A rising chorus of new studies, articles, opinion pieces and interviews is accusing the Bush administration of lying about Iraq and misleading America into an unnecessary war. Ironically, the proponents of this narrative are validating their thesis by doing exactly what they accuse the Bush administration of doing: selectively highlighting some facts and ignoring others, unabashedly presenting quotes out of context, and ignoring the broader issues that substantiated the case for war, such as Iraq’s violation of more than 17 UN Security Council resolutions. The result is a skewed picture of the administration’s case for removing Saddam Hussein from power, and the emergence of two myths in particular that trivialize the very real dangers and challenges America faces in the international arena in the wake of 9/11:
Myth 1: The case for the war in Iraq was based on the belief that Iraq’s advanced program of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) posed an “imminent” threat. According to this view, the failure to find massive stockpiles of WMD proves the threat was not imminent, that the policy of “containment” was working and that war was therefore unnecessary. Bush simply made a bogeyman out of Saddam Hussein because his hard-line advisors were war-hungry.
Myth 2: Saddam and al-Qaeda are so ideologically opposed that they would never work together, even against their common enemy -- the United States. Therefore, there was no need to be concerned about Iraqi weapons ever falling into the hands of al-Qaeda.
The chorus singing these myths reached its crescendo last weekend when former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill’s told "60 Minutes" that the Bush administration was eyeing an invasion of Iraq "from the very beginning,” and that he had never seen anything he would characterize as evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
O’Neill’s remarks came in the wake of recently published books and articles on President Bush’s alleged deceptiveness by prominent liberal writers such as David Corn at the Nation, Michael Kinsley of Slate and syndicated columnist Molly Ivins. The newly minted Center for American Progress has issued numerous reports purporting to expose the White House’s rhetoric against the “facts” in Iraq. MoveOn.org, the Web-based grassroots organization that became famous for its unprecedented success in raising funds online for anti-war candidate Howard Dean -- and more recently by its connection to an ad comparing Bush’s invasion of Iraq to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia -- is now promoting a documentary that claims to tell “the story of how the truth became the first American casualty of the Iraq war.” And the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has issued “WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications,” which claims to uncover the truth about how intelligence was manipulated for political purposes.
These self-described exposes of the Bush administration’s “mistruths” fall short when they are held up against a thorough examination of the information and facts that were available to the administration when it began to shape its Iraq policy in 2001 and 2002.
Iraq’s Weapons Programs
The fact that no huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction have been found to date in Iraq has led many to justifiably question whether, given the existing intelligence, the administration exaggerated the state of Iraq’s weapons programs. There is no doubt that the administration projected confidence that it would find extensive weapons stockpiles in Iraq. Many Democrats, eager to use this to their political advantage, are now claiming that the administration intentionally misled the nation about the “imminent threat” posed by Iraq.
Of course, the Bush administration was not alone in worrying about the threat from Iraq. One of the most vocal and articulate proponents of regime change was Kenneth Pollack, who served as Director of Gulf Affairs on the National Security Council from 1990 to 2001 under both Clinton administrations. In his book the Threatening Storm, Pollack gave a detailed analysis of the history of containment -- and why it was failing. He explained in a March 2002 Foreign Affairs article that the only viable policy option left was regime change: “The last two years have witnessed a dramatic erosion of the constraints on the Iraqi regime. The Bush administration's initial solution to this problem, the smart sanctions plan, would be little more than a Band-Aid and even so could not find general acceptance. If no more serious action is taken, the United States and the world at large may soon confront a nuclear-armed Saddam.”
Furthermore, the fundamental case for war never rested on what we knew about Saddam’s weapons, but rather the opposite: What we did not know, and what we feared we would never know as long as Saddam persisted in defying the United Nations, with increasing help from other governments.
Of particular concern were the vast quantities of chemical and biological agents (such as VX, Sarin and anthrax) that Iraq had once admitted to having, and then claimed, without any proof, to have destroyed. In his presentation to the United Nations in February 2003, Hans Blix himself stated: “This is perhaps the most important problem we are facing." Former President Clinton explicitly stated his support for the war on precisely those terms in a Larry King interview last July, saying there was "a substantial amount of biological and chemical material unaccounted for " in Iraq, “so I thought it was prudent for the president to go to the U.N. and for the U.N. to say, 'You got to let these inspectors in, and this time if you don't cooperate the penalty could be regime change, not just continued sanctions.'" Clinton understood the bigger picture that the angry Left is ignoring: We didn’t have the luxury of waiting for certainty about Iraq’s weapons programs before we acted.
If anything, our history with Iraq had taught us that Western intelligence had consistently underestimated Iraq’s weapons programs. Not only did we discover in 1991 after the Gulf War that Saddam’s nuclear program was far more advanced than we thought but, throughout the 1990s, UN inspectors were regularly hoodwinked by Saddam’s regime, and most of their major weapons discoveries were thanks to defectors, not inspections. Once inspectors left in 1998, we were in the dark about Saddam’s activities. And in 1998, the Clinton administration successfully passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which made regime change in Iraq the official policy of the US government.
After 9/11, it was only responsible to weigh the risks of continuing business as usual against the distinct possibility that Saddam was secretly reconstituting his weapons programs and to consider what tools were available in order to prevent such an outcome.
The same lack of perspective has led Bush’s critics (and much of the mainstream media as well), to misrepresent the recent findings of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), presented by David Kay to the US Congress in November 2003, as suggesting that the ISG has found no evidence that Saddam had any significant weapon programs at all.
Not so. With respect to nuclear weapons, the ISG found hidden documents and equipment in scientists' homes that could be used to resume uranium enrichment. Scientists told the ISG team that Saddam had made it clear to them that he expected them to be able to quickly reactivate the nuclear program. Kay concluded that "the testimony we have obtained from Iraqi scientists and senior government officials should clear up any doubts about whether Saddam still wanted to obtain nuclear weapons.”
The ISG’s findings thus validate pre-war concerns that Iraq had kept its nuclear teams in place and in a position to reactivate secret nuclear research activities. It was on this basis that the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent, London-based research institute, determined in a July 2002 report that while Iraq would take several years and foreign assistance to build fissile material production facilities, “it could, however, assemble nuclear weapons within months if fissile material from foreign sources were obtained.”
The possibility that Iraq was seeking, or had already obtained fissile material from Africa was therefore not to be taken lightly. Although US intelligence was never able to substantiate that Iraqis were attempting to purchase uranium from Niger (the infamous “yellowcake” affair), the British Secret Intelligence Service to which the claim was credited continues to stand by its evidence. In September, the UK parliamentary commission that was created to investigate pre-war British intelligence claims concluded that the basis for the uranium intelligence was "reasonable."
According to a Washington Post article in December 2003, it now appears that the CIA and the State Department “knew Hussein already had a stockpile of the same type of uranium that he was supposed to be seeking." It seems remarkable that this has not received more attention.
In connection to Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons, the ISG found a clandestine network of laboratories maintained by Iraqi Intelligence with equipment for ongoing chemical and biological research; new research on BW-applicable agents, Brucella and Congo Crimean Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF); continuing work on ricin and aflatoxin; and leads into chemical research activities that have yet to be investigated. Kay also pointed out the magnitude of the task in trying to locate chemical weapons: “ISG has had to contend with the almost unbelievable scale of Iraq's conventional weapons armory, which dwarfs by orders of magnitude the physical size of any conceivable stock of chemical weapons.”
Finally, in connection to missiles and delivery systems, the ISG concluded that Iraq was engaged in undeclared activities to produce missiles with ranges of at least 1000km, well in excess of its permitted range of 150km. “These missile activities were supported by a serious clandestine procurement program about which we have much still to learn," Kay added.
What all of this suggests about Iraq’s weapons programs is that Saddam was moving from the vast, centrally controlled WMD manufacturing capability of the 1980s to a smaller and more clandestine system that left fewer traces, and would have allowed it to maintain the façade of obeying the UN while retaining the ability to quickly activate the production of WMD on a just-in-time basis. In other words, it was a program specifically designed to elude inspectors as he continued to pursue his goal of acquiring weapons of mass destruction – a goal there is no reason to believe he ever gave up. This constituted the “grave and growing” danger the administration spoke of (which, conceptually and strategically, is different from an “imminent” threat – a description the administration did not employ). In other words, it was not necessarily the presence of actual weapons -- or the imminence of attack -- but the ongoing intention and the ease with which Saddam could covertly create a capability to act on those intentions that constituted a challenge that we could not ignore and had to address decisively.
Connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda.
