Rachel Maddow: Her Intelligence is Right

10/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joe Cirincione President, Ploughshares Fund; Author, 'Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late'

Rachel Maddow will not let former officials dodge responsibility for launching an unnecessary war in Iraq. Why do other journalists?

In her interview with former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on August 31, Maddow demonstrated why she is one of the top journalists in the country. Ridge gave what is now the standard dodge when she asked if he regretted pushing for war with Iraq. "The intelligence was wrong," he said. But Maddow wasn't buying it.

She drills him for over 5 minutes, saying in part:

Maddow: You don't think that the administration -- Vice President Cheney, your long-time friend President Bush, the intelligence system set up under Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon -- you don't think that they had any role in skewing the intelligence to a foregone conclusion. You think that it was an intelligence community error and not a politicized decision. Really?

Ridge: Yes. I know some of these men better than I know others, but I don't think any one of these men would have contrived in their own mind a scenario without -- in their own mind and heart -- substantive belief based on information they received that the threat was real...The intelligence may have been proven to be false, but there is no doubt in my mind that they were motivated to keep America safe....

Maddow: I think that is an eloquent argument and I have to tell you, I think you making that argument right now is why Republicans after the Bush and Cheney administration are not going to get back the country's trust on national security. To look back at that decision and say, "We got it wrong, but it was in good faith" and not acknowledge the foregone conclusion that we are going to invade Iraq that pervaded every decision that was made about intelligence....It sounds like you're making the argument you would have made that same decision again....The intelligence that proved the opposite point was all discounted, the intelligence was combed through for any bit that would support the foregone conclusion of the policymakers...[It]was a wrong decision made by policymakers; it wasn't the spies fault.
Ridge: You're not going to convince me, I'm not going to convince you, but I do appreciate the civil way that we've had the discussion. Frankly, I think we would advance our interests as a country a lot further and a lot faster if we could have the discussions such as this and I thank you.

Rachel Maddow interviews Tom Ridge on MSNBC, August 30, 2009.

This answer -- "The intelligence was wrong" -- is used by every former Bush official, and for good reason: it works. It shuts down most journalists.

Why does it work? As every former Hill staffer can tell you, if a witness can dodge a question twice, they are usually home free. Members, like journalists, have a long list of prepared questions to ask. If they are deflected, they are easily convinced to move along, nothing to see here.

More importantly, journalists have allowed the former Bush officials to define what the intelligence was. They have allowed them to freeze the intelligence into one specific moment in time: the deeply flawed 2002 National Intelligence Assessment on Iraq. But intelligence before and after that NIE was correct in concluding that there was little evidence of any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq. Only the NIE was so definitively wrong. Why? Because it was intentionally manipulated and distorted by senior officials to give them the findings they needed to start a war. They manufactured the intelligence they now insist was wrong.

Do we know this for certain? Yes. In one of the best pieces of research I have ever done (in large part because of the exacting standards of my co-author, Carnegie President Jessica Mathews), we demonstrated in our report, WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications, that the intelligence agencies before the Bush administration took control more accurately assessed the risks. There was cause for concern, but nothing like the definitive statements the NIE made, or that officials then exaggerated to claim that Iraq had reconstituted nuclear weapons, as Dick Cheney said before the war.

We further know, as I documented in another article, that there was substantial dissent inside our intelligence agencies. This dissent was suppressed, Maddows argues and Ridge denies. But Senate Intelligence Committee reports support Maddows. As several members of the committee concluded:

The Committee's report deconstructs the October 2002 Estimate and demonstrates how many of its key judgments were not substantiated by the underlying intelligence. The Estimate contains numerous instances where intelligence was stretched and manipulated to serve an analytical bias that Iraq's mass destruction programs were stockpiled and weaponized.

[Full disclosure: I have been a guest on The Rachel Maddow Show; and while a staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, I worked with Congressman Tom Ridge for over 5 years on military reform legislation and cuts to the Star Wars program.]

We also know that the most important intelligence before the war, the on-site inspections of the UN to every suspect facility, turned up no sign of weapons or programs. Inspectors pleaded for more time to complete their job. But Cheney and other officials derided them as bumbling Inspector Clouseau's and rushed to war. The UN intelligence was right. The US inspection teams two years after the war concluded that there were no chemical, biological weapons, programs or intentions to restart any programs. There was no reason to invade.

Rachel Maddow, to her credit, refuses to let these officials off the hook. She says on her show September 2, that we cannot "look back at the rational for the Iraq war now and say, "well, none of those reasons for the war turned out to be true but what does that matter?"

She is right. Policy matters. Bad policy leads to seriously bad consequences.

Why are we still threatened by Al Qaeda? Because we diverted troops from capturing Osama bin Ladin to overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Why are we trapped in a losing war in Afghanistan? Because we decided invading Iraq was more important than stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Why do we have a skyrocketing deficit? In part, because we will spend $1 trillion on the war in Iraq.

Why are we threatened by nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea? Because we shunned effective means to shut down those programs when they were a fraction of their current size in the vain hope that we could overthrow those regimes as we had Iraq's.

We need more journalists like Maddow. And, as she and Ridge agreed, more serious discussion about a war Senator Ted Kennedy called "one of the most serious blunders in the entire history of American foreign policy."