In challenging war's critics, administration tinkers with truth, 11/16/05

Knight Ridder NewspapersNovember 16, 2005 

— WASHINGTON—Vice President Dick Cheney turned up the White House rhetoric Wednesday in attacking critics of the Iraq war, accusing some unnamed lawmakers of lacking "backbone."

Cheney's rough-edged remarks were the latest in the Bush administration's campaign to challenge critics of the war, accusing them of twisting the historical record about how and why the war was launched. Yet in accusing Iraq war critics of "rewriting history," Bush, Cheney and other senior administration officials are tinkering with the truth themselves.

The administration's overarching premise is beyond dispute—administration officials, Democratic and Republican lawmakers and even leaders of foreign governments believed intelligence assessments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That intelligence turned out to be wrong.

But Bush, Cheney, and other senior officials have added several other arguments in recent days that distort the factual record. Below, Knight Ridder addresses the administration's main assertions:

ASSERTION: In a Veterans Day speech last Friday, Bush said that Iraq war "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."

CONTEXT: Bush is correct in saying that a commission he appointed, chaired by Judge Laurence Silberman and former Sen. Charles Robb, D-Va., found no evidence of "politicization" of the intelligence community's assessments concerning Iraq's reported weapons of mass destruction programs.

But neither that report nor others looked at how the White House characterized the intelligence it had when selling its plan for war to the world and whether administration officials exaggerated the threat. That's supposed to be the topic of a second phase of study by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"Our executive order 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," Silberman said when he released the panel's findings in March.

The Senate committee concluded that none of the intelligence analysts it interviewed said they were pressured to change their conclusions on weapons of mass destruction or on Iraq's links to terrorism.

But the committee's findings were hardly bipartisan. Committee Democrats said in additional comments to the panel's July 2004 report that U.S. intelligence agencies produced analyses and the key prewar assessment of Iraq's illicit weapons in "a highly pressurized climate."

And the committee found that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, analysts were under pressure to avoid missing credible threats, and as a result they were "bold and assertive" in making terrorist links.

In a July 2003 report, a CIA review panel found that agency analysts were subjected to "steady and heavy" requests from administration officials for evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaida, which created "significant pressure on the Intelligence Community to find evidence that supported a connection."

ASSERTION: In his speech, Bush noted that "more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate—who had access to the same intelligence—voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power."

CONTEXT: This isn't true.

The Congress didn't have access to the President's Daily Brief, a top-secret compendium of intelligence on the most pressing national security issues that was sent to the president every morning by former CIA Director George Tenet.

As for prewar intelligence on Iraq, senior administration officials had access to other information and sources that weren't available to lawmakers.

Cheney and his aides visited the CIA and other intelligence agencies to view raw intelligence reports, received briefings and engaged in highly unusual give-and-take sessions with analysts.

Moreover, officials in the White House and the Pentagon received information directly from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an exile group, circumventing U.S. intelligence agencies, which greatly distrusted the organization.

The INC's information came from Iraqi defectors who claimed that Iraq was hiding chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, had mobile biological-warfare facilities and was training Islamic radicals in assassinations, bombings and hijackings.

The White House emphasized these claims in making its case for war, even though the defectors had shown fabrication or deception in lie-detector tests or had been rejected as unreliable by U.S. intelligence professionals.

All of the exiles' claims turned out to be bogus or remain unproven.

War hawks at the Pentagon also created a special unit that produced a prewar report—one not shared with Congress—that alleged that Iraq was in league with al-Qaida. A version of the report, briefed to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and top White House officials, disparaged the CIA for finding there was no cooperation between Iraq and the terrorist group, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence disclosed.

After the report was leaked in November 2003 to a conservative magazine, the Pentagon disowned it.

In fact, a series of secret U.S. intelligence assessments discounted the administration's assertion that Saddam could give banned weapons to al-Qaida.

In other cases, Bush and his top lieutenants relied on partial or uncorroborated intelligence.

For example, Cheney contended in an August 2002 speech that Iraq would develop a nuclear weapon "fairly soon," even though U.S. intelligence agencies and the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency had no evidence to support such a claim.

The following month, Bush, Cheney and then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice asserted that Iraq had sought aluminum tubes for a nuclear-weapons program. At the time, however, U.S. intelligence agencies were deeply divided over the question. The IAEA later determined that the tubes were for ground-to-ground rockets.

A recently declassified Defense Intelligence Agency report from February 2002 said that an al-Qaida detainee was probably lying to U.S. interrogators when he claimed that Iraq had been teaching members of the terrorist network to use chemical and biological weapons.

Yet eight months after the report was published, Bush told the nation that "we've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaida members in bomb-making and poisons and gases."

Meanwhile, lawmakers didn't have access to intelligence products that may have been more temperate than what they got, even after they investigated the prewar intelligence assessment. For instance, the Director of Central Intelligence refused to give the Senate committee a copy of a paper drafted by the CIA's Near East and Southeast Asia Office examining Iraq's links to terrorism.

Lawmakers didn't see the main document concerning Iraq and WMD—the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate—until three days before their vote authorizing war. The White House ordered the NIE compiled only after lawmakers, including the then-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., demanded it.

The resolution that authorized use of force against Iraq didn't specifically address removing Saddam. It gave Bush the power to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq" and to "enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

ASSERTION: In his Veterans Day address, Bush said that "intelligence agencies around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein."

CONTEXT: Bush is correct in saying that many intelligence agencies, particularly in Europe, believed that Saddam was hiding some weapons of mass destruction capabilities—not necessarily weapons. But they didn't agree with other U.S. assessments about Saddam. Few, with the exception of Great Britain, argued that Iraq was an imminent threat, or that it had any link to Islamic terrorism, much less the Sept. 11 attacks.

France, backed by several other nations, argued that much more time and effort should have been given to weapons inspections in Iraq before war was launched.

ASSERTION: Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, told reporters last Thursday that the Clinton administration and Congress perceived Saddam as a threat based on some of the same intelligence used by the Bush administration.

"Congress, in 1998 authorized, in fact, the use of force based on that intelligence," Hadley said.

And Rumsfeld, in briefing reporters Tuesday, seemed to link President Clinton's signing of the act to his decision to order four days of U.S. bombing of suspected weapons sites and military facilities in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

CONTEXT: Congress did pass the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which stated U.S. support for regime change in Iraq and provided up to $97 million in overt military and humanitarian aid to opposition groups in Iraq.

But it didn't authorize the use of U.S. force against Iraq.

Clinton said his bombing order was based on Iraq's refusal to comply with weapons inspections, a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

———

(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents William Douglas and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)

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