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
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace