There's a bounty today of good material on the growing debate and/or scandal about the administration's over-hyping of evidence about Iraq's WMD programs. Actually, in my Wednesday morning column in The Hill I said that there really is no new debate or new scandal. It's really more that it's suddenly become acceptable to discuss what everyone knew for the last year or so: that is, that the administration was willfully misrepresenting the evidence both on WMD and a purported link to al Qaida.
The first thing to look at is Spencer Ackerman and John Judis' article in The New Republic on the administration's misrepresentation of the intelligence on Iraq's WMD program. This is a good example of why they call journalism the first draft of history. It's the first attempt to put this whole matter of intelligence manipulation into a chronological and interpretive perspective. It's more complicated than people just lying. It's having your agenda and then having the facts. You try to get them to fit together. And when they don't, well, you go with your agenda. (Why else do they call it your agenda, after all.)
The reason that any of this is really even a debate, why there's even a question, goes to the heart of intelligence work itself. In intelligence work few things are ever truly certain. The 'facts' about which you have the greatest certainty are only nearly certain. And even the utterly unsubstantiated rumors from unreliable sources could conceivably be true. The whole enterprise is probabilistic. And thus, the answer to whether someone was distorting the intelligence or simply had a particularly harebrained take on it must in some sense be too. But when you begin to see people pushing the evidence that is almost certainly bogus and disputing the evidence that is almost certainly valid, you, at a certain point, just realize that you need move over into the vernacular and call things as they are. Those folks are lying.
As noted before, so much of intelligence work is made of hints and allegations, that it's going to be hard to find one of those bright line examples that counts in the public square of scandalism as a 'lie.' But Ackerman and Judis have significantly advanced the story on one of the key cases where you really may be able to show a no-two-ways-about-it lie.
One of the thus-far-hidden points of humor in all this is that the president's father, when vice-president, was widely ridiculed for claiming that he was "out of the loop" on significant elements of the Iran-Contra affair. We now have a case in which the president and most of the senior members of the government claim to have been 'out of the loop' on what numerous administration officials and intelligence community analysts knew about Iraq's WMD programs. Ackerman and Judis, however, marshal very persuasive circumstantial evidence that Dick Cheney -- and almost certainly other high-level officials -- knew the Niger uranium sale story was bogus before it was placed in the president's State of the Union speech. The argument they make is a cumulative one. So you'll really need to read the piece. But the key piece of information comes from the former US ambassador to Niger who visited the country and came back with clear and multiple evidence that the whole story was bogus.
The CIA circulated the ambassador's report to the vice president's office, the ambassador confirms to TNR. But, after a British dossier was released in September detailing the purported uranium purchase, administration officials began citing it anyway, culminating in its inclusion in the State of the Union. "They knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie," the former ambassador tells TNR. "They were unpersuasive about aluminum tubes and added this to make their case more persuasive."
I don't know off hand how the former ambassador would be in a position to confirm that the CIA had passed the information on to Cheney's office. But the authors wouldn't have published his confirmation unless he was in a position to know. So the vice-president's office got the information. And, frankly, though it is possible, it's simply strains credulity to the breaking point to believe that such information would not have made it to Cheney himself. And that's being generous.
In any case, read the Ackerman-Judis article.
Also, see Ken Pollack's long column today in the Times. Pollack makes several important points. And I feel his discomfort in being pushed into being a defender of the president's policies when in fact he is not one. His point that bears repeating is that there was all sorts of evidence that the Iraqis continued to maintain some chemical and biological weapons capacity. All sorts of governments believed this. It's also true that there were security arguments for invading Iraq which did not hinge on its being an imminent threat in the near-term. And this is where the administration's deception came into play. They knew they didn't have evidence that would make most Americans support going to war NOW. So they essentially cooked it up and made it up.
I don't share Pollack's certainty that we're going to find the chemical and biological weapons. I'm not certain we won't or that we will. But for reasons I've discussed elsewhere, I think that as time goes on it becomes increasing likely that we may have misjudged this part of the equation too.
Unfortunately, we're now in a situation in which if we do turn up some nerve gas that will be taken as evidence that the White House found the WMD. And that will be true as far as it goes. But it may snuff out the inquiry into all the administration's deceptions on nukes and al Qaida links -- the stuff that created the false impression of an imminent threat. TPM is interviewing Pollack next week. So we'll be going over these questions in more detail then.
A couple points to conclude. There's a now fashionable argument that we shouldn't let the administration's deceptions on WMD and al Qaida blind us to the big issue, which is securing a democratic, non-threatening Iraq. This point strikes me as true, but terribly off-point. We also shouldn't let the WMD deception issue stop us from passing a federal budget next year or getting the trade deficit under control. But do we need to? I figure we can manage all these things at the same time.
It's true that we are now in Iraq. And how we got there -- legitimately or illegitimately -- doesn't absolve us of responsibility for preventing the country from falling into chaos or reduce our strong national interest in insuring a positive outcome. But getting to the bottom of the administration's deceptions is about our democracy. And let's not let our strong interest in Iraqi democracy forget about American democracy, which we have something of an interest in too.
Finally, Republicans are saying to Democrats, threatening them really, with the argument that going up against the president on the question of his administration's deceptions on the WMD issue is a political loser. Walking into a buzzsaw and so forth. I'm really not sure this is true. I think this may end up being a more debilitating issue than they imagine. But certainly it could be handled poorly by Democrats. And perhaps it's not good politics. But frankly I'm not sure that matters. As Ackerman and Judis say at the end of their article, some issues are well worth pressing quite apart from the politics. It's important simply because it's wrong. And this sort of indifference to the truth is toxic in a democracy. (I can already hear the Republicans snarking about definitions of sex and so forth. But, really, their inability or unwillingness to recognize the distinction between frivolous issues and ones that are central to a democracy indicts them from their own corrupt mouths.)
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who is basically a New Dem like myself and we were talking about unions. He asked me whether I really thought the country would be in better shape if the union movement were, say, twice as strong, had twice as many members as it currently has. I was surprised by the question since it challenged one of my basic assumptions. I'm a big supporter of unions. But I'm far from a down-the-line supporter of their issues. I'm a big free-trader for instance and that's not at all a popular position in today's trade union movement. So I thought about it and said that, yes, I thought it would be in better shape, though it certainly wouldn't be positive in all respects.
But what we could agree on was that a good bit of the decline in the union movement was attributable to changes in the law and de facto changes in the law -- through lax enforcement of labor law -- which chipped away and over time significantly diminished the right to organize, the right to join a union if that's what you want to do. And that, I told him, is just wrong -- whatever the economic consequences.
This is a similar case. Even if the consequences of going into Iraq turn out to be good -- and that seems to be an open question, though I think it was and to a degree remains possible -- it's wrong to have deceived the public to make the policy happen. It's wrong to have damaged the country's intelligence agencies. Let's not even get into the damage that was done to the country's standing in the world. It's also wrong for the political opposition not to say it was wrong, even if the short-term political consequences are uncertain or even damaging.