Now He Tells Us
The president played the scoundrel -- even the best of his minions went along with the lies -- and when a former ambassador dared to tell the truth, the White House initiated what Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald calls "a plan to discredit, punish or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson." That is the important story line.
If not for the whistle-blower, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, President Bush's falsehoods about the Iraq nuclear threat likely would never have been exposed.
On Monday, former Secretary of State Colin Powell told me that he and his department's top experts never believed that Iraq posed an imminent nuclear threat, but that the president followed the misleading advice of Vice President Dick Cheney and the CIA in making the claim. Now he tells us.
The harsh truth is that this president cherry-picked the intelligence data in making his case for invading Iraq and deliberately kept the public in the dark as to the countervailing analysis at the highest level of the intelligence community. While the president and his top Cabinet officials were fear-mongering with stark images of a "mushroom cloud" over American cities, the leading experts on nuclear weaponry at the Department of Energy (the agency in charge of the U.S. nuclear-weapons program) and the State Department thought the claim of a near-term Iraqi nuclear threat was absurd.
"The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons," said a dissenting analysis from an assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research (INR) in the now infamous 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which was cobbled together for the White House before the war. "Iraq may be doing so but INR considers the available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment."
The specter of the Iraqi nuclear threat was primarily based on an already-discredited claim that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes for the purpose of making nuclear weapons. In fact, at the time, the INR wrote in the National Intelligence Estimate that it "accepts the judgment of technical experts at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) who have concluded that the tubes Iraq seeks to acquire are poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment and finds unpersuasive the arguments advanced by others to make the case that they are intended for that purpose."
The other major evidence President Bush gave Americans for a revitalized Iraq nuclear program, of course, was his 2003 State of the Union claim -- later found to be based on forged documents -- that a deal had been made to obtain uranium from Niger. This deal was exposed within the administration as bogus before the president's speech in January by Ambassador Wilson, who traveled to Niger for the CIA. Wilson only went public with his criticisms in an op-ed piece in the New York Times a half year later in response to what he charged were the administration's continued distortion of the evidence. In excerpts later made available to the public, it is clear that the Niger claim doesn't even appear as a key finding in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, while the INR dissent in that document dismisses it curtly: "[T]he claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR's assessment highly dubious."
I queried Powell at a reception following a talk he gave in Los Angeles on Monday. Pointing out that the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate showed that his State Department had gotten it right on the nonexistent Iraq nuclear threat, I asked why did the president ignore that wisdom in his stated case for the invasion?
"The CIA was pushing the aluminum tube argument heavily and Cheney went with that instead of what our guys wrote," Powell said. And the Niger reference in Bush's State of the Union speech? "That was a big mistake," he said. "It should never have been in the speech. I didn't need Wilson to tell me that there wasn't a Niger connection. He didn't tell us anything we didn't already know. I never believed it."
When I pressed further as to why the president played up the Iraq nuclear threat, Powell said it wasn't the president: "That was all Cheney." A convenient response for a Bush family loyalist, perhaps, but it begs the question of how the president came to be a captive of his vice president's fantasies.
More important: Why was this doubt, on the part of the secretary of state and others, about the salient facts justifying the invasion of Iraq kept from the public until we heard the truth from whistle-blower Wilson, whose credibility the president then sought to destroy? In matters of national security, when a president leaks, he lies.
By selectively releasing classified information to suit his political purposes, as President Bush did in this case, he is denying that there was a valid basis for keeping the intelligence findings secret in the first place. "We ought to get to the bottom of it, so it can be evaluated by the American people," said Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I couldn't have put it any better.