Weapons of mass destruction investigation

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's focus on the fallout of nuclear "spin."

See the Countdown Clock to the 9-11 Commission Whitewash by September Eleventh.org.


A so-called weapons of mass destruction investigation is underway, according to a July 2003 article by Robert Dreyfuss -- Could WMD become Bush's Watergate? -- published in the UK's Red Pepper:

Like OJ Simpson looking for his wife's killer, the Pentagon is scouring Iraq for weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi links to al Qaeda. So far, of course, they haven't found any. And some reports claim they've run out of places to look.

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 George W. Bush/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 W. Dean, the whistleblower who helped unravel Richard M. Nixon's administration in 1973, is already comparing the current situation to Watergate. And Charles W. Freeman, Jr., 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 H. 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 United Nations 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 J. 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 Raymond McGovern, the CIA veteran who founded Vips, Tenet originally tried to resist enormous pressure from Bush, Cheney and deputy defence secretary Paul Dundes Wolfowitz to come up with information to justify war with Iraq. 'But when Tenet sat like a potted plant behind Colin L. Powell at the United Nations 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 A. 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 exposes, 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.

MSNBC staff and news service reports contributed to the May 17, 2004, headliner "Powell: Prewar intel on Iraq labs was 'inaccurate'. Some information said 'deliberately' misleading."

"Secretary of State Colin Powell says the CIA was wrong about the presence of mobile biological weapons labs in Iraq before the invasion by U.S.-led coalition forces last year."

Powell said that his "February 2003 speech to the United Nations" was based "'the best information that the Central Intelligence Agency made available to me. ... In the case of the mobile trucks and trains, there was multiple sourcing for that. Unfortunately, that multiple sourcing over time has turned out to be not accurate.'

"Powell continued: 'At the time that I made the presentation, it reflected the collective judgment, the sound judgment of the intelligence community. But it turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and, in some cases, deliberately misleading.'"

MSNBC also reports that "Current and former U.S. officials, including David Kay, the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, have said that most of the evidence came from an Iraqi defector code-named 'Curveball.'

"According to newspaper accounts, U.S. officials didn't know the defector's name until after the war, when they learned that he was a brother of one of the top aides of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who was an important advocate for the U.S. invasion of Iraq."

Also see David E. Sanger, "Powell Says C.I.A. Was Misled About Weapons," New York Times, May 17, 2004.


SourceWatch Resources

External links

  • 12 June 2003: "C.I.A. Chief Takes Blame in Assertion on Iraqi Uranium" by David E. Sanger and James Rise, The New York Times: "Although Mr. Tenet's statement did not say he had personally cleared the speech, he said in his statement, 'I am responsible for the approval process in my agency.'"
  • CEIP resources on Iraq Intelligence

Clinton administration and WMD

Investigation Status "Reports"

