When conservatives are asked about the "intelligence" used by the Bush Administration to convince Congress and the American people of the urgent need to fight the Iraq War, the response is almost always spin.
Blame George Tenet (and mention that he was a Clinton appointee). Point out that "everyone" thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Claim that Congressional Democrats were given "the same information" as the Bush Administration. Argue that there's been "no proof" that the Bush Administration manipulated or cherry-picked information in stating its case for a pre-emptive strike.
It's all a bunch of hooey. Wild flailing of arms and a wilder array of claims, all designed to throw blame on anyone but the administration's inner circle.
The subject of what the administration knew and when it knew it came up again a few days ago with revelations
regarding Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured Al Qaeda commander whose claims about poison-gas training for the Qaeda group by Saddam’s government formed the basis for some of the most dramatic arguments used by senior administration officials in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.
Is it possible that the administration knew, as early as February 2002, that al-libi was a liar?
At that time, a four-page DIA Defense Intelligence Terrorism Summary stated
it was “likely” al-Libi was “intentionally misleading” his debriefers and might be describing scenarios “that he knows will retain their interest.” The report was circulated at the time throughout the U.S. intelligence community and that a copy would have been sent to the National Security Council.
President Bush first referred to al-Libi's claims in his Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati where he strongly emphasized Saddam’s ties to international terror groups in general and Al Qaeda in particular. “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases,” Bush said.
The claim about poison-gas training resurfaced four months later in greatly expanded form during a particularly dramatic portion of then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the UN Security Council that refers exclusively to al-Libi — although he is not actually identified by name.
But according to the newly declassified documents, the credibility of those statements by Bush and Powell were already in doubt within the U.S. intelligence community
. While the DIA was the first to raise red flags in its February 2002 report, the CIA itself in January 2003 produced an updated version of a classified internal report called “Iraqi Support for Terrorism.” The previous version of this CIA report in September 2002 had simply included al-Libi’s claims, according to the newly declassified agency document. But the updated January 2003 version, while including al-Libi’s claims that Al Qaeda sent operatives to Iraq to acquire chemical and biological weapons and training, added an important new caveat: It “noted that the detainee was not in a position to know if any training had taken place,”
according to the copy of the document obtained by Newsweek
As Newsweek first reported last July
, al-Libi has since recanted those claims. The CIA “'recalled and reissued' all its intelligence reporting about al-Libi’s “recanted” claims about chemical and biological warfare training by Saddam’s regime in February 2004 — an important retreat on pre-Iraq war intelligence that has never been publicly acknowledged by the White House," the magazine reports.
This is not the first time that Americans have learned that the administration made urgent claims about the need to go to war -- claims not backed up by the National Intelligence Estimate.
As the Washington Post
pointed out nearly two years ago
, President Bush and Vice President Cheney on several occasions made what were later learned to be questionable claims in 2002:
-- On Sept. 24, 2002, at the White House, Bush referred to a British government report that Iraq could launch "a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order" is given -- and went on to say, "Each passing day could be the one on which the Iraqi regime gives anthrax or VX -- nerve gas -- or someday a nuclear weapon to a terrorist ally."
But in repeating the British claim that Iraq's chemical weapons could be activated within 45 minutes, he ignored the fact that U.S. intelligence mistrusted the source and that the claim never appeared in the October 2002 U.S. estimate.
-- On Aug. 26, 2002, Cheney said: "Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." The estimate, several weeks later, would say it would take as many as five years
, unless Baghdad immediately obtained weapons-grade materials.
In the same speech, Cheney raised the specter that Hussein would give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists, a prospect invoked often in the weeks to come. "Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network, or a murderous dictator, or the two working together, constitute as grave a threat as can be imagined," Cheney said.
It would be more than a month later that a declassified portion of the NIE would show that U.S. intelligence analysts had forecast that Hussein would give such weapons to terrorists only if Iraq were invaded and Hussein faced annihilation.
"The probability of him initiating an attack . . . in the foreseeable future . . . I think would be low
," a senior CIA official told the Senate intelligence committee during a classified briefing on the estimate on Oct. 2, 2002.
-- On Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney said of Hussein on NBC's Meet the Press
: "We do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon." Cheney was referring to the aluminum tubes that some analysts believed could be used for a centrifuge to help make nuclear materials; others believed they were for an antiaircraft rocket. Such absolute certainty, however, did not appear in the estimate.
-- The October 2002 estimate said: "We had no specific information on the types or quantities of weapons, agents, or stockpiles at Baghdad's disposal."
But Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union, said
: "Our intelligence officials estimate
that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent. In such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands. He's not accounted for these materials. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them. U.S. intelligence indicates that Saddam Hussein had upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents."
Which brings us to the spin. CNN reported
on Nov. 8 that White House aides, speaking anonymously, said they hoped to increase what they called their "hit back" in coming days. One main theme: to say that Democrats had access to the same information as the Bush Administration.
This bit of spin has been ongoing for almost as long as it's been known that there were no substantial ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and that our inspectors could not find evidence of WMD.
For example, Fox News Channel's chief Washington correspondent, Jim Angle, reported as fact on Nov. 2 that the Democrats saw "the same intelligence reports" as the administration.
ANGLE: Democrats charge administration officials exaggerated the intelligence in order to sell the war, but in late 2002, Democrats, using the same intelligence reports, issued statements almost indistinguishable from the president's.
A Nov. 3 Wall Street Journal editorial
claimed, "The scandal here isn't what happened before the war. The scandal is that the same Democrats who saw the same intelligence that Mr. Bush saw, who drew the same conclusions, and who voted to go to war are now using the difficulties we've encountered in that conflict as an excuse to rewrite history."
But this claim is bogus.
As The New Republic reported in 2003
: "Senators were outraged to find that intelligence info given to them omitted the qualifications and countervailing evidence that had characterized the classified version and played up the claims that strengthened the administration's case for war
According to Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA), many House members were only convinced to support the war after the Administration "showed them a photograph of a small, unmanned airplane spraying a liquid in what appeared to be a test for delivering chemical and biological agents." The magazine reports that the U.S. Air Force told the Administration it "sharply disputed the notion that Iraq's UAVs were being designed as attack weapons." But Congress didn't know the USAF opinion at the time it voted.
And what about the spin that "everyone" thought that Iraq had WMD? Not true.The Washington Post reported
in 2003 that the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations each repeatedly told the Administration it had no evidence that Iraq possessed WMD.
For example, in March 2003, the Associated Press reported that "U.N. weapons inspectors have not found any 'smoking guns' in Iraq during their search for weapons WMD." AP also reported, "U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said his teams have not uncovered any WMD." A month earlier, IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei said nuclear experts have found "no indication" that Iraq has tried to import high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge enrichment of uranium.
Who's at fault when it comes to pre-war "intelligence?"
Conservative pundits and administration spokespeople will spend a lot of time over the next few weeks flailing their arms and pointing fingers at anyone they can. Better to confuse the American people with empty conservative spin that face simple facts.
Because there are plenty of facts that suggest that the White House inner circle played games with the "intelligence" at the time, in order to scare Congress and the American people into supporting this war.