'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, November 21, 2005

The War According to John Edwards: Opportunism Instead of Yellowcake 

Last week, former Senator John Edwards took the lead in an attempt to rewrite history about responsibility for the war in Iraq. In a major statement in which he acknowledged that he should not have voted for the war resolution, he absolved himself, and other Democrats who voted for the resolution, of responsibility for the grotesque consequences of their action:

The argument for going to war with Iraq was based on intelligence that we now know was inaccurate. The information the American people were hearing from the president -- and that I was being given by our intelligence community -- wasn't the whole story. Had I known this at the time, I never would have voted for this war.

With all due respect to Edwards, and all those Democrats still seated in Congress who find themselves thrashing about trying to escape the personal and political consequences of their cowardly lack of nerve, this is a deliberately deceptive statement, a statement designed to obscure their complicity in facilitating the war in Iraq. Other Senators voted against the war, despite a belief that Iraq had unspecified chemical and biological weapons, because, as West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd trenchantly observed:

We know who was behind the September 11 attacks on the United States. We know it was Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network. We have dealt with al Qaeda and with the Taliban government that sheltered it - we have routed them from Afghanistan and we are continuing to pursue them in hiding.

So where does Iraq enter the equation? No one in the Administration has been able to produce any solid evidence linking Iraq to the September 11 attack. Iraq had biological and chemical weapons long before September 11. We knew it then, and we know it now. Iraq has been an enemy of the United States for more than a decade. If Saddam Hussein is such an imminent threat to the United States, why hasn't he attacked us already?

A puzzler, to be sure, apparently beyond the logical reasoning skills of the expedient political crocodiles like Edwards. While there was confusion over the nature and extent of any WMDs that Iraq may have possessed, it was commonly known that the intelligence provided by the President did not establish the likelihood that such weapons would be used offensively. It was also recognized that the war in Iraq would divert resources away from known terror threats to the US. Indeed, the intelligence itself was politically irrelevant, as Edwards, like his future running mate, John Kerry, and many other Democrats, had already decided to support the war, hell or high water. Crass political opportunism must be expunged from the record by recourse to self-serving victimization.

Too harsh? Let's look at an interesting article published by former Florida Senator Bob Graham today. Graham, never known for his liberalism, or, for that matter, his willingness to challenge the Pentagon, voted against the resolution, unlike Edwards, Kerry and many other Senate Democrats. In an opinion piece provocatively entitled, "What I Knew Before the Invasion", he has done us a wonderful service by again explaining why he did so. Just the title itself must be sufficient to send chills down the spines of Democratic Capital Hill staffers. Careful reading reveals that such anxiety is fully warranted:

In the early fall of 2002, a joint House-Senate intelligence inquiry committee, which I co-chaired, was in the final stages of its investigation of what happened before Sept. 11. As the unclassified final report of the inquiry documented, several failures of intelligence contributed to the tragedy. But as of October 2002, 13 months later, the administration was resisting initiating any substantial action to understand, much less fix, those problems.

At a meeting of the Senate intelligence committee on Sept. 5, 2002, CIA Director George Tenet was asked what the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) provided as the rationale for a preemptive war in Iraq. An NIE is the product of the entire intelligence community, and its most comprehensive assessment. I was stunned when Tenet said that no NIE had been requested by the White House and none had been prepared. Invoking our rarely used senatorial authority, I directed the completion of an NIE.

Tenet objected, saying that his people were too committed to other assignments to analyze Saddam Hussein's capabilities and will to use chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. We insisted, and three weeks later the community produced a classified NIE.

There were troubling aspects to this 90-page document. While slanted toward the conclusion that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction stored or produced at 550 sites, it contained vigorous dissents on key parts of the information, especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein's will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.

Under questioning, Tenet added that the information in the NIE had not been independently verified by an operative responsible to the United States. In fact, no such person was inside Iraq. Most of the alleged intelligence came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which had an interest in the United States' removing Hussein, by force if necessary.

The American people needed to know these reservations, and I requested that an unclassified, public version of the NIE be prepared. On Oct. 4, Tenet presented a 25-page document titled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs." It represented an unqualified case that Hussein possessed them, avoided a discussion of whether he had the will to use them and omitted the dissenting opinions contained in the classified version. Its conclusions, such as "If Baghdad acquired sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within a year," underscored the White House's claim that exactly such material was being provided from Africa to Iraq.

All along the way, alarm bells rang, and Graham kept asking questions, and, eventually, the bells got so loud that he realized that there was no justification for the war. Ever the Southern gentleman, Graham preserves a way out for his former Democratic colleagues. He was able to vote against the resolution because of his "privileged position", an implied reference to his position on the intelligence committee. But he is well aware this is merely window dressing, because, as you must have guessed, he explained his reasons for voting against the resolution on the floor of the Senate before the vote:

They say that passing this resolution is the equivalent of if the Alllies had declared war on Hitler. I disagree with that assessment of what this lesson of history means. In my judgment, passing this resolution tonight will be the equivalent of declaring war on Italy. That is not what we should be doing. We should not just be declaring war on Mussolini's Italy. We should be declaring war on Hitler's Germany.

Now, there are good reasons for considering attacking today's Italy, meaning Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime has chemical and biological weapons and is trying to get nuclear capacity. But the briefings I have received have shown that trying to block him and any necessary nuclear materials have been largely successful, as evidenced by the recent intercept of centrifuge tubes. And he is years away from having nuclear capability. So why does it make sense to attack this era's Italy, and not Germany, especially when by attacking Italy, we are making Germany a more probable adversary?

The CIA has warned us that international terrorist organizations will probably use United States action against Iraq as an indication for striking us here in the homeland. You might ask, what does the word "probably" mean in intelligence speak? It probably means that there is a 75 percent greater chance of the event occurring. And the event is that international terrorist organizations will use United States actions against Iraq as a justification for striking us here in the homeland.

Let me read a declassified briefing of the CIA report presented to the Select Committee on Intelligence: "Baghdad, for now, appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or chemical or biological weapons against the U.S. Should Saddam conclude that U.S-led attacks could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions. Such terrorism might involve conventional means, as with Iraq's unsuccessful attempt at a terrorist offensive in 1991, or (chemical and biological weapons).

20 other Senate Democrats came to a similar conclusion, including Senator Byrd, as already noted. Fortunately, Graham's fears of retaliation proved groundless, primarily because his lack of confidence in the intelligence was all too justified. After all, it is pretty hard to launch a retaliatory attack if you don't possess the capacity to do so.

Byrd decried the unwillingness of the bipartisan leadership of the Senate to allow reasoned debate and investigation before approving the resolution:

The great Roman historian, Titus Livius, said, "All things will be clear and distinct to the man who does not hurry; haste is blind and improvident."

"Blind and improvident," Mr. President. "Blind and improvident." Congress would be wise to heed those words today, for as sure as the sun rises in the east, we are embarking on a course of action with regard to Iraq that, in its haste, is both blind and improvident. We are rushing into war without fully discussing why, without thoroughly considering the consequences, or without making any attempt to explore what steps we might take to avert conflict.

The newly bellicose mood that permeates this White House is unfortunate, all the more so because it is clearly motivated by campaign politics. Republicans are already running attack ads against Democrats on Iraq. Democrats favor fast approval of a resolution so they can change the subject to domestic economic problems.

Take a moment, and savor that last remark, with an appreciation for its honesty and clarity: Democrats favor fast approval of a resolution so they can change the subject to domestic economic problems. Here, finally, we have the unvarnished truth. Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate were willing to green light the war in Iraq without meaningful debate as part of a strategy to win the 2002 off year election.

Redcake, bluecake, yellowcake, it was all the same for politicians who wanted to believe what they were being told by Cheney and the White House Iraq Group. Just like crazed investors in 1999 and 2000 wanted to believe that the stock bubble would grow forever, despite the warnings of sane, experienced market participants like Warren Buffett. It was therefore essential that congressional Democrats collude with the Republicans to shut down any process that would increase the doubts that many Americans rightly had about the presence of WMDs in Iraq.

And, they did so. As Stephen Zunes has thoughtfully catalogued for us, there were numerous reputable sources that seriously doubted that Iraq possessed any WMD capability:

In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were many published reports challenging Bush administration claims regarding Iraq's WMD capabilities. Reputable journals like Arms Control Today, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Middle East Policy, and others published articles systematically debunking accusations that Iraq had somehow been able to preserve or reconstitute its chemical weapons arsenal, had developed deployable biological weapons, or had restarted its nuclear program. Among the disarmament experts challenging the administration was Scott Ritter, an American who had headed the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) division that looked for hidden WMD facilities in Iraq. Through articles, interviews in the broadcast media, and Capitol Hill appearances, Ritter joined scores of disarmament scholars and analysts in making a compelling and—in hindsight—accurate case that Iraq had been qualitatively disarmed quite a few years earlier. Think tanks such as the Fourth Freedom Foundation and the Institute for Policy Studies also published a series of reports challenging the administration's claims.

