The Bush administration’s rush to war against Iraq was justified largely by the danger that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction supposedly posed to the United States and to U.S. allies. In his January 28, 2003, state of the Union address, Bush denounced Saddam as “the dictator who is assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons” and listed vast quantities of biological and chemical weapons that few independent experts believed Saddam possessed. Bush concluded, “A future lived at the mercy of terrible threats is no peace at all.” In his March 17 “ultimatum address,” after listing Saddam’s alleged WMDs, Bush declaimed, “And this very fact underscores the reason we cannot live under the threat of blackmail.”
In that same speech, Bush declared that
the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised…. Under [UN] Resolutions 678 and 687 — both still in effect — the United States and our allies are authorized to use force in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over.
But there was no evidence that the Iraq “threat” had increased in recent years and no reason to expect it to “multiply many times over” in the following 12 months — especially since UN weapons inspectors were busily ferreting in Iraq at that moment.
At a time when the allegations of Iraqi WMDs are unraveling, it is important to recognize the extent of the frauds that preceded the war.
The Bush team waved nuke after alleged Iraqi nuke over Americans’ heads in the run-up to the war. On August 26, 2002, Vice President Cheney, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, warned that Saddam could have nuclear weapons “fairly soon.” Two weeks later, President Bush told reporters,
I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic — the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] — that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don’t know what more evidence we need.
On March 16, 2003, Cheney announced on NBC’s Meet the Press that “we believe [Saddam] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.”
But the Bush administration never presented any evidence to support these assertions. The IAEA — the UN organization that was conducting inspections for nuclear weapons in Iraq — never produced the report Bush “reminded” reporters of in September. Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA’s director general, informed the UN Security Council that “there is no indication of resumed nuclear activities” in Iraq. And although Cheney and Bush repeatedly invoked some aluminum tubes that Iraq sought to purchase as key steps toward making a nuke, UN experts investigated and concluded that the tubes were not intended for use in nuclear weapons production.
Perhaps the most decisive piece of evidence offered by the Bush administration was the fact that Iraq sought to buy 500 tons of uranium oxide for use in nuclear weapons from uranium mines in Niger.
CIA chief George Tenet gave a classified briefing to congressmen on this and other charges in September 2002, a few weeks before Congress voted to endorse war with Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell also informed a closed hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two days later of the Iraq attempt to secure the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon. The revelation sent shock waves through Capitol Hill and helped squelch resistance to going to war.
In his January 28 state of the Union address, Bush declared,
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
In early March, the IAEA announced that the documents detailing the attempted purchases of uranium were frauds. One senior IAEA official told the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh,
These documents are so bad that I cannot imagine that they came from a serious intelligence agency. It depresses me, given the low quality of the documents, that it was not stopped.
The British government had long refused to give the documents to the IAEA; when the Brits finally passed along the “smoking gun,” it took IAEA inspectors “only a few hours to determine that the documents were fake,” Hersh reported.
The letters appeared to be a crude cut-and-paste operation with Niger government letterhead; however, the names of officials in power did not match the dates on the letter and the signature of Niger president Tandja Mamadou was an obvious forgery.
A senior IAEA official observed that the flaws in the letters could have been “spotted by someone using Google on the Internet.” Hersh, who wrote a superb exposé on the scam, noted,
Forged documents and false accusations have been an element in U.S. and British policy toward Iraq at least since the fall of 1997, after an impasse over U.N. inspections.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.) requested that FBI chief Robert Mueller investigate the document fraud because “there is a possibility that the fabrication of these documents may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq.” The FBI effectively brushed off Rockefeller’s request.
Six weeks after Hersh’s piece appeared, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported that the vice president’s office began a much earlier investigation into the Iraq-Niger nuclear documents, sending a former U.S. ambassador to Niger. Kristof reported that in February 2002
that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged…. The envoy’s debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted — except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway.
A tardy admission
After months of the story of the false Niger claims festering in the media, a senior Bush administration official — unnamed, of course — formally announced on July 7, 2003,
Knowing all that we know now, the reference to Iraq’s attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the state of the Union speech.
This greatly belated admission by an unnamed official was taken by senior Republicans as the proper close of the entire episode. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, declared,
Obviously, when you use foreign intelligence, you — we don’t have necessarily as much confidence or as much reliability as you do your own. It has since turned out to be, at least according to the reports that have been just released, not true. The president stepped forward and said so. I think that’s all you can expect.
But it is ludicrous to assert that “the president stepped forward and said so.” Bush never conceded his statements were false; instead, he busied himself in late June denouncing “historical revisionists” who were examining the administration’s record on Iraq. The Bush administration did not even have the gumption to permit the “senior administration official” to be named — and yet Santorum believes Bush deserves a “that’s all you can expect” response.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) derided concerns over the administration’s confession that it had used false statements on the path to war:
It’s very easy to pick one little flaw here or one little flaw there. The overall reason we went into Iraq was sound and morally sound. And it’s not just because somebody forged or a made a mistake on whether Saddam Hussein was looking for nuclear material from Niger or whatever.
Whatever. Hundreds of American soldiers are dead and thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed. It is not a question of “one little flaw here or one little flaw there.” Instead, it is a question of plank after plank of the Bush administration’s justification for going to war being rotten to the core. And leaders like DeLay respond by rushing to attempt to close the subject and to portray any further curiosity as pettifogging — or worse.
Bush White House aides sought to defend the president by blaming the CIA for failing to warn them that the Niger story was as bogus as a three-dollar bill. However, on July 22, Bush’s Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, conceded that the CIA had sent two warnings to the White House in early October 2002 casting grave doubts on the Iraq-Niger uranium claims.
The Washington Post noted the following day that
yesterday’s disclosures indicate top White House officials knew that the CIA seriously disputed the claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa long before the claim was included in Bush’s January address to the nation.
Most of the American media ignored the revelations amidst widespread exulting over the killing of Saddam’s sons by the U.S. military in Iraq.
The Bush administration knew — at least as of early March — that the president’s statements in the state of the Union address on Iraq’s pursuing uranium in Africa were false and misleading. Yet the administration made no effort to correct its falsehoods until a British parliamentary inquiry had bludgeoned the Blair government on the same issue.
There is no reason to presume that Bush was more deceptive and manipulative on the war on Iraq than he is on the war on terrorism or other subjects. The main difference is that the evidence of false claims on Iraq is now stark, especially after the U.S. invasion.