The Washington Post had an editorial yesterday suggesting that it is difficult to say whether President George W. Bush “lied” about Iraq’s possession of WMD, which has become “an article of faith” among many Americans. The author, Fred Hiatt, limits his criticism of Cheney and others in the administration to the severe understatement that they “spoke with too much certainty at times”.
Hiatt then writes that if you “dive into” the recently released Senate Select Committee on Intelligence “Phase II” report on pre-war intelligence on Iraq’s WMD “in search of where exactly President Bush lied about what his intelligence agencies were telling him”, then you “may be surprised by what you find.”
He quotes the report as saying that statements made by Bush were supported by the available intelligence:
On Iraq’s nuclear weapons program? The president’s statements “were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates.”
On biological weapons, production capability and those infamous mobile laboratories? The president’s statements “were substantiated by intelligence information?”
On chemical weapons, then? “Substantiated by intelligence information.”
On weapons of mass destruction overall (a separate section of the intelligence committee report)? “Generally substantiated by intelligence information.” Delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles? “Generally substantiated by available intelligence.” Unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to deliver WMDs? “Generally substantiated by intelligence information.”
Let’s examine the matter for ourselves. And since Hiatt focuses on Bush himself, let’s do the same, ignoring statements from Cheney and other high level administration officials for the moment.
On Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, the report notes, Bush claimed that Iraq “retains physical infrastructure needed to build a nuclear weapon.” This statement was not supported by the available intelligence, but was contradicted by it. The best intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear program was open-source: the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had “destroyed, removed or rendered harmless all Iraqi facilities and equipment relevant to nuclear weapons production” by as early as 1992. In 1998, the IAEA was “confident that we had not missed any significant component of Iraq’s nuclear programme.”
Bush claimed that “The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.” There was no credible evidence that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. The intelligence suggesting this might possibly be the case was circumstantial at best.
To support his claim that “the smoking gun” that Iraq might have a nuclear weapon “could come in the form of a mushroom cloud”, Bush claimed that “Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.” This statement was not substantiated by intelligence information. It was contradicted by the known facts about the tubes, which were not suitable for use in centrifuges but were perfectly suitable for use in an existing conventional rocket system, as noted by not only the US’s top experts on centrifuges at the Department of Energy, but also by some of the world’s leading scientists at he IAEA.
Bush claimed that “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” But the British government hadn’t “learned” that. It was not a fact. In fact, the “intelligence” supporting this claim was so dubious, the CIA had warned the British government about including it in the white paper Bush was referring to. The only evidence ever produced to support this claim were documents that proved to be forgeries.
On nuclear weapons, Hiatt quotes the conclusion as saying that administration claims “were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates,” but leaves off the end of the same sentence, which continues, “but did not convey the substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community.” In other words, they stated as fact that which the intelligence community had not reported as such. In other words, their statements were not substantiated by the intelligence community.
This, of course, appears to contradict the part of the conclusion quoted by Hiatt, unless one looks closely at the caveats. First, the word “generally”. All this means is that if an administration official made ten statements on Iraq with regard to its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, perhaps only one or two were not substantiated by intelligence community estimates.
Next, “estimates”. Intelligence community “estimates”, such as the key judgments of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, are just that: estimates, judgments. A synonym for “judgment” is “opinion”. Facts are facts. But judgments may be well or poorly made. The CIA, as we know, made many poor judgments, claims that were not supported by the intelligence.
One might be tempted, then, to blame the CIA, to propagate the myth of “intelligence failure”. But this would be fallacious for two reasons. One, statements by members of the Bush administration shouldn’t be compared to other opinions, even if they come from the CIA, but to the available evidence. And the fact is that there was no credible evidence to support their statements in Iraq’s WMD. At best, then, administration claims matched poor CIA judgments for which there was no credible supporting evidence.
Two, administration statements went beyond parroting poor, unsubstantiated judgments from the CIA. And it went beyond not merely noting “disagreements” within the intelligence community. Take the aluminum tubes, which the administration stated as fact were for use in a nuclear weapons program. As already noted, the nation’s top experts on centrifuges had arrived at a different conclusion, and said so in numerous intelligence reports. The State Department agreed with the DOE assessment, which was the same conclusion on the tubes arrived at by the experts at the IAEA. The 2002 NIE noted the fact that the best experts to make a reasonable judgment on the tubes disagreed (“dissented”) with the CIA’s poor judgment. And yet the administration still stated as fact that which was contradicted by the best intelligence and the most credible estimates available.
Repeating this experiment with statements on chemical and biological weapons produces the same results, but it’s superfluous to continue. Given above are clear, solid examples of statements from President Bush which were not supported by any credible evidence.
The SSCI “Phase II” report’s conclusions thus contradict its own findings. After all, the report’s mandate, as reflected in its title, wasn’t to investigate whether administration statements were supported by intelligence community “estimates”, but whether their statements “Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information” itself (emphasis added). And in this regard, their statements were, to borrow the report’s own caveat, “generally” unsubstantiated. In fact, they were near totally unsubstantiated within this, the proper framework.
The definition of the verb to “lie”, according to Webster’s dictionary, is “making untrue statements with intent to deceive” or “creating a false or misleading impression”. That Bush and others in his administration lied isn’t an “article of faith”, but a demonstrable fact.
And by the same standard, neither the members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence nor Fred Hiatt are being too honest, either.
Fred Hiatt, “‘Bush Lied’? If Only It Were That Simple.” The Washington Post, June 9, 2008; A17
Report on Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information”, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, June 2008