And there were plenty of skeptics from within the U.S. government. For example, the State Department's intelligence bureau noted how the National Intelligence Estimate—so widely cited by war supporters of both parties—did not add up to “a compelling case” that Iraq had “an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.” Even the pro-war New Republic observed that CIA reports in early 2002 demonstrated that “U.S. intelligence showed precious little evidence to indicate a resumption of Iraq's nuclear program.” A story circulated nationally by the Knight-Ridder wire service just before the congressional vote authorizing the invasion noted that “U.S. intelligence and military experts dispute the administration's suggestions that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose an imminent threat to the United States” and that intelligence analysts in the CIA were accusing the administration of pressuring the agency to highlight information that would appear to support administration policy and to suppress contrary information.

Were Senate Democrats interested in publicizing information that contradicted the President's case for war? Of course not:

In September 2002, a month before the vote to authorize the invasion, I contacted the chief foreign policy aide to one of my senators, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, to let him know of my interest in appearing before an upcoming hearing on Capitol Hill regarding the alleged threat that Iraq posed to the United States. He acknowledged that he and other staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were familiar with my writing on the topic and that I would be a credible witness. He passed on my request to a staff member of the committee's ranking Democrat, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. I was never invited, however. Nor was Scott Ritter, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies or anyone else who expressed skepticism regarding the administration's WMD claims. The bipartisan Senate committee only allowed those who were willing to come forward with an exaggerated view of Iraq 's military potential to testify.

Zunes properly notes that Kerry and Edwards were especially mendacious in this regard. First, Kerry:

In a Senate speech defending his vote to authorize Bush to launch an invasion, Senator Kerry categorically declared, despite the lack of any credible evidence, that “Iraq has chemical and biological weapons” and even alleged that most elements of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs were “larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War.” Furthermore, Kerry asserted that Iraq was “attempting to develop nuclear weapons,” backing up this accusation by falsely claiming that “all U.S. intelligence experts agree” with that assessment. The Massachusetts junior senator also alleged that “Iraq is developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of delivering chemical and biological warfare agents [that] could threaten Iraq's neighbors as well as American forces in the Persian Gulf.” Though it soon became evident that none of Kerry's allegations were true, the Democratic Party rewarded him in 2004 with its nomination for president.

Kerry supporters claim he was not being dishonest in making these false claims but that he had been fooled by “bad intelligence” passed on by the Bush administration. However, well before Kerry's vote to authorize the invasion, former UN inspector Scott Ritter personally told the senator and his senior staff that claims about Iraq still having WMDs or WMD programs were not based on valid intelligence. According to Ritter, “Kerry knew that there was a verifiable case to be made to debunk the president's statements regarding the threat posed by Iraq's WMDs, but he chose not to act on it.”

And, Edwards:

Joining Kerry in voting to authorize the invasion was North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who—in the face of growing public skepticism of the Bush administration's WMD claims—rushed to the president's defense in an op-ed article published in the Washington Post. In his commentary, Edwards claimed that Iraq was “a grave and growing threat” and that Congress should therefore “endorse the use of all necessary means to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.” The Bush administration was so impressed with Edwards' arguments that they posted the article on the State Department website.

Given numerous opportunities to request credible information, as did Senator Graham, to conduct meaningful debate and investigation, as suggested by Senator Byrd, to speak with informed critics of the war policy, as did Senator Boxer, the congressional leadership of the Democratic party wilfully declined to take advantage of them. Or, even worse, in Kerry's case, publicly exaggerated the evidence for war while being privately informed that there was no basis for it. Now, cognizant of the political peril created by growing opposition to the war, and the corruption emerging as a consequence of Fitzgerald's investigation, they are, with Edwards in the vanguard, trying to inscribe an alternative history. We should respond to these efforts as contemptously as we do those of Bush, Cheney and their neoconservative allies. All deserve to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

[Hat tip to Eli at Left i on the News for drawing my attention to the article by Stephen Zunes.]

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