The WMD Blame Game
In the face of growing public and Congressional pressure, President Bush has reversed his opposition to an independent investigation of flawed U.S. intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Will Americans finally get the critical examination they deserve into the fraudulent claims used by the administration to justify its "preemptive" war?
Don't count on it. Early indications suggest that the commission is being crafted by the White House primarily to deflect blame for its deceptions about the threat posed by Iraq.
On Saturday the Washington Post reported, "Bush's shift in position represents an effort to get out in front of a potentially dangerous issue that threatens to cloud his reelection bid." As more information about the President's plans hit the press on Sunday, some of the bipartisan commission's politically fortuitous aspects became clear. The investigation will get off to a slow start and won't report back until well after the November elections.
Moreover, it appears that the commission's mandate will be structured to help the Bush administration avoid responsibility for its distortions. Furthering former chief weapons inspector David Kay's controversial assertion that the faulty allegations about Saddam's arsenal had nothing to do with the political pressures of an impending invasion, the commission will go beyond Iraq to investigate intelligence about Iran, Libya, India, and Pakistan.
This move to lessen the focus on Iraq and paint the CIA as broadly dysfunctional serves the President well. Already some White House officials are suggesting that, in the build-up to war, they were simply making prudent estimates about Saddam's arsenal based on the best intelligence available, which, they say, admittedly looks poor in hindsight.
A real investigation would not let them off that easy. An independent commission should have the power to look beyond technical intelligence-gathering processes and examine questions about how the administration used and misused intelligence findings in its push for war.
As the White House tries to shift blame to bodies like the CIA, it is important to remember that its doomsday estimates about Iraqi chemical weapons were part of a larger series of deceptions. Bush officials pushed the idea that Saddam Hussein had connections to Al Qaeda and a menacing nuclear weapons program well after the intelligence community had debunked such claims. The President pretends that the empty-handed search for WMDs has actually been a success, using amorphous but frightening descriptions of "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." Other senior spokespeople have similarly stayed on the attack. A New York Times article from last Friday reported that Dick Cheney "was on the air again, talking about Mr. Hussein's mobile biological weapons units, which now appear, Dr. Kay says, to have had no such purpose."
The paper added an aside from one of the Vice President's staffers, who said, "We'll have to get Cheney the new memo... as soon as we write it."
David Kay and Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, each deny claims that the Bush administration pressured intelligence analysts to produce exaggerated reports about Iraq's weapons. However, a Times article from Sunday shows this remains a live debate. Even while citing the denials, it quotes intelligence officials, some still in the administration, who make clear that the Bush administration was looking for intelligence that would support its push for an invasion of Iraq, rather than making a tough decision to go to war after a sober review of the facts.
"They took every piece of information that proved their point and listed it," said an unnamed intelligence officer quoted in the article, specifically referring to the presentation Colin Powell made one year ago at the United Nations. "They would disregard or make fun of any contrary evidence. They forgot they were making mere guesses, and even guesses have to be taken with caution. They didn't hedge or caveat. Instead they would say we're right and you're wrong and it's a matter of national security."
More disturbing still is Seymour Hersh's October 27 article in The New Yorker. It describes in devastating detail how neoconservative hawks working under Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld demanded that incriminating, but unverified, reports about Saddam's weapons be sent directly to highly placed Bush administration personnel. A select team of loyalists could then decide for themselves what they would present to the public.
Hersh writes that "Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council expert on Iraq, whose book The Threatening Storm generally supported the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein, told me that what the Bush people did was 'dismantle the existing filtering process that for fifty years had been preventing the policymakers from getting bad information. They created stovepipes to get the information they wanted directly to the top leadership. Their position is that the professional bureaucracy is deliberately and maliciously keeping information from them.'"
"They always had information to back up their public claims, but it was often very bad information," Pollack continued. "They were forcing the intelligence community to defend its good information and good analysis so aggressively that the intelligence analysts didn't have the time or the energy to go after the bad information."
"Pretty soon you say 'Fuck it,'" a senior Bush administration official told Hersh, who writes that CIA senior analysts then "began to provide the intelligence that was wanted."
It may well be true, as David Kay and others argue, that intelligence officers since the Clinton era viewed Saddam Hussein with more trepidation than was actually warranted, and that our nation's wider methods for gathering and evaluating information deserve scrutiny. The government should address these concerns. But the fact that distressing charges about the Bush administration's uniquely politicized use of intelligence about Iraq continue to surface on a regular basis points to the need for something more. An independent inquiry must place intelligence failures in the context of a war effort whose central justifications have consistently proven unfounded.
President Bush's commission, fashioned as political damage control, isn't likely to do the job. That is, unless pressure for a real investigation continues to grow.
Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a commentator for Foreign Policy in Focus. Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.