The Judith Miller-Valerie Plame-Scooter Libby imbroglio is being reduced to a simple narrative about the origins of the Iraq war. Miller, the story goes, was an anti-Saddam Hussein, weapons-of-mass-destruction-hunting zealot and was either an eager participant or an unwitting dupe in a campaign by Bush administration officials and Iraqi exiles to justify the invasion. The New York Times now characterizes the affair as "just one skirmish in the continuing battle over the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq." Miller may be "best known for her role in a series of Times articles in 2002 and 2003 that strongly suggested Saddam Hussein already had or was acquiring an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction." According to the Times's critique, she credulously reported information passed on by "a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on 'regime change' in Iraq," which was then "eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq." Many critics outside the Times suggest that Miller's eagerness to publish the Bush administration's line was the primary reason Americans went to war. The Times itself is edging closer to this version of events.
There is a big problem with this simple narrative. It is that the Times, along with The Post and other news organizations, ran many alarming stories about Iraq's weapons programs before the election of George W. Bush. A quick search through the Times archives before 2001 produces such headlines as "Iraq Has Network of Outside Help on Arms, Experts Say"(November 1998), "U.S. Says Iraq Aided Production of Chemical Weapons in Sudan"(August 1998), "Iraq Suspected of Secret Germ War Effort" (February 2000), "Signs of Iraqi Arms Buildup Bedevil U.S. Administration" (February 2000), "Flight Tests Show Iraq Has Resumed a Missile Program" (July 2000). (A somewhat shorter list can be compiled from The Post's archives, including a September 1998 headline: "Iraqi Work Toward A-Bomb Reported.") The Times stories were written by Barbara Crossette, Tim Weiner and Steven Lee Myers; Miller shared a byline on one.
Many such stories appeared before and after the Clinton administration bombed Iraq for four days in late 1998 in what it insisted was an effort to degrade Iraqi weapons programs. Philip Shenon reported official concerns that Iraq would be "capable within months -- and possibly just weeks or days -- of threatening its neighbors with an arsenal of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons." He reported that Iraq was thought to be "still hiding tons of nerve gas" and was "seeking to obtain uranium from a rogue nation or terrorist groups to complete as many as four nuclear warheads." Tim Weiner and Steven Erlanger reported that Hussein was closer than ever "to what he wants most: keeping a secret cache of biological and chemical weapons." "To maintain his chemical and biological weapons -- and the ability to build more," they reported, Hussein had sacrificed over $120 billion in oil revenue and "devoted his intelligence service to an endless game of cat and mouse to hide his suspected weapons caches from United Nations inspections."
In 1999 Weiner reported that "Iraq's chances of rebuilding a secret arsenal look good." Hussein was "scouring the world for tools to build new weapons." He might "be as close to building a nuclear weapon -- perhaps closer -- than he was in 1991." In 2000 Myers reported that Iraq had rebuilt 12 "missile factories or industrial sites" thought to be "involved in Iraq's efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction" and had "continued its pursuit of biological and chemical weapons."
The Times's sources were "administration officials," "intelligence officials," "U.N. weapons inspectors" and "international analysts." The "administration officials" were, of course, Clinton officials. A number of stories were based not on off-the-record conversations but on public statements and documentation by U.N. inspectors.
From 1998 through 2000, the Times editorial page warned that "without further outside intervention, Iraq should be able to rebuild weapons and missile plants within a year" and that "future military attacks may be required to diminish the arsenal again." Otherwise, Iraq could "restore its ability to deliver biological and chemical weapons against potential targets in the Middle East." "The world," it said, "cannot leave Mr. Hussein free to manufacture horrific germs and nerve gases and use them to terrorize neighboring countries."
Times editorials insisted the danger from Iraq was imminent. When the Clinton administration attempted to negotiate, they warned against letting "diplomacy drift into dangerous delay. Even a few more weeks free of inspections might allow Mr. Hussein to revive construction of a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon." They also argued that it was "hard to negotiate with a tyrant who has no intention of honoring his commitments and who sees nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as his country's salvation." "As Washington contemplates an extended war against terrorism," a Times editorial insisted, "it cannot give in to a man who specializes in the unthinkable."
Another Times editorial warned that containment of Hussein was eroding. "The Security Council is wobbly, with Russia and France eager to ease inspections and sanctions." Any approach "that depends on Security Council unity is destined to be weak." "Mr. [Kofi] Annan's resolve seems in doubt." When Hans Blix was appointed to head the U.N. inspectors, the editors criticized him for "a decade-long failure to detect Iraq's secret nuclear weapons program before the gulf war" and for a "tendency to credit official assurances from rulers like Mr. Hussein." His selection was "a disturbing sign that the international community lacks the determination to rebuild an effective arms inspection system." The "further the world gets from the gulf war, the more it seems willing to let Mr. Hussein revive his deadly weapons projects." Even "[m]any Americans question the need to maintain pressure on Baghdad and would oppose the use of force. But the threat is too great to give ground to Mr. Hussein. The cost to the world and to the United States of dealing with a belligerent Iraq armed with biological weapons would be far greater than the cost of preventing Baghdad from rearming."
The Times was not alone, of course. On Jan. 29, 2001, The Post editorialized that "of all the booby traps left behind by the Clinton administration, none is more dangerous -- or more urgent -- than the situation in Iraq. Over the last year, Mr. Clinton and his team quietly avoided dealing with, or calling attention to, the almost complete unraveling of a decade's efforts to isolate the regime of Saddam Hussein and prevent it from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction. That leaves President Bush to confront a dismaying panorama in the Persian Gulf," including "intelligence photos that show the reconstruction of factories long suspected of producing chemical and biological weapons."
This was the consensus before Bush took office, before Scooter Libby assumed his post and before Judith Miller did most of the reporting for which she is now, uniquely, criticized. It was based on reporting by a large of number of journalists who in turn based their stories on the judgments of international intelligence analysts, Clinton officials and weapons inspectors. As we wage what the Times now calls "the continuing battle over the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq," we will have to grapple with the stubborn fact that the underlying rationale for the war was already in place when this administration arrived.
Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, writes a monthly column for The Post.