Weapons of mass deception

The Bush administration goes into full spin mode and Tony Blair battles to save his political life, as charges mount that they lied their way into war.

Published June 6, 2003 11:19PM (EDT)

At the Senate Republicans' weekly policy lunch on Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney reassured the assembled lawmakers that the administration had credible evidence, in the months leading up to the war, to assert that Iraq did indeed harbor weapons of mass destruction.

Before the war, Cheney asserted, the administration was positive that the weapons were there and that Saddam Hussein was refusing to acknowledge that. It wouldn't make any sense otherwise, he said; why would Saddam refuse to cooperate with arms inspectors if he didn't have anything to hide? Why would he lead his country into war?

Cheney was received warmly, and it was pointed out in the meeting that new inspectors were heading over to Iraq. Maybe WMD would be found soon, after all.

That the supremely confident vice president even felt the need, in a room full of loyal Republican officials, to reassert that the administration wasn't lying is an acknowledgment that the as yet undiscovered WMD is emerging as a major problem, even if polls indicate that a majority of Americans still don't seem to care. And Cheney's attempt to allay any fears -- in what is, by all accounts, an extremely admiring coterie of senators -- is but one recent example of the administration's slow but steady realization that the failure to find any WMD could pose a real problem for the Bush administration and the United States in general. From the Pentagon to the British House of Commons to President Bush's appearance Thursday in Qatar, the American and British governments are responding, sometimes reeling, in the face of some harsh accusations.

It already looked like it was heading toward an investigation. On Sunday, the Republican chairmen of the Senate Armed Services and Senate Intelligence committees -- Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. -- seemed to be gearing up for a joint investigation into the pre-war intelligence on Iraqi WMD, but both appeared to back off such a call on Tuesday, particularly after Warner had a private meeting with Cheney. Warner and Roberts then argued that the committees should privately read the materials the CIA was about to present to them for private review before launching an investigation. But on Wednesday afternoon, the Democratic vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., took issue with that plan. "I strongly disagree with the notion that we should wait to decide on a formal investigation until we complete a review of CIA documents regarding WMD and Iraq," Rockefeller said. "This limited approach clearly falls short of the important oversight responsibilities entrusted to the members of this committee."

A source familiar with the situation tells Salon that Cheney and Warner "are old friends; no one's pressuring anyone." That doesn't mean, of course, that Warner isn't inclined to help Cheney. As of Thursday, Senate sources told Salon that it was still undetermined how the Senate would handle the matter and that at least a few weeks would pass before the two committees decided what -- if anything -- would happen.

Across the pond, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has had a harder time fishing for allies. At the House of Commons on Wednesday, Blair was essentially called a liar, and accused of telling intelligence agencies to add less-than-credible information to a September dossier stating that Saddam could launch a WMD attack within 45 minutes. "These allegations are not going to go away," Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith railed. While Conservative and Liberal Democrat Party forces are demanding an investigation into pre-war intelligence about Iraqi WMD, they are joined by several members of Parliament from Blair's own Labor Party. Blair faces two inquiries into the pre-war intelligence on the Iraqi WMD -- and there are no doubts that these investigations will actually occur.

Some of the charges against the two governments are unfair -- as with a Wednesday account in the British newspaper the Guardian that twisted the words of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Sometimes the charges are tenuous, as with a pending Vanity Fair story that conservatives charge misquoted Wolfowitz and took his quotes out of context.

But in leading their nations to war, Bush and Blair presented compelling cases to many as to why Iraq needed to be disarmed immediately -- "We don't have a lot of time," Wolfowitz said to the Council on Foreign Relations in January, "time is running out." But the cases don't seem to be holding up. And experts, prominent Republicans among them, are willing to point out the problem with that. The WMD "is the real reason the U.S. went to war," says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and national security studies director for the Council on Foreign Relations. If it turns out that no WMD are found amid accusations that the Bush administration and Blair governments misused intelligence information, "that will have long-term ramifications with our allies," Korb says.

Referring to a Pew poll released this week indicating that international public support for the United States has significantly slipped -- with majorities in 13 of 20 foreign nations surveyed holding an unfavorable view of the United States, and majorities in seven out of eight Muslim countries expressing the fear that the U.S. might threaten them -- Korb says the affair "feeds into the problem we already had with the rest of the world. People think we're making up the rules as we go along, and that we think that might makes right." This could have far-reaching implications on the future of American foreign policy, including our ability to wage the "war on terror."

What would Korb advise the administration? "Come clean," he says. "I'd tell them to admit what they knew, what they didn't know, and to stop playing games with us."

