By Tom Engelhardt
…or was it Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with the rope? On Friday the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee issued its 511 page report —an estimated 20% already censored out by the CIA (so assume this was the best news available) — and as all press reports in this country indicate, it savaged the Agency. Its essential implied conclusion was that the CIA more or less single-handedly led a misinformed Congress and a misadvised administration into war. (“The committee did not find any evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure [CIA] analysts to change their judgments related to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.”) The committee Democrats signed off on this and then held edgy press conferences or like House minority leader Nancy Pelosi released statements indicating that it probably wasn’t this way at all.
So, gee, like they used to say when I was a kid about those drawings that had five-legged cows floating through the clouds, what’s wrong with this picture? To make sense of all this, it helps to compare the shameful CIA intelligence record on Saddam’s Iraq to the various pretzled legal memos the Defense Department, the CIA, and others solicited from working groups of administration legal brains on the issue of torture and the president’s power to create an offshore torture system. Like the CIA’s October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, with its even more doctored, unclassified public version (a White House construct which took much heat in the Committee report), these were essentially after-the-fact efforts to bolster decisions already taken or in the process of being taken by top administration officials who had, until then, largely consulted each other.
Remember, long before that NIE was produced, top administration figures were already out on the national and international hustings selling their wares and their prospective war with their own “intelligence” right at the tips of their tongues. As Dick Cheney, for instance, said in August 2002 speech to the VFW, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”; while the President addressed the UN General Assembly thusly in September of that year, “Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons,” and so on, ad nauseam. And keep in mind, they already had their own outfit, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), set up in the Pentagon in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to create a perfect storm of intelligence exactly to the administration’s liking.
In the case of our offshore mini-gulag of injustice, we know that essential decisions were taken quickly in late 2001 and early 2002 — including the creation of a new category of prisoners, “unlawful” or “illegal combatants” — by top Bush administration officials, including the President, without resort to any corps of lawyers. In the case of intelligence on Saddam’s Iraq, we know from various kiss-and-tell memoirs that, within nanoseconds of the 9/11 attacks, the administration was readying itself for a long-desired invasion of Iraq. Though its urge to go to war had nothing to do with Saddam’s actual danger to us, excuses were needed — wmd threatening the world, ties to al-Qaeda, and so on — and when that’s what they wanted, as the legal memos on torture indicate, that’s what they got. In fact, what they got was the Agency’s already infamous “unfounded ‘group think’ assumptions.” Whether the CIA’s top officials leapt on board or were shoved on board by the neocons and the vice president, whether those vice presidential visits to Langley, Virginia did or did not push CIA analysts over the brink (“The committee found no evidence that the vice president’s visits to the Central Intelligence Agency were attempts to pressure analysts…”) — these aren’t small points, but they’re not the largest points either.
Really, if you think about it, our President made this clear in his response to the Senate report: He indicated that, report or not, he had no regrets about his war with Iraq: “Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons, I believe we were right to go into Iraq. America is safer today because we did. We removed a declared enemy of America, who had the capability of producing weapons of mass destruction, and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them. In the world after September 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take.” With or without weapons. With or without those ties.
It was a point made no less strongly just after the war by Paul Wolfowitz in a Vanity Fair magazine interview, “For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction [as justification for invading Iraq] because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.” He meant, of course, the main reason everyone in the administration could agree on that would sell the war to Congress and the American public.
If you take a longer view, it’s clear that the most essential aspects of the CIA’s terrible intelligence, which supposedly bedazzled this administration and misled us into war, had long been in the hands of the Bush warriors. A quick peek, for instance, at the website of the neocon Project for a New American Century (PNAC) makes clear that Wolfowitz’s “bureaucratic reason” was already well established when, in their out-of-power years, seventeen of them, most with remarkably familiar names (Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams, Zalmay Khalilzad, John Bolton, R. James Woolsey), wrote Republican congressional leaders Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott an open letter in May 1998 forcefully suggesting what would come to be called “regime change” in Iraq: “We recommended,” they said, referring to an earlier letter the group had sent President Clinton, “a substantial change in the direction of U.S. policy: Instead of further, futile efforts to ‘contain’ Saddam, we argued that the only way to protect the United States and its allies from the threat of weapons of mass destruction was to put in place policies that would lead to the removal of Saddam and his regime from power…” And they warned that, failing to do so, “The administration will have unnecessarily put at risk U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf, who will be vulnerable to attack by biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons under Saddam Hussein’s control.”
