The headline in Tuesday’s editions of London’s Guardian newspaper read: “No. 10 knew: Iraq no threat.”
The headline in London’s Daily Mirror shouted: “NO THREAT — Revealed: Email from Blair’s top man said Saddam was NOT imminent danger.” The lead editorial in The Independent newspaper declared, “Now we know that No 10 did order a rewrite of the dossier to justify war.”
For the most part, American media is doing a lousy job of following the British investigation of how Blair and his aides spun the case for war with Iraq. From a journalistic standard, that’s bizarre because the story of official deceit in Britain is also the story of official deceit in the United States.
When Bush was trying to con Congress into giving him a blank check to launch a war with Iraq last fall, the president’s efforts were hindered by his rather serious credibility gap. Veteran members of the U.S. intelligence community were signaling — from behind the scenes and, in some cases, publicly — that they did not buy the argument that Iraq posed a serious enough threat to merit military action. And senior members of the House and Senate, including then-Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, who had been reading intelligence reports on Iraq since before Bush entered politics, were asking what had happened that would require a dramatic change in U.S. policy. Other members of Congress, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Russ Feingold, a Democrat, and Lincoln Chafee, a Republican, said the U.S. should focus on the war against terrorism, as opposed to squandering valuable resources on a fight to remove a secular Iraqi leader who had always been at odds with the Islamic fundamentalists of the al-Qaeda network.
Bush was even having trouble with some top Senate Republicans, who were talking about the need to attach some strings to the resolution authorizing the administration to use military force against Iraq.
The president was able to evade those restraints, and to thwart serious Congressional debate on the whole Iraq issue, by flashing around a so-called “intelligence dossier” prepared by the office of British Prime Minister Blair. Widely viewed as a more moderate — and, thus, credible — player on the international stage than Bush, Blair was supposed to be the sensible partner in the emerging “coalition of the willing.” And the report Blair’s office published on September 24, 2002, less than three weeks before Congress approved Bush’s request for authority to wage war, was taken seriously in Washington.
Dozens of members of Congress who had expressed doubts about the Bush administration’s case for war say they were convinced by the Blair team’s claim that Iraq was aggressively developing weapons of mass destruction and that those weapons would soon pose a serious threat to the world. Now, however, it turns out that the dossier was doctored. New revelations from Britain are confirming the skepticism of objective members of Congress — including Graham, Feingold and Chafee — who last fall rejected the so-called “evidence” as insufficiently credible to legitimize the blank check.
Britain’s independent investigation, which is being led by Lord Hutton, a respected senior jurist, was launched to get to the bottom of questions raised by the apparent suicide of Dr. David Kelly, a British expert on chemical and biological weapons, who helped reporters expose the Blair team’s manipulation of intelligence data. But it has turned into a broad examination that is considering information not merely regarding Kelly but the whole question of how Blair and his aides made the case for war.
On Tuesday, Hutton released copies of emails revealed that showed Blair’s own chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, had cautioned against using the dossier to claim that Iraq posed anything akin to “an imminent threat.”
Seven days before Blair’s office released the dossier, Powell emailed top members of the prime minister’s team to argue that, “We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that he (Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein) is an imminent threat.” After reviewing the evidence that had been accumulated, Powell wrote that the information “does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam.”
The most damning line from one of Powell’s emails explained that, after reviewing the intelligence data, the prime minister’s chief of staff found it so thin that he said it would only be “convincing for those who are prepared to be convinced.” As an analysis by The Independent noted, that statement “is extraordinary, and betrays the level of doubt within the Government” about the case that could credibly be made for war.
Blair and his top aides chose to disregard the cautions and hyped the dossier with claims that it confirmed Iraq’s WMD program was “active, detailed and growing” and that Iraq might be able to launch a chemical or biological attack within 45 minutes of getting an order to do so. By the time the dossier got to Washington, the Bush team was treating this bogus claim as gospel. And, even after U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Blair’s dossier was a dubious document, Bush kept pumping up the supposed evidence.
This week’s revelations about the extent to which Blair and his aides massaged and manipulated the intelligence data should suggest to members of the U.S. Congress that simply sitting back and waiting for revelations from the examination of Blair’s deceptions is insufficient. It is time for American investigators to determine whether, in the midst of a debate about war and peace, Bush employed weapons of mass deception.