Whatever happened to all that solid rock?
WMDs: Burning away the fog
By STEPHEN J. SNIEGOSKI
The war lies never stop. Now that even David Kay, the former chief U.S. arms investigator, has admitted that there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in recent years, the war liars have simply changed their tune. The current lie is that although there might not have been WMDs in Iraq, all the pre-war evidence pointed to such a conclusion. The Bush administration simply made an honest intelligence mistake, which, it alleges, all other countries' intelligence agencies also made.
In short, what the Bush administration was saying about Iraqi WMDs simply represented the consensus of expert wisdom. And it was understandable that intelligence was wrong on the issue because intelligence operations are conducted in a fog attaining certainly was difficult, if not impossible, especially given the secrecy characteristic of Saddam's Iraq. The conclusion is that the people who should now be condemned are not the leading figures of the Bush administration who pushed the WMD story, for that was perfectly understandable, but rather the war critics who have been claiming that the Bush administration pushed lies to justify the invasion of Iraq.
This new deceptive approach is well exemplified by Peter D. Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, who writes in the Washington Post:
We should begin by discarding the self-serving rush to judgment of partisans. Democrats have gleefully claimed that since the Iraqi WMD program was (apparently) not as advanced as the Bush administration claimed it to be, the neoconservatives in the Bush administration must have deliberately lied. Despite its popularity on the campaign primary trail, this conspiracy theory is so nutty that Bush defenders have just as gleefully avoided tougher questions and contented themselves with knocking it down: How could even the all-powerful neocons have manipulated the intelligence estimates of the Clinton administration, French intelligence, British intelligence, German intelligence and all the other "co-conspirators" who concurred on the fundamentals of the Bush assessment? ("The Fog of WMD," January 28, 2004.)
Let me begin by focusing on Feaver's glaring understatement here "the Iraqi WMD program was (apparently) not as advanced as the Bush administration claimed it to be" which illustrates the fact that some war proponents such as Feaver, who pushed the war in such neocon publications as The Weekly Standard, are still not willing to fully admit the obvious fact that the Bush administration's WMD story was totally wrong. There is no evidence for any WMDs, period not even of the type used by Kaiser Wilhelm's forces in the Great War, much less the lethal WMDs that the administration told us were imminently threatening the United States. Feaver's formulation would be analogous to that of a news article on the Mars landing that stated that "life forms on Mars are (apparently) not as advanced as science fiction writers portrayed them to be." After all, we don't absolutely know that Martians don't exist who are so advanced as to make themselves and all their hyper-advanced technology totally invisible to Earthling eyes.
Before venturing further into Feaver's fog, let's state some well-documented facts regarding what the Bush administration actually said about Iraqi WMDs. The administration claimed that there was absolute physical proof for the WMDs and that the weapons threatened U.S. civilians and the United States itself. Bush & Co. made reference to mushroom clouds and unmanned aerial vehicles that would somehow appear in American skies and spray us with lethal poison. If what the administration claimed about the WMD danger had been true, a U.S. preemptive strike would have seemed much more reasonable in the context of conventional national defense. (Of course, it was ridiculous in the first place to believe that a fifth-rate impoverished country such as Iraq could actually threaten the United States, which explains why most of the world did not believe U.S. war propaganda.)
Here are a few specific examples of the Bush administration claims regarding Iraqi WMDs. Bush said in his October 7, 2002, speech to the nation:
Surveillance photos reveal that the [Iraqi] regime is rebuilding facilities that it had used to produce chemical and biological weapons. Every chemical and biological weapon that Iraq has or makes is a direct violation of the truce that ended the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Yet Saddam Hussein has chosen to build and keep these weapons despite international sanctions, UN demands, and isolation from the civilized world. Iraq possesses ballistic missiles with a likely range of hundreds of miles, far enough to strike Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and other nations in a region where more than 135,000 American civilians and service members live and work.
Moreover, the president averred that Iraq had the technical capability to hit the United States directly:
We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these U.A.V.'s for missions targeting the United States.
