Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum