GIVE JOHN KERRY CREDIT. It takes guts to accuse someone of lying when that someone has said essentially what you have been saying for a decade. Which is what John Kerry did last week when he told a gathering of antiwar Democrats in New Hampshire that President George W. Bush "misled every one of us" in making the case for war in Iraq. Kerry called for a full investigation--a rather peculiar request from someone who sounds so certain about its outcome.
Kerry isn't alone. More and more Democrats are going the way of the French. Or, to put it differently, they're following in the footsteps of Rep. Jim McDermott. Visiting Baghdad last fall, the Seattle Democrat urged the world to "take the Iraqis on their face value" but gave no such benefit of the doubt to President Bush: "The president of the United States will lie to the American people in order to get us into this war." This was extreme at the time. Eight months later, it's virtually the mainstream Democratic view.
Kerry of course supported regime change in Iraq for years, articulated the seriousness of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein on numerous occasions, and voted for the resolution on Iraq last fall. He even sponsored a 1998 resolution authorizing the president to "take all necessary and appropriate actions to respond to the threat posed by Iraq's refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs." But that was President Clinton.
Kerry's opportunistic move to the left coincides with a reversal on the part of the previously hawkish New Republic, which features on the cover of its current issue an article by Spencer Ackerman and John B. Judis, "The First Casualty: the Selling of the Iraq War."
"Three months after the invasion," they write,
the United States may yet discover the chemical and biological weapons that various governments and the United Nations have long believed Iraq possessed. But it is unlikely to find, as the Bush administration had repeatedly predicted, a reconstituted nuclear weapons program or evidence of joint exercises with Al Qaeda--the two most compelling security arguments for war. Whatever is found, what matters as far as American democracy is concerned is whether the administration gave Americans an honest and accurate account of what it knew. The evidence to date is that it did not, and the cost to U.S. democracy could be felt for years to come.
Dishonest and inaccurate, they argue, and that's just for starters. President Bush "has engaged in a pattern of deception concerning the most fundamental decisions a government must make. The United States may have been justified in going to war in Iraq--there were, after all, other rationales for doing so--but it was not justified in doing so on the national security grounds that President Bush put forth."
Let's take those charges--the "two most compelling security arguments for war"--one at a time. First, "evidence of joint exercises" with al Qaeda--a novel formulation that raises the bar well above the "links" or evidence of cooperation that top Bush administration officials usually cited. But that aside, Ackerman and Judis focus their analysis of the Saddam-al Qaeda relationship on the alleged meeting between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in April 2001. They write: "None of the intelligence agencies could place Atta in Prague on that date. (Indeed, receipts and other travel documents placed him in the United States.) An investigation by Czech officials dismissed the claim, which was based on a single unreliable witness."
But there are times Atta may have been abroad that are not accounted for in these documents and receipts. And assessments of the reliability of the witness vary, with some high-ranking Czech officials insisting to this day that the meeting took place. It's fair to say the alleged Atta meeting was disputed, but it's hardly accurate to imply that officials were unanimous in their belief that it didn't happen.
In addition to the Atta story, Ackerman and Judis write, "the CIA was also receiving other information that rebutted a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda." The evidence? Captured al Qaeda terrorists told them there was no connection.
The authors and the administration critics they interviewed are also troubled by the fact that Vice President Cheney traveled several times to the CIA to review data himself, and by the establishment of a Pentagon-based intelligence team to review old intel about Iraq-al Qaeda connections.
The Cheney trips, according to Ackerman and Judis, "were understood within the agency as an attempt to pressure the low-level specialists interpreting the raw intelligence. 'That would freak people out,' says one former CIA official. 'It is supposed to be an ivory tower.'" Really? Here as elsewhere Ackerman and Judis betray limitless credulousness in the face of claims by "former CIA officials" who agree with them on policy. They refuse to entertain the possibility that the vice president of a country about to embark on war might want to be as thoroughly briefed as possible. Similarly, why would a special task force to review al Qaeda-Iraq links be such a bad idea? Can it really be the position of the administration's critics that the executive branch is to defer uncritically to CIA analysis?
And that's it. A still-disputed Mohammed Atta meeting, denials from terrorists, trips to the CIA, and a special intelligence review team--with that, Ackerman and Judis accuse the Bush administration of deception, of "constructing castles out of sand." And though George Tenet, a Clinton administration holdover and veteran Democratic staffer with the Senate intelligence committee, wrote of "solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda going back a decade," Ackerman and Judis dismiss this as "a sop to the administration."
THERE IS NO QUESTION that some CIA analysts--perhaps even most CIA analysts--were skeptical about connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. But other intelligence experts disagreed, and events and findings since the war's end would seem to make those links at least an open question. But not to the critics--they know better.
There are several interesting reports of Iraq-al Qaeda links that the critics ignore. Farouk Hijazi, former Iraqi ambassador to Turkey and Tunisia, long believed to be the liaison between Iraq and al Qaeda, was captured a month ago. Administration officials told Newsweek that Hijazi admitted meeting with Osama bin Laden in Sudan in the mid-1990s, confirming previous intelligence reports. So terrorists who deny links with Iraq are more believable than Hijazi?