Vice President Cheney also expressed absolute certainty regarding Saddam's possession of WMDs. "Simply stated, Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Cheney asserted in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention on August 26, 2002. "There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us. There is no doubt that his aggressive regional ambitions will lead him into future confrontations with his neighbors, confrontations that will involve both the weapons he has today and the ones he will continue to develop with his oil wealth."
In an effort to mobilize international support for an armed attack, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the Bush administration's case at the United Nations on February 5, 2003. Marshaling satellite photos and alleged transcripts of intercepted phone conversations of Iraqi military officials, Powell asserted: "Our conservative estimate is that Iraq has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical-weapons agents. That is enough agent to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets." Powell emphatically claimed unambiguous proof for Saddam's possession of biological weapons: "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more. And he has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that can cause massive death and destruction." Among the reasons for his certitude, Powell maintained that "we have firsthand descriptions of biological-weapons factories on wheels and rails. We know that Iraq has at least seven of these mobile, biological-agent factories." Powell offered impressive detail on how Iraq had obtained vast amounts of equipment to produce WMDs:
Iraq's procurement efforts include equipment that can filter and separate micro-organisms and toxins involved in biological weapons, equipment that can be used to concentrate the agent, growth media that can be used to continue producing anthrax and botulinum toxin, sterilization equipment for laboratories, glass-lined reactors and specialty pumps that can handle corrosive chemical weapons agents and precursors, large amounts of vinyl chloride, a precursor for nerve and blister agents, and other chemicals such as sodium sulfide, an important mustard agent precursor.
And Powell provided "evidence" for his claims. He showed satellite photos of various sites that were purported to contain weapons, such as "a chemical complex called 'Al Musayyib,' a site that Iraq has used for at least three years to transship chemical weapons from production facilities out to the field."
While the Bush administration did not explicitly claim that Iraq already possessed nuclear weapons, it did claim that Iraq was trying to develop them and would soon have them. In October 2002, Bush stated:
The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. Saddam Hussein has held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his nuclear mujahedeen, his nuclear holy warriors. Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of his nuclear program in the past. Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
And he warned:
If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year. And if we allow that to happen, a terrible line would be crossed. Saddam Hussein would be in a position to blackmail anyone who opposes his aggression. He would be in a position to dominate the Middle East. He would be in a position to threaten America and Saddam Hussein would be in a position to pass nuclear technology to terrorists.
Since Saddam would soon become a nuclear power, the United States would have to take immediate action to forcibly disarm him, Bush averred: "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
For additional Bush administration statements regarding the alleged Iraqi WMD threat, see my "The WMD lies."
Did everyone believe these views, as Feaver maintains? No, that is a false premise, upon which Feaver builds his argument that the administration was simply accurately presenting intelligence assessments that ultimately turned out to be false. That argument assumes that Germany and France, too, believed that Saddam would attack them with WMDs, but were just unwilling to take counter-action.
Now it would be highly unusual if the French and German governments were indifferent to a likelihood of their countries being attacked by Saddam's nuclear bombs or lethal germs or gas. In fact they simply did not believe that Iraq posed such a lethal threat, although they did believe that Saddam might possess some types of WMDs, as he did during the Iran-Iraq War. The French and the Germans were open to the idea of the UN's actually looking for Saddam's WMDs, and they supported the weapons inspectors.
Feaver, for his part, rejects the idea that the search by Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors could really prove anything. Feaver writes that it "would have left us just as uncertain. Even giving Blix another year would have left us groping in the dark." But the fact of the matter is that the Bush administration did not claim to be "groping in the dark." Instead it claimed to possess absolute, physical proof of Saddam's lethal WMDs. And the validity of that alleged evidence could have been checked by the weapons inspectors.
Blix has stated that he did not find anything on the basis of the information given him by American and British intelligence. He told the BBC in early June 2003: "We went to a great many sites that were given to us by intelligence, and only in three cases did we find anything and they did not relate to weapons of mass destruction. That shook me a bit, I must say." Blix added that the United States and Britain had promised him the best intelligence information that they had, and "I thought my God, if this is the best intelligence they have and we find nothing, what about the rest?"
But did U.S. intelligence fail, or did the Bush administration distort the intelligence assessment? Not only partisan Democrats or conspiracists but also intelligence experts have claimed that the Bush administration higher-ups manipulated intelligence information to mobilize public support for war.
Greg Thielmann, who until his retirement in September 2002 was director of the strategic, proliferation, and military-issues office in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, stated: "What disturbs me deeply is what I think are the disingenuous statements made from the very top about what the intelligence did say." Significantly, Thielmann had access to the classified reports that formed the basis for the U.S. case against Saddam. He summarized the administration's attitude toward intelligence on Iraq as being "faith-based." In short, "We know the answers, give us the intelligence to support those answers. (See John J. Lumpkin, "Ex-Official: Evidence Distorted for War," Associated Press, June 7, 2003; and "Bush had 'faith-based' intelligence on Iraq: arms expert" [no byline], SpaceWar, July 11, 2003.)
Intelligence that conflicted with the White House's war message was seemingly ignored. For example, a classified Defense Intelligence Agency report of September 2002 said the DIA did not have enough "reliable information" to determine that Saddam was producing and stockpiling WMDs, although it assumed that some prohibited weapons existed. (See Sue Pleming, "U.S. Secret Report Raises Questions over Iraqi Weapons," Reuters, June 6, 2003.)
In a June 2003 piece at TomPaine.com, John Prados, a leading historian of national-security matters, observes that there was nothing unusual about the DIA's position of uncertainty regarding WMDs: "Instead, the DIA information is consistent with the CIA's reports to Congress (up until September 11, 2001) which outlined Iraq's desire to reconstitute a weapons infrastructure but did not declare there was a clear and present threat." Prados goes on to say that an "extensive record of declassified CIA reports from the '90s portrays a decayed and destroyed Iraqi weapons-production infrastructure. So does the account Iraqi weapons manager Hussein Kamel issued to UN inspectors (his CIA debriefings have also been declassified), as do UN and media reports."
In short, Prados points out that the bulk of the intelligence product militated against the idea of an Iraqi threat, "yet none of this information stopped the administration from hyping its crusade." Ultimately, Prados points out, the CIA gave in to pressure from the Bush administration to issue "alarmist views."
In its recent report, "WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications," the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace highly respected in the Higher Circles has charged that the Bush administration "systematically misrepresented the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD)." The report points out that the misrepresentations were of several types: "They treated the three different kinds of WMD as a single threat when they represented very different threats; insisted without evidence that Saddam would give whatever WMD he had to terrorists; and routinely omitted caveats, probabilities, and expressions of uncertainty present in intelligence assessments from (their) public statements."
In addition, the administration misrepresented findings by UN inspectors "in ways that turned threats from minor to dire."
Let's summarize. The Bush pre-war presentation of the Iraqi WMD threat admitted no fog. It claimed to possess rock-solid evidence that Iraq's WMDs clearly posed a serious threat to the United States. The fog has emerged in the postwar period as efforts are made by Bush administration apologists to obscure both the administration's pre-war WMD statements and the actual pre-war intelligence assessments. The fact of the matter is that American and foreign intelligence agencies, while accepting the likelihood of some Iraqi WMDs, did not hold that Saddam's WMDs threatened the United States. To claim that the administration accurately presented the assessment of American intelligence is simply untrue. Ironically, one of the chief warriors in the Bush administration, Cheney, continues to claim that Iraq was armed with WMDs! It would be hard to argue that he is still honestly interpreting the intelligence data.
Of course, the neocons in the Bush administration had planned for the war for some time; their presentation of the "intelligence" got them exactly what they wanted. That included the bogus "intelligence" coming from the Office of Special Plans in the Defense Department, which was totally neocon output and spread the deception of Ahmed Chalabi, which no professional intelligence official would regard as accurate.
It really reaches the heights of chutzpah for a war supporter such as Feaver to have been publicly wrong about the major justification for the war and then condemn those who were right. But that's how the neocon war party operates. And, so far, its strategy has worked.
February 3, 2004
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