The Great Bait-and-Switch

The latest Bush administration spin on the war is that they got the intelligence “wrong.” The administration is passing the blame on to the CIA and the rest of the nation’s intelligence apparatus for supposedly feeding them bad information about the WMD threat. In other words, we fought the wrong war because the President listened to the spooks, and we therefore need to start an “independent commission” to study intelligence agency failings.

Don’t buy this latest bait-and-switch game from the administration. The truth is that the administration completely disregarded the consensus conclusion of the intelligence community on the most important aspect of threat assessment: ties between al Qaeda and Iraq. Intelligence was right on the money with its assessment of al Qaeda ties.

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the consensus estimate of major U.S. intelligence agencies such as the military, CIA, NSA and State Department, reported to the President that there was no tangible evidence of links. The Washington Post on June 22, 2003 summarized the classified NIE study: “While Bush also spoke of Iraq and al Qaeda having had ‘high-level contacts that go back a decade,’ the president did not say ¾ as the classified intelligence report asserted ¾ that the contacts occurred in the early 1990s, when Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader, was living in Sudan and his organization was in its infancy.” The NIE concluded no hard evidence linked the Hussein regime with al Qaeda. “[T]he report’s conclusion [was] that those early contacts had not led to any known continuing high-level relationships between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda,” the Post explained. Former State Department intelligence official Greg Thielmann summarized the non-threat for the July 12, 2003 Boston Globe. ”There was no significant pattern of cooperation between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist operation.”

And British intelligence, considered to be such a reliable source when President Bush made public addresses on Iraq’s supposed uranium purchases from Africa, had also concluded there were no al Qaeda ties. “His [Bin Laden’s] aims are in ideological conflict with present day Iraq,” proclaimed a British Intelligence dossier on the topic, as cited in the BBC on February 5, 2003.

Even the United Nations managed to come to the same conclusion: “We have never had information presented to us-even though we’ve asked questions-which would indicate that there is a direct link [between al Qaeda and Iraq],” Michael Chandler, chief UN investigator of al Qaeda, told the June 27, 2003 New York Times.

Despite the wide consensus of the U.S. and foreign intelligence community, the Bush administration pushed on with unequivocal allegations of supposed ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Bush stated flatly in a major address on Oct. 7, 2002 that:

We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.”

But now … well, we don’t really “know.”

“There is not — you know, I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection,” Secretary of State Colin Powell fumbled out in a Jan. 8 press conference, adding a little administration spin on the 180-degree reversal: “but I think the possibility of such connections did exist and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did.”

Of course, President Bush and the rest of his lackeys did not talk about “possibilities” in their public addresses before the war; they told the American people “we know.” And they said this despite the consensus that our intelligence agencies had concluded there weren’t any ties.

So how can the administration blame bad intelligence for the war?

While the administration definitely exaggerated the progress of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in their public addresses, the far more important administration scandal is the utterly false allegations of al Qaeda ties. Why? Because most Americans who eventually consented to the war did so because they were spoon-fed the nightmare of Iraqi-armed al Qaeda terrorists detonating nuclear, biological and chemical weapons over American cities.

President Bush summarized the emotional appeal that made the war against Iraq acceptable in that same Oct. 7, 2002 speech: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” The fact that his administration faced no clear evidence of peril had no impact on the unsuspecting public, because they had no way of knowing Bush was lying. Though Saddam Hussein’s regime did not possess the capability to deliver WMDs to American targets, al Qaeda proved capable of striking American targets on 9/11.

Opponents of the war have been asking “Where are the WMDs?” for months now, but it isn’t getting them anywhere. And it isn’t going to get them anywhere, because it was not an unreasonable to assume that Iraq held chemical weapons. Hussein’s regime unquestionably possessed them and used them in the past, and American intelligence was sketchy on WMDs. That doesn’t justify the war, but many Americans won’t question the justification of the war simply because of missing WMDs.

Unless the al Qaeda tie is cut. Here the intelligence was clear, and the administration disregarded it entirely. Here the administration manufactured false intelligence, such as a mythical meeting between an Iraqi official and an al Qaeda operative in Prague. Here the administration blamed Hussein for al Qaeda training that took place outside of his political control, as they did in the case of the al Qaeda camp in the Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq (which was being patrolled by U.S. jets!).

The Bush inquiry on intelligence “failures” is the great bait-and-switch of his administration. Anti-war activists need to realize that the amount of WMDs actually possessed by Saddam Hussein is inconsequential to most people. As long as the false belief that Hussein was arming al Qaeda persists, the war will be justified in the eyes of many Americans. But exposing the al Qaeda lie will discredit the whole premise for the war. No al Qaeda, no threat. No threat, no justification for war. No justification for war, and the Bush Administration will pay a just price for its unprovoked war of aggression that has needlessly cost the lives of more than 500 Americans.

Is there a better way to “support the troops” than to expose this lie?

Thomas R. Eddlem is a native of the Boston area of Massachusetts and a graduate of Stonehill College. He is currently the editor for two community newspapers south of Boston, and is a frequent contributor to The New American magazine.