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Could WMD become Bush’s Watergate?

Like OJ Simpson looking for his wife's killer, the Pentagon is scouring Iraq for weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi links to al-Qaeda. So far, of course, they haven't found any. And some reports claim they've run out of places to look.

July 1, 2003
8 min read

But in Washington everybody is looking for a weapon of another kind: a “smoking gun”. Thirty years ago, the smoking gun of Watergate brought down the president.

With at least four separate official bodies conducting investigations into whether the Bush administration distorted or fabricated intelligence that it used to justify the war in Iraq, it’s at least an even bet that the scandal over Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction will explode in Bush’s face later this year.

John Dean, the whistleblower who helped unravel Nixon’s administration in 1973, is already comparing the current situation to Watergate. And Charles Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says this scandal is far worse. “Watergate was an interference with the electoral process,” Freeman says. “But this involves systematic deception, prevarication and lies in matters of national security.”

At the heart of the matter is a tiny but very powerful team of intelligence people who took root at the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (OSP). Started as a two-person shop in October 2001, the OSP swelled to 18 under the leadership of Abram Shulsky, a hard-line neo-conservative strategist with close ties to the hawks in the Bush administration.

Operating in utter secrecy, the unit took intelligence developed by the CIA, the DIA and other bodies, blended it with information generated by Ahmed Chalabi’s unreliable Iraqi National Congress, and produced intelligence bits and pieces that guided statements by leading administration officials.

So far the scandal has barely hit the political register, however. Polls continue to show that Americans aren’t concerned that the Pentagon has failed to uncover WMD in Iraq. And most of the Democratic candidates for president have skittered away from the issue. “I don’t think the failure to find WMD is going to resonate with the US people,” says the campaign manager for one of the Democrats” leading presidential hopefuls.

But that could change quickly. The CIA has brought back four retired officials, led by former CIA deputy director Richard Kerr, to examine the agency’s pre-war intelligence and reporting on Iraq. The intelligence committees of both the House of Representatives and the Senate plan to hold inquiries. And Brent Scowcroft, chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), is conducting an investigation of his own.

How likely are these investigations to pinpoint evidence that Bush, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and vice president Dick Cheney either lied or willfully manipulated intelligence to stampede US opinion into supporting their crusade against Iraq? Let’s take them one by one.

The CIA investigation will focus on last October’s National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded: “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions. If left unchecked, it will probably have a nuclear weapon during this decade.”

According to The Washington Post, which obtained a still-secret portion of the estimate, the back-up material was far more inconclusive and filled with cautionary notes. The back-up data is developed by mid-level analysts, but the conclusions at the top are prepared by far more senior officials close to CIA director George Tenet. The latter is a highly political director, who midway into the build-up to war with Iraq decisively cast his lot in with the Pentagon hawks.

Within the CIA, there is enormous anger about what many agency analysts see as deliberate distortion of their carefully reasoned work product. Some former CIA officials who keep ties with people inside the agency have formed an organisation called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (Vips) to protest against the Pentagon’s distortion of intelligence on Iraq.

According to Ray McGovern, the CIA veteran who founded Vips, Tenet originally tried to resist enormous pressure from Bush, Cheney and deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz to come up with information to justify war with Iraq. “But when Tenet sat like a potted plant behind Colin Powell at the UN Security Council [in February], that was the cave-in.”

Still, the CIA’s inquiry will remain secret. Besides, observers say that the individuals conducting the investigation are probably unwilling to accuse the administration of deception or lying anyway.

In Congress some Democrats are pushing hard for a broad investigation. But because the Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and thus both intelligence committees, a full-scale investigation has already been ruled out in favour of a few closed-door hearings.

More promisingly, however, the congressional inquiries have asked for a list of statements made by senior US officials, with back-up intelligence attached to support each statement.

The flat-out, alarmist statements from Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld will provide grist for the mill. As long ago as August 2002, in the speech that kicked off the US campaign against Iraq, Cheney told a meeting of the US Veterans of Foreign Wars: “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” The relevant back-up document for this speech, which will almost certainly reveal glaring contradictions between official pronouncements and the underlying intelligence, will also remain classified. But there’s no doubt that it will be leaked to reporters.

Several members of Congress, all Democrats, continue to pound the issue. Californian Representative Henry Waxman has been demanding answers on WMD in a series of angry epistles sent to Rumsfeld. But the war’s most outspoken opponent has been West Virginian Senator Robert Byrd, who at 85 is the oldest Democrat in Congress. In a letter to the president last week, Byrd wondered if the WMD claims were “a manufactured excuse by an administration eager to seize a country”. He added: “We need a thorough, open, gloves-off investigation of this matter, and we need it quickly.”

Finally, there is the Scowcroft investigation, which could be the most significant of them all. Last August Scowcroft came out forcefully against the war. As PFIAB chairman he has the power to take a wide-ranging look at the White House and at intelligence across various agencies. But a former State Department official with CIA connections questions whether Scowcroft has the fortitude for such an investigation: “You almost have to be a junkyard dog,” he says. “Scowcroft is an establishment voice. So the question is: ‘How hard will he fight? How far will he go?'”

Driving the inquiry process is the anger, bordering on outrage, among many CIA officials who feel that their intelligence conclusions were distorted by the hawks, including the OSP, Rumsfeld, and Cheney. (Scrambling to defend Bush against charges of deception, The Wall Street Journal noted alarmingly that the CIA has joined the not-so-loyal opposition. “Within the US,” the paper editorialised on 2 June, “the role of the French and the European left is being played by elements of the intelligence community.”)

Even if the four investigations stall, it’s certain that intelligence officials will leak reams of material to the media. The Washington Post’s veteran intelligence reporter Walter Pincus says that he expects there to be a “feeding frenzy” over the WMD scandal this summer.

Already, the media are producing a steady stream of articles undermining the administration’s WMD and Iraq-al-Qaeda arguments. The New York Times revealed that the two trailers found in Iraq may have had nothing to do with biological weapons at all.

The Times also reported that al-Qaeda captives have been telling interrogators for many months that Iraq had no truck with Osama bin Laden. The forgery of the papers claiming that Iraq sought uranium

for weapons in Niger is being widely investigated by the media. And there are more and more reports of intelligence agency warnings that Iraq’s WMD threat was minor or non-existent. Most damning is a DIA report issued last fall that said there was “no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons or [on whether it] will establish chemical production facilities”.

All of this has led Jane Harman, a moderate Democrat who is the second-ranking member of the House intelligence committee, to raise the possibility that the threat of WMD was a “hoax”, and to pledge to “review the pre-war intelligence case and the portrayal of intelligence by proponents of military action in Iraq”.

Of course, it’s possible that the investigations will run aground, especially if they concentrate on the complex and varied estimates produced by the agencies and fail to focus on the distortion factory in Shulsky’s OSP. “the real issue is Shulsky,” says one former US official. “they’ll want to look at the intelligence output. But what they’ve got to do is look at what got into the president’s in-box.” If that happens, and if the media continue their drumbeat of exposés, then it’s very possible that by this fall the scandal will have left the arcane realm of the intelligence world and entered the rough and tumble world of politics.

Then, the question won’t be (as it was in Watergate): “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Bush, a know-nothing president, apparently had neither the interest nor the intellectual capacity to question the information he was receiving. The question will be: “What did the president not know, and when didn’t he know it?”Robert Dreyfuss is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a Mother Jones contributing writer

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