“We all thought there was weapons there,” President George W. Bush explained to a presidential debate moderator in 2004 when asked if the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq undercut the rationale for occupying the country.
The claim that the entire world agreed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has been asserted countless times by the Bush administration and its supporters since we all learned it was the stuff of fiction. “Everybody agreed,” former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told Wolf Blitzer in May 2007. “We all thought that the intelligence case was strong,” Condoleezza Rice said in April 2007, adding that even, “the U.N weapons inspectors [thought] Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction…. So there’s no blame here of anyone.” Etc., etc.
The media almost always embrace this excuse, as well. Yet former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s revelatory new memoir, together with the quietly released report on intelligence manipulation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, leave no doubt that the Bush administration took the nation into war on false pretenses of mushroom clouds and weapons trailers.
Karl Rove, for example, told Bill O’Reilly on May 29 when talking about McClellan’s book that, “everybody in the West, every major intelligence agency in the world, thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” We hate to be the proverbial skunk at this garden party, but let’s roll back the clock for a moment to see what “everyone” actually said and thought at the time.
Let us begin with America’s own intelligence agencies. Did they agree there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Well, no. The aforementioned Select Committee on Intelligence report, which was signed by all of the committee’s Democrats, along with two Republicans, said that while the administration’s statements on Iraq’s nuclear capabilities were supported by some intelligence, the administration’s statements, “did not convey the substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community.”
On the issue of weapons of mass destruction in general, the report found that administration officials exhibited a “higher level of certainty than the intelligence judgments themselves.” The report also found that, “Statements by the President and Vice President prior to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq’s chemical weapons production capability and activities did not reflect the intelligence community’s uncertainties as to whether such production was ongoing.”
We know also that the Bush administration encouraged the CIA to go as far as possible in supporting its case. The Washington Post reported in June 2003 that Cheney and his Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, personally visited CIA analysts working on the National Intelligence Estimate of 2002 in order to inspire a re-examination of the case, something that no one could remember happening in any previous administration.
Top administration officials, including President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, were also aware of some notable people in the intelligence community who disagreed about WMD claims. Tyler Drumheller, the former chief of the CIA’s Europe division, revealed on “60 Minutes” that in the fall of 2002 President Bush, Vice President Cheney, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and others were told by CIA Director George Tenet that Iraq’s foreign minister—who agreed to act as a spy for the United States—had reported that Iraq had no active weapons of mass destruction program. Two former senior CIA officials later confirmed this account to Salon’s Sidney Blumenthal.
Secretary of State Colin Powell also disagreed at one time—although well before his much-publicized speech to the United Nations in February 2003. Speaking two years earlier in Cairo, Powell had this to say: “He (Saddam Hussein) has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.”
Anthony Zinni, the Marine general who commanded the air assault in the first Gulf War, also had doubts. “Up until Desert Fox, I believed that [Saddam] had WMD,” he told authors Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier. “Then Clinton said we would bomb the WMD sides. I asked the intelligence community for the targets, but they couldn’t give me any. Nothing they gave me was definitively a WMD target. They were all dual-use. That’s when my doubts began.”
Intelligence agencies and top administration officials aside, who else didn’t agree that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? What about politicians? Here are two of the most senior members of the U.S. Senate:
- Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), in September 2002: “[I]nformation from the intelligence community over the past six months does not point to Iraq as an imminent threat to the United States or a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction.”
- Robert Byrd (D-WV), on the day of the invasion: “The case this administration tries to make to justify its fixation with war is tainted by charges of falsified documents and circumstantial evidence.”
Were these reports really unavailable to everyone? We don’t think so:
- On September 19, 2002, Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick described a report “by independent experts who questioned whether thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes recently sought by Iraq were intended for a secret nuclear weapons program,” as the administration was contending.
- On January 30, 2003, Walter Pincus and Dana Priest reported that the evidence the administration was amassing about Baghdad hiding weapons equipment and documents “is still circumstantial.”
- Despite the Bush administration’s claims about WMDs, another Pincus story, this one three days before the invasion, began: “U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden, according to administration officials and members of Congress,” raising questions “about whether administration officials have exaggerated intelligence.”
- Harper’s publisher John MacArthur was calling bull on Judy Miller’s New York Times reporting on WMDs as early as 2003, writing that “When officials leak a ‘fact’ to Ms. Miller, they then can cite her subsequent stenography in the Times as corroboration of their own propaganda, as though the Times had conducted its own independent investigation.”
- Bob Simon of “60 Minutes”interviewed David Albright, a physicist who was a weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s, who said in the interview that the administration was, “selectively picking information to bolster a case that the Iraqi nuclear threat was more imminent than it is.”
Remember, this is just a column, not a book, and we can provide only a tiny sampling of the conscientious reporting that was consistently provided by what was then the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau (McClatchey), along with critical coverage from much of the alternative press, including The Nation, and even in the rabidly pro-war New Republic.
What’s more, these questions were hardly limited to our own media. Remember that Karl Rove insisted “everybody in the West” agreed. But what of these reports?
- The Guardian reported on October 12, 2002 that, “Vladimir Putin yesterday rejected Anglo-American claims that Saddam Hussein already possesses weapons of mass destruction … With a tense Mr. Blair alongside him at his dacha near Moscow, the Russian president took the unusual step of citing this week’s sceptical CIA report on the Iraqi military threat to assert: ‘Fears are one thing, hard facts are another.’”
- The BBC reported on February 11, 2003, that, “France, Germany, and Russia have released an unprecedented joint declaration on the Iraq crisis, demanding more weapons inspectors and more technical assistance for them . . . ‘Nothing today justifies a war,’ Mr Chirac told a joint news conference with Mr Putin. ‘This region really does not need another war.’ He said France did not have ‘undisputed proof’ that Iraq still held weapons of mass destruction.”
Finally, what about the international agencies tasked with actually carrying out inspections in Iraq? These were, after all, the people in the best position to know. What were they saying?
- The International Atomic Energy Agency declared in 1998 that Iraq’s nuclear program had been completely dismantled. The UN Special Commission on Iraq estimated then that at least 95 percent of Iraq’s chemical weapons program had been similarly accounted for and destroyed. Iraq’s potential to develop biological weapons is a much bigger question mark, since such a program is much easier to hide. However, UNSCOM noted in 1998 that virtually all of Iraq’s offensive missiles and other delivery systems had been accounted for and rendered inoperable.
- Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, told the U.N. Security Council in late January 2003 that, “We have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapon program since the elimination of the program in the 1990’s.” He also “put the kibosh” on the administration’s charge that Iraq was seeking aluminum tubes for nuclear weapon development. Eleven days before the invasion, he repeated his assertion that there was absolutely no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program.
- Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said in 2003 of his inspections leading up to the invasion, “The commission has not at any time during the inspections in Iraq found evidence of the continuation or resumption of programs of weapons of mass destruction or significant quantities of proscribed items, whether from pre-1991 or later.”
- Scott Ritter, who was chief weapons inspector in Iraq in 1991 and 1998, added this, about the world’s intelligence agencies: “[W]e knew that while we couldn’t account for everything that the Iraqis said they had destroyed, we could only account for 90 to 95 percent, we knew that: (a) we had no evidence of a retained capability and, (b) no evidence that Iraq was reconstituting. And furthermore, the C.I.A. knew this. The British intelligence knew this; Israeli intelligence knew this; German intelligence. The whole world knew this.”
So, in short, the claim that “everyone agreed” that the evidence of Iraqi WMD was incontrovertible is simply false. It’s another example of the kind of lazy, gullible reporting in the face of a campaign of deliberate deception that got us into this horrific mess in the first place.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.