Once in office, of course, they cranked it all up several notches, tossing in that useful post-9/11 canard about Saddam’s al-Qaeda ties, and with it the endlessly reiterated implication that Saddam had had a hand in the September attacks. (This tale from the crypt, we now know from an “annex” to the Committee report written by three Democratic senators, was first concocted by the Pentagon’s Feith, who set up an unofficial “Iraqi intelligence cell,” as an adjunct to his Office of Special Plans, to counter CIA dismissals of those Saddam/al-Qaeda ties and, it seems, to offer counter-CIA briefings at the White House.) Having concluded soon after 9/11 that they could successfully take the country to war against Iraq (once the Taliban in Afghanistan were polished off), they went for it and the CIA, as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report makes dismally clear, offered plenty of help in the process; but the basics were all in place well before the CIA did its painful worst and the decisions — even though you won’t find a single smoking-gun order on Iraq — as well.
David Corn of the Nation magazine, who has been a bulldog on this issue, writes of the Senate report, “The United States went to war on the basis of false claims.” The Los Angeles Times lead piece on the report the morning after it was released begins in the same vein: “The United States went to war with Iraq on the basis of flawed intelligence assessments that ‘either overstated or were not supported by’ the underlying evidence on Baghdad’s weapons programs, according to a scathing report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday.”
This is strictly true. The United States — we the people — went to war on the basis of false claims. The Bush administration, however, went to war on another basis entirely. As Corn reports, Senator Jay Rockefeller, the Committee’s vice chairman, said that this was one of the “most devastating…intelligence failures in the history of the nation.” Perhaps in the history of the nation. But it was not an intelligence failure for the Bush administration. It was an intelligence success. As the Los Angeles Times piece put it in a wonderful cart-before-the-horse line, “The report amounted to such an indictment of prewar intelligence that lawmakers from both parties questioned whether the invasion would have occurred if information on Iraq’s weapons programs had been accurate.” Exactly. For the Bush administration, that would have been an “intelligence failure.”
As Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) wrote recently in an e-letter to friends and acquaintances,
“The CIA analysis on WMD, however unconscionably warped and wrong, was really not the main issue — that the [October] National Intelligence Estimate came only when it was seen as necessary to deceive Congress into ceding to the Executive Congress’s exclusive Constitutional prerogative to declare war; that indeed, the [official] decision to make war on Iraq preceded the estimate by at least several months and probably came in early spring of 2002 at the latest… and was made for reasons other than WMD or alleged Iraqi ties with al-Qaeda. (Reasons were/are primarily oil and Israel in my view.) WMD was just a cover story needed to get the people and Congress frightened enough to approve the war…and it worked.”
It’s hard now even to recall the foolishness that a majority of the American public and most of our representatives in Congress accepted as reality. To take but one outrageous example, the administration not only claimed that the Iraqis were developing a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), capable of delivering biowarfare agents deep inland from our coasts, but that they were a threat to do exactly that. The President said this on national television — such planes could, he claimed, potentially penetrate hundreds of miles inland with their deadly cargoes — but not before his administration offered this “intelligence” in briefings to Congress as it was trying to stampede our representatives into a war resolution. Here, for instance, is part of a sad statement (worth quoting at length and reading in full) Senator Bill Nelson of Florida made on the subject this January:
“I, along with nearly every Senator in this Chamber, in that secure
room of this Capitol complex, was not only told there were weapons of
mass destruction–specifically chemical and biological–but I was
looked at straight in the face and told that Saddam Hussein had the
means of delivering those biological and chemical weapons of mass
destruction by unmanned drones, called UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles.
Further, I was looked at straight in the face and told that UAVs could
be launched from ships off the Atlantic coast to attack eastern
seaboard cities of the United States.
“Is it any wonder that I concluded there was an imminent peril to the
United States? The first public disclosure of that information occurred
perhaps a couple of weeks later, when the information was told to us.
It was prior to the vote on the resolution and it was in a highly
classified setting in a secure room. But the first public disclosure of
that information was when the President addressed the Nation on TV. He
said that Saddam Hussein possessed UAVs.
“Later, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in his presentation to
the United Nations, in a very dramatic and effective presentation,
expanded that and suggested the possibility that UAVs could be launched
against the homeland, having been transported out of Iraq. The
information was made public, but it was made public after we had
already voted on the resolution, and at the time there was nothing to
“We now know, after the fact and on the basis of Dr. Kay’s testimony
today in the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the information was
false; and not only that there were not weapons of mass destruction–
chemical and biological–but there was no fleet of UAVs, unmanned
aerial vehicles, nor was there any capability of putting UAVs on ships
and transporting them to the Atlantic coast and launching them at U.S.
cities on the eastern seaboard.”