Korb also suggests that this affair could seriously affect the ability of the U.S. government to function efficiently. "What this administration has done to military and intelligence professionals in government is disgraceful," he says, citing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was publicly rebuffed by Wolfowitz and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after predicting -- correctly, it now seems -- that it would take "several hundred thousand troops to keep the peace in postwar Iraq." Korb also cites the formation earlier this year of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of a few dozen former intelligence officials from Army Intelligence, CIA, FBI, Defense and State Departments, to protest what they saw as a misuse of intelligence for the purposes of building a case for war. "This will also have long-term ramifications," Korb says.

On the VIPS steering committee sits 27-year CIA veteran Ray McGovern, one of President Ronald Reagan's intelligence briefers from 1981-85, who still has many contacts within several intelligence agencies. McGovern tells Salon that he believes the Bush administration's pressure on and manipulation of intelligence agencies was "worse than the Gulf of Tonkin," when President Lyndon Johnson falsified information in order to secure authorization to escalate the Vietnam War. At least back then it was done "in his quick, manipulative way," McGovern says. "This was so premeditated."

McGovern, who opposes the war in Iraq, says "the intelligence just wasn't there, so in such a case the president who wants to pursue this war and his advisors will either manufacture it or cook whatever is there to the recipe they want to pursue."

Korb and McGovern are just two such voices in a chorus of seemingly credible, if mostly anonymous, critics. On Thursday, a senior CIA official told the Washington Post that Cheney and his staff "sent signals, intended or otherwise, that a certain output was desired from here." There was the story about Powell, first reported by U.S. News & World Report, preparing for his testimony before the United Nations in February and so exasperated with dubious information provided to him that he threw the documents in the air and declared, "I'm not reading this. This is bullshit." There's the Time magazine story reporting that an Army intelligence officer said Defense Secretary Donald "Rumsfeld was deeply, almost pathologically distorting the intelligence." On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal quoted a State Department intelligence official who said of the pre-war WMD information that "much of it wasn't very solid, and the fragmentary information sometimes produced fierce internal disagreements about its meaning." Then there was the individual from the Defense Intelligence Agency who told the New York Times that "the American people were manipulated."

Similar statements and charges are being made to the media in London by British government and intelligence sources. On Wednesday, Blair faced an angry crowd at the House of Commons calling for an inquiry into whether his administration misused intelligence information. An influential BBC report from last week quoted a "senior British official" accusing Blair of exaggerating items from an intelligence dossier released last September that stated that Iraq had "military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, including against its own Shia population. Some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them."

The official said that the Blair government wanted intelligence to make the 50-page document "sexier" than an earlier version, so they added the "deployable within 45 minutes" detail, even though that information came from only one source, and intelligence protocol requires that most key information have two reliable sources before it is released. "Most people in intelligence weren't happy with the dossier because it didn't reflect the considered view they were putting forward," the unnamed official said to the BBC.

Additionally, two of Blair's former Cabinet officials -- Robin Cook and Clare Short, both of whom resigned because they opposed the war in Iraq -- accused Blair of misleading the public. "I have concluded that the prime minister decided to go to war in August sometime and he duped us all along," Short said. "There was political spin put on the intelligence information to create a sense of urgency." She said that Blair "duped," "misled" and "deceived" the British people.

Since early May, Britain's Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee has been looking into the reliability of the intelligence. But on Wednesday, the Conservative leader, Smith, said that wouldn't suffice. "The prime minister will only let that committee see the intelligence reports he wants them to see," he said, since "it reports directly to him, and he can withhold any part or all of its reports."

On Wednesday, Blair agreed to cooperate with the House of Commons Foreign Relations Committee, which announced that it sought to investigate the pre-war intelligence on WMD. Blair asserted that he had "absolutely no doubt at all that ... the clearest possible evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction" would be found. He reminded listeners of the track record of his accusers. "In the end, there have been many claims made about the Iraq conflict, that hundreds of thousands of people were going to die, that it was going to be my Vietnam, that the Middle East was going to be in flames and this latest one, that weapons of mass destruction were a complete invention by the British government."

Still, Smith hammered the matter home, declaring that "nobody believes a word now that the prime minister is saying."

As for the specific intelligence charge, Blair stood firm, characterizing the BBC report as "completely and utterly untrue." While the leader of the Commons, John Reid, blamed the BBC leak on "rogue elements" within the intelligence agencies, Blair said that he had "spoken and conferred with the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee," and was confident that "there was no attempt at any time by any official or minister or member of [my] staff to override the intelligence judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and their judgments -- including the judgment about the so-called 45 minutes -- was a judgment made by the intelligence committee and by them alone." He also disputed that it came from one source.

