WASHINGTON – A year ago, on Oct. 1, one of the most important documents in U.S. history was published and couriered over to the White House.
The 90-page, top-secret report, drafted by the National Intelligence Council at Langley, included an executive summary for President Bush known as the "key judgments." It summed up the findings of the U.S. intelligence community regarding the threat posed by Iraq, findings the president says formed the foundation for his decision to preemptively invade Iraq without provocation. The report "was good, sound intelligence," Bush has remarked.
Most of it deals with alleged weapons of mass destruction.
But page 4 of the report, called the National Intelligence Estimate, deals with terrorism, and draws conclusions that would come as a shock to most Americans, judging from recent polls on Iraq. The CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the other U.S. spy agencies unanimously agreed that Baghdad:
had not sponsored past terrorist attacks against America,
was not operating in concert with al-Qaida,
and was not a terrorist threat to America.
"We have no specific intelligence information that Saddam's regime has directed attacks against U.S. territory," the report stated.
However, it added, "Saddam, if sufficiently desperate,
might decide that only an organization such as al-Qaida could perpetrate
the type of terrorist attack that he would hope to conduct."
Sufficiently desperate? If he "feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regime," the report explained.
"In such circumstances," it added, "he might decide that the extreme step of assisting the Islamist terrorists in conducting a CBW [chemical and biological weapons] attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."
In other words, only if Saddam were provoked by U.S. attack would he even consider taking the "extreme step" of reaching out to al-Qaida, an organization with which he had no natural or preexisting relationship. He wasn't about to strike the U.S. or share his alleged weapons with al-Qaida – unless the U.S. struck him first and threatened the collapse of his regime.
Now turn to the next page of the same NIE report, which is considered the gold standard of intelligence reports. Page 5 ranks the key judgments by confidence level – high, moderate or low.
According to the consensus of Bush's intelligence services, there was "low confidence" before the war in the views that "Saddam would engage in clandestine attacks against the U.S. Homeland" or "share chemical or biological weapons with al-Qaida."
Their message to the president was clear: Saddam wouldn't help al-Qaida unless we put his back against the wall, and even then it was a big maybe. If anything, the report was a flashing yellow light against attacking Iraq.
Bush saw the warning, yet completely ignored it and barreled ahead with the war plans he'd approved a month earlier (Aug. 29), telling a completely different version of the intelligence consensus to the American people. Less than a week after the NIE was published, he warned that "on any given day" – provoked by attack or not, sufficiently desperate or not – Saddam could team up with Osama and conduct a joint terrorist operation against America using weapons of mass destruction.
"Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists," Bush said Oct. 7 in his nationally televised Cincinnati speech. "Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving fingerprints." The terrorists he was referring to were "al-Qaida members."
By telling Americans that Saddam could "on any given day" slip unconventional weapons to al-Qaida if America didn't disarm him, the president misrepresented the conclusions of his own secret intelligence report, which warned that Saddam wouldn't even try to reach out to al-Qaida unless he were attacked and had nothing to lose – and might even find that hard to do since he had no history of conducting joint terrorist operations with al-Qaida, and certainly none against the U.S.
If that's not lying, I don't know what is.
What's worse, the inconvenient conclusions about Iraq and al-Qaida were withheld from the unclassified version of the secret NIE report that Bush authorized for public release the day before his Cincinnati speech, as part of the launch of the White House's campaign to sell the war. The 25-page white paper, posted on the CIA website, focused on alleged weapons of mass destruction, and conveniently left out the entire part about Saddam's reluctance to reach out to al-Qaida. Americans also didn't see the finding that Saddam had no hand in 9-11 or any other al-Qaida attack against American territory. That, too, was sanitized.
Over the following months, in speech after speech, Bush went right on lying with impunity about the Iraq-al-Qaida threat, all the while flouting the judgments of his own intelligence agencies.
Even after the war, Bush continued the lie. "We have removed an ally of al-Qaida," he said May 1 from the deck of the USS Lincoln. "No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime."
In the glaring absence of any hard proof of either those alleged weapons or al-Qaida links, the White House press corps has finally put down their stenographer's pads and started asking tough questions, forcing the president to at least level with the American people about Saddam's assumed role in 9-11.
"We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11" attacks, Bush confessed last month, finally repeating for the public what his own intelligence services had told him a year earlier.
The president's spokespeople say they're shocked, shocked, to learn that seven in 10 Americans tell pollsters they blame Saddam Hussein for the 9-11 attacks. Gee, they pondered, wherever did they get such an idea?
Oh, maybe from all the president's speeches and
remarks suggesting Saddam was to blame for 9-11,
starting with this one:
"Prior to Sept. 11, we thought two oceans would
protect us," President Bush said about Iraq in an Oct. 14 speech in Michigan.
"After Sept. 11, we've entered into a new era in a new war.
"This is a man that we know has had connections
with al-Qaida," he continued, referring to Saddam. "This is a man who,
in my judgment, would like to use al-Qaida as a forward army. And this is a man that we must deal with for the sake of peace."
Or this one:
"Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat
to this country," Bush said March 6 in a White House news conference.
"The attacks of Sept. 11 showed what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what terrorists
or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction."
"Used to be that we could think that you could
contain a person like Saddam Hussein, that oceans would protect us from
type of terror," he said at the same press conference. "Sept. 11 should say to the American people that we're now a battlefield,
that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist organization could be deployed here at home."
In that press conference, Bush mentioned the Sept.
11 attacks nine times, Saddam 40 times, and Osama zero, effectively
morphing Osama into Saddam, as I pointed out in a column just before the war.
During the war, Bush said he couldn't leave "enemies free to plot another Sept. 11 – this time, perhaps, with chemical, biological or nuclear terror."
In that April 5 radio address, he added: "We'll remove weapons of mass destruction from the hands of mass murderers."
Even when we found no weapons to remove, he continued to distort the truth about Iraq and 9-11.
"We will not wait for known enemies to strike
us again," he said Aug. 26 in an American Legion speech, rationalizing
his Iraq attack.
"We will strike them before they hit more of our cities and kill more of our citizens."
The juxtaposition was no accident. Just as it was no accident that the White House timed the media rollout of its war campaign for the first 9-11 anniversary.
No wonder 71 percent of Americans told University of Maryland pollsters after the war that they believe the "Bush administration implied that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks." A more recent Washington Post poll, as well as other polls, came up with roughly the same number.
Sadly, it's the small minority of respondents who said they saw no connection at all who most accurately reflect the views of the U.S. intelligence community, proving again the power of unfiltered propaganda.
A smoking gun found now wouldn't even undo the lies. It wouldn't negate the fact that the president had no such evidence before the war when he claimed Saddam and Osama were thick as thieves, contradicting the intelligence community's threat assessment. He simply turned around and told the public a whopper.
Forget that Bush lied about the reasons for putting our sons and daughters in harm's way in Iraq; and forget that he sent 140,000 troops there with bull's-eyes on their backs, then dared their attackers to "bring it on."
It was the height of irresponsibility to have done so in the middle of a war on al-Qaida, the real and proven threat to America. Bush diverted those troops and other resources – including intelligence assets, Arabic translators and hundreds of billions of tax dollars – from the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders along the Afghan-Pakistani border. And now they've regrouped and are as threatening as ever.
That's inexcusable, and Bush supporters with any intellectual honesty and concern for their own families' safety should be mad as hell about it – and that's coming from someone who voted for Bush.
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