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Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Bush Clings To Dubious Allegations About Iraq (Post, March 18, 2003)
U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms (Post, March 16, 2003)
Confronting Iraq Special Report
Confronting Iraq Discussion Transcripts
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Live Online Transcripts

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Iraq, Intelligence and War
With Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 19, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

A key to the Bush administration's argument for war with Iraq is the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- and ostensibly, destroying those weapons caches. The problem is, according to a March 16 story by Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus (U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms (March 16, 2003)), is that intelligence agencies have little information about how many banned weapons exist in Iraq's stockpile, or where they are.

Pincus was online Wednesday, March 19, to talk about these and other questions about intelligence and strategy in the war with Iraq. How does this information -- or lack thereof -- affect the U.S.'s plans for going into Iraq?

The transcript follows.

An award-winning journalist whose career spans more than 40 years, Pincus has covered intelligence and national security issues such as nuclear weapons, arms control, the Aldrich Ames spy case, Iran-contra and allegations of Chinese espionage at nuclear weapons labs. The stories he co-wrote about the Bush administration's investigations into presidential candidate Bill Clinton's passport files spawned the appointment of an independent counsel. He co-produced with CBS News a two-hour documentary in 1992, "Watergate: The Secret Story," and in 1992, he directed a combined research effort among The Washington Post, Newsweek and CBS News on the 30th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Pincus has won several newspaper prizes, including the George Polk Award in 1977 for stories in The Washington Post exposing the neutron warhead; the 1961 Page One award for magazine reporting in The Reporter, and a television Emmy for writing on the 1981 CBS News documentary series, "Defense of the United States." In 1999 he was awarded the first Stewart Alsop Award given by the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officers for his coverage of national security affairs.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Walter Pincus: This is Walter Pincus and good afternoon. One warning; this is my first turn at this so bear with me. There seem to be questions lined up so here we go.

Richmond, Va.: Mr. Pincus,

Wanting, even demanding regime change, and justifying a war that brings regime change about are very different things. Your article, among others, makes it clear that sufficient information about Hussein's WMD hasn't been provided in order to justify a preemptive strike-- to the degree that WMD and so-called UN treaty violations are the chief reasons offered for a strike. Regardless of the true motives for the administration's war posturing, the stated goals of defending the nation against Hussein's potential use of WMD (as well as the disclosure of the linkage between Hussein and terrorism directed at Americans) all rest on very tenuous evidence, and yet the Bush administration has sold its case to a majority of Americans, and defied international consensus as well. I think 70 percent of Americans must not know the meaning of "circumstantial." So, in the end, is support for this pre-emptive war hinged mostly upon emotion, propaganda, and politics and only slightly, if at all, on fact?

Walter Pincus: You have really a series of questions that require in part some guesses on my part but let me go after some if not all of it.

Certainly the Bush administration, starting with the President, believe Saddam Hussein has WMD and poses a threat to the U.S. More than a majority of Americans almost since 9/11 have believed Saddam was involved with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,m although there has never been any proof of that. The administration since last August, when they truly focused on Iraq, have tied Saddam to at least the danger he would give weapons he supposedly has to terrorists, again without stating any proof.

Those combinations very much impact on a public that fears another attack and appears ready to go to war without any more evidence than the circumstantial bits they have been given.

Clearly there is an emotional push and the public statements, called by some propaganda have played a big role.

Silver Spring, Md.: The article in the Post discussed the lack of hard evidence related to nuclear weapons, but skipped over chemical and biological weapons. What if any evidence is there that Saddam does in fact have any of these?

Walter Pincus: The hardest evidence on chemical and biological weapons rests on Iraq's failure to date to substantiate that they no longer possess the weapons and the agents used in producing such weapons that they did declare they had either in their 1991 original declaration or the modifications they made during the following seven years. In short, they have not accounted in satisfactory detail to the U.N. inspectors the weapons and materials they once say they had.

In the interim, of course, U.S. intelligence and others have seen actions, through satellites and intercepts, that raise indications they continue to hide things from inspectors. The old cat and mouse game.

Alexandria, Va.: As you know, our intelligence community provides a wide range of support from military operations to foreign policy. As a journalist, how do you balance the public's need to know with an inherent need to protect sources and methods of intelligence collection, processing and analytical findings? As a follow-up, can a journalist never cross such a line -- that public interest is always served by the public's right to know?



