Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
The Washington Post front-page headline read, "Analysts Discount Attack by Iraq." The New York Times said, "CIA Warns That a US Attack May Ignite Terror." But these newspapers could have reasonably announced, "CIA Information Indicates Bush Misleads Public on Threat from Iraq."
In the past week, President Bush has been on a tear; in speech after speech (many of them on the campaign trail), he has been excoriating Saddam Hussein as a direct threat to Americans. At a political fundraiser in New Hampshire on October 5, he called Hussein "a man who hates so much he's willing to kill his own people, much less Americans." And Bush noted, "We must do everything we can to disarm this man before he hurts a single American." During a primetime speech in Cincinnati two days later, Bush characterized Saddam as a "threat...that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America." He pronounced the Iraqi dictator a "significant" danger to America and said, "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints." He remarked, "we're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using" unmanned aerial vehicles "for missions targeting the United States." And he proclaimed, "America must not ignore the threat gathering against us." At an October 8 campaign rally in Tennessee, Bush remarked, "I've got a problem, obviously, with Mr. Saddam Hussein, and so do you, and that is he poses a threat. He poses a threat to America."
The message is, Saddam is coming, Saddam is coming, and the United States better take the sucker out before he strikes America--meaning, you. But Bush has a problem: the CIA doesn't back him up on this. In fact, it says the opposite.
At a hearing held by the House and Senate intelligence committees on October 8, Senator Bob Graham, the chairman of the Senate panel, read from a letter sent to him by CIA chief George Tenet. In that note, Tenet reported the CIA had concluded that "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [chemical and biological weapons] against the United States." The CIA, according to Tenet, also had determined, "Should Saddam conclude that a US-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions." And the Agency found, "Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."
The bottom-line: Saddam is not likely in the near future to hit the United States or share his weapons with al Qaeda or other anti-American terrorists, unless the United States assaults Iraq. This is hardly the picture the President is sharing with the American public.
Tenet's letter also referred to an exchange at an October 2 secret hearing in which Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, asked a senior intelligence official, "If [Saddam] didn't feel threatened...is it likely that he would initiate an attack using a weapon of mass destruction?" The intelligence official replied, "My judgment would be that the probability of him initiating an attack--let me put a time frame on it--in the foreseeable future, given the conditions we understand now, the likelihood I think would be low."
In all of Bush's dash-to-war rhetoric, where does he refer to this "low" likelihood? Well, he doesn't. And it was telling that this information had to be squeezed out of the CIA. On October 6, the Agency released a white paper on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which maintained that Saddam possessed certain chemical and biological weapons but "probably would not be able to make a [nuclear] weapon until the last half of the decade," unless he could acquire sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad. But this unclassified version of a classified CIA National Intelligence Estimate left out the original's findings on Saddam's views on the use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The CIA, it seems, was trying to keep from the public crucial information: its judgment of what Saddam might do with his arsenal. But members of the intelligence committee had been able to peruse the full NIE, and Graham subsequently leaned on Tenet to declassify this material.
Tenet, good soldier that he is, tried to downplay the significance of the disclosure. In a statement, he said, "there is no inconsistency between our view of Saddam's growing threat and the view as expressed by the President in his [Cincinnati] speech. Although we think the chances of Saddam initiating a WMD attack at this moment are low--in part because it would constitute an admission that he possesses WMD--there is no question that the likelihood of Saddam using WMD against the United States or our allies in the region for blackmail, deterrence, or otherwise grows as his arsenal continues to build."
Nice try. While Bush has raised the specter of a WMD-wielding Saddam bullying his neighbors and Israel, that threat is indeed different from the threat of an Iraqi strike against the United States. Bush is not arguing the nation must prepare for war now--that is, Congress must immediately grant him the power to launch a unilateral and preemptive attack as he sees fit--because sometime in the future Saddam can intimidate Jordan by threatening the use of chemical weapons. Review those quotes above. He is asserting Saddam must be prevented from striking at the United States--an action the CIA deems not probable "in the foreseeable future."
This information from the CIA ought to prompt members of Congress--who are placing aside other matters to debate (so to speak) legislation that would authorize Bush to invade Iraq--to shout, "Time out!" But it's unlikely this piece of awkward news will derail the rush to approve a use-of-force resolution. Besides, the Bush administration, in case it is inconvenienced by this disclosure, is beefing up another of its reasons for war: the al Qaeda-Iraq connection.
In that same letter, Tenet declassified "points for unclassified discussions" on the possible al Qaeda-Saddam link. One point is, "We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade." Another is, "Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression." A third is, "We have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad." And a fourth point is, "We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs."
A link between al Qaeda and Saddam's regime would indeed be troubling--even frightening--and require a response. But the nature of the response should depend on the nature of the connection. Tenet's "points" do not present enough information on which to render a judgment. When did these "senior level contacts" occur and what did they concern? When were the discussions regarding safe havens and reciprocal nonaggression? If all this happened ten years ago and led to no agreements or actions, that would not be reason for attacking Iraq. And what does it mean that al Qaeda members are in Iraq? Al Qaeda has a presence in 60 countries, including the United States. If the CIA knows al Qaeda leaders "sought contacts in Iraq" in order to obtain weapons of mass destruction--and can share that tidbit with the public--can it say whether it knows when this transpired and whether the al Qaeda members succeeded in establishing these contacts? If so, who were their Iraqi contacts? Officials in Saddam's government? As for the training Iraq provided to al Qaeda members, it would be important to understand when that occurred, who supplied the training, and how extensive it was. Given the track record of his CIA, it is difficult not to suspect Tenet was being selective in his release of these "points."
Recently, Representative Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat, was lambasted when he commented, while in Baghdad, that it was conceivable Bush would "mislead" the public in his pursuit of Saddam. Pundits and Republicans howled, and some Democrats complained McDermott had tainted their party. Any campaign consultant could have told McDermott it was politically unwise to utter such an inflammatory statement while in Iraq, the land of the enemy. But McDermott's point--that Bush is willing to stretch the truth to obtain authority to launch a war--has been confirmed. By the CIA.