But on Thursday, the Financial Times reported that the information came from one "senior Iraqi officer on active service within the country's military." Additionally, on Thursday, Lord Healey, former chancellor and deputy leader of the Labor Party, called on Blair to resign if WMD are not found.

To watch President Bush, you would hardly know his chief global ally was teetering on the brink. Sleeves rolled up casually, a beaming Bush thanked 2,500 cheering American, British and Australian troops at the Army base at As-Sayliyah, Qatar, Thursday for ensuring that "no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime." As if there were no worldwide clamor demanding to know where, exactly, these WMD are, Bush expressed confidence that the WMD would turn up soon enough. "He's got a big country in which to hide 'em," Bush said. "Well, we'll look. We'll reveal the truth."

It was notable, however, when Bush added that U.S. forces had already located "two mobile biological weapons facilities which are capable of producing biological agents."

This was an accurate detail -- but it was one that diverged wildly from his description the week before of those labs as "the weapons of mass destruction" themselves. The labs "probably" were designed to produce biological weapons, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, though no evidence yet exists that they were.

But that didn't stop the president from telling Polish TV last Thursday that "We found the weapons of mass destruction ... For those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, we found them."

The fact that the president backed off this claim so significantly is no small matter -- and it fits in with the pattern of behavior that has emerged in the last few days as the administration and its allies begin to deal with these accusations. On Wednesday morning, two senior Pentagon officials took the step of holding a press conference for the express purpose of denying that their organization had told intelligence officials to lie; in message the press conference recalled nothing so much as President Nixon's assertion that he was not a crook.

Stories that Pentagon officials were told to drum up evidence to support WMD claims, as well as provide proof of a link between Iraq and al-Qaida, "are beginning to achieve the status of urban legends," said Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith, who was joined by Bill Luti, deputy undersecretary for special plans and Near East and South Asian affairs. Feith and Luti were responding to various media reports about a number of matters. Feith, who rarely speaks to the press, confirmed reports that he had fashioned a small intelligence team -- one that critics said was a far more bellicose alternative to assessments coming in from the CIA and DIA -- but disputed that it was there to accomplish anything other than "review this intelligence to help digest it for me and other policymakers."

At the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on Tuesday, Wolfowitz, too, felt compelled to respond to some of these charges. It has only been 11 weeks since U.S. troops first crossed the Kuwaiti border, he said, and "11 weeks is a very short time." There are still Iraqi soldiers killing Americans, "it is not yet a secure situation and I believe that probably influences to some extent the willingness of Iraqis to speak freely to us."

Many in the GOP seemed to see the calls for an investigation as purely sour grapes by Bush-hating pacifistic Democrats. "They just can't accept the fact that the president, through his moral leadership, is right in the war on terror, and he was right going into Iraq," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told reporters at a press briefing. "They pick at every little thing they can to try to undermine this president and where he is taking us on this war on terror ... They do it for their own political gain."

DeLay is not without his point. A careful reading of many of the stories gaining traction out there makes it clear that in some cases the Bush administration is facing dubious -- even ludicrous -- charges. The left-wing Guardian charged on Wednesday that Wolfowitz had declared oil to be "the main reason for military action against Iraq" thus, the paper said, "confirming the worst fears of those opposed to the U.S.-led war." But the transcript indicates that this story was based on a misquote. Wolfowitz had been asked why he felt economic sanctions would work against North Korea but not Iraq, and he answered that Iraq quite simply was too independently wealthy for sanctions to achieve their results. "Let's look at it simply," he said. "The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil." North Korea, on the other hand, "is teetering on the edge of economic collapse," providing "a major point of leverage." The Guardian took the brash "sea of oil" quote out of context and made it seem as though that was the reason Wolfowitz supported going to war in Iraq as opposed to North Korea.

A separate Guardian story alleging the Robert Ludlum-esque "Waldorf transcripts" of a February conversation between Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, in which they express grave doubts about the intelligence, has been denied by Straw, who says he wasn't even in New York's Waldorf Hotel on the day of the alleged conversation. The story was "completely untrue," Straw said. Notably, the Guardian hadn't actually obtained a copy of the "Waldorf transcripts," but rather had been told of them by "diplomatic sources."

On Thursday, the Guardian seemed to retract the story, writing that "Straw has now made it clear that no such meeting took place. The Guardian accepts that and apologises for suggesting it did."

