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They Knew (cont’d)

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To no surprise, the day after Bush’s statement, USA Today reported several intelligence experts “expressed skepticism” about the claim, with a Pentagon official calling the president’s assertion an “exaggeration.” No matter, Bush ignored these concerns and that day described Saddam Hussein as “a man who loves to link up with al Qaeda.” Meanwhile, Rumsfeld held a press conference trumpeting “bulletproof” evidence of a connection–a sentiment echoed by Rice and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. And while the New York Times noted, “the officials offered no details to back up the assertions,” Rumsfeld nonetheless insisted his claims were “accurate and not debatable.”

Within days, the accusations became more than just “debatable”; they were debunked. German Defense Minister Peter Stuck said the day after Rumsfeld’s press conference that his country “was not aware of any connection” between Iraq and al Qaeda’s efforts to acquire chemical weapons. The Orlando Sentinel reported that terrorism expert Peter Bergen–one of the few to actually interview Osama bin Laden–said the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda are minimal. In October 2002, Knight Ridder reported, “a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats in [Bush’s] own government privately have deep misgivings” about the Iraq-al Qaeda claims. The experts charged that administration hawks “exaggerated evidence.” A senior U.S. official told the Philadelphia Inquirer that intelligence analysts “contest the administration’s suggestion of a major link between Iraq and al Qaeda.”

While this evidence forced British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other allies to refrain from playing up an Iraq-al Qaeda connection, the Bush administration refused to be deterred by facts.

On November 1, 2002, President Bush claimed, “We know [Iraq has] got ties with al Qaeda.” Four days later, Europe’s top terrorism investigator Jean-Louis Bruguiere reported: “We have found no evidence of links between Iraq and al Qaeda. If there were such links, we would have found them. But we have found no serious connections whatsoever.” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country was helping build the case for war, admitted, “What I’m asked is if I’ve seen any evidence of [Iraq-al Qaeda connections]. And the answer is: ‘I haven’t.’ “

Soon, an avalanche of evidence appeared indicating the White House was deliberately misleading America. In January 2003, intelligence officials told the Los Angeles Times that they were “puzzled by the administration’s new push” to create the perception of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection and said the intelligence community has “discounted–if not dismissed–information believed to point to possible links between Iraq and al Qaeda.” One intelligence official said, “There isn’t a factual basis” for the administration’s conspiracy theory about the so-called connection.

On the morning of February 5, 2003, the same day Powell delivered his U.N. speech, British intelligence leaked a comprehensive report finding no substantial links between Iraq and al Qaeda. The BBC reported that British intelligence officials maintained “any fledgling relationship [between Iraq and al Qaeda] foundered due to mistrust and incompatible ideologies.” Powell, nonetheless, stood before the United Nations and claimed there was a “sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda.” A month later, Rice backed him up, saying al Qaeda “clearly has had links to the Iraqis.” And in his March 17, 2003, speech on the eve of war, Bush justified the invasion by citing the fully discredited Iraq-al Qaeda link.

When the war commenced, the house of cards came down. In June 2003, the chairman of the U.N. group that monitors al Qaeda told reporters his team found no evidence linking the terrorist group to Iraq. In July 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported the bipartisan congressional report analyzing September 11 “undercut Bush administration claims before the war that Hussein had links to al Qaeda.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reported, “Coalition forces have not brought to light any significant evidence demonstrating the bond between Iraq and al Qaeda.” In August 2003, three former Bush administration officials came forward to admit pre-war evidence tying al Qaeda to Iraq “was tenuous, exaggerated, and often at odds with the conclusions of key intelligence agencies.”

Yet, the White House insisted on maintaining the deception. In the fall of 2003, President Bush said, “There’s no question that Saddam Hussein had al Qaeda ties.” And Cheney claimed Iraq “had an established relationship to al Qaeda.” When the media finally began demanding proof for all the allegations, Powell offered a glimmer of contrition. In January 2004, he conceded that there was no “smoking gun” to prove the claim. His admission was soon followed by a March 2004 Knight Ridder report that quoted administration officials conceding “there never was any evidence that Hussein’s secular police state and Osama bin Laden’s Islamic terror network were in league.”

But Powell’s statement was the exception, not the norm. The White House still refuses to acknowledge wrongdoing, and instead resorts to the classic two-step feint, citing sources but conveniently refusing to acknowledge those sources’ critical faults.

For instance, Cheney began pointing reporters to an article in the right-wing Weekly Standard as the “best source” of evidence backing the Saddam-al Qaeda claim, even though the Pentagon had previously discredited the story. Similarly, in June, the Republican’s media spin machine came to the aid of the White House and promoted a New York Times article about a document showing failed efforts by bin Laden to work with Iraq in the mid-’90s against Saudi Arabia. Not surprisingly, the spinners did not mention the article’s key finding–a Pentagon task force found that the document “described no formal alliance being reached between Mr. bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence.”

When the 9/11 Commission found “no credible evidence” of a collaborative relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, the White House denials came as no surprise. Cheney defiantly claimed there was “overwhelming evidence” of a link, provided no evidence, and then berated the media and the commission for having the nerve to report the obvious. Bush did not feel the need to justify his distortions, saying after the report came out, “The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda is because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.”

That was the perfect answer from an administration that never lets the factual record impinge on what it says to the American public.

