They Knew

Despite the whitewash, we now know that the Bush administration was warned before the war that its Iraq claims were weak

BY David Sirota and Christy Harvey

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If desperation is ugly, then Washington, D.C. today is downright hideous.

As the 9/11 Commission recently reported, there was “no credible evidence” of a collaborative relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. Similarly, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. With U.S. casualties mounting in an election year, the White House is grasping at straws to avoid being held accountable for its dishonesty.

The whitewash already has started: In July, Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee released a controversial report blaming the CIA for the mess. The panel conveniently refuses to evaluate what the White House did with the information it was given or how the White House set up its own special team of Pentagon political appointees (called the Office of Special Plans) to circumvent well-established intelligence channels. And Vice President Dick Cheney continues to say without a shred of proof that there is “overwhelming evidence” justifying the administration’s pre-war charges.

But as author Flannery O’Conner noted, “Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” That means no matter how much defensive spin spews from the White House, the Bush administration cannot escape the documented fact that it was clearly warned before the war that its rationale for invading Iraq was weak.

Top administration officials repeatedly ignored warnings that their assertions about Iraq’s supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and connections to al Qaeda were overstated. In some cases, they were told their claims were wholly without merit, yet they went ahead and made them anyway. Even the Senate report admits that the White House “misrepresented” classified intelligence by eliminating references to contradictory assertions.

In short, they knew they were misleading America.

And they did not care.

They knew Iraq posed no nuclear threat

There is no doubt even though there was no proof of Iraq’s complicity, the White House was focused on Iraq within hours of the 9/11 attacks. As CBS News reported, “barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq.” Former Bush counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke recounted vividly how, just after the attack, President Bush pressured him to find an Iraqi connection. In many ways, this was no surprise–as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and another administration official confirmed, the White House was actually looking for a way to invade Iraq well before the terrorist attacks.

But such an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country required a public rationale. And so the Bush administration struck fear into the hearts of Americans about Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMD, starting with nuclear arms. In his first major address on the “Iraqi threat” in October 2002, President Bush invoked fiery images of mushroom clouds and mayhem, saying, “Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.”

Yet, before that speech, the White House had intelligence calling this assertion into question. A 1997 report by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)–the agency whose purpose is to prevent nuclear proliferation–stated there was no indication Iraq ever achieved nuclear capability or had any physical capacity for producing weapons-grade nuclear material in the near future.

In February 2001, the CIA delivered a report to the White House that said: “We do not have any direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since Desert Fox to reconstitute its weapons of mass destruction programs.” The report was so definitive that Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a subsequent press conference, Saddam Hussein “has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction.”

Ten months before the president’s speech, an intelligence review by CIA Director George Tenet contained not a single mention of an imminent nuclear threat–or capability–from Iraq. The CIA was backed up by Bush’s own State Department: Around the time Bush gave his speech, the department’s intelligence bureau said that evidence did not “add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what [we] consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Nonetheless, the administration continued to push forward. In March 2003, Cheney went on national television days before the war and claimed Iraq “has reconstituted nuclear weapons.” He was echoed by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who told reporters of supposedly grave “concerns about Iraq’s potential nuclear programs.”

Even after the invasion, when troops failed to uncover any evidence of nuclear weapons, the White House refused to admit the truth. In July 2003, Condoleezza Rice told PBS’s Gwen Ifill that the administration’s nuclear assertions were “absolutely supportable.” That same month, White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted: “There’s a lot of evidence showing that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.”

They knew the aluminum tubes were not for nuclear weapons

To back up claims that Iraq was actively trying to build nuclear weapons, the administration referred to Iraq’s importation of aluminum tubes, which Bush officials said were for enriching uranium. In December 2002, Powell said, “Iraq has tried to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes which can be used to enrich uranium in centrifuges for a nuclear weapons program.” Similarly, in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush said Iraq “has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.”

But, in October 2002, well before these and other administration officials made this claim, two key agencies told the White House exactly the opposite. The State Department affirmed reports from Energy Department experts who concluded those tubes were ill-suited for any kind of uranium enrichment. And according to memos released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the State Department also warned Powell not to use the aluminum tubes hypothesis in the days before his February 2003 U.N. speech. He refused and used the aluminum tubes claim anyway.

The State Department’s warnings were soon validated by the IAEA. In March 2003, the agency’s director stated, “Iraq’s efforts to import these aluminum tubes were not likely to be related” to nuclear weapons deployment.

Yet, this evidence did not stop the White House either. Pretending the administration never received any warnings at all, Rice claimed in July 2003 that “the consensus view” in the intelligence community was that the tubes “were suitable for use in centrifuges to spin material for nuclear weapons.”

Today, experts agree the administration’s aluminum tube claims were wholly without merit.

They knew the Iraq-uranium claims were not supported

In one of the most famous statements about Iraq’s supposed nuclear arsenals, Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The careful phrasing of this statement highlights how dishonest it was. By attributing the claim to an allied government, the White House made a powerful charge yet protected itself against any consequences should it be proved false. In fact, the president invoked the British because his own intelligence experts had earlier warned the White House not to make the claim at all.

