Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Caveat Emptor

Bob Graham, the former senior senator from Florida, says the Bush administration misled not only the American people but the United States Congress in making the case for the war in Iraq. From the Miami Herald.

In the past week President Bush has twice attacked Democrats for being hypocrites on the Iraq war. ”More than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate, who had access to the same intelligence, voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power,” he said.

The president’s attacks are outrageous. Yes, more than 100 Democrats voted to authorize him to take the nation to war. Most of them, though, like their Republican colleagues, did so in the legitimate belief that the president and his administration were truthful in their statements that Hussein was a gathering menace — that if Hussein was not disarmed, the smoking gun would become a mushroom cloud.

The president has undermined trust. No longer will the members of Congress be entitled to accept his veracity. Caveat emptor has become the word. Every member of Congress is on his or her own to determine the truth.

As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and the run-up to the Iraq war, I probably had as much access to the intelligence on which the war was predicated as any other member of Congress.

I, too, presumed the president was being truthful — until a series of events undercut that confidence.

In February 2002, after a briefing on the status of the war in Afghanistan, the commanding officer, Gen. Tommy Franks, told me the war was being compromised as specialized personnel and equipment were being shifted from Afghanistan to prepare for the war in Iraq — a war more than a year away. Even at this early date, the White House was signaling that the threat posed by Hussein was of such urgency that it had priority over the crushing of al Qaeda.

In the early fall of 2002, a joint House-Senate intelligence inquiry committee, which I co-chaired, was in the final stages of its investigation of what happened before Sept. 11. As the unclassified final report of the inquiry documented, several failures of intelligence contributed to the tragedy. But as of October 2002, 13 months later, the administration was resisting initiating any substantial action to understand, much less fix, those problems.

At a meeting of the Senate intelligence committee on Sept. 5, 2002, CIA Director George Tenet was asked what the National Intelligence Estimate provided as the rationale for a preemptive war in Iraq. An NIE is the product of the entire intelligence community, and its most comprehensive assessment. I was stunned when Tenet said that no NIE had been requested by the White House and none had been prepared. Invoking our rarely used senatorial authority, I directed the completion of an NIE.

Tenet objected, saying that his people were too committed to other assignments to analyze Hussein’s capabilities and will to use chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. We insisted, and three weeks later the community produced a classified NIE.

There were troubling aspects to this 90-page document. While slanted toward the conclusion that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction stored or produced at 550 sites, it contained vigorous dissents on key parts of the information, especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein’s will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.

Under questioning, Tenet added that the information in the NIE had not been independently verified by an operative responsible to the United States. In fact, no such person was inside Iraq. Most of the alleged intelligence came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which wanted the United States to remove Hussein, by force if necessary.

The American people needed to know these reservations, and I requested that an unclassified, public version of the NIE be prepared. On Oct. 4, Tenet presented a 25-page document titled ”Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs.” It represented an unqualified case that Hussein possessed them, avoided a discussion of whether he had the will to use them and omitted the dissenting opinions contained in the classified version. Its conclusions — such as, ”If Baghdad acquired sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within a year” — underscored the White House’s claim that exactly such material was being provided from Africa to Iraq.

From my advantaged position, I had earlier concluded that a war with Iraq would be a distraction from the successful and expeditious completion of our aims in Afghanistan. I had come to question whether the White House was telling the truth — or even had an interest in knowing the truth.

On Oct. 11, I voted No on the resolution to give the president authority to go to war against Iraq. I was able to apply caveat emptor. Most of my colleagues could not.

Speaking of calling bullshit on pre-war intelligence, Vice President Cheney has been making the rounds of the lecture circuit to conservative audiences saying that those who are calling the administration liars are themselves liars. That’s another version of blaming the victim, a tactic usually resorted to by defendants when they have the law and the evidence piled up against them in a slam-dunk case (to coin a phrase).

As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “to prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” There is a report (PDF) prepared by Rep. Henry Waxman that compares statements of senior administration officials to reality, and it shows the administration was either intentionally misleading or incredibly careless in doing their homework.

Because of the gravity of the subject and the President’s unique access to classified information, members of Congress and the public expect the President and his senior officials to take special care to be balanced and accurate in describing national security threats. It does not appear, however, that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell, and National Security Advisor Rice met this standard in the case of Iraq. To the contrary, these five officials repeatedly made misleading statements about the threat posed by Iraq. In 125 separate appearances, they made 11 misleading statements about the urgency of Iraq’s threat, 81 misleading statements about Iraq’s nuclear activities, 84 misleading statements about Iraq’s chemical and biological capabilities, and 61 misleading statements about Iraq’s relationship with al Qaeda.

Troll prophylactic: this report is not just some cut-and-paste hack job put together by partisan House staffers, but a serious scholarly study using accepted standards of research, methodology, and sourcing. In order to insure objectivity, the report was peer-reviewed by impartial and objective evaluators; anyone who’s been through grad school knows the dreaded rigors of peer review. (In other words, read the report before you jump to some RNC talking-point conclusion.) More importantly, anyone who has not been in the Delta Quadrant since 2002 knows what the White House has said and what the facts have shown. Senator Graham’s insight only makes the truth that Vice President Cheney vehemently denies that much more apparent.