Everyone thought Saddam had WMD?

Tim Russert: “George W. Bush said there were. Bill and Hillary Clinton said there were. The Russians, French and Germans, who opposed the war, said there were. Hans Blix of the U.N. said there were.”

This quote from Meet the Press on September 25, 2005 during a gaggle with New York Times columnists illustrates how water for the Bush-absolving notion that “everybody” in the pre-Iraq-war period thought that Iraqi WMD were real and a genuine threat to the US and the UK is being carried by mainstream media.

Lately this has become quite an epidemic. Even administration dissident Lawrence Wilkerson — who Deep Blade discussed here — re-laid out the winter 2003 case, as cited by Max Boot (in a piece also discussed by Deep Blade here):

Wilkerson said on Oct. 19 that “the consensus of the intelligence community was overwhelming” that Hussein was building illicit weapons. This view was endorsed by “the French, the Germans, the Brits.” The French, of all people, even offered “proof positive” that Hussein was buying aluminum tubes “for centrifuges.” Wilkerson also recalled seeing satellite photos “that would lead me to believe that Saddam Hussein, at least on occasion, was giving us disinformation.”

Boot left out the part where Wilkerson said in a series of obviously conflicted and troubled statements concerning Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003 appearance before the United Nations Security Council, “I wasn’t all that convinced by the evidence I’d seen that he had a nuclear program other than the software.”

So the story from many quarters on the right is that we cannot accuse the Bush Administration of lying us into war because it was just common knowledge that what Bush, Cheney, Blair, and other officials said in the war run-up was based on their sincere and widely-shared beliefs.

Some days ago, I heard a prime example of this kind of water carrying on a Wisconsin Public Radio talk program featuring an interview with John C. McAdams, associate professor of political science at Marquette University. (Click here and find the audio links for October 26, 2005)

A caller to the program with Professor McAdams cited a Democracy Now! interview with former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman and asked McAdams to comment about the notion that the Plame investigation is not so much about revealing the name of a CIA operative as it is about the forged documents associated with the vice president’s office and the Pentagon Office of Special Plans — the lie factory, often cited in Deep Blade Journal — and hence the lies that led to war.

A fair question? Not to the professor, who gave this surprisingly harsh reply,

McAdams: [snickers] People who, who, who use the “Bush lied” argument, it seems to me, are, are just completely heedless of any standards of, of, of telling the truth or making a plausible argument… um, you know, Let’s make a list of those who believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction: Russian intelligence, French intelligence, British intelligence, Tony Blair, the CIA, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, John Kerry. And somehow we’re supposed to believe… ah, oh, oh, and the mainstream media, excellent article by Robert Kagan yesterday in the Washington Post where he talks about how the mainstream media, particularly the New York Times but also the Washington Post in the late 1990s and in 2000, before George Bush took office, were hyping the notion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and he has a long list of articles,… [see Kagan quoted below],… [UN chief inspector Hans Blix], who clearly told the United Nations that Saddam had had weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s, was under an obligation to have destroyed them, and to explain to his investigators, to document the destruction, but refused to document the destruction. Were supposed to believe that among all these people, George Bush was the only person who was so brilliant, ah, who was so wonderfully perceptive, that he knew Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction when virtually everyone else who was paying attention did. Remember, the disagreement about going to war between say us and the French was not whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, it was what the appropriate strategy for dealing with that would be. Ah, so, it’s, ah simply ahistorical, to make that argument that “Bush lied” about weapons of mass destruction. Everybody was making that argument.

McAdams then follows up with a pro forma thrashing of Joseph Wilson, who McAdams says was “discredited.” (See previous post on this matter.)

The October 25 piece by Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan that McAdams cites is quite interesting. It expands the view of what media sources beyond New York Times WMD maven Judith Miller were saying about Iraq, and over a much longer time frame:

Many critics outside the Times suggest that Miller’s eagerness to publish the Bush administration’s line was the primary reason Americans went to war. The Times itself is edging closer to this version of events.

There is a big problem with this simple narrative. It is that the Times, along with The Post and other news organizations, ran many alarming stories about Iraq’s weapons programs before the election of George W. Bush. A quick search through the Times archives before 2001 produces such headlines as “Iraq Has Network of Outside Help on Arms, Experts Say”(November 1998), “U.S. Says Iraq Aided Production of Chemical Weapons in Sudan”(August 1998), “Iraq Suspected of Secret Germ War Effort” (February 2000), “Signs of Iraqi Arms Buildup Bedevil U.S. Administration” (February 2000), “Flight Tests Show Iraq Has Resumed a Missile Program” (July 2000). (A somewhat shorter list can be compiled from The Post’s archives, including a September 1998 headline: “Iraqi Work Toward A-Bomb Reported.”) The Times stories were written by Barbara Crossette, Tim Weiner and Steven Lee Myers; Miller shared a byline on one.

Sure, fine, Kagan is on to something here to the extent that he correctly describes what mainstream reporters did throughout pretty much the last decade when reporting on Iraq.

