Opening Argument – Did Bush, Cheney, and Powell Deliberately Mislead Us?

National Journal

Democrats are in full cry about what Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer calls President Bush’s "egregious deception in leading us to war on phony intelligence." Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asserted in October: "Before the war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie." Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who voted to authorize the war, says, more cautiously, that Americans were "misled," especially by Vice President Cheney.

Aside from the mounting evidence that Saddam Hussein had few, if any, weapons of mass destruction, the "Bush lied" boomlet has been fueled both by the president’s own obstinate refusal to acknowledge the massive intelligence failure that now sits in plain view and by his obtuse, at times outlandish, answers to legitimate questions. When Diane Sawyer of ABC News asked him on December 16 to justify prewar claims stating "as a hard fact that there were weapons of mass destruction, as opposed to the possibility that [Saddam] could move to acquire those weapons," for example, Bush shot back: "So what’s the difference?" Fatuous arrogance: not a good way to regain lost trust.

Or take Bush’s assertion that he had invaded to remove Saddam because "we gave him a chance to allow inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in." That was egregiously false when he said it on July 14 of last year. It was still false when he said it again on January 27, declaring that Saddam "chose defiance [and] did not let us in." A devious strategy to bamboozle clueless voters? Random chatter from a clueless president? Or what? Beats me.

Still, the charges that Bush, Cheney, and Secretary of State Colin Powell lied us into war are, at best, recklessly irresponsible hyperbole. While most of their WMD claims now appear way off base, none of the claims were without support in the intelligence agencies’ prewar assessments. And there is no evidence that Bush, Cheney, or Powell did not believe their own prewar assertions.

Democrats should remind themselves that Bush and Cheney were not the first to make such claims about Iraq. "The U.S. intelligence community’s belief toward the end of the Clinton administration [was] that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear program and was close to acquiring nuclear weapons," Kenneth M. Pollack, who served on President Clinton’s National Security Council, wrote in the January/February issue of The Atlantic Monthly. That was also the view of some European intelligence services, all of which also thought that Saddam probably had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

It was Clinton who warned on February 17, 1998, that, unless restrained by force, Saddam "will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And someday, some way, I guarantee you he’ll use the arsenal." It was Clinton who made "regime change" official U.S. policy and who called Iraq "a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers, or organized criminals who travel the world among us unnoticed." It was Al Gore who asserted in September 2002, "We know that [Saddam] has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country."

This is not to say that Bush and his aides have been commendably candid. Nor is it to accept on faith the statements by former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay, internal CIA reviewer Richard Kerr, and some congressional intelligence committee members absolving the White House of charges that it bullied the intelligence agencies to paint a more dire picture. These are complex questions on which the independent investigative commission now being formed should (although it probably won’t) shed clarifying light before the election.

The record is littered with unduly confident and conclusive administration assertions about Iraqi WMD, as well as about Saddam’s much-touted but unproven ties to al Qaeda. Bush, Cheney, and Powell purported to be certain of "facts" about which the intelligence was far short of certain. They omitted the intelligence agencies’ caveats, cautions, and dissenting views. And they stretched the findings of Hans Blix and his U.N. inspectors, who now appear to have been far closer to the mark than the administration officials who portrayed them as patsies. Examples:

• Bush and others repeatedly stressed that Iraq "could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year" if it "is able to produce, buy, or steal" highly enriched uranium, as he told the U.N. on October 7, 2002. He ignored the intelligence community’s view that Iraq was highly unlikely to get enriched uranium in less than five years.

• "Iraq … has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon," Bush said in the same U.N. speech. Previously, Cheney had said (on August 26, 2002) that "we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons" and (on September 8, 2002) that "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." Neither Bush nor Cheney disclosed that the State Department doubted these claims or that the State and Energy departments thought that (as we now know) the aluminum tubes had nothing to do with uranium enrichment.

• In his now-famous January 28, 2003, assertion that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush ignored the CIA’s strong doubts that Saddam had done any such thing.

• "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," which could be turned over to terrorists and used to kill "thousands or hundreds of thousands" of Americans, Bush told the nation on March 17, 2003. He ignored the intelligence community’s view that Saddam was unlikely to turn such weapons over to terrorists.

• "We know that the regime has produced thousands of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas, and VX nerve gas," Bush said on October 7, 2002. He ignored a September 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency statement that "there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons."

• Just over two weeks ago, Cheney touted as "conclusive evidence" of Iraqi WMD programs two flatbed trailers, found last spring, that he said were mobile biological weapons labs. This certitude appears indefensible in light of Kay’s testimony the next day that these trailers were to produce hydrogen for weather balloons, or perhaps rocket fuel — not biological weapons — and that this was the consensus view of intelligence officials.

Some 30 more-or-less overblown administration statements are catalogued in a 106-page January 8 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Similarly overblown, in my view, is the authors’ own grave charge that (intelligence failures aside) Bush, Cheney, and Powell "systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq’s WMD and ballistic missile programs."

Some degree of selective disclosure and one-sided advocacy is to be expected — indeed, unavoidable — when any president uses enormously complex intelligence findings to rally support for a war. But this administration’s outward certitude amid undisclosed intelligence-community doubts was more selective, and thus more misleading, than it needed to be. By airbrushing out the uncertainties, Bush, Cheney, and Powell denied us the opportunity to reach fully informed judgments about a matter of incalculably grave consequence.

Would many supporters of the war have been opposed had Bush, Cheney, and Powell been more candid? Not in my case. In a post-9/11 world, Saddam’s defiant behavior and the risk of Iraq’s acquiring nuclear weapons would have provided a casus belli even had I known everything Bush knew. (I might well have had a different view, however, had I also known that Saddam’s WMD were mostly a mirage.)

Nor was the administration’s intelligence-spinning deceptive in the same sense as, say, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secret, illegal (although noble) transfers of arms to Great Britain early in World War II. But a president who seeks to lead us into a war of choice owes us a more balanced assessment than Bush provided.

How far Bush and Cheney have fallen short of reasonably full disclosure is a question on which the independent commission now being formed should provide timely guidance for voters. Whether Bush and Cheney were candid enough to be entrusted with another term is a question that voters must answer for themselves.