Critics of the President claim that he created the idea of a link between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda out of thin air. The Center for American Progress stated: “No evidence exists to substantiate the claim that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda had any connections. In fact, most evidence points to the contrary.” This is echoed by Fairness and Accuracy, the leftwing media watch group, which similarly claimed in a July 18 press release that the administration "has produced no evidence to demonstrate that this link exists." These groups have either failed to do their homework, or are deliberately misleading their audiences.
The CIA has intelligence pointing to contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraq starting in the early 1990s. George Tenet – who has served as CIA director under both President Clinton and President Bush -- referred to this intelligence in a October 2002 letter to Senate Intelligence Committee: “We have solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade. ... We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities." Secretary of State Colin Powell also mentioned this history of contacts in his testimony to the UN: “We know members of both organizations met repeatedly and have met at least eight times at very senior levels since the early 1990s.” Powell went on to state that Guantanamo detainees from Afghanistan have revealed that an al-Qaeda militant known as Abdallah al-Iraqi was sent to Iraq between 1997 and 2000 to obtain help in acquiring poisons and gasses.
CIA officials also told the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg about al-Iraqi and that members of the Iraqi secret police were sent to Afghanistan to train al-Qaeda on terrorist tactics and weapons. Vanity Fair’s David Rose learned that there were over 100 CIA reports of Iraq/al-Qaeda contacts which were all given the CIA’s highest credibility rating, and the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes recently published a leaked classified Pentagon memo documenting 50 intelligence items on contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda since 1990, including a meeting between bin Laden and the chief of the Iraqi Intelligence Service.
The Clinton administration was concerned about a possible collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaeda as early as 1996, when the CIA observed that Iraqi experts were working with the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan (where bin Laden was based at the time, and the target for US bombings in 1998). These suspicions were strengthened in 1998 when the CIA found traces of the acid known as EMPTA, a key ingredient for the deadly nerve agent VX. Only Iraq was known to produce VX agent using EMPTA.
In its 1998 indictment of bin Laden for the East African embassy bombings, the Clinton administration claimed: “Al-Qaeda reached an understanding with the Government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq.”
Even David Benjamin, a former National Security Council advisor on terrorism during the Clinton administration who rejects the idea that al-Qaeda and Iraq have any formal cooperation, acknowledged in a USA Today article that “there are bound to be some (al-Qaeda) contacts with Iraqi agents, even some who are known as such.”
There is no question that Saddam’s Iraq was supporting other radical Islamic terrorist groups such as Hamas whose members also are known to have contacts with al-Qaeda. Captured members of the Kurdish Islamic terrorism group, Ansar al-Islam, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, have also disclosed that they received assistance from Iraqi intelligence.
It is not difficult to imagine how weapons expertise and stocks might be funneled from one group to another, with or without Saddam’s expressed approval.
Meanwhile, new evidence continues to trickle out of Iraq. In December 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council uncovered a document from July 2001 in which the former head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS), Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, describes arranging for 9/11 plotter Mohamad Atta to obtain three days of training in Baghdad by the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal, under the “direct supervision” of the IIS.
Whether all this evidence is authentic and compelling, and how much is conclusively revealed about the working relationship between al-Qaeda and Iraq are fair questions. But to deny this evidence altogether is dishonest – unless one is alleging that the Clinton administration, George Tenet and Colin Powell, among others, were lying.
At issue here is not whether the Bush administration should come under scrutiny for how it presented the case for war. It should, and our democracy is only strengthened by such critical inquiry. But as Bush’s critics shine the light narrowly on the administration’s pre-war statements, seeking to expose contradictions, exaggerations and falsehoods, they should not obscure the issues that were at stake. As Aesop warned, “Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”
The premise that the case for war relied on convincing evidence of an imminent and urgent threat posed by Iraqi WMD is simply wrong. It also is naïve to promote the myth the secular Ba’ath regime and al-Qaeda would never have worked together due to their ideological differences – despite ample evidence that the Ba’ath regime worked with other Islamist terrorist groups.
In the post-9/11 world, as we face the growing and converging threats of radical Islamist terrorism and weapons proliferation in the hands of dictators with records of aggression, genocide and other human rights abuses, the burden should be on those who opposed taking decisive action to disprove that claim that Saddam represented a grave and growing threat, and to disprove that the liberation of Iraq did not represent a net benefit for Americans, Iraqis, the Middle East and the world.
Eleana Gordon is Vice-President of Communications and Democracy Programs at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.