  • 10 September 2003: "The Stench, Two Years On" by Maureen Farrell, BuzzFlash. Comprehensive overview, with links, of the "facts" ... what we know and what we know that we don't know.
  • 31 October 2003: "Senate Faults White House Over Iraq Documents" by Tabassum Zakaria, Reuters: "The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee singled out the White House for failing to meet a noon EST deadline on Friday to turn over documents about intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction used to justify the U.S. invasion."
  • 31 October 2003: "Bush Officials Vow Iraq Probe Cooperation" by Ken Guggenheim, AP.
  • 31 October 2003: "Analysts Made Accurate Iraq War Estimates" by Matt Kelley, AP: "Months before the U.S.-led war in Iraq, independent and congressional analysts made remarkably accurate predictions of the costs of a post-war occupation, even as the Pentagon refused to do so, or gave very low estimates. ... The discrepancy is gaining new attention with lawmakers complaining of the costs as they approve the president's request for $87 billion to occupy and rebuild Iraq."
  • November 2003: "The War in Iraq: An Intelligence Failure?" by Shlomo Brom, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University: "Many months have passed since the conclusion of the war in Iraq, and despite intensive searching, no evidence of the existence of surface-to-surface missiles (SSM) or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, prohibited by resolutions of the UN, has been found. Likewise, no convincing evidence has been uncovered that projects to develop and produce such weapons were resumed after the suspension of UN inspections in 1998."
  • 2 November 2003: "Bush Agrees to Furnish Iraq Intelligence" by William C. Mann, AP.
  • 12 November 2003: "Bush's Unreliable Intelligence" by David Corn, The Nation.
  • 20 November 2003: "Neocons Leak Bad Intelligence" by Jim Lobe, AlterNet: "The leak of a secret memorandum written by a senior Pentagon official reveals less about the connection between Saddam and al Qaeda than the growing desperation of neo-conservative hawks in the Bush administration." [See Weekly Standard "Case Closed" article below.]
  • 24 November 2003 (Issue): "Case Closed" by Stephen F. Hayes, Weekly Standard: "The U.S. government's secret memo detailing cooperation between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden."
  • 5 December 2003: "Ex-General Says Israel Inflated Iraqi Threat" by Laura King, Los Angeles Times: "A former senior Israeli military intelligence official asserted Thursday that the nation's spy agencies were a 'full partner' to the United States and Britain in producing flawed prewar assessments of Iraq's ability to mount attacks with weapons of mass destruction."
  • 7 December 2003: "Card Dismisses Questions Over Prewar Intelligence as 'moot'" by Scott Lindlaw, AP: "President Bush's chief of staff (Andrew Card) dismissed as 'a moot point' any lingering question about whether Bush relied on faulty intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq."
  • 8 December 2003: "Secrets And Spies" by Robert Dreyfuss, TomPaine: "Calling all spooks and spies. If you want to help Congress get to the bottom of the scandal over Iraq intelligence, now's your chance. Later this week, a key member of Congress will issue an all-points call for intelligence analysts to blow the whistle on President Bush, Vice President Cheney and others in the Bush administration who may have distorted, exaggerated, manipulated or lied about intelligence on Iraq in the run up to war."
  • 9 December 2003: "Britain and US Pressed on Iraq Arms Hunt," AFP.
  • 9 December 2003: "Editorial: 'Moot point'/Andrew Card goes over the line", Star Tribune: "Such an innocuous phrase, moot point, but it is breathtaking in its significance and damnably outrageous of Card to use it."
  • 12 December 2003: "Lawmakers Slam White House for Failing to Monitor Iraqi Weapons Scientists", AFP.
  • 17 December 2003: "Still No Mass Weapons, No Ties To 9/11, No Truth" by Derrick Z. Jackson, Boston Globe: "THE INVASION was still a lie. The capture of Saddam Hussein changes nothing about that. There were too many forked tongues in the road to his lair. The way we removed the dictator, we became a global dictatorship."
  • 17 December 2003: "Dubious Link Between Atta and Saddam. A document tying the Iraqi leader with the 9/11 terrorist is probably fake" by Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, Newsweek at MSNBC.com: "A widely publicized Iraqi document that purports to show that September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta visited Baghdad in the summer of 2001 is probably a fabrication that is contradicted by U.S. law-enforcement records showing Atta was staying at cheap motels and apartments in the United States when the trip presumably would have taken place, according to U.S. law enforcement officials and FBI documents."
  • 18 December 2003: "Remember 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'? For Bush, They Are a Nonissue by Richard W. Stevenson, New York Times.
  • 19 December 2003: "Rumsfeld Visited Baghdad in 1984 to Reassure Iraqis, Documents Show. Trip Followed Criticism Of Chemical Arms' Use" by Dana Priest, Washington Post: "Donald H. Rumsfeld went to Baghdad in March 1984 with instructions to deliver a private message about weapons of mass destruction: that the United States' public criticism of Iraq for using chemical weapons would not derail Washington's attempts to forge a better relationship, according to newly declassified documents. ... then President Ronald Reagan's special Middle East envoy, was urged to tell Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz that the U.S. statement on chemical weapons, or CW, 'was made strictly out of our strong opposition to the use of lethal and incapacitating CW, wherever it occurs,' according to a cable to Rumsfeld from then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz."
  • 23 December 2003: "Post-Emptive Proof. Right weapons. Wrong country. No matter?," motherjones.
  • 23 December 2003: "Rumsfeld Made Iraq Overture in '84 Despite Chemical Raids" by Christopher Marquis, New York Times: "As a special envoy for the Ronald Reagan administration in 1984, Donald H. Rumsfeld, now the defense secretary, traveled to Iraq to persuade officials there that the United States was eager to improve ties with President Saddam Hussein despite his use of chemical weapons, newly declassified documents show. ... Mr. Rumsfeld, who ran a pharmaceutical company at the time, was tapped by Secretary of State George P. Shultz to reinforce a message that a recent move to condemn Iraq's use of chemical weapons was strictly in principle and that America's priority was to prevent an Iranian victory in the Iran-Iraq war and to improve bilateral ties. ... During that war, the United States secretly provided Iraq with combat planning assistance, even after Mr. Hussein's use of chemical weapons was widely known. The highly classified program involved more than 60 officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who shared intelligence on Iranian deployments, bomb-damage assessments and other crucial information with Iraq. ... The disclosures round out a picture of American outreach to the Iraqi government, even as the United States professed to be neutral in the eight-year war, and suggests a private nonchalance toward Mr. Hussein's use of chemicals in warfare. Mr. Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials have cited Iraq's use of poisonous gas as a main reason for ousting Mr. Hussein."
