Bush administration officials were recently forced to admit that
the president never should have spoken the following 16 words in his January
28th State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam
Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." That
charge, we now know, was based on forged documents and fragmentary intelligence.
Yet, according to the administration and its defenders, the contested
statement was cleared by the CIA, was technically correct, comprised only one
small part of a large body of evidence justifying going to war, and should be
put "behind us."
The issue, President Bush is finding out, is not "behind us." It is becoming increasingly clear that the whole house of cards that made the case for the war is falling down, from the alleged nuclear purchases, to the elusive chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, to the supposed ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda terrorists. By itself, the uranium issue could have been dismissed as an unfortunate mistake. But the Bush administration engaged in a pattern of downplaying — or even ignoring — intelligence disproving its alarmist claims.
President Bush was able to play up the uranium issue only by ignoring his own intelligence agencies. According to CIA Director George Tenet, the CIA did warn the Bush administration that the evidence supporting the claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Africa was unreliable. Tenet’s July 11th mea culpa, parts of which the media quoted heavily, also contained the following account: "[CIA] officials who were reviewing the draft remarks [in the State of the Union speech] on uranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed. From what we know now, Agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct — i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa." That is, the administration resorted to relating what the British report said because it knew that the evidence supporting the allegation was fragmentary.
Even the much-touted huge stockpiles of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons have not been proven to exist. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warned on September 6th of last year there "is already a mountain of evidence that Saddam Hussein is gathering weapons for the purpose of using them. And adding additional information is like adding a foot to Mount Everest." But the White House’s mountain of evidence hasn’t amounted to a molehill. President Bush said the Iraqi regime possessed "thousands of tons of chemical agents" in an October 2, 2002 Cincinnati speech. Those thousands of tons must have evaporated by July 13th (2003) of this year, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told NBC’s Tim Russert that Iraq possessed only a "relatively small amount of very lethal chemical or biological weapons or capability."
Before Saddam’s regime fell, the Bush administration supposedly knew where the weapons of mass destruction were, and would soon capture and destroy them. On March 30th, as American troops were closing in on Baghdad, Rumsfeld said of the WMDs: "We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat." Now Rumsfeld is not so sure where they are, telling Tim Russert in his July 13th Meet the Press interview: "I think we will find them." I think? Whatever happened to that huge mountain of evidence?
It was never there — just like the supposed ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Before the war, the president sounded the alarm about extensive ties between Hussein and al-Qaeda. "We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases," Bush said in a major address on October 7, 2002. He added that Iraq and al-Qaeda had "high-level contacts that go back a decade." Yet the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (leaked to the press in June) revealed that Bush’s own intelligence agencies have said all along that there was no reason to believe any serious ties ever existed between the two. "There was no significant pattern of cooperation between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist operation," former State Department intelligence official Greg Thielmann told the Boston Globe on July 12th. Foreign intelligence agencies agree with the U.S. intelligence consensus. A British intelligence dossier leaked before the war concluded that any collaboration between the two would be improbable because "his [bin Laden’s] aims are in ideological conflict with present day Iraq."
Of course, if Saddam’s regime did not threaten the U.S. with its WMDs and with its al-Qaeda ties, as the Bush administration had claimed, then that means that the administration went to war against Iraq based on false arguments. How can it be otherwise? As White House spokesman Ari Fleischer put it on April 10th: "We have high confidence that they have weapons of mass destruction. That is what this war was about and it is about."
No longer. The war has revealed that Saddam Hussein was no threat to the United States. And the Bush administration’s pro-war rhetoric has shown its willingness to go to war based on overstatement and deception.