A mid-level associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an al Qaeda leader specializing in biological and chemical weapons, was captured in Baghdad shortly after the war. Al-Zarqawi, who also has ties to an al Qaeda splinter group, Ansar al-Islam, which operated in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, fled to Baghdad and received medical treatment after he was wounded fighting in Afghanistan. Colin Powell, in his presentation to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003, spoke of al-Zarqawi and intelligence that he was operating a small cell from Baghdad. U.S. intelligence officials believe he remained in Baghdad as the war in Iraq began in mid-March, and may have fled to Iran following the conflict. On June 11, 2003, Knight-Ridder reporters revealed that U.S. troops in Baghdad captured "several suspected associates of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi" and "suspected members of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamic extremist group."
Ackerman and Judis also focus on the administration's case on nukes, which they argue was at least hyped, and perhaps dishonest. The "misinformation and exaggeration" culminated in a speech President Bush gave in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 7. Said Bush: "The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program." He further asserted, "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."
Studies conducted by both the CIA and DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) provided the basis for this assertion. Both agencies stand by that analysis today. But Ackerman and Judis point to studies of the tubes conducted by teams at the Department of Energy and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Those studies concluded that such tubes are not a good fit for gas centrifuges. So there was not unanimity. Why administration critics who are eager to defer to the CIA's skepticism about Saddam's al Qaeda links would rather not believe the CIA about the aluminum tubes is not explained. What's more, at least one foreign intelligence service has conducted its own tests on the tubes, and concluded that they are compatible with use in gas centrifuges.
Ackerman and Judis are also indignant that Bush warned in Cincinnati that Iraq was developing a fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could disperse chemical or biological weapons, adding that the administration was "concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States." Ackerman and Judis assert: "This claim represented the height of absurdity. Iraq's UAVs had ranges of, at most, 300 miles. They could not make the flight from Baghdad to Tel Aviv, let alone to New York." Of course, Bush nowhere suggested that these UAVs would be launched from Iraqi soil. In addition, terrorist groups are known to have investigated the potential of UAVs, which could be moved offshore, or into the United States, for that matter.
Ackerman and Judis also go after Vice President Cheney's assertion, in a March 16, 2003, appearance on "Meet the Press," that Saddam Hussein "has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." Indeed, the New Republic authors say that Bush administration officials made that claim "repeatedly." Here, it seems likely that Cheney misspoke. He presumably meant to echo President Bush, who had said that there was evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. At least three other times in the same interview--never cited in the New Republic piece--Cheney was clear the worry about nuclear weapons was in the future. Said Cheney: "There's no question about who is going to prevail if there is military action. And there's no question but what is going to be cheaper and less costly to do it now than it will be to wait a year or two years or three years until he's developed even more deadly weapons, perhaps nuclear weapons." Some deception.
The most serious allegation, and also the murkiest, involves the erroneous assertion in the president's State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from sources in Niger. The claim was based on forged documents. What's not clear is whether anyone in the know about the forgery also had a hand in the speech. Obviously if this was the case someone should be fired.
The bottom line for Ackerman, Judis, and other administration critics: "There was no consensus within the American intelligence community that Saddam represented such a grave and imminent threat."
But intelligence is an art, of course, not a science. It often yields different interpretations, and the country depends on experienced policymakers like Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld to choose among those interpretations. Sometimes a CIA analysis might seem particularly persuasive, other times CIA analyses might seem thin or overwrought. But choosing a mistaken intelligence read or relying on bad intelligence--and it's far too early to determine if that happened in Iraq--is not the same as lying.
What's more, the intelligence community "consensus" on Iraq has often been deeply flawed.
There was consensus within the American intelligence community that Saddam Hussein would not start a war with Iran in 1980. He did. There was consensus within the American intelligence community ten years later that Saddam Hussein would not invade Kuwait. He did. There was a consensus that Saddam Hussein would not have a nuclear weapon for several years. We learned after the Gulf War ended that he had been just a year away from acquiring one. There was a consensus within the American intelligence community that Saddam Hussein, having been "contained" by U.N. weapons inspectors, would not attempt to avenge his humiliating 1991 defeat. He did, with the attempted assassination of former President Bush 18 months later. There was consensus within the American intelligence community that a secular Saddam would never reach out to Islamic fundamentalists. He did.
In sum: Emphasizing alarming evidence, considering the most dangerous possibilities, outlining the most terrifying threats--all of this is quite different from lying to get the nation to go to war. After September 11, it might better be described as prudent. As in any preventive war, the imminence of Saddam Hussein's threat was always going to be a matter of some uncertainty. But in a world where Americans are killed by terrorists crashing airplanes into buildings and anthrax comes in the mail and bombs come in shoes--ignoring grave threats because we cannot be sure they are absolutely imminent would seem to be a risky course of action. Yet it also seems to be the position the Democratic party is moving to embrace.