But what McAdams and other rightists do, though, is latch onto this history of mainstream thought as they hurl charges that people interested in getting to the bottom of just how intelligence support for bellicose administration rhetoric during late 2002 and early 2003 was created and disseminated are “ahistorical.”

I take that personally. When the professor says that very reasonable concern about the forgeries that swirled around vice presidential operatives and the unnecessarily alarmist rhetoric whipping up a public drumbeat for war that emanated from the Pentagon Office of Special Plans (OSP) are “just completely heedless of any standards of, of, of telling the truth or making a plausible argument,” I take offense. I have covered these issues here. This blog prides itself on plausible, well-supported arguments. (Please note that Professor McAdams totally failed to address the document forgeries or the Pentagon’s rogue intelligence shop, which I believe are key.)

Saying “Bush lied” not the truth? Depends on what “lie” we are talking about. I will grant that President Bush and other administration spokespeople were careful about not telling outright whoppers in the lead-up to the war. They created fallacies by omitting important details, they created hysteria by drawing worst-case conclusions over shaky intelligence (all of which turned out to be false), and they did outright lie about how much doubt existed concerning these facts about Iraq’s weapons.

For example, Vice President Cheney addressed the VFW with this unqualified certainty on August 26, 2002:

Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us. And there is no doubt that his aggressive regional ambitions will lead him into future confrontations with his neighbors — confrontations that will involve both the weapons he has today, and the ones he will continue to develop with his oil wealth. [emphasis added]

If there is any one brazen whopper in Cheney’s presentation, it is this conveyance of lack of doubt.

Here follows an example of how the president himself omitted facts about the then-known unreliability of the “Iraqi nuclear engineer” cited, and twisted even-then-shaky facts into a worst-case near certainty very obviously designed to strike maximum fear into the hearts of a 911-jittery public.

President Bush (October 7, 2002): Before being barred from Iraq in 1998, the International Atomic Energy Agency dismantled extensive nuclear weapons-related facilities, including three uranium enrichment sites. That same year, information from a high-ranking Iraqi nuclear engineer who had defected revealed that despite his public promises, Saddam Hussein had ordered his nuclear program to continue.

The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. Saddam Hussein has held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his “nuclear mujahideen” — his nuclear holy warriors. Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of its nuclear program in the past. Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year. And if we allow that to happen, a terrible line would be crossed. Saddam Hussein would be in a position to blackmail anyone who opposes his aggression. He would be in a position to dominate the Middle East. He would be in a position to threaten America. And Saddam Hussein would be in a position to pass nuclear technology to terrorists.

These are the “lies” we refer to. They are lies if it is considered lying to hide the truth from the public about the extent of doubt, and to draw the most extreme conclusions (ie. we needed to attack, invade, conquer, and permanently occupy and dominate Iraq) from the doubtful data.

Beyond that, the degree to which Cheney’s office and OSP actually concocted pre-war Iraq weapons intelligence is not yet known, but it has been my belief for a long time that they in fact did make up a lot of it through clandestine channels. Much of this information was scooped up by Judy Miller and was disseminated exclusively by her (and a few co-authors) on front pages of editions of the New York Times. Alexander Cockburn posted an excellent summary of Miller’s role on August 18, 2003. Cockburn just followed the trail of an “an entire Noah’s Ark of scam-artists” that underbedded Miller’s reporting:

We don’t have full 20/20 hindsight yet, but we do know for certain that all the sensational disclosures in Miller’s major stories between late 2001 and early summer, 2003, promoted disingenuous lies. There were no secret biolabs under Saddam’s palaces; no nuclear factories across Iraq secretly working at full tilt. A huge percentage of what Miller wrote was garbage, garbage that powered the Bush administration’s propaganda drive towards invasion.

December 20, 2001, Headline, “Iraqi Tells of Renovations at Sites For Chemical and Nuclear Arms”.

Miller rolls out a new Iraqi defector, in the ripe tradition of her favorite, Khidir Hamza, the utter fraud who called himself Saddam’s Bombmaker.


“An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.

“The defector, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, gave details of the projects he said he worked on for President Saddam Hussein’s government in an extensive interview last week in Bangkok. The interview with Mr. Saeed was arranged by the Iraqi National Congress, the main Iraqi opposition group, which seeks the overthrow of Mr. Hussein.

“If verified, Mr. Saeed’s allegations would provide ammunition to officials within the Bush administration who have been arguing that Mr. Hussein should be driven from power partly because of his unwillingness to stop making weapons of mass destruction.”

Notice the sedate phrase “if verified”. It never was verified. But the story served its purpose.

September 7, 2002: Headline: “US says Hussein intensifies quest for a-bomb parts”.

This one was by Miller and Michael Gordon, promoting the aluminum tube nonsense: “In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.” All lies of course. Miller and Gordon emphasize “Mr. Hussein’s dogged insistence on pursuing his nuclear ambitions, along with what defectors described in interviews as Iraq’s push to improve and expand Baghdad’s chemical and biological arsenals”.

