Oh to be swiped by The New Republic –and to be fortunate enough to have a forum in which to reply.
The lead editorial of the October 28 issue chided various reporters–including The New York Times‘s Michael Gordon and Maureen Dowd and myself–for having “gasped” when CIA director George Tenet declassified the agency’s assessment of the threat from Baghdad.
I was indeed one of several journalists–and members of Congress–who considered it significant that Tenet, in an October 8 letter to the Senate intelligence committee, 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 agency eggheads also believed that Saddam Hussein “probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions” and in “assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States,” if Washington were about to strike Iraq. In other words, Saddam is not likely to hit the United States or collaborate with al Qaeda, unless the United States assaults Iraq.
As I noted, this is not the picture George W. Bush and his lieutenants have been presenting the public. (Click here to read the column that peeved TNR.) Days before the release of Tenet’s letter, Bush characterized Saddam as a “threat…that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America,” and he called the Iraqi dictator a “significant” danger to the United States. More recently, Bush has ramped up his anti-Saddam rhetoric and claimed that Saddam hopes to deploy al Qaeda as his own “forward army” against the West and that he “is a man who we know has had connections with al Qaeda.” None of that squares with the CIA information.
So what’s TNR‘s beef? In its own words: “What the breathless commentators seem not to have noticed is that Tenet’s ‘revelation’ isn’t a revelation at all; CIA dovishness on Iraq is nothing new.” [Sorry, the editorial is not available on the magazine’s website–so no hot link here.]
What Tenet had conveyed could not be trusted, the magazine asserted, because the CIA is soft on Iraq. Exhibit A: “the Agency’s reluctance to confront Saddam dates back to the aftermath of the Gulf war, when the CIA grew opposed to assisting the Kurdish and Shia rebellions against the dictator.” This brief history lesson ignores a key fact: the first President Bush decided not to back the uprisings. It was not the CIA’s call, and Bush and his foreign policy advisers, for better or worse, feared that the rise of a Shiite state in the south and a Kurdish one in the north would destabilize the area. Thus, Iraqis who had been encouraged to rise up against Saddam were sold out. (See the film Three Kings.) But as journalist Mark Perry notes in his book Eclipse, an examination of the CIA during the first Bush presidency, in early April 1991, before the rebellions were quashed, “a specially trained eleven-man CIA paramilitary team was dropped into northern Iraq. There was still a hope that the Kurds might somehow score a major victory and establish a semi-independent Kurdish state.” The CIA team made contact with Kurdish rebel leaders, but it was too late. The revolt was soon put down by Saddam’s murderous henchmen.