Forget those 16 words. The Bush administration’s case for war was a corrupt mishmash of lies, wishful thinking, and doctored intelligence.
BY DAN KENNEDY
GEORGE W. BUSH IS the luckiest of politicians. For several weeks he had come under increasing attack for claiming in his State of the Union address that Iraq had attempted to obtain uranium from Niger — even though his own administration already knew that claim was based on crudely forged documents.
And there, last Thursday, was British prime minister Tony Blair, popular enough among Americans to be elected president, praising Bush, defending the war against Iraq, and insisting that Saddam Hussein really did try to relaunch his nuclear-weapons program with Nigerien yellowcake.
No wonder Bush was smirking. By the time this is over, those 16 words from the State of the Union — "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" — might retroactively be declared true.
After many months of looking the other way, the media and the Democrats are finally getting aggressive about the deceptions employed by the Bush administration to justify war in Iraq. Characteristically, though, they have defined the issue too narrowly, and on grounds that favor the president.
If British intelligence proves a Nigerien connection, then what Bush said last January isn’t going to matter. No one is going to care whether CIA director George Tenet should have kept those words out of Bush’s speech — or, conversely, if he is being made the fall guy. The Democrats, terrified of being smeared as unpatriotic, and the mainstream media, hypersensitive to charges of liberal bias, will skulk away, lick their wounds, and cede the field once again to Bush. The moment will have been lost.
Yet the Niger story, though important, is actually a small piece of a much larger picture. What matters is that since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has engaged in a systematic campaign of deception aimed at building support for war in Congress, with the public, and among US allies.
That campaign has comprised phony and discredited evidence attempting to demonstrate ties between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda, unproved and disproved tales aimed at showing that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and well-founded accusations of political pressure by the White House aimed at pushing intelligence agencies to interpret data so as to justify war.
The effort to sell the war was announced with surprising candor by White House chief of staff Andrew Card in an interview with the New York Times published last September 7. Referring to the administration’s strategy of waiting until fall to begin its public-relations offensive, Card said, "From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August."
Saddam Hussein is (or was) an evil man, one of the most brutal dictators in the world. He used chemical weapons against his own people. Twenty years ago, Israel destroyed Saddam’s nascent nuclear-weapons facility in Osirak. He repeatedly violated UN mandates regarding his weapons program. A Saddam with nuclear weapons would have been an unacceptable risk to world peace — as Bush and Bill Clinton before him warned repeatedly.
But the question during the past year wasn’t whether to do something or nothing. Saddam was contained and constrained, laboring under no-fly zones in the north and south of his country, economic sanctions, high-tech surveillance, and, starting last fall, renewed UN weapons inspections. The inspectors, led by Hans Blix, wanted more time, and the world community, led by France and Germany, wanted to give it to them.
The Bush administration justified the rush to war by arguing that waiting was too dangerous — that Saddam’s terrorist ties and weapons of mass destruction represented an imminent threat. The result of Bush’s fear-mongering: chaos in Iraq; an open-ended commitment that is claiming American lives nearly every day, and that is costing some $1 billion a week; and no evidence of weapons.
Over the next few weeks, the charges and countercharges are going to fly. They will be about small things, and unless critics take the long view, Bush will ultimately find a way to claim vindication.
But the dishonest methods by which the Bush administration paved the road to war are a matter of record. What follows are some of the more important attempts in the media to document those methods. This is neither comprehensive nor chronological. Rather, think of it as a list of some key milestones in the White House’s duplicitous campaign to topple Saddam Hussein.
Never mind who was responsible for Bush speaking those 16 disingenuous words. Focus, rather, on why he was allowed to launch a disingenuous war.
• The Iraq–Al Qaeda connection. General Wesley Clark, now retired and contemplating a campaign for president, recently appeared on Meet the Press. As reported by Jim Lobe in a piece he wrote last week for the Web site TomPaine.com, Clark made a startling allegation. "I got a call on 9/11," Clark told host Tim Russert. "I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, ‘You got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein.’ I said, ‘But — I’m willing to say it — but what’s your evidence?’ And I never got any evidence."
Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Lobe noted that CBS News reporter David Martin reported in September 2002 that "barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, the secretary of defense was telling his aides to start thinking about striking Iraq, even though there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks." (Lobe relied on a study by the media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.)
Lobe further observed that the administration and pro-war allies such as former CIA director James Woolsey pushed the notion that lead terrorist Mohamed Atta had met with a top Iraqi intelligence official in Prague long after that tip had been discredited. "Yet as recently as last September," Lobe wrote, "[Vice-President Dick] Cheney was coy on the question: ‘[W]e have reporting,’ he said during an interview, ‘that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center.’"
It’s no wonder polls have consistently shown that a majority of the American public believes Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks, a proposition for which there is not a scintilla of evidence. Bush himself cynically exploited that mistaken notion in his May 1 speech aboard the Abraham Lincoln, saying, "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11, 2001 — and still goes on."
• Aluminum tubes and nuclear weapons. Among the most comprehensive efforts to document the Bushies’ prevarications and deceptions was a cover story by John Judis and Spencer Ackerman in the New Republic of June 30. They wrote, "If an administration represents the intelligence unfairly, it effectively forecloses an informed choice about the most important question a nation faces: whether or not to go to war. That is exactly what the Bush administration did when it sought to convince the public and Congress that the United States should go to war with Iraq." Significantly, the New Republic was perhaps the most prominent liberal organ to support the war.
Judis and Ackerman were devastating on the matter of aluminum tubes Iraq was trying to acquire, which some White House officials claimed were components that Saddam intended to use in a reconstituted nuclear-weapons program. Analysts at the State Department and the Department of Energy — technical experts who understand such things — quickly concluded that "[t]he tubes’ thick walls and particular diameter made them a poor fit for uranium enrichment, even after modification," and "that the specifications of the tubes made them far better suited for artillery rockets. British intelligence experts studying the issue concurred, as did some CIA analysts."
Despite these findings, the administration leaked word of the aluminum tubes — and of their alleged connection to nuclear weapons — to the New York Times. And Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice hit the Sunday-talk-show circuit to tie the tubes explicitly to a nuclear threat.
An anonymous "intelligence analyst" told the New Republic: "You had senior American officials like Condoleezza Rice saying the only use of this aluminum really is uranium centrifuges. She said that on television. And that’s just a lie."