"Weapons of Mass Deception"


True Lies

Why pressure analysts when making stuff up is so much easier?

By Matthew Yglesias
Web Exclusive: 07.13.04

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's 521-page report into the intelligence community's pre-war work on the Iraq issue has launched the country into another round of debate over whether the Bush administration simply relied on poor intelligence work, or whether administration appointees pressured analysts into hyping the threat.

It's an important debate to have. And the fact that the Senate's GOP majority pushed scheduled the release date of the official inquiry in these matters must be regarded as suggestive.

But this debate shouldn’t obscure how much there is to learn from the report we already have. It tells us, for example, that the president may not have needed to engage in much politicization of the intelligence analysis process since he was more than willing to simply misstate the community's findings when he felt like it.

One key question hanging over the Iraq debate was always, "Why Iraq? Why now?" After all, Saddam Hussein's malign regime had been engaged in low-level conflict with the United States for more than a decade. The U.S. government's position had been that while removing his regime from power would be desirable, it wasn't of such importance that it should crowd out other foreign-policy goals. Even in late 2002, it seemed the United States had plenty on its plate. North Korea and Iran were both developing WMD; the al-Qaeda threat was very real; Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were being less-than-fully cooperative in the war on terrorism; and our major allies weren't prepared to follow our lead into Mesopotamia.

The president addressed this issue in an October 2002 speech in Cincinnati entitled, "President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat."

Some citizens wonder after 11 years of living with this problem, why do we need to confront it now? And there's a reason. We've experienced the horror of September the 11th. We have seen that those who hate America are willing to crash airplanes into buildings full of innocent people. Our enemies would be no less willing, in fact, they would be eager, to use biological or chemical, or a nuclear weapon. Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

But what did that have to do with Iraq? "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year," said the president.

We had good reason, in other words, to put other priorities on hold: We were less than a year away from the date on which Iraq would explode a nuclear weapon on our soil. Leave aside the fact that even were such a weapon to be constructed, Iraq would have no means of delivering it -- even still, this is a pretty good rationale. But it's not what the intelligence said. Or, rather, as is often the case with this president, he said something that was technically true, but utterly misleading. Saying that Iraq could build a bomb if it had highly enriched uranium is like saying, "If I had $2 million, I could buy a really nice house." All that's missing is the two million bucks. Iraq didn't have any highly enriched uranium -- it's hard to get! -- and had no prospects for getting any. And unlike my ephemeral millions, you can't win HEU in the lottery.

Page 85 of the Senate report tells us what the intelligence said: "At the time of the 2002 NIE [National Intelligence Estimate], the IC [Intelligence Community] continued to hold its longstanding view that once reconstitution had begun, it would take five to seven years, with foreign assistance, for Iraq to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear weapon." In other words, if Iraq reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, and if they got foreign assistance, then, five to seven years later, they would be less than a year away from having a nuclear bomb.

A legitimate national security concern? Of course. A cause for panic? Clearly not. There was time to deal with other problems, including the weapons programs in North Korea and Pakistan, which would have been a possible source for the foreign assistance that Saddam needed to build his bomb. And that -- after all the pressuring and stovepiping and whatever else the administration did -- is what the intelligence community came up with. Iraq might have been able to build a nuclear bomb sometime between 2008 and 2009 which it then would have had no way of delivering to the United States. But out of the president's lips came: "We cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

Well, no, we couldn't wait for that. But we could have waited a good many more years, anyway. More, even, than the intelligence community thought, and far more than the president implied. In the meantime, North Korea is going nuclear, we've lost most of our leverage against Iran, and al-Qaeda's ideology continues to spread. Some things are problems; other things are problems so urgent that you throw all your resources into solving them even if that means letting other stuff slide. Iraq was a problem, but not the second kind of problem, and that was right there in the intelligence. Too bad the president didn't pay more attention.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.

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Milton Frihetsson, 19:43


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