“The Iraq war began sixteen years ago tomorrow. There is a myth about the war that I have been meaning to set straight for years. After no WMDs were found, the left claimed ‘Bush lied. People died.’ This accusation itself is a lie. It’s time to put it to rest.”
— Former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer, in a Twitter thread, March 19, 2019
Sixteen years after the Iraq War started, the White House press spokesman at the time sought to rebut a claim he called a “liberal myth” — that George W. Bush lied about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to launch the invasion. (Never mind that the current Republican president also has made this claim, saying in 2016: “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction; there were none.”)
In more than 20 tweets, Fleischer laid out the case that the intelligence community failed — and Saddam Hussein for unknown reasons lied about having illicit weapons. He quoted at length from findings made in 2005 by the Robb-Silberman Commission that was set up to investigate the intelligence failures.
A careful reading of Fleischer’s Twitter thread shows that he’s only talking about Bush and himself; he conveniently leaves out other administration officials, especially Vice President Richard B. Cheney — who stretched the available intelligence in his public remarks and frequently hinted there was more he could not say.
“My tweets were about me and Bush,” Fleischer acknowledged to The Fact Checker.
Moreover, he leaves out the fact that there was a second report — by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2008 — that examined whether the public statements by U.S. government officials were substantiated by the intelligence. In particular, the committee looked at five major policy speeches by Bush, Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The Robb-Silberman report specifically was not allowed to look at that issue, noting, “We were not authorized to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence assessments they received from the Intelligence Community.”
The Senate report was adopted on a bipartisan vote of 10 to 5.
Fleischer argues that the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee report are undercut by this line in Robb-Silverman: “Finally, it was a failure to communicate effectively with policymakers; the Intelligence Community didn’t adequately explain just how little good intelligence it had — or how much its assessments were driven by assumptions and inferences rather than concrete evidence.”
Fleischer said: “I can state with certainty no one expressed doubts to me. I was told Saddam had chemical and biological stockpiles. I was told he did not have nuclear, but he was working on it. There were no doubts, hesitations or nuances raised. If there had been, it would have been reflected in what I said.”
He also supplied excerpts from Bush’s 2010 memoir, in which the president reflects that even countries opposed to the war, such as Germany, agreed that Iraq had WMDs. “The conclusion that Saddam had WMD was nearly a universal consensus. My predecessor believed it. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill believed it. Intelligence agencies in Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, China, and Egypt believed it,” Bush wrote in “Decision Points.”
It’s worth recalling that the Bush administration appeared determined to attack Iraq for any number of reasons beyond suspicions of WMDs; officials simply seized on WMDs because they concluded that that represented the strongest case for an invasion. “For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on,” then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair in 2003.
Fleischer’s deputy at the time, Scott McClellan, put it this way in his own memoir, “What Happened”: “In the fall of 2002, Bush and his White House were engaging in a carefully orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval to our advantage. … Our lack of candor and honesty in making the case for war would later provoke a partisan response from our opponents that, in its own way, further distorted and obscured a more nuanced reality.” (He added that “the media would serve as complicit enablers.”)
So, in the interest of providing the historical record, what was the U.S. intelligence community’s record on Iraqi WMDs, and did the Bush administration hype the evidence?
The short answer is that both played a role. There were serious problems in the intelligence, some of which were relegated to dissenting footnotes. But the Bush administration also chose to highlight aspects of the intelligence that helped make the administration’s case, while playing down others.
The clearest example of stretching the intelligence concerned Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaeda and by extension the 9/11 attacks, which were thin and nonexistent — but which the Bush administration suggested were deeply suspicious.
Cheney especially banged the drum of a possible link, long after the intelligence was discredited. The Post reported in 2003:
In making the case for war against Iraq, Vice President Cheney has continued to suggest that an Iraqi intelligence agent met with a Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker five months before the attacks, even as the story was falling apart under scrutiny by the FBI, CIA and the foreign government that first made the allegation.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report was unsparing in its criticism of this aspect of the White House’s case for war. The 170-page report said such Iraq/al-Qaeda statements were “not substantiated by the intelligence,” adding that multiple CIA reports dismissed the claim that Iraq and al-Qaeda were cooperating partners — and that there was no intelligence information that supported administration statements that Iraq would provide weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda.
The committee further said there was no confirmation of a meeting between Mohamed Atta, a key 9/11 hijacker, and an Iraqi intelligence officer.
Note, however, that Fleischer kept his Twitter thread confined to intelligence findings that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In this case, the Senate report found that remarks by administration officials generally reflected the intelligence, but failed to convey “substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community.” In general, officials strongly suggested that WMD production was ongoing, reflecting “a higher degree of certainty than the intelligence judgments themselves.”
Here are the findings in the Senate report on key weapons:
Nuclear weapons. Before the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, some intelligence agencies assessed that the Iraqi government was reconstituting a nuclear weapons program, while others disagreed. The NIE reflected a majority view that it was being reconstituted, but there were sharp dissents by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Department of Energy (which is the main source of nuclear weapons expertise in the U.S. government).
