What a surprise — Bush's Iraq commission absolves his administration of rushing to war on false pretenses that Saddam Hussein had WMD.
By Joe Conason
For anyone who was astonished when George W. Bush decorated George Tenet with the Medal of Freedom, an explanation has arrived at last. With yesterday's release of the final report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, the former CIA director and his loyal subordinates have been permanently designated official scapegoats for the falsifications that led to war in Iraq two years ago.
Tenet and his colleagues have remained publicly silent about the political atmosphere within the Bush administration, which encouraged them to distort and exaggerate evidence of an imminent threat. Their silence implicitly endorses the commission's assertion that there was "no political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community's pre-war assessment's of Iraq's weapons programs" –- despite repeated and credible press reports about the intense pressures emanating from the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The Iraq intelligence commission has done exactly what was expected of it: exonerate the politicians while blaming the intelligence community.
By now, of course, Americans who obtain their information from sources other than Fox News know that all the warnings about Saddam Hussein's fearsome weapons were "dead wrong," as the commission noted in transmitting its report to the president. Indeed, the world has known for many months that all of the confident assertions from the White House about mushroom clouds, aluminum tubes, uranium shipments, mobile biowarfare laboratories, flying drones and stockpiles of poison gas were mythological.
To blame the intelligence community for those blatant falsehoods is to absolve the rest of the Bush administration of any responsibility for the disasters that followed. Appointed a year ago by Bush, the intelligence panel's conclusions were hardly unexpected. Unlike the 9/11 Commission, this panel was a creature of the president rather than Congress. It was placed under the control of Judge Laurence H. Silberman, a reliable, aggressive and determined Bush advocate.
During his tenure on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, Silberman was notorious for his partisan antics on behalf of Oliver North and other Republican miscreants. He was a strange choice to oversee a dispassionate assessment of the Iraq controversy. Assisted by former Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, his conservative Democratic co-chair, Silberman succeeded in directing attention away from the administration's abuses of intelligence on Iraq. Such are the uses of what the White House billed as an "independent commission."
At his brief White House appearance yesterday, Silberman noted that the executive order signed by the president last year ''did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us were agreed that was not part of our inquiry." Yet both he and Robb went out of their way to excuse those same policymakers for misuse of the flawed Iraq intelligence.
"The intelligence community came up with a 90 percent certainty of weapons of mass destruction, and that was pretty high, " Silberman explained. "We looked at the flow, or the stream of intelligence that came to the White House in the two years before that, and if anything, it was even more alarmist." (Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who assured reporters and diplomats in early 2001 that Saddam Hussein had been defanged by sanctions and inspections, might dispute that claim.)
Naturally, the pliable Robb agreed with Silberman. "There was, in the judgment of the intelligence community — at least as presented to the senior policymakers — very little evidence of any doubt," he said.
Yet if Tenet and the intelligence community deserve blame for their inept collection and analysis of information, it should be equally clear that the president and his associates amplified those mistakes in beating the drums for war. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice repeatedly told America and the world that there could be no doubt about Iraq's weapons and intentions. The intelligence proved that Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons, and might soon possess an atomic bomb; indeed, the defense secretary claimed to know the exact locations of these terrifying weapons.
The truth is that the error-ridden CIA hedged its intelligence assessments, most notably in its 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. But that careful hedging didn't stop the Bush officials from pretending to be absolutely certain that Iraq possessed WMD.
Among the most outrageous ploys in their war propaganda was the vice president's continuing effort to connect Saddam Hussein with al-Qaida, and thereby justify the invasion of Iraq as a response to 9/11. Virtually nobody in the intelligence community believed that any significant links existed. As Silberman acknowledged yesterday, the intelligence analysts were "quite resistant" to that canard. Which means that in making his charges about the Saddam-al-Qaida connection — which convinced many Americans that the Iraqis were responsible for the 9/11 attacks — Cheney went far beyond the factual foundations provided by the CIA.
However, Silberman and Robb never pursued that little embarrassment. Unlike the 9/11 Commission members, they never interviewed Bush or Cheney at all. No wonder the president invited them to deliver their report to him publicly so he could he express how "grateful" he is for their efforts. He has every reason to feel that way.
About the writer
Joe Conason writes a twice weekly column for Salon. He also writes a weekly column for the New York Observer. His new book, "Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth," is now available.