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Richard Cohen

A Failure of More Than Intelligence

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page A31

Shortly before the United States went to war in Iraq, I was in contact with a former member of the American intelligence community. This is what he told me: Saddam Hussein had no nuclear weapons program, no chemical or biological weapons program to speak of, and no link to al Qaeda. He said that if America invaded, it would cost us "perhaps 1,000 casualties" and would lead to prolonged "terrorism and harassment." I thanked him very much for his views -- and urged the United States to attack anyway. Along with Don Quixote, I sometimes feel that facts are the enemy of truth.

The record will show, however, that as war approached I was expressing second thoughts. I urged patience since it was becoming obvious that my source might be right: Hussein's various arms programs either didn't exist or were being hyped by the administration. In short, I knew that the most alarming case against Saddam Hussein -- that he was an imminent threat to the United States -- was a lie.

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Paradoxically, that basic fact becomes increasingly obscure the more one commission or another looks into America's epic intelligence failures. No doubt they were legion and no doubt they contributed to a public case for war, but the inadvertent impression left by these commissions -- buttressed by the aw-shucks demeanor of the Bush administration -- that something like an act of God led America to war is just plain ridiculous. America went to war because George Bush wanted to go to war.

Of course the CIA and other intelligence agencies were inept and, too often, timid. Of course they had an insufficient number of agents on the ground. Of course they had all failed to stop the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and, worse, the Bushies disregarded the warnings of Clinton administration officials -- themselves Johnny-come-latelies to the imminent peril that Osama bin Laden posed -- that fighting terrorism should be their first priority. Instead, the Bush administration -- knowing best, as always -- decided to concentrate elsewhere.

That little dig at the president is both purposeful and, in my view, warranted. From the very start, he had expressed the view that he had no need to read newspapers because, as he insisted, he got everything he needed from briefings. Unlike Bill Clinton, who got the PDB (the President's Daily Brief) on paper and routinely defaced it with questions and comments, Bush had briefings that were delivered orally, much like children's medicine. Much was made of them, but we now know they were worthless and sometimes misleading. So found the latest commission to look into the matter, the one chaired by former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and Laurence H. Silberman, a senior federal judge. Neither man is known for making rash judgments.

Had the president read the local newspaper, however, he might have raised the question of whether much of what he was being told was nonsense. Every piece of evidence the Bush administration was citing to support its assertion that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program was being challenged, usually by United Nations weapons inspectors. Sometimes these officials announced their findings; sometimes they were leaked in advance. Sometimes others made the case, even journalists in Iraq. All of this was in the press. None of it mattered, of course. The United States was going to war.

It is now clear that the decision to do so was made shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks -- maybe even the next day. History may well decide that this was the correct decision, that it eradicated terrorism and spread democracy throughout the Arab world -- just as the neocons intended. Even if that materializes (from Richard Perle's mouth to God's ears), it won't change the fact that the administration failed to make a truthful case for war. Instead it built a sham one based on the hysteria, hate and panic created by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Intelligence hardly mattered. Hussein was going to go, regardless of the evidence. My source in the intelligence community understood this from the get-go. I did not -- not right away, anyway.

No doubt Iraq was a doozy of an intelligence failure. But it was, fundamentally and above all, a breach of faith with the American people. When it comes to matters of life and death, we expect our government to level with us. The Bush administration did not -- and it would not matter if all of the Middle East, from the Tigris to the Nile, becomes a democracy overnight. The fact will remain that this war was fought for a lie. The failure was not in intelligence. It was in political character.

cohenr@washpost.com


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