If you blinked–or were busy buying hot-dogs and beer for a Fourth of July cookout–you might have missed the latest evidence that George W. Bush misrepresented the threat from Iraq as he guided the country into invasion and occupation in the Middle East.
The day before Independence Day, Richard Kerr, a former CIA deputy director who is leading a review of the CIA’s prewar intelligence on Iraq’s unconventional weapons, held a series of interviews with journalists and revealed that his unfinished inquiry had so far found that the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had been somewhat ambiguous, that analysts at the CIA and other intelligence services had received pressure from the Bush administration, and that the CIA had not found any proof of operational ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In other words, Bush lied.
Bush had said that intelligence gathered by the United States and other nations had determined–“no doubt”–that Hussein possessed WMDs, and he had declared that the Iraqi dictator was “dealing” with al Qaeda. Kerr’s statements undermined these vital assertions Bush had made to justify the war.
Kerr was not trying to be difficult. His remarks were primarily pro-CIA. He maintained that the agency had been right to tell Bush and top administration officials that Hussein was seeking WMDs. He said that intelligence analysts had resisted pressure and had done a fine job, considering the limited amount of material they had to work with. Kerr noted that US intelligence analysts had been forced to rely upon information from the early and mid-1990s and had little hard evidence to evaluate after 1998 (when UN weapons inspectors left the Iraq). The material that did come in after then was mostly “circumstantial” or “inferential,” he said. It was “less specific and detailed” than in earlier years, “scattered.” Speaking to The Washington Post, he commented, “It would have been very hard to conclude those [WMD] programs were not continuing, based on the reports being gathered in recent years.” And he noted that CIA intelligence reports included the “appropriate caveats” regarding their less-than-definitive conclusions. (An unclassified CIA report released last October said, without qualification, “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons.” But its supporting material was nuanced, and Kerr noted that intelligence analysts usually pointed out that their information was not perfect.)
Though Kerr did not say so outright, his findings indicate that there was no hard-and-fast intelligence that Iraq possessed ready-to-go chemical or biological weapons. Yet that is what Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Ari Fleischer and other administration officials had asserted repeatedly. In his interviews, Kerr remarked that US intelligence analysts were right to assume, based on older evidence and more recent circumstantial material, that Iraq was maintaining its unconventional weapons programs. But developing weapons is not the same as possessing weapons. Bush and his advisers did not argue that the United States was compelled to go to war–rather than support more intrusive inspections–because Hussein had ongoing weapons programs; they claimed the United States had to invade because it was imminently threatened by actual weapons that were in Hussein’s mitts (and that he could slip at any moment to his partners in al Qaeda).
Before the war, there was little doubt that Hussein had a fancy for mass-killing weapons and was defying UN disarmament resolutions in part to maintain programs to develop such awful devices. Yet a desire for WMDs and a development program are not as threatening as the real things, and Bush and his colleagues said the intelligence showed–without question–Hussein was armed with biological and chemical weapons, was close to building a nuclear bomb, and was in league with Osama bin Laden. Kerr’s comments offer further proof none of this was true.
So did front-page headlines scream, “Former Deputy CIA Director Contradicts Bush’s Key War Claims”? Nope. Kerr’s remarks were treated more as a hiccup than a bombshell. A search of the Lexis-Nexis newspaper database turned up only three stories that were published; they appeared in the Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The San Diego Union-Tribune. And the headlines focused on Kerr’s rah-rahing for the CIA. “Basis for Arms Claims Affirmed” (the Post). “Official Backs Prewar Claims” ( The Los Angeles). “Internal Review Backs CIA on Iraqi Weapons” ( The San Diego Union-Tribune). Each piece emphasized Kerr’s endorsement of the CIA’s analysts, rather than the fact that his findings revealed that the Bush administration had misrepresented the work of the analysts. As of this writing, The New York Times has not published a word about Kerr’s preliminary findings. You think it’s a coincidence that Kerr spoke to reporters the day prior to a long holiday weekend? You don’t have to be James Bond to figure that out.
Slowly, official material is seeping out that confirms the allegation that Bush and his national security crew misled the country into war. Last week, Representative Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, referred to preliminary findings of a review being conducted by her committee. This examination, like Kerr’s, has found that the intelligence analysts had attached caveats and qualifiers to their assessments of the WMD threat from Iraq (which Bush never bothered to mention) and that there had been no good intelligence linking Hussein with bin Laden. (Click here to read more about her remarks.)
Perhaps Kerr is right and that US intelligence analysts had good cause–if not good evidence–to conclude that Hussein was still on the prowl for WMDs. A cynic, though, might wonder whether this former senior CIA official (who was a longtime analyst for the agency) is being overly kind to his alma mater. Nevertheless, the issue at hand is what Bush and his administration told the public. Kerr’s remarks add to the case against Bush. They are another signal that thorough investigations could end up establishing that the accusation that Bush lied needs no qualifiers or caveats.