliment.

Following my resignation from UNSCOM, in August 1998, David’s and my paths diverged considerably. Based upon my seven years of work leading UNSCOM inspections in Iraq, I was convinced that Iraq’s WMD holdings had been largely accounted for, and that nothing of significance remained.

David, based on his own personal experiences, adopted a different approach and accused Iraq of hiding its WMD from inspectors. He felt that they were not equipped to disarm Iraq in such an uncertain environment.

As the person responsible for conceiving and implementing the methodologies, technologies, and tactics used by UNSCOM to counter Iraq’s concealment efforts, I took umbrage at David Kay’s denigration of the work done by myself and my fellow inspectors, and watched in growing frustration as he was able to successfully lobby the US Congress and the mainstream media into embracing his school of thought – that Iraq retained significant quantities of WMD, and this fact represented a threat worthy of US military intervention.

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The lobbying of David Kay who was an ex-inspector and whose credibility was undeniable made it possible for the Bush administration to convince the US Congress to approve the invasion of Iraq. It took place in March 2003. Shortly after formal Iraqi resistance collapsed, in April, David Kay was selected to head up a CIA-run organization known as the Iraq Survey Group, or ISG, which was tasked with hunting down Iraq’s WMD programs.

While many people familiar with David Kay’s biography refer to his time as an IAEA inspector as his greatest achievement, I have another perspective. David Kay faced the terrifying reality by 2003 that the Iraqi WMD he had been assigned to uncover, and which Kay had insisted on proving existed before the war, was not there. David Kay was confronted by this harsh truth and resigned as head of ISG. In February 2004, he testified before Congress and admitted that there were no Iraqi WMD. “it turns out that we were all wrong, probably in my judgment, and that is most disturbing.”

David Kay died on August 12, 2022. He was 82.

His reputation as an intimidating presence, and a respected man, helped me remember the fallen Marine. He also, despite my disagreement about the disposition of Iraqi WMDs pre-war, was someone I can always recall as being a true gentleman who stood up for himself and held him accountable.

David Kay is, for me at least, the embodiment of moral and physical courage. In these tough times the world could use more such courage, and the world will suffer for it now that David Kay is gone.



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