Walter Pincus: This is a type of question that comes up every time I make a public appearance. The answer is usually quite long but here's the short version. Years ago I served in Army counterintelligence and handled classified materials. Twice I ran Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigations that also gave me access to classified materials, so I have had some experience on the other side. I also during the 1960s time with the Senate committee helped get material declassified. And in the 30 years since I have had a good deal of experience handling just such questions. I have not found it difficult to see when writing something could affect real national security.

One thing readers should remember. We don't steal this material, people with access to it either tell us about classified materials or give us documents. They have already made the first decision.

Having said that there have been times when I or in consultation with Post editors do not disclose information we know that we think will harm security, and I can't think of a time when we published such information without first going to government sources involved and getting their comments which on occasion often includes a request we not publish. And a few times we have held back.

But remember, classification is sometimes used to hide an embarrassment or a failure.

Oakton, Va.: A Washington Post story Sunday, March 9, revealed that documents which Secretary Powell presented to the UN and the world in televised testimony last month were forgeries. The documents purported to provide evidence that Iraq had bought specialized tubes for a secret nuclear program and a second purported to prove Iraq had tried to buy enriched uranium from an African country. A subsequent Post story indicated the FBI was considering whether it could investigate the source of these forgeries, supposedly foisted on an unaware U.S. and Britain by a "third nation."

Can you explain what attempts are being made to identify the source of these forgeries, what the speculated source may be, how on earth two sophisticated nations like the U.S. and Britain could possibly have been fooled by forged documents transparent to UN clerical employees, whether Colin Powell is thought to have been aware they were forgeries when he presented them at the UN, and whether it is possible or conceivable that our own government forged these documents?

washingtonpost.com: Story: Some Evidence on Iraq Called Fake (Post, March 8, 2003)

Walter Pincus: This is something reporters at the Post are looking into, just the issues you raise. That story should be coming out shortly.

Silver Spring, Md.: What if any hard evidence is there that Saddam has chemical or biological weapons?

Walter Pincus: As of this moment it is all circumstantial and for some just speculation, as I said earlier. But should U.S. and coalition forces go into Iraq the world will find out either through Iraq's use of such weapons or their eventual discovery just what he does or does not have.

Tucson, Ariz.: Given the tight control of information/news by the U.S. military, the high stakes riding on finding WMD stockpiles, and in my opinion the rampant administration dishonesty surrounding this war, how likely is it that we will get accurate reporting on the existence of stockpiles?

Walter Pincus: Not to waive a flag but this is a democracy. The Post, for one, has a reporter traveling with one of the units that is supposed to look for WMD, so there is one protective note with one unit. Can the government hide the fact they found none, or more troublesome, "planted" some? I doubt something that big could happen.

I expect some things will be found, since the inspectors found some. The real question is whether the stocks are so small they would have been militarily insignificant and thus raise questions about whether it was enough to lead us to war.

New York, N.Y.: Mr. Pincus,

What is the future of weapons carrying depleted uranium? I heard a U.N. official complaining bitterly about these weapons, which the U.S. will be using in its attacks, on the BBC World News last night. He said weapons of this type used in the first Gulf War were responsible for abnormally high rates of childhood leukemia in the areas where they were dropped. Are these bombs headed toward being placed on the list of banned weapons?

Walter Pincus: The depleted uranium shells are used for their ability to pierce armor found on tanks. Though they may possibly be used in Iraq, I doubt they would be widely employed. The jury is still out over whether the rates reported for leukemia are traceable to the depleted uranium rounds. I know from my earlier years of dealing with effects of low level radiation from our nuclear weapons tests that scientists still don't uniformly agree on just what levels cause certain types of cancers.

Rockville, Md.: Over the past two decades we have jailed several people for spying on the United States on behalf of Israel and Israel has never denied having spied on us. It is clear that intelligence gathering is a function that we apparently practice with friends as well as foes.

Does this suggest to you that there are "trust issues" in all international relations and that we can never assume today's friends won't be tomorrow's enemies? Is there something gravely wrong with the dynamics of international relations when the world is built on distrust, mistrust and cynicism? Where do we go from here?

Your thoughts?

