War Stories

I Was Wrong, but So Were You

Parsing Bush’s new mantra.

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The president changes his tune on Iraq

President George W. Bush has suddenly shifted rhetoric on the war in Iraq. Until recently, the administration’s line was basically, “Everything we are saying and doing is right.” It was a line that held him in good stead, especially with his base, which admired his constancy above all else. Now, though, as his policies are failing and even his base has begun to abandon him, a new line is being trotted out: “Yes, we were wrong about some things, but everybody else was wrong, too, so get over it.”

Quite apart from the political motives behind the move, does Bush have a point? Did everybody believe, in the run-up to the war, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? And are Bush’s Democratic critics, therefore, hypocritically rewriting history when they now protest that the president misled them—and the rest of us—into war by manipulating intelligence data?

President Bush made this claim—and thus inaugurated the new line of counterattack—at a Veterans Day speech last Friday before a guaranteed-to-cheer crowd at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, one of the few American military bases that no sitting president had ever visited. (The White House transcript of the 50-minute speech notes a breathtaking 47 interruptions for applause.)

As with many of the president’s carefully worded speeches on the subject, this one contains fragments of truth—for instance, nearly everyone, including the war’s opponents, did think back in the fall of 2002 that Saddam had WMDs—but they serve only to disguise the larger falsehoods and deceptions.

Let’s go to the transcript:

Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community’s judgments related to Iraq’s weapons programs.

This is not true. Two bipartisan panels have examined the question of how the intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs turned out so wrong. Both deliberately skirted the issue of why. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence deferred the second part of its probe—dealing with whether officials oversimplified or distorted the conclusions reached by the various intelligence agencies—until after the 2004 election, and its Republican chairman has done little to revive the issue since. Judge Laurence Silberman, who chaired a presidential commission on WMDs, said, when he released the 601-page report last March, “Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us agreed that that was not part of our inquiry.”

There’s something misleading about Bush’s wording on this point, as well: The investigation “found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community’s judgments.” The controversy concerns pressure from the White House and the secretary of defense to form the judgments—that is, to make sure the agencies reached specific judgments—not to change them afterward.

They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein.

This is an intriguingly ambiguous statement. What does he mean by “our assessment of Saddam Hussein”? Of the man—his motives, intentions, wishes, fantasies? In which case, he’s right. Most of the world’s intelligence agencies figured Saddam Hussein would like to have weapons of mass destruction. If he means an assessment of Saddam Hussein’s capabilities, though, he’s wrong: Several countries’ spy agencies never bought the notion that Saddam had such weapons or the means to produce them in the near future.

They know the United Nations passed more than a dozen resolutions citing the development and possession of weapons of mass destruction.

This, too, is misleading. These resolutions called on Saddam to declare the state of his WMD arsenal and, if he claimed there was no such thing, to produce records documenting its destruction. The resolutions never claimed—or had the intention of claiming—that he had such weapons.

Saddam did demonstrably have chemical-weapons facilities when the U.N. Security Council started drafting these resolutions. But, as noted by former weapons inspector David Kay (but unnoted in President Bush’s speech), President Bill Clinton’s 1998 airstrikes destroyed the last of these facilities.

[M]any of these critics supported my opponent during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: “When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security.”

Bush’s opponent, Sen. John Kerry, did utter these words, possibly to his later regret. Still the key phrase is “to use force if necessary.” Kerry has since said—as have many other Democrats who voted as he did—that they assumed the president wouldn’t use force unless it really was necessary to do so, or unless the intelligence he cited was unambiguous and the threat he envisioned was fairly imminent. This, Bush never did.

That’s why more than a hundred Democrats in the House and Senate—who had access to the same intelligence—voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.

This is the crucial point: these Democrats did not have “access to the same intelligence.” The White House did send Congress a classified National Intelligence Estimate, at nearly 100 pages long, as well as a much shorter executive summary. It could have been (and no doubt was) predicted that very few lawmakers would take the time to read the whole document. The executive summary painted the findings in overly stark terms. And even the NIE did not cite the many dissenting views within the intelligence community. The most thorough legislators, for instance, were not aware until much later of the Energy Department’s doubts that Iraq’s aluminum tubes were designed for atomic centrifuges—or of the dissent about “mobile biological weapons labs” from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Intelligence estimates are unwieldy documents, often studded with dissenting footnotes. Legislators and analysts with limited security clearances have often thought they had “access to intelligence,” but unless they could see the footnotes, they didn’t.

For instance, in the late 1950s, many senators thought President Dwight Eisenhower was either a knave or a fool for denying the existence of a “missile gap.” U.S. Air Force Intelligence estimates—leaked to the press and supplied to the Air Force’s allies on Capitol Hill—indicated that the Soviet Union would have at least 500 intercontinental ballistic missiles by 1962, far more than the U.S. arsenal. What the “missile gap” hawks didn’t know—and Eisenhower did—was that the Central Intelligence Agency had recently acquired new evidence indicating that the Soviets couldn’t possibly have more than 50 ICBMs by then—fewer than we would. (As it turned out, photoreconnaissance satellites, which were secretly launched in 1960, revealed that even that number was too high; the Soviets had only a couple of dozen ICBMs.)

So, yes, nearly everyone thought Saddam was building WMDs, just as everyone back in the late ‘50s thought Nikita Khrushchev was building hundreds of ICBMs. In Saddam’s case, many of us outsiders (I include myself among them) figured he’d had biological and chemical weapons before; producing such weapons isn’t rocket science; U.N. inspectors had been booted out of Iraq a few years earlier; why wouldn’t he have them now?

What we didn’t know—and what the Democrats in Congress didn’t know either—was that many insiders did have reasons to conclude otherwise. There is also now much reason to believe that top officials—especially Vice President Dick Cheney and the undersecretaries surrounding Donald Rumsfeld in the Pentagon—worked hard to keep those conclusions trapped inside.

President Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said today that the arguments over how and why the war began are irrelevant. “We need to put this debate behind us,” he said. But the truth is, no debate could be more relevant now. As the war in Iraq enters yet another crucial phase—with elections scheduled next month and Congress finally taking up the issue of whether to send more troops or start pulling them out—we need to know whether the people running the executive branch can be trusted, and the sad truth is that they cannot be.