Another of Miller’s defectors takes a bow:

“Speaking on the condition that neither he nor the country in which he was interviewed be identified, Ahmed al-Shemri, his pseudonym, said Iraq had continued developing, producing and storing chemical agents at many mobile and fixed secret sites throughout the country, many of them underground.

“All of Iraq is one large storage facility,” said Mr. Shemri. Asked about his allegations, American officials said they believed these reports were accurate.”

A final bit of brazen chicanery from Gordon and Miller:

“Iraq denied the existence of a germ warfare program entirely until 1995, when United Nations inspectors forced Baghdad to acknowledge it had such an effort. Then, after insisting that it had never weaponized bacteria or filled warheads, it again belatedly acknowledged having done so after Hussein Kamel, Mr. Hussein’s brother-in-law, defected to Jordan with evidence about the scale of the germ warfare program.”

What Gordon and Miller leave out (or lacked the enterprise or desire to find out) is that Hussein Kamel told UN Inspectors that he had destroyed all Iraq’s WMDs, on Saddam Hussein’s orders.

September 13, 2002, headline: “White House Lists Iraq Steps To Build Banned Weapons”.

And on and on…

So then, what of the notion that the French, the Germans, the UK, the UN, Democrats, and so on all “knew” Saddam had weapons of mass destruction? “Everybody” did not “know” Saddam had WMD ready to use. The WMD America helped Saddam to acquire had long-since been destroyed, as the Hussein Kamel debriefing showed eight years earlier (and as was known to the CIA). Most of the rest of the intelligence had collapsed or was collapsing by early 2003, and all of these countries and the UN knew that and warned US officials about it. And the UK? That’s funny, Tony Blair’s own intel-PR shop had created the famous “WMD attack in 45 minutes”, and MI6 had cribbed a supposed fresh intelligence assessment on Iraq WMD directly off of the internet from a decade-old graduate student’s paper.

Democrats, except maybe for the likes of no-WMD converts like Henry Waxman or, on the left of the spectrum, Dennis Kucinich, were rather useless, so citing John Kerry as proof of WMD is rather a joke.

It became known that the defectors and suppliers of the intelligence were frauds often turned out by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, like Khidir Hamza, the person who was the basis for 1998 stories like “Iraqi Work Toward A-Bomb Reported”; and “Curveball”, the defector who formed the basis for scare-mongering stories about “Winnebagoes of Death” — mobile bioweapons labs — described extensively here in Deep Blade Journal.

The initial LA Times story reporting Curveball stated that

Curveball’s story has since crumbled under doubts raised by the Germans and the scrutiny of U.S. weapons hunters, who have come to see his code name as particularly apt, given the problems that beset much of the prewar intelligence collection and analysis.

Deep Blade Journal has had from the beginning a general editorial position that while a local tyrant, Saddam in no way was a threat that required war during 2003 and beyond. Even so, I could not guarantee in late-2002/early-2003 that Saddam Hussein did not have some unconventional weapons. Instead, my editorial position since the beginning has been to depend honest analysis, the most important of which in the war buildup was that of Glen Rangwala from Cambridge University, “Claims and evaluations of Iraq’s proscribed weapons”.

A brief examination of this document will demonstrate thoroughly that there was no clear agreement that Saddam Hussein was any sort of threat to the US, UK, or even any of his immediate neighbors. It shows truly without doubt that Iraq had already been substantially disarmed.

Were there gaps in accounting? Yes. This is a point with which I must agree with Professor McAdams. But that in no way suggests that war was or is the answer, nor does it absolve the US administration for creating a false premise for the war.

Here is how I put this in March 2003:

Yes, there are officially unresolved issues concerning chemical and biological agents that could be locally very dangerous. And full credence should be given to the possibility that Hussein Kamel correctly reported the destruction of these agents. Above all, there is no way these issues add up to war in the absence of a direct threat from Iraq….a solution short of war has always been possible–lifting of sanctions and permanent in-country inspections coupled with region-wide peace initiatives. We probably will never know if present day Iraq can cooperate with the international community and heal itself from decades of tyrannical rule because the U.S. will not allow it.

Administration officials are now well-rehearsed in delivering lines like, “Saddam Hussein is a practiced liar, there is no doubt about it. We should take everything he says very skeptically.”

Apparently, the same holds true for Colin Powell and our own administration. Other countries see this clearly as their citizens line up at 80%+ rates against the war. Notwithstanding posturing of the U.S. administration that failure to vote along lines of U.S. will renders the U.N. “irrelevant,” the U.S. still faces three likely vetoes of a war resolution from China, France, and Russia; teetering of the Blair government in the U.K. as it desperately seeks cover for war; even withdrawal of support for the U.S. position in third-world countries like Pakistan and Cameroon. These are no small measures of how badly Powell’s diplomatic disaster has turned out.

This is history Professor McAdams and other rightists should review before attacking anti-war analysis with an “ahistorical” tag. It seems to me that such attacks serve the administration’s program to deflect the highly damaging Plame matter into a spurious discussion of the honesty of Joseph Wilson and others who would question the motives behind the conquest of Iraq.

Document collection: Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 80. The administration’s pre-war intelligence papers are available here.

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