The Blame Game | The Nation


The Blame Game

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"We were all wrong."

Don't miss David Corn's best-selling book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. Click here to order.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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David Kay, the recently resigned chief WMD hunter who has declared that it is unlikely Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction in the years before the war, uttered these words while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 28. They were meant to explain the tremendous gap between the prewar claims that Iraq was loaded with weapons of mass destruction and the reality that Kay says he found: no actual weapons and "no indication of a production process that would have produced [WMD] stockpiles." Embarrassed by Kay's disclosures, defenders of the invasion of Iraq have wrapped themselves in his we-were-all-wrong pronouncement. President Bush has said, "We all thought [WMDs] were there." White House press secretary Scott McClellan--who as of this writing has not been able to say the word "wrong"--has repeatedly maintained that "our intelligence was based on views shared by intelligence agencies around the world and the United Nations." It's a variant of Kay's we-all-blew-it explanation. The intent is clear: If everyone was wrong about the WMDs, then no one--especially not Bush--is to blame now.

But Kay was incorrect. Not everybody was mistaken on the question of Iraq's WMDs. Not UN inspectors, including Hans Blix, who worried about Saddam Hussein's WMD capabilities but questioned whether discrepancies in Iraq's accounting meant stockpiles existed. Not US intelligence analysts who argued that critical pieces of evidence were not solid. And there were many nongovernment experts who disputed the Bush Administration's WMD allegations. It was Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and other aides who missed the mark. Bush, in response to mounting pressure, has created a commission to study the prewar intelligence, but there is already a record supporting the serious charge that he and his colleagues made assertions before the invasion that were not supported by the intelligence they possessed.

Administration officials and other war backers have pointed to an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate to justify their prewar statements about Iraq's unconventional weapons. An NIE is supposed to be the summation of the intelligence community's best information on a subject, and this one did say, "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons." This assessment, it seems at the moment, was a historic failure, and it remains to be determined if it was the result of good-faith errors or political pressure and manipulation. But even this NIE--which included qualifiers and acknowledged serious disagreements within the intelligence community--did not contain evidence to support the more dramatic allegations that Bush put forward. A review of the declassified "key judgments" of the NIE and other pieces of intelligence--including a speech Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet gave at Georgetown University on February 5 to defend his agency--clearly shows that Bush and his national security team overstated what now appears to have been overstated intelligence.

In an October 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, Bush said Iraq had a "massive stockpile of biological weapons." The NIE said no such thing. It did report--apparently errantly--that Iraq had an extensive bioweapons program. But the available intelligence did not confirm the existence of a stockpile. As Tenet noted, "We said we had no specific information on the types or quantities of [biological] weapons, agent, or stockpiles at Baghdad's disposal." So how could Bush have said Iraq had stockpiled biological weapons? Bush suggested his claim was based on the previous findings of UN inspectors. But the UN inspections team, which left Iraq in 1998, had not concluded that a stockpile remained. In fact, Rolf Ekeus, who headed the UN inspections effort, had deduced the opposite. In a 2000 interview, he said, "There are no large quantities of weapons [in Iraq]. I don't think Iraq is especially eager in the biological and chemical area to produce such weapons for storage.... Rather, Iraq has been aiming to keep the capability to start up production immediately should it need to."

Tenet's speech also contradicted Cheney, who has echoed his boss and hyped evidence. Last May Bush declared, "We found the weapons of mass destruction." He was referring to two tractor-trailers discovered in northern Iraq during the war that the CIA initially maintained were mobile bioweapons labs. But Bush spoke too soon. Engineering experts at the Defense Intelligence Agency and experts outside government concluded that these trailers had been manufactured for other purposes, perhaps the production of hydrogen. Ignoring the well-known controversy over the trailers, Cheney in mid-January declared they were "conclusive evidence" that Saddam had programs for producing WMDs. Yet at Georgetown, Tenet said, "There is no consensus within our intelligence community over whether the trailers were for that use or if they were used for the production of hydrogen."

Regarding chemical weapons, Powell said in his February 2003 UN speech the Administration's "conservative estimate" was that Saddam possessed 100 to 500 tons of "chemical weapons agent." The flawed NIE had not been as definitive. It noted that "we have little specific information on Iraq's CW stockpile," but it added that Saddam "probably" had 100 tons and "possibly" 500 tons. Tenet told his Georgetown audience that "initially the community was skeptical about whether Iraq had started chemical weapons agent production." But, he added, once analysts saw satellite photos of shipments from ammunition sites, they concluded that Iraq was cooking up chemical weapons. That view was not unanimous. In September 2002 the Defense Intelligence Agency reported, "There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons." And when Powell displayed satellite photos at the UN to back up his chemical weapons claims, independent analysts did not find them persuasive. Jonathan Tucker, a former weapons inspector who specialized in chemical weapons, said they probably indicated Saddam had some chemical weapons but "not huge amounts." Kelly Motz, another weapons specialist, said, "The evidence is still circumstantial and open to interpretation."

Bush and Cheney were particularly brazen when they declared that Saddam was revving up efforts to develop a nuclear bomb. In August 2002 Cheney said, "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.... Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." The next month Bush claimed a 1998 International Atomic Energy Agency report had said Iraq was six months away from producing a bomb. (No such report existed, and the IAEA in 1998 had said its inspectors destroyed the known components of Iraq's nuclear weapons program.) In December 2002 Bush said, "We don't know whether or not [Saddam] has a nuclear weapon"--a remark that suggested he might have one. But no sane intelligence analyst believed Saddam possessed such weapons. "We said Saddam Hussein did not have a nuclear weapon," Tenet recalled. And the NIE did not depict his program as an immediate threat. It noted that Iraq would probably only be able to produce a bomb by 2007 to 2009 "if left unchecked."

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