Dick Cheney commemorated the fifth anniversary of 9/11 by sticking to the MO that he and his running-mate used to lead the nation into the current mess in Iraq.
Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, Cheney encountered a decent grilling from host Tim Russert, who pressed him on how Cheney and George W. Bush had justified the war in Iraq. "Based on what you know now, that Saddam did not have the weapons of mass destruction that were described, would you still have gone into Iraq?" Russert asked. Yes, indeed, Cheney said, hewing to the company line. And he pointed to what appeared to be evidence that supported that no-regrets stance:
Look at the Duelfer Report and what it said. No stockpiles, but they also said he has the capability. He'd done it before. He had produced chemical weapons before and used them. He had produced biological weapons. He had a robust nuclear program in '91. All of this is true, said by Duelfer, facts.
Well, let's look at the report of Charles Duelfer who headed up the Iraq Survey Group, which was responsible for searching for WMDs after the invasion. (Duelfer took the job following David Kay's resignation in late 2003.) It just so happens that in our new book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Michael Isikoff and I quote from that report, and it noted that Saddam's WMD capability
was essentially destroyed in 1991.
That is the opposite of what Cheney told Russert the report said. Cheney went on to remark,
Think where we'd be if [Saddam] was still there...We also would have a situation where he would have resumed his WMD programs.
Yet Duelfer reported that at the time of the invasion, Saddam had no
plan for the revival of WMD.
Cheney even justified the invasion of Iraq by citing an allegation that was just debunked in a Senate intelligence committee report released on Friday. Claiming there was a significant relationship between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda, he cited the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who was recently killed in Iraq). After the US attacked the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Cheney said, Zarqawi
fled and went to Baghdad and set up operations in Baghdad in the spring of '02 and was there from then, basically, until basically the time we launched into Iraq.
The implication here is that Baghdad sanctioned the terrorist activity of Zarqawi, a supposed al Qaeda associate. But the Senate intelligence committee report--released by a Republican-run panel--noted that prior to the invasion of Iraq Zarqawi and his network were not part of al Qaeda. (That merging came after the invasion.) More important, the report cites CIA reports (based on captured documents and interrogations) that say that Baghdad was not protecting or assisting Zarqawi when he was in Iraq. In fact, Iraqi intelligence in the spring of 2002 had formed a "special committee" to locate and capture him--but failed to find the terrorist. A 2005 CIA report concluded that prior to the Iraq war,
the [Saddam] regime did not have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates.
So why is Cheney still holding up Zarqawi as evidence that Baghdad was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden? If he knows something the CIA does not, perhaps he should inform the agency.
During the Meet the Press interview, Cheney blamed the CIA for his and Bush's prewar assertions that Iraq posed a WMD threat. That's what the intelligence said, Cheney insisted. Our book shows that this explanation (or, defense) is a dodge. There were dissents within the intelligence community on key aspects of the WMD argument for war--especially the charge that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. Cheney dwelled on that frightening possibility before the war, repeatedly declaring that the US government knew for sure that Iraq had revved up its nuclear program. Yet there was only one strong piece of evidence for this claim--that Iraq had purchased tens of thousands of aluminum tubes for use in a centrifuge that would produce enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. And that piece of evidence was hotly contested within the intelligence community.
One CIA analyst (whom we name for the first time in Hubris) was fiercely pushing the tube case. Yet practically every other top nuclear expert in the US government (including the centrifuge specialists at the Department of Energy) disagreed. This dispute was even mentioned in The Washington Post in September 2002. But neither Cheney nor Bush (nor national security adviser Condoleezza Rce) took an interest in this important argument. Instead, they kept insisting the tube purchases were proof Saddam was building a bomb. They were wrong. And the nuclear scientists at the Department of Energy (again, as our book notes) were ordered not to say anything publicly about the tubes.
This is but one example of how the Bush White House rigged the case for war by selectively embracing (without reviewing) convenient pieces of iffy intelligence and then presenting them to the public as hard-and-fast proof. But Cheney is right--to a limited extent. The CIA did provide the White House with intelligence that was wrong (which the White House then used irresponsibly). The new Senate intelligence report, though, shows that this was not what happened regarding one crucial part of the Bush-Cheney argument for war: that al Qaeda and Iraq were in cahoots.
Before the war, Bush said that Saddam "was dealing" with al Qaeda. He even charged that Saddam had "financed" al Qaeda. The Senate intelligence report notes clearly that the prewar intelligence on this critical issue said no such thing.
The report quotes a CIA review of the prewar intelligence: "The data reveal few indications of an established relationship between al-Qa'ida and Saddam Hussein's regime." The lead Defense Intelligence Analyst on this issue told the Senate intelligence committee that "there was no partnership between the two organizations." And post-invasion debriefings of former Iraqi regime officials indicated that Saddam had no interest in working with al Qaeda and had refused to meet with an al Qaeda emissary in 1998.
The report also augments the section in our book on Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured al Qaeda commander who was taken by the CIA to Egypt where he was roughly--perhaps brutally--interrogated and claimed that Iraq had provided chemical weapons training to al Qaeda. Though there were questions about al-Libi's veracity from the start, Secretary of State Colin Powell used al-Libi's claims in his famous UN speech to argue that Saddam and Osama bin Laden were partners in evil--that there was a "sinister nexus" between the two. Al-Libi later recanted, and the CIA withdrew all the intelligence based on his claims. In other words, the Bush administration had hyped flimsy intelligence to depict Saddam and bin Laden as WMD-sharing allies.
The Senate intelligence report concluded that "Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al-Qa'ida and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al-Qa'ida to provide material or operational support."
What did Cheney tell Russert? Saddam, he insisted, "had a relationship with al Qaeda." When Russert pointed out that the intelligence committee "said that there was no relationship," Cheney interrupted and commented, "I haven't had a chance to read it."
Perhaps he should before he talks about 9/11 and Iraq again.