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Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence

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Former National Security Council official Richard A. Clarke recalled how information from freshly seized Iraqi documents disclosed the existence of a "crash program" to build a bomb in 1991. The CIA had known nothing of it.

"I can understand why that was a seminal experience for Cheney," Clarke said. "And when the CIA says [in 2002], 'We don't have any evidence,' his reaction is . . . 'We didn't have any evidence in 1991, either. Why should I believe you now?' "

Some strategists, in and out of government, argued that the uncertainty itself -- in the face of circumstantial evidence -- was sufficient to justify "regime change." But that was not what the Bush administration usually said to the American people.

To gird a nation for the extraordinary step of preemptive war -- and to obtain the minimum necessary support from allies, Congress and the U.N. Security Council -- the administration described a growing, even imminent, nuclear threat from Iraq.

The unveiling of that message began a year ago this week.

Cheney raised the alarm about Iraq's nuclear menace three times in August. He was far ahead of the president's public line. Only Bush and Cheney know, one senior policy official said, "whether Cheney was trying to push the president or they had decided to play good cop, bad cop."

On Aug. 7, Cheney volunteered in a question-and-answer session at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, speaking of Hussein, that "left to his own devices, it's the judgment of many of us that in the not-too-distant future, he will acquire nuclear weapons." On Aug. 26, he described Hussein as a "sworn enemy of our country" who constituted a "mortal threat" to the United States. He foresaw a time in which Hussein could "subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."

"We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," he said. "Among other sources, we've gotten this from firsthand testimony from defectors, including Saddam's own son-in-law."

That was a reference to Hussein Kamel, who had managed Iraq's special weapons programs before defecting in 1995 to Jordan. But Saddam Hussein lured Kamel back to Iraq, and he was killed in February 1996, so Kamel could not have sourced what U.S. officials "now know."

And Kamel's testimony, after defecting, was the reverse of Cheney's description. In one of many debriefings by U.S., Jordanian and U.N. officials, Kamel said on Aug. 22, 1995, that Iraq's uranium enrichment programs had not resumed after halting at the start of the Gulf War in 1991. According to notes typed for the record by U.N. arms inspector Nikita Smidovich, Kamel acknowledged efforts to design three different warheads, "but not now, before the Gulf War."

Systematic coordination began in August, when Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. formed the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, to set strategy for each stage of the confrontation with Baghdad. A senior official who participated in its work called it "an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities."

In an interview with the New York Times published Sept. 6, Card did not mention the WHIG but hinted at its mission. "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," he said.


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