TCS Daily

Unraveling the "Secret Agenda"

By Melana Zyla Vickers - July 12, 2004 12:00 AM

The recently released Senate report on intelligence in the Iraq war was greeted with the usual round of nods and grunts arguing the report proves that before the war there was some sort of Svengali in the skunkworks of the Pentagon, someone who might have seduced the nation onto the battlefield with illusory weapons of mass destruction and conjurations of terrorists with links to Saddam Hussein.

The resignation of CIA director George Tenet -- forever to be remembered as the man who told the president that the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "slam-dunk case" -- simply makes the critics more gleeful in their witch-burning.

They've been warming up for months. In April, their hunt took the shape of a page-one New York Times story on the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group. High up, the story cited a single source's charge that the group "had a secret agenda to justify a war with Iraq and was staffed with people who were handpicked by conservative Pentagon policy makers to arrive at preordained conclusions about Iraq and Al Qaeda." That solitary accusation provides the thrust for the whole article.

Before that, counterterrorism official Richard Clarke accused President Bush of being in an Iraq trance immediately after 9/11, walking the halls and muttering to Clarke in an "intimidating" way.

And before Clarke, there was the accusation that the whole administration saw mirages of mass destruction springing up across the Iraqi desert, where sensible people outside the administration clearly saw there were none.

The trouble with all this is the president, the administration and the American people didn't need smoke, mirrors or a Svengali to make or accept the case for war in Iraq. Consider the following:

The Clinton administration and the U.N. linked Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda as far back as 1998: When the Clinton administration bombed a chemical plant in Khartoum, Sudan in 1998, in retaliation for the Africa embassy bombings, both U.N. weapons inspectors and U.S. government officials said that Iraqi weapons scientists worked on the plant. The plant was believed to produce EMPTA, a precursor to the nerve agent VX. An Al Qaeda defector named Jama Ahmad al Fadl testified at his embassy-bombing trial in early 2001 that Al Qaeda used the plant to make chemical weapons. This early Iraq-Al Qaeda link was summarized publicly by Clinton National Security Council staffer Daniel Benjamin in his book The Age of Sacred Terror, and more recently in Slate.

Iraq gave an Al Qaeda leader sanctuary in 2002, a year before the war: Before the war in early 2002, Osama bin Laden associate Abu Musab al Zarqawi fled from Afghanistan to Saddam Hussein's Iraq for medical treatment. In news coverage at the time, he was believed to have been accompanied by a handful of other terrorists. Since the Iraq war, Zarqawi has confirmed his presence in the country, most recently by claiming responsibility for late-April suicide attacks against Iraqi oil terminals that killed three Americans and disrupted oil flows. Earlier, a letter calling for more foreign terrorists to come and join the fight in Iraq was attributed to al Zarqawi. Critics of the Bush administration argue the terrorist presence in Iraq began only after the war. The fact that Zarqawi gained sanctuary there within eight months of 9/11 proves otherwise.

CIA Director Tenet wasn't lying when he called the WMD case "a slam-dunk": In December, 2002, CIA Director Tenet told the president that the intel about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction was "a slam-dunk case," according to Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack. Why Bush critics need a secret chamber of information-cookers in the Pentagon is a mystery, considering the country's top intel man genuinely believed the information they claim to be odious and false.

Both parties in Congress overwhelmingly backed the war: The Senate voted 77-23 to support the war in October 2002, and 97-0 to support continued engagement there in July 2002. Clearly, a majority believed the U.N. findings on a weapons threat, as well as intelligence on the terrorism threat, were great enough to motivate action. To believe otherwise is to conclude that a bunch of seasoned politicians were seduced by lies.

Americans were not tricked into supporting the war in Iraq -- there were strong facts and expert opinions from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as from the U.N., supporting the intervention. Yet the argument that the Bush administration conjured, manipulated and politicized intelligence to generate support for a baseless war is being made more loudly all the time.

The argument is a rewriting of history. It has lingered so long that it has largely discredited the ability of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to provide credible answers in its ongoing probe of what the Bush administration knew, and didn't know, before the Iraq war. The public deserves a full accounting of the issues. But the fact that the committee was heavily cited in the April Times story makes certain members of that committee look determined to draw a "politicized intelligence" conclusion instead of learning the truth.

This sort of slant isn't surprising in an election year. But it's immensely distasteful. What's more, arguing falsely that the Bush team tricked the public into supporting the war, and focusing public attention on that shibboleth, distracts from the real problems the administration faces in Iraq right now.


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