Iraq Flashback

As you might have seen -- though it wasn't the front-page news it ought to have been -- "Curveball," the Iraqi defector who provided the casus belli the Bush administration was searching for to justify the invasion of Iraq, has now admitted he made everything up. To review: In February 2003, noted motivational speaker Colin Powell went before the United Nations and delivered a terrifying presentation demonstrating that Iraq was brimming with horrific weapons of mass destruction, all poised to launch at the United States and who knows who else, obviously some time within the next 10 minutes or so, and therefore we just had no choice but to invade. Much of Powell's case was built on the allegations of "Curveball," a person who had left Iraq five years before and whom U.S. intelligence officials had never interrogated. He was interviewed by German intelligence officials, who passed them to the Americans while insisting that they were probably bogus, as indeed they turned out to be. But everything he said was assumed by the administration to be 100 percent true -- Powell even showed computer animations of mobile chemical weapons labs, based on Curveball's invented stories. Powell's show included lots of other falsehoods and intentionally misleading claims, from those "nuclear" aluminum tubes to phantom VX nerve gas to nonexistent long-range missiles (there's a good run-down here).

Things move fast these days, and 2003 can seem like ancient history to some. But given that the run-up to the war in Iraq was the greatest media failure in decades, I thought this would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the tears of joy and gratitude that greeted Powell's U.N. speech. What's important to keep in mind is that a lot of Powell's bogus claims were known at the time to be false or baseless, if reporters had bothered to ask around. But they didn't, because they were so blinded by how awesome Powell was. Think I exaggerate? Let's take a look back:

"Secretary of State Colin Powell's strong, plain-spoken indictment of the Saddam Hussein regime before the UN Security Council Wednesday embodies something truly great about the United States. Those around the world who demanded proof must now be satisfied, or else admit that no satisfaction is possible for them." -- Chicago Sun-Times

"In a brilliant presentation as riveting and as convincing as Adlai Stevenson's 1962 unmasking of Soviet missiles in Cuba, Powell proved beyond any doubt that Iraq still possesses and continues to develop illegal weapons of mass destruction. The case for war has been made. And it's irrefutable." -- New York Daily News

"Only those ready to believe Iraq and assume that the United States would manufacture false evidence against Saddam would not be persuaded by Powell's case." -- San Antonio Express-News

"The evidence he presented to the United Nations -- some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail -- had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise." -- Richard Cohen, Washington Post

That's just a small sample, but you see the pattern: Not only was Powell's show presented as settling the matter of whether Iraq had this terrifying arsenal and would use it on us, but if you didn't agree, you were either an Iraqi sympathizer or at the very least anti-American. At that point, the debate over whether we would invade was pretty much over -- the only question was when the bombs would start falling. It may boggle the mind that so much of the case for war was based on the testimony of one absurdly unreliable guy. But that was what passed for "intelligence" during the Bush years.

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