When are we going to get a real showdown?
When are we going to get a Congressional investigation of what the president and vice president said to justify the invasion of Iraq?
The investigation should pursue just one question: to persuade Congress to vote for the war against Iraq, did the president and vice president deliberately misrepresent what their own intelligence sources told them about its weapons of mass destruction?
Ever since the war began, the president has repeatedly insisted that all Senators and members of Congress had access to the "same intelligence" that was presented to the White House. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the president and vice president did everything they could to suppress information that undermined their case for going to war. If that is true, they cannot evade responsibility by claiming--in the words of Dan Bartlett--that their arguments about Iraq's WMDs "were based on the collective judgment of the intelligence community" before the war, or that "Saddam Hussein never abandoned his plan to acquire WMD, and . . . posed a serious threat to the American people and to the region." What the president and vice president believed or suspected does not matter here. What does matter is the relation between what they were told by their own intelligence sources and what they in turn told Congress.
We all now know that in late January 2003, just six weeks before launching the war, President Bush made a baseless charge. In claiming that Iraq tried to buy yellow-cake uranium from Niger, he willfully contradicted "the collective judgment of the intelligence community," which had concluded that the story was false. He knew perfectly well that during an 8-day visit to Niger made almost one year earlier, Ambassador Joe Wilson had found no evidence that Iraq ever tried to buy uranium there. He knew also that both the director of the CIA and his deputy disbelieved the story, because in October 2002 they persuaded his speechwriters to take it out of a speech that he delivered in Cincinatti.
In that same month, copies of documents supposedly proving that Saddam Hussein bought uranium from Niger were presented to the U.S. Embassy in Rome. But Elisabeta Burba, the Italian journalist who delivered those documents to the embassy, thought they were clumsy forgeries. So did the CIA station chief in Rome. So did State Department analysts. And so did the National Intelligence Council, which oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies and which told the White House--early in January 2003--that the uranium story was baseless. In short, "the collective judgment of the intelligence community" could hardly have been more resoundingly negative on this story. But the president nonetheless chose to run it in his speech.
I say "chose to run it" because the president alone is responsible for what he says in any speech he makes. No matter how many of its words are written for him, he alone--the self-styled "decider"--must decide which of those words he will utter. In making a charge that his own intelligence sources had repeatedly told him was false, he manifested--at the very least--a reckless disregard for the truth.
When Joe Wilson unmasked the falsehood of the uranium story in an op ed piece published by the NEW YORK TIMES in June 2003, the White House promptly admitted that the president should not have cited the story, but also did everything possible to discredit Wilson--in a covert operation that has since led to the indictment of Lewis Libby and may yet lead to the indictment of Karl Rove. But the whole Fitzgerald investigation is merely a sideshow to what should be the main event: the Congressional investigation of the president himself.
His use of the uranium story typifies what he and the vice president did with the intelligence they received. They blindly embraced whatever seemed to confirm their idée fixe about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and just as blindly rejected anything that challenged it. According to Tyler Drumheller, a former top official of the CIA, they showed no interest in the testimony of Naji Sabri, Iraq's foreign minister, who told the CIA in the fall of 2002 that Saddam Hussein could not wage nuclear war and did not have an active WMD program. More to the point, they never disclosed this information to Congress nor included it in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the chief instrument used to gain Congressional votes for the war.
Also missing from this estimate--but described in James Risen's State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration (Free Press, 2006)-- were two other crucial chunks of evidence that confirmed what Sabri told the CIA:
1. In the late summer of 2002, the CIA sent about thirty Iraqi-Americans to Baghdad to question their scientist-relatives about Iraq's weapons program. Soon after, every one of them returned with the news that Iraq's nuclear weapons program had been shut down years earlier.
2. By October 2002 the CIA also knew what had been told to UN officials by General Hussein Kamal, Hussein's defector son-in-law, who testified that Iraq's WMD program had been shut down
after visits of [UN] inspection teams. You have important role in Iraq with this. You should not underestimate yourself. You are very effective in Iraq. . . . All chemical weapons were destroyed. I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons--biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed.
Why was this crucial testimony--from the very man who ordered the destruction of all chemical weapons--never disclosed to Congress?
If members of Congress do not raise this question and do not thoroughly investigate the gap between what the president knew about Iraq and what he told them, they are failing to meet their Constitutional responsibility to check and balance the power of the president.
Vice President Cheney has repeatedly stated that he and the president aim to leave the office of the presidency stronger than it was when they came to office. By "stronger" he clearly means more autonomous, more dictatorial, less subject to restraint or review by Congress or the courts. If the president's lawyers say it's OK to violate a Congressional statute requiring judicial authorization for domestic wiretapping, then it's OK. If the president thinks he can "find" that a law forbidding torture somehow permits it under certain circumstances, who can contradict him? And if the president and vice president choose to mangle the information they receive in order to justify a war that has taken the lives or mangled the limbs of nearly 20,000 American soldiers and cost us 300 billion dollars, who is to hold them accountable?
The answer lies with Congress, which was kicked into voting for this war. When the hell will Congress start kicking back?