Walter Pincus: Someone could teach a college seminar, which I do on occasion, on this subject. Just like all people don't totally trust each others, countries just magnify the problem. Spying has always been with us and a long as we remain human, mistrust and spying will always be with us.

Sacramento, Calif.: How did pre-emptive first strike become American policy? Wasn't this the policy of imperial Japan in 1941 at Pearl Harbor? How does this win us friends?

Walter Pincus: There is no doubt that pre-emption is a dangerous policy that the Bush administration has decided to practice in selected circumstances, or at least where it fits their goals. It's hard to believe it is an "American policy" until the president who has practiced it runs for re-election and wins. It certainly was not Gov. Bush's policy when he ran and was elected. So the public will have a chance to have their say in 2004, and any Iraq war would probably be the test case.

Richmond, Va.: Walter,

Do you know if the American military has any smaller sized armored vehicles capable of being used in alley and street fighting in an urban combat situation such as will (no doubt) be encountered in Baghdad? I know we'll have tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and armored personnel carriers over there in Iraq for this imminent war, but I would like to think we have something small, armored, and maneuverable for use in the tight spaces inevitable with urban street fighting. Thanks.

Walter Pincus: I honestly don't know how small the armored vehicles we have go. But clearly the military has been practicing for urban warfare in that area for years so I expect they are prepared at least for the size of the streets. It's not like the 1950s when we produced a cannon to fire a nuclear shell and found it was too large to carry through European towns.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Walter: Great recent stories! Reporting on the evidence of arms (or lack thereof) is vital to the nation's credibility.

Regarding "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq: What plans does the military have to uncover those once it enters Iraq? Further, what standards should we, the American public, be applying to whatever reports the military issues in regard to what it finds, in order to judge the significance of the discovery of weapons? In other words, how can we know if something is significant, or not?

Walter Pincus: I tried to answer that before. There are reporters with some of the search units. The Post has one. And we have a senior reporter just following this issue. In the end you have to expect that whatever is found will be subjected to major scrutiny -- and there are always congressional investigations if serious questions arise. You in the end have to trust the system expecting people such as yourself to watch and speak up if necessary.

Chevy Chase, Md.: How likely is it that biological or chemical weapons will be used against coalition forces, and if used, which Iraqi units stationed where would be using such weapons?

Walter Pincus: The CIA Director George Tenet last fall sent Congress a letter saying that the agency at that point did not expect Saddam Hussein to either use WMD against the U.S. or give any to terrorists unless he thought he was about to be defeated and wanted to go down taking people with him. When U.S. and coalition forces go into Iraq we will find out whether that analysis was correct. Hans Blix the U.N. chief inspector said yesterday he didn't expect that Iraq would use them if it had them. It clearly had such weapons in 1991 and did not use them.

As for where they are. All the analysts I know have said they were in he possession of the SPecial Republican Guard troops, a group under the control of Saddam's younger son. In 1991, intelligence was that they were distributed to field units but not to be used unless coalition troops crossed a certain line 200 miles form Baghdad. More recently is was said that commanders who have been given such weapons could use them on their own authority since the first thing expected by Saddam to be knocked out is the communications with his troops. Meanwhile, much attention has been paid to U.S. appeals to Iraqi commanders not to use such weapons or if they do to eventually face war crime trials.

Tirana, Albania: Mr. Pincus,

After 9/11, Americans complained that their administration was not able to connect all pieces of information to foresee and prevent the this tragical event. Let's suppose that the U.S. administration was able to predict what would happen before 9/11. Would, in this case, a preemptive strike be justified, and would it be supported by as many countries as supported U.S. administration after 9/11?

Walter Pincus: That's hard example to deal with via pre-emption, which of course has to be applied to a country and its leaders. Could we have made a difference if we invaded Afghanistan prior to 9/11 and gotten rid of the Taliban but not Osama bin Laden or the conspirators? President Clinton was criticized for sending cruise missiles into Afghanistan and accused of doing it to divert attention from his personal problems so I doubt the country would have supported sending any military forces there or being able to rally a coalition.

Intelligence and spin: As an officer in the Army in the Gulf War and in Central America during the late '80s, my experience has been that intel assessments are based largely upon conjecture. People I know in the Intel community now say that Bush has taken these intel reports and twisted them beyond credibility -- that Bush's "justification" for war (i.e., that Iraq might pass on WOMD to terrorists) is an implausible pipe dream. Why hasn't the media covered how dubious this connection is?

