By Daryl G. Kimball
As he pushes sales of his memoir, George W. Bush’s former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is trying, once again, to spin the facts about the “knowns” and the “unknowns” about Iraq’s suspected nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs in the months leading up to the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer this week, Rumsfeld claimed “the intelligence was certainly wrong” and “we had reasonable confidence he had these weapons.”
In his Good Morning America interview with Rummy, George Stephanopolous asked the smart question: “But you had inspectors in the country. Why was it necessary to invade?”
But Rumsfeld sidestepped the question and told an untruth, replying: “He had thrown them out for about the second or third or fourth time.”
Last month, former Bush National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was making the same kind of excuses. In a January 20 interview on CNN, Rice said:
“We believed that he was acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and given who he was in the Middle East, that it was a threat that had to be dealt with. And at that time, all of the intelligence said that he [Saddam] was acquiring weapons of mass destruction again. This is someone who had used them before. So, this wasn’t a theoretical possibility.”
“The fact is that what you know today can affect what you do tomorrow, but not what you did yesterday,” she said.
Don’t be fooled
What Rice knew before the war should have led her and her colleagues to make some vastly different decisions. There are two sets of facts — “known knowns” if you will — that Rumsfeld and Rice don’t want you to know and that we cannot afford to forget:
1. The belief that there were prohibited weapons in Iraq was not based on the best intelligence available at the time and not everyone in the intelligence community agreed with key findings of the October 2002 NIE.
As the Arms Control Association pointed out at a major July 9, 2003 press briefing featuring retired State Department intelligence analyst Greg Thielmann, former President George W. Bush and his team cherry-picked the flawed October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. Rather than providing a “slam-dunk” case that Saddam had active chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, the NIE was filled with caveats and qualifications about the possibility of prohibited weapons programs and capabilities.
For instance, the NIE included the expert opinion of the Energy Department that Iraq was not using aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment as some other intelligence agencies were claiming. The NIE included the Air Force intelligence finding that Iraq was not using unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver chemical or biological weapons. The October 2002 NIE noted that the State Department’s Intelligence Bureau concluded that the allegation, later made by George W. Bush in his January 2003 State of the Union Address, that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger was bad information.
Clearly, the basis for key allegations about prohibited weapons program in Iraq were in dispute.
Unfortunately, as Thielmann told ABC’s Nightline on July 9, 2003, the George W. Bush “Administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude. It’s top-down use of intelligence. We know the answers, so give us the intelligence to support those answers.”
Those who looked at the NIE carefully—and you would expect that included Rumsfeld and Rice—should have understood that the basis upon which their allegation that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program was shaky at best.
2. UN weapons inspections were working and their findings contradicted the United States’ WMD claims against Iraq, but they were ignored by the Bush administration officials and most members of Congress.
Bush officials have claimed that even though the NIE was flawed, the invasion was justified because Saddam could not be trusted, and, in the absence of better information, they had to assume the worst.
The problem with that logic is that the Bush administration had access to better information before the March 2003 invasion but they chose to ignore it.
Senior Bush administration officials and most of the mainstream media and commentary continue to overlook is the fact that the Bush administration and Congress dismissed the widely-available findings of the UN weapons inspectors weeks before the U.S. invasion—findings that clearly undercut the claims that Saddam had active WMD programs and was an imminent threat.
Contrary to Donald Rumsfeld’s recent suggestion that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein kicked the UN weapons inspectors out, UN inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002 following the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 earlier that month. (See ACA’s detailed timeline on UN weapons inspections in Iraq from 2002-2003)
From November 2002 through February 2003, the UN inspectors conducted more than 760 inspections covering about 500 sites. On the basis of leads provided by U.S. and other intelligence agencies and information gained from earlier inspections, they hunted down the worst-case assessments and allegations and developed up-to-date, on-the-ground intelligence findings and presented it to the world.
On Feb. 13, 2003, the chief UN inspector, Hans Blix, reported to the UN Security Council that there was no evidence of either active chemical or biological weapons programs or stockpiles. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei reported that there was no evidence of a reconstituted nuclear weapons program. Blix’s concluded that “the period of disarmament through inspection could still be short, if ‘immediate, active and unconditional cooperation” were “forthcoming.” He called for more inspectors and went on to outline some benchmarks for full Iraqi cooperation.
Blix’s and ElBaradei’s findings provided ample reason to reassess the October 2002 NIE, which was based entirely on information gathered before the return of the UN inspectors in November of 2002. For example, the inspectors found strong evidence that Iraq was procuring aluminum tubes for artillery rockets rather than for nuclear weapons material production.
The IAEA also exposed as “not authentic” the documents which laid the basis for the President Bush’s infamous claim that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Niger. (Month’s later, on July 6, 2003, Ambassador Joe Wilson would also blow the whistle on the Bush administration’s Niger uranium claim in The New York Times)
On February 15, Secretary of State Colin Powell responded formally to the report from the inspectors two days earlier. He acknowledged that there were improvements in the inspection process but argued that “more inspections are not enough.”
Powell argued that “more inspections and a longer inspection period will not move us away from the central issue, the central problem we are facing, and that central problem is that Iraq has failed to comply with 1441. The threat of force must remain.” And of course that threat of force remained and would later be carried out beginning March 20, 2003 a unilateral fashion and without a UN Security Council mandate.
But once more and before the invasion, the UN inspectors reported March 7 to the Security Council and their findings once again rebutted the key findings in the NIE that the Bush administration had used to claim Iraq was actively pursuing prohibited weapons.
Blix and ElBaradei’s findings also meant that the Bush administration’s WMD allegations were not based on the best available intelligence. Those findings were, of course, an inconvenient truth for an American administration that had probably already decided to invade Iraq.
The UN weapons inspectors’ findings should have led Bush and members of Congress to delay the invasion, allow the inspectors to resolve remaining questions and contain any new Iraqi weapons work, and order a new intelligence assessment. Their failure to do so has cost innumerable lives, billions of dollars, lost American prestige, and insecurity.
The bottom line is that the 2002 Iraq NIE was flawed and the UN inspectors told us so before the United States and its coalition partners invaded Iraq.
As Greg Thielmann and I wrote in an October 2003 oped in The Baltimore Sun,
Intelligence is meant to inform government decision-making, not to be invoked or discarded selectively to justify predetermined political decisions. The unjustified claims of the Bush administration on Iraq’s illicit weapons capabilities have severely damaged the credibility of the U.S. government and the U.S. intelligence community.
Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and former President George W. Bush still have not owned up to their responsibility for the Iraq WMD fiasco and continue to try to hide the true facts from the American people and the reporters whose job it is to seek out the facts.