Quick! Anyone! Who can put the brakes on Vice President Dick Cheney before we have another war on our hands? Current and former intelligence analysts are reacting with wonderment and apprehension to his remarks last week in an interview with Don Imus. Cheney made questionable claims about Iran’s nuclear program and resuscitated his spinning on why attacking Iraq was the prudent thing to do.
There he goes again, they say trifling with the truth on Iraq and now taking off after Iran. Does he really have the temerity to reach into the same bag of tricks used to convince most Americans that Iraq was an immediate nuclear threat? Will his distinctive mix of truculence and contempt for the truth succeed in rationalizing attacks against Iran on grounds that U.S. intelligence may have underestimated the progress in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program 15 year ago?
At this point, the focus is no longer on the bogus WMD rationale used to promote the attack on Iraq, intelligence analysts say. It’s the claims the vice president is now making regarding Iran’s nuclear capability and, given the deliberate distortions on Iraq, whether anyone should believe him.
Appearing January 20 on MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning, Cheney warned that Iran has "a fairly robust new nuclear program." And besides, it sponsors terrorism. Sound familiar?
In a not-so-subtle attempt to raise the alarm on Iran, the vice president adduced his favorite analogy the one he used in 2002 to beat intelligence analysts into submission in conjuring up phantom weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Cheney continues to underscore his claim that before the Gulf War in 1991, U.S. intelligence had erred in assessing how close Iraq was to having a nuclear weapon:
"We found out after we got into Iraq [in 1991], in fact, that he [Saddam Hussein] probably was less than a year away from having a nuclear weapon … the intelligence community had underestimated how robust his nuclear program was."
That "Robust" Word Again
Forget the fact that few nuclear engineers agree on that time frame. The question is what relevance Cheney’s claim has for today. In view of the evolving debate on how "robust" Iran’s nuclear program is, we are sure to be hearing more from the vice president on this subject in the months ahead. How much credence are we to put in what he says?
With the final report on the search for Iraqi WMD now delivered, Cheney is still trying to exculpate himself from his false claims about Iraq’s nuclear capability by equating Iraq’s nuclear posture before 1991 with its much weaker capability in the months preceding the U.S./UK attack in March 2003.
Needed: Enriched Uranium
For Iraq to possess the nuclear weapons program Cheney claimed it had in March 2003, it needed first and foremost highly enriched uranium. But events in the 1990s had eviscerated its capacity to obtain it. After the 1991 Gulf War, all highly enriched uranium was removed from Iraq. UN inspectors destroyed Iraq’s centrifuge and isotope-separation programs. And from 1991 on, Iraq was subjected to an intrusive arms embargo and sanctions regime, which made it much more difficult than during the pre-Gulf War years to import material for a nuclear weapons program.
Thus, for Cheney to invoke what Iraq may have been capable of doing in 1991 and apply that to the very different situation in Iraq in 2002 is, at best, disingenuous. There are huge differences between the situations in 1991 and 2002. In 2002, the Iraqis lacked highly enriched uranium and the necessary infrastructure. American inspectors working for the UN team knew that and reported it from their hands-on experience in early 2003.
Chutzpah, Confidence, Naiveté: A Noxious Mix
Cheney’s chutzpah on this key issue has been particularly striking. On March 16, 2003, just three days before the war, he zoomed far beyond the evidence in telling NBC’s Meet the Press, "We believe he [Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." Asked about ElBaradei’s report just nine days before that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program, Cheney said, "I disagree. … I think Mr. ElBaradei is frankly wrong."
"How did they ever think they could get away with it I mean using forgery, hyperbole, half-truth, malleable house-engineers, and carefully rehearsed émigrés?" asked a government scientist. Well, remember his March 16, 2003 remarks on NBC’s Meet the Press just before the war?
"We will be greeted as liberators … the people of Iraq will welcome us as liberators."
The administration’s reasoning, it seems clear, went like this: We’ll use the forged documents on Iraq seeking uranium in Niger and the strained argument that those famous aluminum tubes were destined for centrifuge application, and that will be enough to get Congress to go along. The war will be a cakewalk. We’ll depose a hated dictator and be hailed as liberators. We’ll become the dominant world power in that part of the world and, with an infrastructure of permanent military bases in Iraq, we’ll be able to make our influence felt on the disposition of oil in the whole region. Not incidentally, we will be in position to prevent any possible threat to Israel. At that point, then, tell me: Who is going to make a ruckus over the fact that we used a little forgery, hyperbole, and half-truth along the way?
And so, our Congress was successfully conned into precipitous action to meet a nonexistent threat. We deposed Saddam and occupied the country. Everything fell into place. But the Iraqis missed their cue and failed to welcome our troops as liberators. All this brings to mind the old saying, "There is no such thing as a perfect crime."
Concern, Pressure From Abroad
At this point, British officials, who have had a front-row seat for all this, are worried that Cheney is now driving administration policy on Iran, according to a recent article in The Times of London. Adding to London’s concern is the fact that the Pentagon seems to be relying heavily on "alarmingly inconclusive" satellite imagery of Iranian installations.
(For those of you who missed it, please know that since 1996, analysis of satellite imagery has been performed in the Department of Defense, not by CIA analysts, as had been the case before. As you can imagine, this has made it much easier for the Pentagon to come up with the desired "supporting evidence" than was the case in the days when CIA had that portfolio and imagery analysts were encouraged to "tell it like it is.")
Complicating the Iranian nuclear issue still more is Israel’s hard-nosed attitude. Its defense minister has warned, "Under no circumstances would Israel be able to tolerate nuclear weapons in Iranian possession."
The British are well advised to worry, given the appeal that preemption holds for our vice president and president. In his Aug. 26, 2002 speech, Cheney also became the first senior U.S. official publicly to refer approvingly to Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. (In a rare instance of U.S. willingness to criticize Israel at the UN, Washington had joined other Security Council members in unanimously condemning Israel’s preemptive attack. And, as far as I know, that remains the official U.S. position.)
Cheney and Israel
Cheney, nonetheless, has done little to disguise his admiration for Israel’s policy of preemption. Ten years after the attack on Osirak, then-Defense Secretary Cheney reportedly gave Israeli Maj. Gen. David Ivri, then the commander of the Israeli Air Force, a satellite photo of the Iraqi nuclear reactor destroyed by U.S.-built Israeli aircraft. On the photo Cheney penned, "Thanks for the outstanding job on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981."
Looking again at the Cheney-Imus dialogue last week, Cheney, after expressing deep concern over Iran’s "fairly robust new nuclear program," repeated basically what Condoleezza Rice had said earlier in the week "Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel." Imus then brought up the subject of preempting Iran, asking, "Why don’t we make Israel do it?"
Cheney’s response should give all of us pause:
"Well, one of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant capability, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."
The vice president’s nonchalance betrays the apparent equanimity with which he regards such a possibility. His words are bound to endear him further with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but the tone, as well as the words, are poison to 1.3 billion Muslims.
Someone needs to tell Cheney that "diplomatic mess" trivializes the lasting damage to the United States that such an attack would inevitably bring. Not only can his attitude be read as a green light for Israeli preemption, but it would undoubtedly be read as proof of U.S. complicity, should the Israelis attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. And the queues at al-Qaeda recruiting stations already lengthened by Abu Ghraib and Fallujah would now stretch out longer than the lines at the polls in the minority precincts of Ohio.
And so we are back to the key question: Can anyone put the brakes on the vice president? It would normally be the job of CIA analysts to point out to the president and his senior advisors the manifold problems that would accrue from an Israeli attack (or, worse still) a U.S., or joint U.S.-Israeli, attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. But Seymour Hersh’s recent report that the White House is weeding out the apostates from the true believers among CIA analysts, together with the current dearth of courage in senior Agency ranks, suggest that those remaining analysts who still subscribe to the old Agency ethos of speaking truth to power will continue to choose to resign and look for honest work.
This will leave the field to the kind of "slam dunk" sycophants who conjured up "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq and then passed their reporting off as intelligence analysis. What can we expect of them this time on Iran?