Curveballs to Congress

Comment

Upon a first reading, the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigatory report on Iraq seems certain to be a document of seminal and historical import; even in the present day, it may transcend our penchant for 24-hour news cycles, our increasingly truncated attention spans, and our capacity to be inured to any new disclosure of deception by our government.

That is because, simply, the magnitude of the deception recorded therein may have led the nation to fight a war it might otherwise not have fought had the truth been known.

The Senate report concludes that every rationale advanced by President George W. Bush -- before the American people; before the Congress that authorized him to go to war; and before the international community, most notably in the February 5, 2003, address by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council -- was based on either faulty or exaggerated intelligence, outright fraud, or deception. In some instances, if the report is correct, blame falls squarely on the CIA; its “group think,” as the Senate report describes it; its risk adverse insular culture; and its reluctance to challenge not only its own longstanding notions but also those of a president so intent on war. In other instances, it is open to interpretation as to who was more at fault: our intelligence agencies, President Bush, or a too credulous Congress and news media.

Unfortunately a second phase of the investigation, which will examine the role of the Bush White House in pressuring the CIA and other agencies, the misuse of intelligence by the White House, and whether senior administration officials misled Congress, will not be completed until well after the November elections.

In the meantime, it's clear that regarding at least one of the rationales for going to war cited by the president -- that Saddam Hussein was working hand-in-hand with al-Qaeda on terrorist plots to attack the United States -- both the CIA and FBI repeatedly warned the White House that, despite their best efforts, they were unable to find supporting evidence. Nevertheless, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly continued to make these assertions. The Senate report leaves no doubt the canard of collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden was perpetuated only by the Bush White House.

Asked Sunday on Meet the Press whether Congress would have authorized the president to go to war if they'd been told the truth, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, replied, “I doubt if the votes would have been there.” Similarly, West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the committee's vice chairman, told reporters last week, “We in Congress would not have authorized that war, in 75 votes, if we knew what we know now.” Even Secretary Powell has said he very well might not have supported war if he knew the intelligence was not accurate.

The central document on which Congress relied in authorizing Bush to go to war, as the Senate report related, was the CIA's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on the state of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs. This estimate categorically stated: “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons.” But the committee's report concluded that those assertions “overstated both what was known and what intelligence analysts judged about Iraq's chemical weapons holdings.”

In fact, as the Senate report relates, the CIA revised earlier findings that there was no such viable biological weapons program. And, as is now known, the October 2002 estimate was based almost exclusively on a single source, aptly codenamed “Curve Ball,” who asserted Iraq had mobile bioweapons laboratories, a claim that has been demonstrated to be untrue. The CIA also concluded that "Curve Ball" was hardly a reliable informant.

Despite this, the allegations that Iraq had biological weapons laboratories were a centerpiece of Secretary Powell's address to the United Nations. The Senate report now concludes that “much of the information provided or cleared by the Central Intelligence Agency for inclusion in Secretary Powell's speech was overstated, misleading, or incorrect.” In fairness to Secretary Powell, he was apparently not informed of this before his UN presentation.

More broadly, the Senate report concluded that virtually every other threat supposedly posed by Iraq was false:

The major key judgments in the NIE, particularly that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program,” “has chemical and biological weapons,” was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) “probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents” … either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting provided to the Committee.

The most emotionally resonant arguments made by the Bush administration were references to Hussein's supposed nuclear weapons program and the specter of a “mushroom cloud” one day soon rising above New York City or Washington, D.C. Yet the Senate Intelligence Committee's report all but called the information cited in the National Intelligence Estimate of a viable nuclear program a sham:

The assessment that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program” was not supported by the intelligence provided to the Committee. The intelligence reporting did show that Iraq was procuring dual-use equipment that had potential nuclear applications, but all of the equipment had conventional military or industrial applications. In addition, none of the intelligence reporting indicated that the equipment was being procured for suspect nuclear facilities. Intelligence reporting also showed that former Iraqi nuclear scientists continued to work at former nuclear facilities and organizations, but the reporting did not show this cadre of nuclear personnel had recently been regrouped or enhanced as stated in the NIE, nor did it suggest that they were engaged in work related to a nuclear weapons program.

In another important area, however, the Senate committee concluded that the NIE accurately portrayed the CIA's intelligence information -- namely, its finding that evidence of a “collaborative relationship” between Hussein's regime and al-Qaeda was virtually nonexistent. “Despite four decades of intelligence reporting on Iraq,” the Senate report concluded, “there was little useful intelligence collected that helped analysts determine the Iraqi regime's possible links to al-Qaeda.”

Although the CIA “reasonably assessed that there were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda throughout the 1990s," the agency also concluded -- and asserted in the NIE -- that "these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship.”

And, perhaps most importantly, the report found the CIA knew of “no credible information that Baghdad had foreknowledge of the 11 September attacks or other al-Qaeda strikes.”

Yet Cheney has continued to cite as evidence of purported Iraqi–al-Qaeda links allegations that 9-11 mastermind Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. The Senate report concluded that “the CIA judged that other evidence indicated that these meetings likely never occurred.”

A senior federal law enforcement official told me that phone, credit card, and visa-entry records long ago proved “beyond any doubt to any reasonable person” that Atta was in the United States during the time of the purported meeting in Prague. This same official also told me, “There is no one anywhere in the government who has taken this seriously for a long, long time.”


Nine Republicans and eight Democrats signed onto this document without a single dissent, a rarity for any such report released during an election year.

True, several of the Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee are moderates, such as committee chairman Roberts and Sen. Olympia Snowe, of Maine. The committee also includes two of the Senate's most fiercely independent Republicans, especially on foreign-policy and national-security issues: Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and Virginia Sen. John Warner.

But the other Republicans include conservative and pro-administration stalwarts such as Orrin Hatch, of Utah; Mike DeWine, of Ohio; and former majority leader Trent Lott, of Mississippi. (In stark contrast to their signing off on this report, both Hatch and DeWine, as members of the joint congressional Iran-Contra committee in 1987, refused to sign off on the committee's majority report, instead only agreeing to signing their names to a partisan and ill-conceived Republican dissent.)

That the report is a bipartisan document makes it even more remarkable. However, the cost of such bipartisanship might have come at too high a price: Democrats agreed to delay a second phase of the investigation, which will examine whether or not the Bush White House pressured intelligence officials to provide the result they wanted and then misused and misinterpreted the resulting intelligence information.

This second phase of the investigation, which has been delayed until after the November election, will also examine the relationship between a cadre of neoconservative administration officials, such as Paul Wolfowitz, and Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, according to congressional sources. (Chalabi is currently under criminal investigation by the FBI for providing classified U.S. intelligence information to the Iranian government, and by Iraqi authorities for corruption and human rights violations.)

A congressional source told me: “This is where the fireworks are going to be. What is left unsaid in this report is that much of the faulty intelligence and questionable sources was sent our way by Chalabi. He played us. One could even argue that he virtually led us into war -- except for the fact that he was telling us exactly what we wanted to hear.”


Meanwhile, on the very same day the Intelligence Committee released its findings, The Washington Times devoted slightly less space to the Committee's allegations than it did to a controversy fueled by the Bush White House questioning John Kerry's character because of purportedly “vulgar” remarks made by celebrities at a recent fundraiser. (Perhaps vulgar language should be reserved for vice presidents.)

This has long been the strategy of the Bush campaign: Stir up false allegations about the presumptive Democratic nominee and exploit conservative media outlets such as Rush Limbaugh, The Washington Times, and Fox News to ultimately force them into the mainstream media, as attention is diverted from the very serious business of how Congress was misled into authorizing a war it would not have allowed otherwise.

To a large extent this strategy has worked: The Radio City Music Hall controversy was also covered on the front page of The New York Times and The Washington Post on the same day the newspapers covered the release of the Senate report. Ken Mehlman, the President's campaign manager, was quoted on the Times' front page as "demanding that the Kerry campaign release a videotape of the event at Radio City Music Hall."

To hear Mr. Mehlman tell it, the failure of the Kerry campaign to release such a tape of a public concert attended by thousands is akin to another Watergate. The people are not only entitled to know what Chevy Chase and Whoopi Goldberg had to say about George W. Bush, they are also entitled to the videotape. Never mind that as Mehlman was speaking his mind, the White House continued to stonewall the Senate Intelligence Committee, citing "executive privilege," on the provision of documents the committee requested for conducting its constitutional oversight.

The Bush campaign even trotted out Sen. Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat, who has endorsed President Bush. Without any irony, Miller decried that many of the entertainers' remarks were "the latest example of the sickness afflicting my party" before likening John Kerry to "a mule eating briars."

In the 24-hour news cycle, all controversies are considered equal. The dictates of objective journalism (which, in the end, is anything but) demands as much.

That a bipartisan Senate report has concluded that a nation went to war based on lies is quickly forgotten by the next day -- if known at all by many Americans. The news cycle has moved on: The Whoopi Goldberg videotapes must be released! The President is proposing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage!

Recently it has come into vogue for many in Democratic Party circles to advocate that the only way to fight back is to engage in the same tactics. It is all right, they argue, for Michael Moore to distort the truth, because Republicans have done it for so long. David Brock, the right-wing hit man, should be welcomed with open arms as a left-wing hit man. All that might remain someday, if this course is taken, may be an endless cycle of partisanship and recrimination that will wreak irreparable damage.

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman perhaps summed it up this way: "Michael Moore has been called the left-wing answer to Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh without the Oxycontin. But is it heresy to ask whether the left actually wants its own Rush? ... [W]hat happens to the country when the left only meets the right at the American jugular?"

In such a climate of polarization, therefore, it is a positive sign -- and Republicans deserve credit -- for signing onto the Senate Intelligence's Committee report. The real test will come during the second phase of the committee's investigation, as they delve into the culpability of Bush administration officials.

There can be no question more central to our civic discourse than whether a president and his men lied to the American people, Congress, and the international community to lead a nation into war. And while presidents have been known to utilize propaganda and distort information to build public support for a war, such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did during the Vietnam conflict, this is the first time in our nation's history that Congress authorized war unknowingly relying on lies.

There is no more legitimate issue for this year's presidential campaign. And this is one issue that should transcend partisan politics. The nation must never again go to war based on falsehood.
In the meantime, it is also legitimate to hope that we can do without further political polarization and turning our political leaders into cartoonish figures, devoid of any humanity and depth, as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore would have us believe them to be.

While reading the Senate Intelligence Committee report, it was hard not to recall watching from the House gallery last year as members of Congress debated an authorization of war. Many voted after sober reflection, abiding their consciences. But too many others, of both parties, simply rose to vote for the war, bowing to constituent sentiment or the polls, displaying little emotion, and reading statements prepared by their staff.

One reluctant supporter of the war was then–House Majority Whip Richard Armey. Initially, he opposed war with Iraq, questioning the legality of a preemptive attack and raising questions about moving forward unilaterally. It was only after reading the misleading November 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and receiving a briefing from Cheney that Armey reluctantly came around to supporting the war.

But shortly after casting his vote and leaving the House chamber, Armey, choked up and in tears, quietly moved into the well of the House and made a plea: “Mr. President, we trust to you the best we have to give. Use them well so they can come home.” It was impossible not to witness the Congressman's humanity. And one is only left to wonder what he might have to say now.

Murray Waas is a Washington journalist (read more at http://www.waasinfo.com) .

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