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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.

About the Author

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."

In public, Bush Administration officials pointed to Iraq's acquisition of aluminum tubes and its supposed interest in buying uranium in Africa as signs of a renewed program. Neither of these infamous claims has held up. But before the war, intelligence analysts at the Energy and State departments dissented from the view that the aluminum tubes were destined for a nuclear weapons program, and the State Department analysts called the uranium-from-Niger charge "highly dubious." They also concluded, according to the NIE, that there was no "compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing...an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." These analysts were not the only ones who accurately assessed the situation. On March 7, 2003, IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei reported that his agency's renewed inspections had found "no indication of resumed nuclear activities...nor any indication of nuclear-related prohibited activities at any inspected sites."

There were other areas where intelligence analysts were more on target than melodramatic Bush officials. In his Cincinnati speech, Bush said, "We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical and biological weapons across broad areas." He raised the prospect of Iraq attacking the United States with these drones. But the NIE concluded only that Iraq had a "development program"--not a "growing fleet"--of UAVs. And the intelligence analysts with the most expertise in the UAV area--those at the Air Force--believed that the UAVs under development were intended for reconnaissance, not WMD attacks. "The jury is still out," Tenet said, "on whether Iraq intended to use its newer, smaller [UAVs] to deliver biological weapons."

Much of the current controversy over the prewar intelligence has fixated on WMDs. But Bush's primary case for war was based on the suppositions that Saddam had horrible weapons, had an operational alliance with Al Qaeda and would be willing to share his WMDs with the murderers of 9/11. In November 2002 Bush said Saddam was "dealing with" Al Qaeda. At the UN Powell said there was a "sinister nexus" between the Iraqi dictator and Al Qaeda. Aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, Bush called Saddam an "ally" of Al Qaeda.

But the NIE's "key judgments" did not conclude that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden, and the estimate reported that intelligence analysts believed Saddam would consider slipping chemical or biological weapons to a terrorist outfit only as an "extreme step" if he were "already engaged in a life-or-death struggle against the United States." Prior to the invasion, war opponents and some terrorism experts challenged the Administration's efforts to link Iraq to Al Qaeda. After Powell's presentation at the UN, Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow at the National Defense University who'd worked for twenty years as a CIA analyst, said that Powell's description of the purported connection between the two "appeared to have been carefully drawn to imply more than it actually said." And intelligence officials quoted anonymously in the New York Times and the Washington Post revealed there was no solid confirmation of such a link. To date, no strong proof of an operational relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam has emerged. In fact, captured Al Qaeda leaders have told interrogators there was no partnership between bin Laden and Saddam. Their word, of course, is suspect. But is Powell's? In mid-January, he conceded, "I have not seen smoking-gun concrete evidence about the [Saddam-Al Qaeda] connection, but I think the possibility of such connections did exist and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did." Prudent to consider the possibility? That's not how Bush put it before the war.

Tenet did not address the missing link to Al Qaeda in his Georgetown speech, but in defending his analysts he said they had never concluded Iraq was an "imminent" threat. Instead, he said, they portrayed Saddam as a "brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests." Might, he said. Bush turned might into had. While Bush seemingly never publicly used the word "imminent," he did say before the war that Iraq was able to launch a biological or chemical weapons attack within forty-five minutes and to hand WMDs to terrorists "on any given day." He warned that "Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country," and the White House asserted that there was a "high risk" Iraq would use WMDs "to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its armed forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so." What was the basis for such declarations? Not the intelligence in hand.

Before the war, many people in the United States and elsewhere--policy experts, past and present military officials, legislators and citizens--challenged Bush's depiction of Iraq as an immediate threat. It looks as if they, too, were right, as well as those who called for further and tougher inspections instead of war. Kay has acknowledged that the UN inspections process succeeded in "holding the [Iraqi WMD] program down and keeping it from breakout."

Kay's judgments are hardly final, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has argued. (He can hope.) And the WMD search continues in Iraq--albeit with fewer resources. But the early returns are not good for Bush. As his new intelligence commission reviews the prewar intelligence, its members should not ask, Why did everyone get it wrong? Instead, they should wonder, Why did some get it wrong, but not others? Kay has said the intelligence community owes the President an explanation. But Bush owes the public one. The rap cannot be pinned entirely on the intelligence crowd. Bush has to answer for the way he used the intelligence. Kay, for one, has urged the commission--which will not release its findings until months after Bush stands for re-election--to examine whether there was "an abuse of the [intelligence] by politicians." That is a polite way of asking if Bush and his aides turned misinformation into disinformation. The overall assessment assembled by the intelligence community was, it currently appears, seriously wrong. The notion that the CIA messed up has become widely accepted, and Bush and his allies may attempt to hide behind the cloak of the spies. But Bush & Co. took the dubious work produced by the intelligence agencies and made it even more wrong. Can they--will they--get away with it?

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