Hiding Behind Secrecy

All things must come to an end, and so it proved with the massive post-invasion scouring of Iraq in search for Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). On Jan. 12, 2005, the Bush administration quietly confirmed press reports that the unit in charge of the search, the Iraq Survey Group, has broken off its fruitless effort to find them. This event deserves much more than the cursory comment it received. After all, the U.S. invasion started as a crusade to prevent mushroom clouds over American cities or dastardly biological and chemical attacks by an Iraqi regime the Bush administration portrayed as chomping at the bit to get at us. What we hear today about the reasons for Iraq—that it is about bringing democracy to this Persian Gulf land, that an oppressive dictator needed to be overthrown—are feel-good rationales that began as subsidiary arguments to buttress those about the "real" supposed threat. Those reasons came to the fore as the Bush people's WMD claims progressively eroded. The true story here is a tale of the power of the bully pulpit, the power of the presidency to shape opinion and even mislead it in service of ill-considered policy goals.

The Lie That Keeps On Giving

In its push to ensure that the failure of the Iraq Survey Group be merely a one-day blip in media reporting, the Bush administration treated Americans to more of the same obfuscation to which it resorted in the original push to war. White House press secretary Scott McClellan explained that the survey group report by Charles Duelfer said that Saddam "retained the intent and capability" to build weapons and dismissed the entire issue as old news, something President Bush had talked about last October when Duelfer made a public report. McClellan's Jan. 12 statement insisted that all this can be traced back to intelligence failure. President Bush—and presumably all Americans—should wait to hear the findings on WMD intelligence expected from a presidential commission now examining that question.

McClellan is misleading on both counts. What President Bush said on Oct. 7, 2004, was that the Iraq Survey Group report "confirms the earlier conclusion by David Kay [Duelfer's predecessor] that Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there"—and given the report's content, he could hardly maintain otherwise. But Bush insisted that "based on all the information we have to date, I believe we were right to take action." The information to date, as laid out in exhaustive detail in Duelfer's report, was that Iraq had no WMD, had destroyed in the 1990s what weapons remained to it after the Gulf War, had no programs to develop such weapons (though it did do work on missile systems that might be used with future WMD), and had few resources to devote to WMD programs (oil smuggling notwithstanding). 

As McClellan continues to assert, Bush also affirmed the opposite: Saddam "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction." In contrast, the Iraq Survey Group found ambition to resume work on weapons in the future when resources became available and United Nations sanctions eroded, and a "guiding theme" to "sustain the intellectual capacity achieved." Absent were the materials and means, plus specific Iraqi action to develop weapons of mass destruction in the near term.

No Threat To America

Much as Bush administration rhetoric has shifted to different justifications for the Iraq war, what has completely disappeared from discussions of WMD is the repeated prewar assertion that Iraqi weapons (if they existed) were for the purpose of attacking the United States. What the Iraq Survey Group found was that Saddam's intentions, such as they were, were to deter Iran (with which Saddam had fought a decade-long war in the 1980s) and serve as "a symbol and a normal process of modernity." As for the United States, in a passage blocked out in bold, Duelfer's report concluded that "Saddam did not consider the United States a natural adversary ... and he hoped that Iraq might again enjoy improved relations."

Colin's Fall

The administration's main foreign policy spokesman thus far, Secretary of State Colin Powell, was asked about the end of the weapons search during his interview on Jim Lehrer's News Hour on Jan. 13 and ducked the question. Powell had been responsible for a key presentation of the rationale for war—the briefing he gave the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. Lehrer asked Powell if he regretted the speech, and Powell replied he regretted the erroneous intelligence. Following the precise lines Scott McClellan laid down in the White House press room, Powell not only emphasized the intelligence aspect, but he made identical assertions about Saddam's continuing intentions and capabilities for WMD. Powell professes that he pushed as hard as he could have for confirmation of the WMD claims in the days before his U.N. speech, and thought himself presenting the best data available. But the Senate intelligence committee's investigation of the Iraq intelligence estimates not only finds holes in that argument, its report reprints a memorandum to Powell from his own intelligence unit during the days before the speech that rejects several of the Iraq claims, showing Powell had been warned against his assertions before the fact. Disingenuous? Or merely standard Bush administration public relations?

Not Intelligence Failure, Intelligence Rigging

No doubt there was an intelligence failure on Iraqi WMD. Former CIA director George Tenet's assertion that the weapons claims were "slam dunk" accurate is likely to follow him long and painfully. But the truth in the matter is that the Bush administration wanted to take out Saddam Hussein and to do that needed justification to invade Iraq. Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice—all of them pushed the CIA to go beyond its hard data in drawing conclusions about the alleged Iraqi weapons. It was Bush himself who said, in November 2002, "What more evidence do we need?" Just before and during the invasion, those people said we knew Saddam had "reconstituted nuclear weapons" (and other WMD), we knew where they were, we knew at what point the Iraqis might resort to using them. After the invasion found no evidence for WMD, they told us the Iraq Survey Group was going to find it.

Now the same gang is telling us the invasion—and all the consequences it wrought—is merely the result of an intelligence failure. Yet a more accurate account is that the Bush people encouraged intelligence failure and now hide their culpability behind the intelligence failure they are happy to concede occurred. Worse, President Bush says the election constituted a referendum on his Iraq policy, and that moment of accountability excuses him from disciplining any of the responsible officials.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on hearing of the termination of the Iraq Survey Group, asked President Bush to make an apology and explanation to the American people. She would do better to stop Bush from making his next intelligence failure: regime change in Iran, North Korea or Syria.

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