In the fall of 2002, the CIA told administration officials not to include this uranium assertion in presidential speeches. Specifically, the agency sent two memos to the White House and Tenet personally called top national security officials imploring them not to use the claim. While the warnings forced the White House to remove a uranium reference from an October 2002 presidential address, they did not stop the charge from being included in the 2003 State of the Union.

Not surprisingly, evidence soon emerged that forced the White House to admit the deception. In March 2003, IAEA Director Mohammed El Baradei said there was no proof Iraq had nuclear weapons and added “documents which formed the basis for [the White House’s assertion] of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger are in fact not authentic.” But when Cheney was asked about this a week later, he said, “Mr. El Baradei frankly is wrong.”

Bush and Rice both tried to blame the CIA for the failure, saying the assertion “was cleared by the intelligence services.” When the intelligence agency produced the memos it had sent to the White House on the subject, Rice didn’t miss a beat, telling Meet The Press “it is quite possible that I didn’t” read the memos at all–as if they were “optional” reading for the nation’s top national security official on the eve of war. At about this time, some high-level administration official or officials leaked to the press that Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife was an undercover CIA agent–a move widely seen as an attempt by the administration to punish Wilson for his July 6, 2003 New York Times op-ed that stated he had found no evidence of an Iraqi effort to purchase uranium from Niger.

In recent weeks, right-wing pundits have pointed to new evidence showing the Iraq uranium charge may have flirted with the truth at some point in the distant past. These White House hatchet men say the administration did not manipulate or cherry-pick intelligence. They also tout the recent British report (a.k.a. The Butler Report) as defending the president’s uranium claim. Yet, if the White House did not cherry-pick or manipulate intelligence, why did the president trumpet U.S. intelligence from a foreign government while ignoring explicit warnings not to do so from his own? The record shows U.S. intelligence officials explicitly warned the White House that “the Brits have exaggerated this issue.” Yet, the administration refused to listen. Even The Butler Report itself acknowledges the evidence is cloudy. As nonproliferation expert Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently pointed out, “The claim appears shaky at best–hardly the stuff that should make up presidential decisions.”

But now, instead of contrition, Republicans are insisting the White House’s uranium charge was accurate. Indeed, these apologists have no option but to try to distract public attention from the simple truth that not a shred of solid evidence exists to substantiate this key charge that fueled the push for war.

They knew there was no hard evidence of chemical or biological weapons

In September 2002, President Bush said Iraq “could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given.” The next month, he delivered a major speech to “outline the Iraqi threat,” just two days before a critical U.N. vote. In his address, he claimed without doubt that Iraq “possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons.” He said that “Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons” and that the government was “concerned Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States.”

What he did not say was that the White House had been explicitly warned that these assertions were unproved.

As the Washington Post later reported, Bush “ignored the fact that U.S. intelligence mistrusted the source” of the 45-minute claim and, therefore, omitted it from its intelligence estimates. And Bush ignored the fact that the Defense Intelligence Agency previously submitted a report to the administration finding “no reliable information” to prove Iraq was producing or stockpiling chemical weapons. According to Newsweek, the conclusion was similar to the findings of a 1998 government commission on WMD chaired by Rumsfeld.

Bush also neglected to point out that in early October 2002, the administration’s top military experts told the White House they “sharply disputed the notion that Iraq’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles were being designed as attack weapons.” Specifically, the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center correctly showed the drones in question were too heavy to be used to deploy chemical/biological-weapons spray devices.

Regardless, the chemical/biological weapons claims from the administration continued to escalate. Powell told the United Nations on February 5, 2003, “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” As proof, he cited aerial images of a supposed decontamination vehicle circling a suspected weapons site.

According to newly released documents in the Senate Intelligence Committee report, Powell’s own top intelligence experts told him not to make such claims about the photographs. They said the vehicles were likely water trucks. He ignored their warnings.

On March 6, 2003, just weeks before the invasion, the president went further than Powell. He claimed, “Iraqi operatives continue to hide biological and chemical agents.”

To date, no chemical or biological weapons have been found in Iraq.

They knew Saddam and bin Laden were not collaborating

In the summer of 2002, USA Today reported White House lawyers had concluded that establishing an Iraq-al Qaeda link would provide the legal cover at the United Nations for the administration to attack Iraq. Such a connection, no doubt, also would provide political capital at home. And so, by the fall of 2002, the Iraq-al Qaeda drumbeat began.

It started on September 25, 2002, when Bush said, “you can’t distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam.” This was news even to members of Bush’s own political party who had access to classified intelligence. Just a month before, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “Saddam is not in league with al Qaeda‚ I have not seen any intelligence that would lead me to connect Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda.

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David Sirota, who writes the “Truth & Consequences” column in In These Times, is director of strategic communications for the Center for American Progress. Christy Harvey is deputy director of strategic communications for the Center for American Progress.

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