It is difficult for members of the US Senate, where even the best are uncommonly proud, to admit that they are not always in the know. Perhaps that explains why Sen. John Kerry did not object in the first presidential debate when George W. Bush twice claimed that the two men had “looked at the same intelligence” on Iraq before the war when, in fact, they hadn’t.
The reality is that the Bush White House deceived Kerry and the rest of Congress by exaggerating and distorting intelligence and by systematically repressing analysis that contradicted its claim that Iraq posed a clear and imminent danger to the American people–especially regarding its most alarming conclusion, that Iraq had restarted its nuclear weapons program.
The Iraqi nukes snow job, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and the President himself, was alarmingly effective because it conflated highly technical jargon and teasing hints at classified information with the most fearsome image in the modern psyche: the mushroom cloud.
“We do know that there have been shipments…into Iraq, for instance, of aluminum tubes that really are only suited…for nuclear weapons programs,” Rice said on CNN on September 8, 2002. Three days later, Bush said basically the same thing to the UN General Assembly.
Now a detailed investigative article in Sunday’s New York Times clarifies and reinforces earlier reports that the Administration knew this evidence was being aggressively debunked by the country’s leading experts but the White House kept that criticism from Congress and the public by invoking national security.
The Administration knew the facts, even as it was energetically leaking a raft of intelligence flotsam that buttressed its propaganda that Iraq posed an immediate threat to the world.
It is crucial to remember that the tale of the tubes was once the foundation of the “irrefutable evidence” Cheney cited when asserting that Saddam Hussein was rebuilding a nuclear weapons program dismantled by a decade of war, inspections and sanctions. He knew that the possibility of Hussein having nukes was the key to elevating Iraq from being a mere irritant to the United States to an actual threat, and this explains why the Administration was willing to put so much public faith in such astonishingly weak intelligence.
For her part, Rice admitted Sunday on ABC-TV’s This Week that, before making her now-infamous remark in 2002 that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she knew there was a debate about the tubes between the CIA and experts at the Energy Department. However, she admitted, “I actually didn’t really know the nature of the dispute.”
And when then-CIA chief George Tenet was successfully pressured in the fall of 2002 by a nervous White House to buck up Congressional support for an Iraq invasion by creating an unclassified summary of intelligence on the Iraq threat, the agency flat-out lied: “All intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons and that these tubes could be used in a centrifuge enrichment program.”
In hindsight, as the New York Times makes clear, the opposite was true. The Energy Department experts who formed what the Times refers to as “unambiguously the A-Team of the intelligence community” on matters of nuclear centrifuges took a close look at the frightening claims first made by an aggressive junior CIA agent and declared them “unlikely,” noting that “a rocket production is the much more likely end use for these tubes.”
That is exactly what the international inspectors found when they returned to Iraq before a war-hungry Bush pulled the plug on their nearly completed mission. “After three months of intrusive inspections, we have, to date, found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq,” stated the International Atomic Energy Agency on March 7, 2003, just weeks before the US and Britain bypassed the U.N. and invaded Iraq. Yet, rather than admit that he bent the facts to fit the narrative of fear he was pressing on the American people, the President now blames the CIA, his predecessor, his opponents–anybody but himself and his national security team. He carps constantly that, because others were duped, he shouldn’t be blamed.
If the buck does not stop with the commander in chief, where does it stop? With the American voters on November 2.