A less clear-cut situation presents itself with the Vanity Fair story, which was hyped by the magazine's skilled publicists as Wolfowitz "contradicting the Bush administration" by telling the magazine "that weapons of mass destruction had never been the most compelling justification for invading Iraq." But a closer read of the Wolfowitz interview transcript -- provided by the Department of Defense -- reveals this to be a bit of overhype. Wolfowitz also said 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, but ... there have always been three fundamental concerns." Those were Iraq's WMD, support for terrorism and the "criminal treatment of the Iraqi people."

Wolfowitz's assertion that the WMD issue was focused on for reasons having to do with the "bureaucracy" may be "the height of arrogance," as Korb assesses. But it doesn't seem like the scandalous "contradiction" with Bush policy promised by the magazine.

Similarly, the magazine's assertion that by removing Saddam the U.S. could withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia was similarly hyped as an "unnoticed but huge" reason for the war. But Wolfowitz, according to the transcripts, said that such a withdrawal was an "unnoticed -- but it's huge" difference from prewar geopolitics. "Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government," not to mention "a huge recruiting device for al Qaeda," Wolfowitz said, and "lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things."

Other reports are more nebulous and hard to determine. At the Central Intelligence Agency, director George Tenet insisted in a May 30 statement that "integrity and objectivity" marked "exactly what was done and continues to be done on intelligence issues related to Iraq." But the New York Times reported on Wednesday that the CIA has launched an internal review to determine whether its intelligence officers miscalculated the threat posed to the U.S. by the Iraqi WMD program. One CIA official suggests to Salon that the Times is the one exaggerating. "There is a review going on," she confirms, but insisted it originated from an agreement between Tenet and Rumsfeld before the war started. "It's just good government to review."

While it doesn't seem as if any of this has yet changed domestic politics -- Bush has a 64 percent approval ratings, according to a May 30-June 1 Gallup poll, with 56 percent agreeing that the war was "justified even if the U.S. does not find conclusive evidence that Iraq had WMD" -- some Democratic presidential candidates have begun expressing concern, and even outrage.

On Thursday, presidential candidate Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio, organized 29 other Democratic members of Congress to introduce a resolution in an attempt to force the administration to turn over the intelligence relating to Iraqi WMD. In California, another candidate, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. -- former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence -- said "it would raise serious questions about the political leadership that engaged in that manipulation and the misleading of the American people."

Both Kucinich and Graham voted against the Iraq war resolution, which gave the president authority to wage the overseas effort. But even war resolution supporter Sen. John Edwards, D-NC, expressed some reservations about this issue on Saturday in Iowa. "I think people in this country are going to be entitled to an explanation," he said, adding that if in the end "we haven't found the weapons we need to figure out why."

Far more outspoken is Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who for months has been asking the administration how it could have used forged information that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Niger in its own dossier, up to the point that President Bush referenced the argument in his January 2003 State of the Union address. While others are focused on the chemical and biological WMD, Waxman tells Salon that he is convinced that without the fear that Saddam was close to obtaining nuclear weapons the U.S. would not have fought the war in Iraq. "The most powerful argument that President Bush made to take the country to war was that Iraq was soon to become a nuclear power and that would change things dramatically -- Saddam Hussein would have the ability to blackmail other countries in the region and it also meant that any other kind of military action we might have to take against them in the future would be far more serious," Waxman says. "It was the reason, quite frankly, that brought me to vote for the resolution."

Waxman has sent the administration several letters in order to find out "if the president was given information his intelligence people knew to be false" or whether "he was willing to ignore the information and go out and make a statement he knew to be false. Or there's some third explanation." The subsequent response from a "low-level" State Department employee "said something to the effect that, 'We were aware that this is not accurate information, but when we heard other countries repeating it we thought they knew something we didn't know. But later, we found out it was based on the same thing. But we acted in good faith.'" In any case, American and British troops are ramping up their searches -- the U.K. just sent 100 of its elite soldiers, many of them expert in interrogation, to the region, while the U.S. is looking forward to the arrival on Friday of an International Atomic Energy Agency inspection team to see if any uranium is missing from the looted Tuwaitha nuclear complex. Hundreds of sites have yet to be searched, there are prisoners who remain to be interrogated. It may well be that the discovery of the WMD is just a matter of time.

Unfortunately for the U.S., that won't likely put an end to the dispute. On Thursday, Hans Blix, the former United Nations chief arms inspector, cast some doubt on the coalition inspection teams. Says Blix, "Anybody who functions under an army of occupation cannot have the same credibility as an independent inspector."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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