They knew there was no Prague meeting

One of the key pillars of the Iraq-al Qaeda myth was a White House-backed story claiming 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi spy in April 2001. The tale originally came from a lone Czech informant who said he saw the terrorist in Prague at the time. White House hawks, eager to link al Qaeda with Saddam, did not wait to verify the story, and instead immediately used it to punch up arguments for a preemptive attack on Iraq. On November 14, 2001, Cheney claimed Atta was “in Prague in April of this year, as well as earlier.” On December 9, 2001, he went further, claiming without proof that the Atta meeting was “pretty well confirmed.”

Nine days later, the Czech government reported there was no evidence that Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. Czech Police Chief Jiri Kolar said there were no documents showing Atta had been in Prague that entire year, and Czech officials told Newsweek that the uncorroborated witness who perpetuated the story should have been viewed with more skepticism.

By the spring of 2002, major news publications such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsweek and Time were running stories calling the “Prague connection” an “embarrassing” mistake and stating that, according to European officials, the intelligence supporting the claim was “somewhere between ‘slim’ and ‘none’.” The stories also quoted administration officials and CIA and FBI analysts saying that on closer scrutiny, “there was no evidence Atta left or returned to the United State at the time he was supposed to be in Prague.” Even FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, a Bush political appointee, admitted in April 2002, “We ran down literally hundreds of thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on, from flight reservations to car rentals to bank accounts,” but found nothing.

But that was not good enough for the administration, which instead of letting the story go, began trying to manipulate intelligence to turn fantasy into reality. In August 2002, when FBI case officers told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that there was no Atta meeting, Newsweek reported Wolfowitz “vigorously challenged them.” Wolfowitz wanted the FBI to endorse claims that Atta and the Iraqi spy had met. FBI counterterrorism chief Pat D’Amuro refused.

In September 2002, the CIA handed Cheney a classified intelligence assessment that cast specific, serious doubt on whether the Atta meeting ever occurred. Yet, that same month, Richard Perle, then chairman of the Bush’s Defense Policy Board, said, “Muhammad Atta met [a secret collaborator of Saddam Hussein] prior to September 11. We have proof of that, and we are sure he wasn’t just there for a holiday.” In the same breath, Perle openly admitted, “The meeting is one of the motives for an American attack on Iraq.”

By the winter of 2002, even America’s allies were telling the administration to relent: In November, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he had seen no evidence of a meeting in Prague between Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent.

But it did not stop. In September 2003, on “Meet the Press,” Cheney dredged up the story again, saying, “With respect to 9/11, of course, we’ve had the story that’s been public out there. The Czechs alleged that Mohammed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack.” He provided no new evidence, opted not to mention that the Czechs long ago had withdrawn the allegations, and ignored new evidence that showed the story was likely untrue.

Even today, with all of the intelligence firmly against him, Cheney remains unrepentant. Asked in June about whether the meeting had occurred, he admitted, “That’s never been proven.” Then he added, “It’s never been refuted.” When CNBC’s Gloria Borger asked about his initial claim that the meeting was “pretty well confirmed,” Cheney snapped, “No, I never said that. I never said that. Absolutely not.”

His actual words in December 2001: “It’s been pretty well confirmed that [Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service.”

In other words, Cheney hit a new low. He resorted not only to lying about the story, but lying about lying about the story.

Conclusion: They knew they were misleading America

In his March 17, 2003 address preparing America for the Iraq invasion, President Bush stated unequivocally that there was an Iraq-al Qaeda nexus and that there was “no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”

In the context of what we now know the White House knew at the time, Bush was deliberately dishonest. The intelligence community repeatedly told the White House there were many deep cracks in its case for war. The president’s willingness to ignore such warnings and make these unequivocal statements proves the administration was intentionally painting a black-and-white picture when it knew the facts merited only gray at best.

That has meant severe consequences for all Americans. Financially, U.S. taxpayers have shelled out more than $166 billion for the Iraq war, and more will soon be needed. Geopolitically, our country is more isolated from allies than ever, with anti-Americanism on the rise throughout the globe.

And we are less secure. A recent U.S. Army War College report says “the invasion of Iraq was a diversion from the more narrow focus on defeating al Qaeda.” U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi put it this way: “The war in Iraq was useless, it caused more problems than it solved, and it brought in terrorism.”

These statements are borne out by the facts: The International Institute of Strategic Studies in London reports al Qaeda is now 18,000 strong, with many new recruits joining as a result of the war in Iraq. Not coincidentally, the White House recently said the American homeland faces an imminent threat of a terrorist attack from a still-active al Qaeda operation in Afghanistan. Yet, the administration actually moved special forces out of Afghanistan in 2002 to prepare for an invasion of Iraq. Because of this, we face the absurd situation whereby we have no more than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan hunting down those who directly threaten us, yet have 140,000 troops in Iraq–a country that was not a serious menace before invasion.

Of course, it is those troops who have it the worst. Our men and women in uniform are bogged down in a quagmire, forced to lay down life and limb for a lie.

To be sure, neoconservative pundits and Bush administration hawks will continue to blame anyone but the White House for these deceptions. They also will say intelligence gave a bit of credence to some of the pre-war claims, and that is certainly true.

But nothing can negate the clear proof that President Bush and other administration official officials vastly overstated the intelligence they were given. They engaged in a calculated and well-coordinated effort to turn a war of choice in Iraq into a perceived war of imminent necessity.

And we are all left paying the price.

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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