The Washington Post had an editorial yesterday suggesting that it is difficult to say whether President George W. Bush "lied" about Iraq's possession of WMD, which has become "an article of faith" among many Americans. The author, Fred Hiatt, limits his criticism of Cheney and others in the administration to the severe understatement that they "spoke with too much certainty at times."
Hiatt then writes that if you "dive into" the recently released Senate Select Committee on Intelligence "Phase II" report on pre-war intelligence on Iraq's WMD "in search of where exactly President Bush lied about what his intelligence agencies were telling him," then you "may be surprised by what you find."
He quotes the report as saying that statements made by Bush were supported by the available intelligence:
On Iraq's nuclear weapons program? The president's statements "were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates."
On biological weapons, production capability and those infamous mobile laboratories? The president's statements "were substantiated by intelligence information?"
On chemical weapons, then? "Substantiated by intelligence information."
On weapons of mass destruction overall (a separate section of the intelligence committee report)? "Generally substantiated by intelligence information." Delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles? "Generally substantiated by available intelligence." Unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to deliver WMDs? "Generally substantiated by intelligence information."
Let's examine the matter for ourselves. And since Hiatt focuses on Bush himself, let's do the same, ignoring statements from Cheney and other high level administration officials for the moment.
On Iraq's nuclear weapons program, the report notes, Bush claimed that Iraq "retains physical infrastructure needed to build a nuclear weapon." This statement was not supported by the available intelligence, but was contradicted by it. The best intelligence on Iraq's nuclear program was open-source: the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had "destroyed, removed or rendered harmless all Iraqi facilities and equipment relevant to nuclear weapons production" by as early as 1992. In 1998, the IAEA was "confident that we had not missed any significant component of Iraq's nuclear programme."
Bush claimed that "The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program." There was no credible evidence that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. The intelligence suggesting this might possibly be the case was circumstantial at best.
To support his claim that "the smoking gun" that Iraq might have a nuclear weapon "could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," Bush claimed that "Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon." This statement was not substantiated by intelligence information. It was contradicted by the known facts about the tubes, which were not suitable for use in centrifuges but were perfectly suitable for use in an existing conventional rocket system, as noted by not only the US's top experts on centrifuges at the Department of Energy, but also by some of the world's leading scientists at he IAEA.
Bush claimed that "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." But the British government hadn't "learned" that. It was not a fact. In fact, the "intelligence" supporting this claim was so dubious the CIA had warned the British government about including it in the white paper Bush was referring to. The only evidence ever produced to support this claim were documents that proved to be forgeries.
On nuclear weapons, Hiatt quotes the conclusion as saying that administration claims "were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates," but leaves off the end of the same sentence, which continues, "but did not convey the substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community." In other words, they stated as fact that which the intelligence community had not reported as such. In other words, their statements were not substantiated by the intelligence community.
This, of course, appears to contradict the part of the conclusion quoted by Hiatt, unless one looks closely at the caveats. First, the word "generally." All this means is that if an administration official made ten statements on Iraq with regard to its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, perhaps only one or two were not substantiated by intelligence community estimates.
Next, "estimates." Intelligence community "estimates," such as the key judgments of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, are just that: estimates, judgments. A synonym for "judgment" is "opinion". Facts are facts. But judgments may be well or poorly made. The CIA, as we know, made many poor judgments, claims that were not supported by the intelligence.
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