“At the time there was nothing to contradict that” — but common sense, of course. We now know that there was no fleet of Iraqi UAVs (in a New York Times chart of “The Senate Committee’s Conclusions,” this falls under the category not of “incorrect” or “unsupported,” but hilariously enough of “overreaching” — click here and then on “Graphic: Individual Assessments” below at screen right). Had there, however, been such a fleet, the means of launching them far inland from somewhere off America’s coasts to spray deadly toxins (hardly a sure thing, by the way) were obviously missing — or will a previously undiscovered Iraqi navy be produced one day for our edification? Did no Senator ask how these planes would be delivered to our coasts and launched to deliver their rain of terror? Nothing tells us more about the bizarre state of public consciousness at that prewar moment than that this literally inconceivable possibility could have been raised by the nation’s top officials and then gone unchallenged — or even really discussed — in our press.
The Senate report on prewar intelligence focused particularly on that October 2002 NIE, a report requested not by the administration itself, which tellingly had felt no need for such a document, but by senators being pressured to vote on a war resolution as that administration, to quote the Los Angeles Times, “ratcheted up its case for war.” This led to a quickie, distinctly shameful, doctored intelligence document, produced in only a few weeks — and then, as the Committee report makes clear, its public version, under skilled White House penmanship, lost even the modest caveats and qualifications the CIA had put in.
Now, like so much smoke blown away by the wind, gone are all those public justifications for war in Iraq: the threatening aluminum tubes, the mobile weapons labs, the vast stores of off-the-shelf, ready-to-roll weapons of mass destruction, the fleets of UAVs, Saddam’s ties to al-Qaeda, Iraq’s military as a regional danger — all, that is, of Secretary of State Powell’s UN speech, hailed at the time by our media as a magnificent performance, as this administration’s “Stevenson moment” (a reference to Adlai Stevenson, our UN representative at the time of the Cuban missile crisis).
Here’s how Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus, fine reporters for the Washington Post began their piece on the Senate Committee’s report Saturday: “Yesterday’s report by the Senate intelligence committee left in shreds two of the Bush administration’s main rationales for the war in Iraq: that Iraq had illicit weapons and that it cooperated with al Qaeda.” Okay, I’ve been on another planet, admittedly. But weren’t they already in “shreds”? No, it seems, as they say in paragraph two, that they were previously only “in tatters.” There must be a subtle hierarchy of tearing and rending here. My only question, since this process is clearly going to go on and on and on, with ever more “revelations” of what we all should have known or assumed long ago: What comes after “shreds”? As subsequent reports arrive, we might have to turn to other methods (and imagery) to produce, say, ashes or cinders?
While commenting that the “undermining of the administration’s case for war is potentially a grave threat to Bush, whose reelection prospects are closely tied to Americans’ view of the merits of the Iraq war and whether it advances the fight against terrorism,” Milbank and Pincus describe the Senate report thusly:
“On the question of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the bipartisan committee report absolved administration officials of pressuring CIA analysts to inflate the case against Saddam Hussein. And while making no judgment on whether the administration distorted the intelligence it was given, the committee made plain that the CIA’s case against Iraq was plenty exaggerated on its own. Without ‘any evidence’ of administration coercion, the committee found, the intelligence community’s judgments on Iraq’s weapons were ‘either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting.'”
Ho-hum. This is the nature of media debate in the United States today, even after — with its Iraq policies in tatters (or is it shreds?) and angry military, State Department, and intelligence agency leakers stirring up a storm — the media floodgates have finally opened partway. But to this day what you still can’t find is an article in one of our major papers leading off with the sort of straightforward assessment of the Senate report Julian Borger of the British Guardian offered:
“Yesterday’s Senate report on the intelligence failures that helped speed the march to war in Iraq was in many ways a political coup for the Republican party, that defused a potentially dangerous landmine between President Bush and re-election in November. The Democratic members of the Senate intelligence committee were persuaded to sign a report containing a central finding they disagreed with — that senior administration officials did not pressure CIA analysts to produce assessments that would support a war.”
But perhaps it hardly matters. A desperate administration may feel that it’s ducked responsibility for the war it wanted and led us into — the CIA did it! — but such fine points of dispute are unlikely to carry much weight with an American public increasingly dismayed and disillusioned with our rush to battle. Tom
Additional commentaries by Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com.