How the big lie about Iraq came to be

Did our spy operations blow the call on WMDs, or did Bush distort the truth?

By Robert Scheer
June 4, 2003 10:36PM (UTC)
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Leave it to a Marine to be blunt. When Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, was asked Friday why his Marines failed to encounter or uncover any of the weapons of mass destruction that U.S. intelligence had warned them about, his honesty put the White House to shame.

"We were simply wrong," Conway said. "It was a surprise to me then, it remains a surprise to me now, that we have not uncovered [nuclear, chemical or biological] weapons" in Iraq. And, he added, "believe me, it's not for lack of trying. We've been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwait border and Baghdad, but they're simply not there."


Now that the "imminent threat" posed by Iraqi chemical or biological weapons has turned out not to be so imminent, the question is: Did our gazillion-dollar spy operations blow the call, or was the dope they developed distorted or exaggerated by our political leaders?

Either way, heads should roll.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is feeling real political heat for arguing before the allied invasion that Saddam Hussein "has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes," a terrifying claim apparently now proved false.


Yet the White House seems to believe nobody cares that its war was based on the same distortions pushed by our president.

Paul Wolfowitz, one of the general's top civilian bosses in the Pentagon and a key proponent of invading Iraq, certainly seems unconcerned with the implications of making arguments for war based on convenience rather than facts. In a Vanity Fair interview released last week, the neoconservative Wolfowitz said, "The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction, as the core reason."

He listed two others: to fight terrorism and Saddam's criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. However, Wolfowitz dismissed the last reason, saying "the third one, by itself is a reason to help the Iraqis but it is not a reason to put American kids' lives at risk, certainly not on the scale [that] we did it."


Of course, the marketing of policy -- spin -- is an established, albeit unfortunate, part of politics. However, it is unacceptable to misinform your troops going into battle or mislead your citizens about why you are putting their sons and daughters in harm's way.

Bush and his band of hawks seem to believe the ends justify the means. Thus, the terror of 9/11 and the boogeyman of Iraq's supposed WMD stash became the key to pushing an ambitious plan to redraw the map of the Middle East. That was the pet project of a band of neocon missionaries who had failed to convince either the first Bush administration or the Clinton administration that such a campaign was plausible or desirable.


For Wolfowitz and friends, the 9/11 attacks were almost a gift, an opportunity to play God. "If you had to pick the 10 most important foreign policy things for the United States over the last 100 years, [Sept. 11] would surely rank in the top 10 if not No. 1," he told Vanity Fair.

Knocking al-Qaida's Taliban friends out of Kabul became only a warm-up for dethroning Saddam as part of the broader neocon agenda. In marketing this war, however, there was a little problem: Saddam, loathsome as he was, didn't have anything to do with 9/11. Or, as Wolfowitz put it tactfully in his interview: "That second issue about links to terrorism is the one about which there's the most disagreement within the bureaucracy."

But they didn't let that stop them. They kept hyping the al-Qaida connection and turning up the volume on the WMD alarm. After all, we knew Saddam had some scary biological and chemical weapons in the '80s, because he was our ally in the war against Iran and we supplied him with some of them.


And though United Nations inspectors found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the Pentagon hawks found some Iraqi exiles in Washington who were more than willing to provide handy lists of the precise locations of deployed WMDs. And thus was born the big lie: There's no time for U.N. inspectors to continue their work, the threat from Iraq is less than an hour away, and any delay puts the planet at risk.

It worked so well even our Marines were fooled.

Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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