A joint House-Senate intelligence committee has been shaking people up with its hearings and reports that September 11 could have been averted -- if. If all the king's horses at the CIA and all the king's men at the FBI had been able to work together to piece together what some of them knew, hither and yon, about al Qaeda. The most memorable remark to come out of the effort is that of a lonely FBI agent in New York, whose superiors wanted to wait: "Some day someone will die . . . and the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain 'problems.' "
Meanwhile, running right alongside this most perfect exercise in 20/20 hindsight, we have statements flowing from the U.S. Senate, the United Nations and the chancery halls of Germany, France and Canada about whether there is enough evidence to conclude that Saddam Hussein and Iraq constitute a mortal threat to, if not Germany, the citizens of the United States.
Let's see if I understand this correctly. We all now think that we could have known that al Qaeda was going to drive civilian airliners into American buildings or some such, and we probably knew enough to prevent these deaths from happening. But the same people who say the danger was obvious also say and write that we don't yet know enough about Iraq's military capabilities or intentions to act pre-emptively against Saddam Hussein.
How many more times do we have to make the same catastrophic mistake that we made with al Qaeda? It appears that we may be willing to make it at least one more time.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), listening to the pre-September 11 intelligence breakdowns, announced: "Given the events and signals of the preceding decade, the intelligence community could have and in my judgment should have anticipated an attack on U.S. soil on the scale of 9/11." But just last month, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R., R.I.) said: "Exactly what's taking place in Iraq is, I guess, a mystery."
Anyone who is able to type "iraqwatch.org" into a browser will arrive at the Saddam military weapons data base compiled by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, so often quoted back in the years of U.S.-Soviet nuclear tensions. The Iraq Watch data base has enough history and documentation on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction to occupy a horrified reader for days. Everything ever published by UNSCOM is there to read.
In its commentary on the U.N. reports, the Wisconsin Project notes that Iraq produced anthrax, aflatoxin, botulinum toxin, gas gangrene, ricin and wheat smut and "was also known to be working on" cholera, mycotoxins shigellosis and viruses. "There are suspicions" Iraq was working on smallpox.
In its 1999 Final Report, the UNSCOM inspectors told the U.N. Security Council: "Since the adoption of Security Council resolution 687 (1991) in April 1991 and until July 1995, Iraq denied that it had had any proscribed biological warfare (BW) activities. . . . The Commission stated that with Iraq's failure to account for the use of these items and materials for legitimate purposes, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that there is a high risk that they had been purchased and used for a proscribed purpose -- acquisition of biological warfare agent."
But a Sept. 11, 2002, Los Angeles Times article was titled "Top lawmakers tell Bush that more groundwork is needed before they can decide on backing any military action against Baghdad." Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) said: "We're being asked to go to war, and vote on it in a matter of days. We need an intelligence estimate before we can seriously vote." Earlier, Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.): "We need to know much more." Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., poor Cleveland): "The administration has failed to make the case that Iraq poses an imminent or immediate threat to the United States." We are familiar with the views of Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac.
UNSCOM in 1999: "It needs to be recognised that Iraq possesses an industrial capability and knowledge base, through which biological warfare agents could be produced quickly and in volume, if the Government of Iraq decided to do so." It needs to be recognized, but isn't. UNSCOM had made clear there has never been a full accounting of the biological weapons Iraq is known to have already produced, nor is there ever likely to be.
The British government's dossier on Iraq released this week says its Joint Intelligence Committee believes Saddam has "continued to produce chemical and biological weapons" and that "some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them." But every press report I've read on the British dossier says it contains "nothing new." So what? Unlike the unshared FBI and CIA information before September 11, virtually all the information on Saddam's weapons is on the public record, for anyone to see. But somehow the doubters hold this full disclosure against those who want to act against Saddam. "Nothing new" sounds very much like those intelligence bureaucrats who stuck their heads in the sand.
The emphasis here has been on biological weapons, but the same could be written about Saddam's delivery systems ("The [Iraqi] programme covered a whole variety of biological weapons delivery means, from tactical weapons, e.g. 122 mm rockets and artillery shells, to strategic weapons, e.g. aerial bombs and Al Hussein warheads filled with anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin" -- 10/95 Report to the Security Council).
The joint committee's Eleanor Hill said the FBI's culture was "myopic." It is in fact the broader world political class that is myopic, as it almost always is in the face of great danger, as it was when Ronald Reagan in 1983 put anti-Soviet Pershing II missiles in Germany, as it was in the 1930s. Today this myopia is such that it can in the same moment denounce the intelligence failure on September 11 and refuse to see what is on the public record about Saddam Hussein.
Intelligence failure indeed.