  • 23 December 2003: "Video Clip of 'When Donald met Saddam', informationclearinghouse. Requires Windows Media Player.
  • 28 December 2003: "Confirmed: UK sexed up WMDs," Times of India: "The British government has confirmed that MI6 had organised Operation Mass Appeal, a campaign to plant stories in the media about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction."
  • 7 January 2004: "Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper. Since Gulf War, Nonconventional Weapons Never Got Past the Planning Stage" by Barton Gellman, Washington Post: "But investigators have found no support for the two main fears expressed in London and Washington before the war: that Iraq had a hidden arsenal of old weapons and built advanced programs for new ones. In public statements and unauthorized interviews, investigators said they have discovered no work on former germ-warfare agents such as anthrax bacteria, and no work on a new designer pathogen -- combining pox virus and snake venom -- that led U.S. scientists on a highly classified hunt for several months. The investigators assess that Iraq did not, as charged in London and Washington, resume production of its most lethal nerve agent, VX, or learn to make it last longer in storage. And they have found the former nuclear weapons program, described as a 'grave and gathering danger' by President Bush and a 'mortal threat' by Vice President Cheney, in much the same shattered state left by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s."
  • 9 January 2004: "Powell Admits No Hard Proof in Linking Iraq to Al Qaeda" by Christopher Marquis, New York Times: "Secretary of State Colin L. Powell conceded Thursday that despite his assertions to the United Nations last year, he had no 'smoking gun' proof of a link between the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and terrorists of Al Qaeda. ... 'I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection,' Mr. Powell said, in response to a question at a news conference. 'But I think the possibility of such connections did exist, and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did.'"
  • 9 January 2004/Also here: "New WMD Report Slams Bush White House" by Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service: "In a 107-page report released Thursday, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, Joseph Cirincione and George Perkovich of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) call for the creation of an independent commission to fully investigate what the U.S. intelligence community knew, or believed it knew, about the true state of Iraq's WMD program between 1991 and 2003."
  • 23 January 2004: "Inspector Says WMD Are Vaporware," Reuters: "David Kay stepped down as leader of the U.S. hunt for banned weapons in Iraq on Friday and said he did not believe the country had any large stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. ... In a direct challenge to the Bush administration, which says its invasion of Iraq was justified by the presence of illicit arms, Kay told Reuters in a telephone interview he had concluded there were no Iraqi stockpiles to be found."
  • 26 January 2004: "The Lie Factory" by Robert Dreyfuss and Jason Vest, Mother Jones. Extremely comprehensive article, including details leading up to the invasion of Iraq, personnel involved, and, in particular, the Office of Special Plans.
  • 1 February 2004: "Intelligence on the Eve of War," New York Times Op-Ed: "Yet there are reasons to go slow in accepting Mr. Kay's version as the full story of what happened in this intelligence debacle. Only a broad and truly independent investigation can unravel the roots of this colossal failure. ... Without doubt the most important intelligence document leading up to the invasion was a National Intelligence Estimate hastily assembled and presented to Congress shortly before the vote on a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. This document contended that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons in hand, as well as active programs to enhance its capabilities in all areas. ... This pivotal analysis is striking for the way it minimizes dissenting views on Iraq's capabilities."
  • 9 February 2004: "WMD Lies Spinning Out of Control" by Jim Hightower, AlterNet: "After months of scouring Iraq to find WMDs, Bush's own chief weapons hunter has resigned, declaring that he doesn't think they existed. So - spin, spin, spin - the new line is that well, OK, Saddam didn't actually have the weapons, but he was well on his way to making them. George himself, in his state-of-the-union dance, used this new spin referring to 'weapons-of-mass-destruction-related-program-activities." Never has a president used so many hyphens in a single phrase!"
  • 10 February 2004: "Setting the record straight. Time to draw a line against the rewriting of history" by Molly Ivins, Working for Change: "According to the 500-man American team that spent hundreds of millions of dollars looking for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, there aren't any and have not been any since 1991. ... Before the war, Rumsfeld not only claimed Iraq had WMD but that 'we know where they are.' U.N. inspectors began openly complaining that U.S. tips on WMD were 'garbage upon garbage.' Hans Blix, head of the U.N. inspections team, had 250 inspectors from 60 nations on the ground in Iraq, and the United States thwarted efforts to double the size of his team. You may recall that during this period, the administration repeatedly dismissed the United Nations as incompetent and irrelevant. But containment had worked."
  • 26 February 2004: "No Skunks Allowed" by Raymond McGovern, Tom Paine.
  • 2 March 2004: "U.N.: Iraq had no WMD after 1994" by Bill Nichols, USA Today.
  • 5 March 2004: "Experts Say U.S. Never Spoke to Source of Tip On Bioweapons. Information From Iraqi Relayed By Foreign Agency, CIA Notes" by Walter Pincus, Washington Post: "The claims about the mobile facilities remain unverified, however, and now U.S. officials are trying to get access to the Iraqi engineer to verify his story, the sources said, particularly because intelligence officials have discovered that he is related to a senior official in Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, a group of Iraqi exiles who actively encouraged the United States to invade Iraq."
  • 23 March 2004: "Welcome to Armageddon. A joint investigation by Salon and Rolling Stone reveals why the Bush administration hasn't found any weapons of mass destruction: It's looking in the wrong place" by Miles Harvey, Salon. A must read for the answer.