In particular, administration officials leaked to the New York Times that Iraq had obtained large quantities of aluminum tubes for use in the uranium enrichment project — though the Energy Department experts were convinced that the tubes were poorly suited for such uses and instead were intended for artillery rockets.
Also, before the war, CIA Director George Tenet warned the White House not to use sketchy intelligence about Iraqi purchases of uranium in Africa. But the White House inserted it into a presidential speech anyway, much to its later embarrassment.
After the invasion, officials discovered Iraq had basically ended its nuclear weapon program in 1991.
Conclusion: “Statements by the president, vice president, secretary of state and the national security advisor regarding a possible Iraqi nuclear weapons program were generally substantiated by the intelligence community, but did not convey the substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community.”
Biological weapons. The intelligence community consistently stated between the late 1990s and 2003 that Iraq retained biological warfare agents and the capability to produce more. However, there were intelligence gaps in Iraq’s biological weapons programs, made explicit in the October 2002 NIE, which policymakers did not discuss.
After the war, officials discovered that Iraq had not conducted biological weapons production research since 1996. Iraq could have reestablished an elementary program within weeks, but no indications were found that Iraq intended to do so.
Conclusion: “Statements in the major speeches analyzed, as well as additional statements, regarding Iraq’s possession of biological agents, weapons, production capability and use of mobile biological laboratories were substantiated by intelligence information.”
Chemical weapons. The October NIE said that Iraq retained between 100 and 500 metric tons of chemical weapons. The intelligence community assessed that Hussein wanted to have chemical weapons capability and that Iraq was seeking to hide its capability in its dual-use chemical industry. However, intelligence assessments clearly stated that analysts could not confirm that production was ongoing.
After the war, officials could find no caches of chemical weapons munitions and only a handful of pre-1991 chemical munitions. There was no credible evidence that Iraq resumed its chemical weapons program after 1991.
Conclusion: “Statements in the major speeches analyzed, as well as additional statements, regarding Iraq’s possession of chemical weapons were substantiated by intelligence information. Statements by the president and vice president prior to the October 2002 NIE … did not [reflect] the intelligence community’s uncertainties as to whether such production was ongoing.”
The minority views of the Senate report include many statements by Democrats that echoed the certainty of the Bush administration. For instance: “All U.S. intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons,” then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said on Oct. 9, 2002. “There is little question that Saddam Hussein wants to develop nuclear weapons.”
But Kerry was wrong: Not all intelligence agencies agreed with that claim.
One problem is that few members of Congress actually read the classified 2002 NIE. Instead, they relied on the sanitized version distributed to the public, which was scrubbed of dissenting opinions. (It was later learned that the public white paper had been drafted long before the NIE had been requested by Congress, even though the white paper was publicly presented as a distillation of the NIE. So that should count as another manipulation of public opinion.)
One of the few lawmakers who did read the classified report, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), voted against the congressional resolution to authorize an attack on Iraq. He later wrote that the classified version “contained vigorous dissents on key parts of the information, especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein’s will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.”
Graham said that the gap between the 96-page document that was secret and the 25-page version made public made him “question whether the White House was telling the truth — or even had an interest in knowing the truth.”
Update: We received an interesting response from David Cortight and George A. Lopez of the University of Notre Dame about their efforts to warn policymakers before the war that sanctions efforts on Iraq had been successful. Interested readers can click the link to read it.
The Bottom Line
The intelligence community’s assessments on Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and programs turned out to be woefully wrong, largely because analysts believed that Iraq had kept on a path of building its programs rather than largely abandoning them after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Thus the stockpiles theoretically got larger as time went on.
But at the same time, the Senate report shows Bush administration officials often hyped the intelligence that supported their policy goals — while ignoring or playing down dissents or caveats from within the intelligence community. The intelligence was used for political purposes, to build public support for a war that might have been launched no matter what intelligence analysts had said about the prospect of finding WMDs in Iraq.
(We do not know whether Bush read the dissents in the NIE. His memoir just says the NIE was based on “much of the same intelligence the CIA had been showing to me for the past eighteen months.” Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoir that "NSC Principals, all experienced people, read the NIE from cover to cover.” The National Security Council is chaired by the president, and regular attendees include the vice president, secretary of state, defense secretary, treasury secretary and national security adviser.)
Fleischer says it is “a lie” that Bush lied. Regular readers know we generally do not use the word “lie." Fleischer is offering his opinion — one that conveniently ignores the Senate report that looked at this issue. His own deputy at the time certainly said the White House spun the intelligence for political purposes, while Fleischer still argues that White House was misled by the intelligence community.
Is there a fine line between hyping the evidence and lying about it? It’s too fuzzy for the Pinocchio Test, as it also falls in the realm of opinion. But we will let our readers offer their own opinion below.
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