TCS Daily

Why Didn't He Know?

By Duane D. Freese - February 12, 2004 12:00 AM

"What did the president know and when did he know it?"

That was the question that Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., asked the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 regarding President Richard M. Nixon's knowledge of the infamous break in.

Today, many are asking the same question about President George W. Bush's knowledge about Iraq's as yet undiscovered weapons of mass destruction.

Thanks to an interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press, we know what Bush thought he knew about Saddam Hussein's WMD -- he thought the Iraqi leader had them and he was unwilling to trust how he would use him.

Many Americans raised in the era of Watergate and Vietnam remain suspicious. After all, didn't Nixon say, "The American people need to know their president in not a crook," and then he turned out to be one? Didn't Lyndon B. Johnson push for an escalation of the Vietnam War based on an attack on U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin that did not occur? Didn't presidential candidate John F. Kennedy help his election by claiming a missile gap with Russia that he knew didn't exist?

Being suspicious of presidents is understandable, considering the history. Maybe George Washington could never tell a lie, but enough have been caught in them to demand proof of their word.

Thus, Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at the libertarian Reason magazine, wrote recently "To blame the false portrayal of the Iraqi threat on bad intelligence raises the question of why administration officials were so ready to believe analysis based on out-of-date, secondhand and increasingly unreliable evidence. It seems they were not inclined to question anything that helped build support for the war because they were already convinced invading Iraq was the right course, for reason they chose not to emphasize in public."

Or as Phyllis Bennis of the liberal Institute for Policy Studies put it, "The decision to go to war against Iraq had nothing to do with intelligence. We went to war because ideologues in the administration were determined to go to war and those ideologues still believe in their doctrine."

But it wasn't merely President Bush and members of his administration that thought Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was a danger to the world. Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan thought so. So did Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.

In fact, even Democratic presidential hopefuls John Edwards and John Kerry thought so.

John Kerry, in fact, has been voluble about the subject, including during his eight years on the Intelligence Committee.

On Oct. 9, 2002, when the Senate was considering giving Bush the authority to go to war against Iraq, Kerry spoke on the Senate floor: "Why is Saddam Hussein attempting to develop nuclear weapons when most nations don't even try? ... According to intelligence, Iraq has chemical and biological weapons ... Iraq is developing unmanned aerial vehicles capable of delivering chemical and biological warfare agents..."

Maybe there really were good reasons to think what they thought about Saddam Hussein.

Last week, the public got some of the evidence what Bush and these other leaders were told about Iraq.

Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet, in a speech at Georgetown University, tried to lay out where Bush got his information about Iraq and what it was.

To the idea expressed by some that it was off the wall or shaded to suit Bush's ideology, Tenet said:

"I can tell you with certainty that the president of the United States gets his intelligence from one person and one community: me. And he has told me firmly and directly that he's wanted it straight and he's wanted it honest and he's never wanted the facts shaded."

And what was he telling Bush? He pointed to the national intelligence estimate that Bush received, drawn from the work of all the intelligence agencies.

And what the CIA did tell the president, though, certainly comports with Bush's description of Iraq as a "serious and growing threat," one he was unwilling to wait become imminent. As Tenet put it:

"Let's start with missile and other delivery systems for WMD. Our community said with high confidence that Saddam was continuing and expanding his missile programs contrary to UN resolutions. He had missiles and other systems with ranges in excess of UN restrictions and was seeking missiles with even longer ranges. ...

"Let me turn to biological weapons. The Estimate said that Baghdad had them, and that all key aspects of an offensive program -- Research and Development, production, and weaponization -- were still active, and most elements were larger, and more advanced than before the first Gulf war. ...

"Let me now turn to Chemical Weapons. We said in the Estimate with high confidence that Iraq had them. We also believed, though with less certainty, that Saddam had stocked at least 100 metric tons of agent. That may sound like a lot, but it would fit in a few dorm rooms on this campus."

Only regarding nuclear materials did the intelligence estimate say that Saddam didn't have them. But even there, Tenet said, "all agencies agreed that Saddam wanted nuclear weapons. Most were convinced that he still had a program and if he obtained fissile material he could have a weapon within a year."

And a source considered reliable by other intelligence agencies and part of Hussein's inner circle had reported, Tenet said, "Iraq was aggressively and covertly developing such a weapon.

"Saddam had recently called together his Nuclear Weapons Committee irate that Iraq did not yet have a weapon because money was no object and they possessed the scientific know how. The Committee members assured Saddam that once the fissile material was in hand, a bomb could be ready in just 18-24 months. The return of UN inspectors would cause minimal disruption because, according to the source, Iraq was expert at denial and deception."

Tenet went on:

"The same source said Iraq was stockpiling chemical weapons and that equipment to produce insecticides, under the oil-for-food program, had been diverted to covert chemical weapons production."

This information was confirmed by another source close to Hussein.

"Now, did this information make a difference in my thinking?" Tenet asked.

"You bet it did. As this and other information came across my desk, it solidified and reinforced the judgments we had reached and my own view of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and I conveyed this view to our nation's leaders.

"Could I have ignored or dismissed such reports at the time? Absolutely not."

But in hindsight, many in the media and on both the right and the left want to pretend that President Bush could have and should have ignored this intelligence. He should have known there were no weapons of mass destruction. He should have known that Saddam Hussein had just spent a dozen years not cooperating with U.N. inspections that could have freed his country and economy from harsh economic sanctions as some kind of joke.

David Kay, who recently quit as head of the Iraqi weapons search, told Tom Brokaw, "Clearly, the intelligence that we went to war on was inaccurate, wrong. We need to understand why that was. I think if anyone was abused by the intelligence it was the president of the United States rather than the other way around."

Not abused, really. But deceived certainly.

"We had a choice," Bush said. "Either take the word of a madman or take action to defend the American people. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time."

The onus should be on dictators who violate international conventions to prove that they pose no threat to other nations, not on leaders of democratic states to find out too late that those dictators posed an imminent one. If the critics of Bush have their way, the next questions being asked by the press may follow a true catastrophe: Why didn't the president know, and why didn't he protect us?


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