Walter Pincus: As noted above, we have written stories questioning this connection and frequently referred to Tenet's October letter questioning the President's and Vice President's thesis. Without having real evidence, like a photo, intercepts or the like or trustworthy direct testimony, all intelligence depends on estimates hopefully by people weighing things honestly. Although the President and others were aware of the intelligence community view on transfer of WMD to terrorists, there were others who did not accept it. Journalists can write a story about the lack of connection but if government officials keep saying it over and over again, people begin to believe it.

Washington, D.C.: What do you think will happen in the search for WMD? Do you think the U.S. will find a substantial amount of WMD, a small stash (held over from the Gulf War), or none at all?

Walter Pincus: I'm afraid I am going to have to wait like everyone else. But the first indication will be whether any such weapons are used against oncoming U.S. troops.

Arlington, Va.: I feel that Bush's case for war has always been to find the evidence after making the claim, and the intelligence we shared with U.N. inspectors on Saddam's weapons yielded nothing. As we go to war, I do not feel that there is anything to stop the president from using his power to plant chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons in Iraq after the fact and claim that Saddam was hiding them all along. Is there anything that can be done to verify any claims about Iraq's weapons cache after an invasion, and what happens if we don't find any weapons?

Walter Pincus: I've answered the first part of your question, that reporters are with the WMD searchers, so there is some protection against misinformation. As what would happen if no WMD is found there already had been rumblings that Saddam may have already passed his stocks to Syria or to terrorists. There also could be a political reaction if none is found but I will leave that to my colleagues to write about.

Crystal City, Va.: Since the location of the alleged WMD in Iraq is unknown, isn't it possible that some of our bombs could hit them, thereby releasing the contaminants? Has the administration addressed this?

Walter Pincus: The military, starting with Gen Myers, has discussed the problems of so-called plumes. Sen. Carl Levin has questioned whether some prime suspect locations were withheld from U.N.inspectors so they could be destroyed if war started. But troops are prepared and would give wide berth to such sites.

Bethesda, Md.: There is a big possibility that Special Operations, the CIA, the Pentagon, the Israeli Mossad (which appears to be operating in Western Iraq) could PLANT weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion. Planting evidence not difficult to do and it has been done in the past. Absent any actual use of biological weapons on American soldiers -- I would look at any discoveries or seizures of weapons of mass destruction by American or its ally forces during the war in Iraq as highly suspicious.

Walter Pincus: SInce you raise a question that has been one of the features of this session I have little doubt that whatever is found will be subject to much suspicion. And in such cases where many people would be involved, i would generally expect the truth will get out -- if not immediately at least eventually.

Annandale, Va.: One wonders if today's reasoning for starting a war with Iraq had been applied in 1938 against Germany (demanding Hitler disarm or face military action) would have prevent millions of subsequent deaths. Do you think these two situations are comparable? Do you think that today's European anti-war pundits are any different that those of the 1930s?

Walter Pincus: History is always difficult to deal with in retrospect. In your case, there probably was no single dominant country -- such as the U.S. today -- who could have confronted Hitler with credibility so from the start your analogy doesn't work. People today seem to pass over that France, at least, was not totally against war. It was against starting a war now without having proved the case. It was not for pulling inspectors out Iraq and giving Saddam a clean slate. So anti-war is too strong for France. Germany said no war but it too was not for halting inspections and leaving Iraq alone.

Bethesda, Md.: Thank you for taking my question, Walter.

Let's suppose our armed forces find no significant amounts of biological or chemical munitions. What difference do you think that would make, if any, in how the country views how we've been pursuing our foreign policy, given the level of fear that seems to have permeated the American psyche since 9/11?


Walter Pincus: That's a good, complicated question. I believe people will view Iraq, if no significant weapons are found, based on the losses taken to reach that conclusion and the results of U.S. occupation there The second part attaches to the first because if our entry into Iraq, which is considered a major site for Islam, causes an increase in terrorism, which it easily could, then we may have done ourselves even more harm. It is a difficult moment in U.S. history.

Walter Pincus: I'm afraid time is up and I have to go back to work. It has been an interesting experience. The questions were good. And I look forward to doing it again. Thanks for looking and questioning.

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