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The Road to Cover-Up is a Road to Ruin

by Senator ROBERT BYRD

 

Last fall, the White House released a national security strategy that called for an end to the doctrines of deterrence and containment that have been a hallmark of American foreign policy for more than half a century.

This new national security strategy is based upon pre-emptive war against those who might threaten our security.

Such a strategy of striking first against possible dangers is heavily reliant upon interpretation of accurate and timely intelligence. If we are going to hit first, based on perceived dangers, the perceptions had better be accurate. If our intelligence is faulty, we may launch pre-emptive wars against countries that do not pose a real threat against us. Or we may overlook countries that do pose real threats to our security, allowing us no chance to pursue diplomatic solutions to stop a crisis before it escalates to war. In either case lives could be needlessly lost. In other words, we had better be certain that we can discern the imminent threats from the false alarms.

Ninety-six days ago [as of June 24], President Bush announced that he had initiated a war to “disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” The President told the world: “Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly–yet, our purpose is sure. The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.” [Address to the Nation, 3/19/03]

The President has since announced that major combat operations concluded on May 1. He said: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Since then, the United States has been recognized by the international community as the occupying power in Iraq. And yet, we have not found any evidence that would confirm the officially stated reason that our country was sent to war; namely, that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction constituted a grave threat to the United States.

We have heard a lot about revisionist history from the White House of late in answer to those who question whether there was a real threat from Iraq. But, it is the President who appears to me to be intent on revising history. There is an abundance of clear and unmistakable evidence that the Administration sought to portray Iraq as a direct and deadly threat to the American people. But there is a great difference between the hand-picked intelligence that was presented by the Administration to Congress and the American people when compared against what we have actually discovered in Iraq. This Congress and the people who sent us here are entitled to an explanation from the Administration.

On January 28, 2003, President Bush said in his State of the Union Address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” [State of the Union, 1/28/03, pg. 7] Yet, according to news reports, the CIA knew that this claim was false as early as March 2002. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency has since discredited this allegation.

On February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council: “Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent. That is enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets.” [Remarks to UN Security Council, 2/5/03, pg. 12] The truth is, to date we have not found any of this material, nor those thousands of rockets loaded with chemical weapons.

On February 8, President Bush told the nation: “We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons–the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have.” [Radio Address, 2/8/03] We are all relieved that such weapons were not used, but it has not yet been explained why the Iraqi army did not use them. Did the Iraqi army flee their positions before chemical weapons could be used? If so, why were the weapons not left behind? Or is it that the army was never issued chemical weapons? We need answers.

On March 16, the Sunday before the war began, in an interview with Tim Russert, Vice President Cheney said that Iraqis want “to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.” He added, “…the vast majority of them would turn on [Saddam Hussein] in in a minute if, in fact, they thought they could do so safely.” [Meet the Press, 3/16/03, pg. 6] But in fact, today Iraqi cities remain in disorder, our troops are under attack, our occupation government lives and works in fortified compounds, and we are still trying to determine the fate of the ousted, murderous dictator.

On March 30, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, during the height of the war, said of the search for weapons of mass destruction: “We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat.” [This Week, 3/30/03, pg. 8] But Baghdad fell to our troops on April 9, and Tikrit on April 14, and the intelligence Secretary Rumsfeld spoke about has not led us to any weapons of mass destruction.

Whether or not intelligence reports were bent, stretched, or massaged to make Iraq look like an imminent threat to the United States, it is clear that the Administration’s rhetoric played upon the well-founded fear of the American public about future acts of terrorism. But, upon close examination, many of these statements have nothing to do with intelligence, because they are at root just sound bites based on conjecture. They are designed to prey on public fear.

The face of Osama bin Laden morphed into that of Saddam Hussein. President Bush carefully blurred these images in his State of the Union Address. Listen to this quote from his State of the Union Address: “Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans–this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.” [State of the Union, 1/28/03, pg. 7] Judging by this speech, not only is the President confusing al Qaeda and Iraq, but he also appears to give a vote of no-confidence to our homeland security efforts. Isn’t the White House, the brains behind the Department of Homeland Security? Isn’t the Administration supposed to be stopping those vials, canisters, and crates from entering our country, rather than trying to scare our fellow citizens half to death about them?

Not only did the Administration warn about more hijackers carrying deadly chemicals, the White House even went so far as to suggest that the time it would take for U.N. inspectors to find solid, ‘smoking gun’ evidence of Saddam’s illegal weapons would put the U.S. at greater risk of a nuclear attack from Iraq. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice was quoted as saying on September 9, 2002, by the Los Angeles Times, “We don’t want the ‘smoking gun’ to be a mushroom cloud.” [Los Angeles Times, “Threat by Iraq Grows, U.S. Says,” 9/9/02] Talk about hype! Mushroom clouds? Where is the evidence for this? There isn’t any.

On September 26, 2002, just two weeks before Congress voted on a resolution to allow the President to invade Iraq, and six weeks before the mid-term elections, President Bush himself built the case that Iraq was plotting to attack the United States. After meeting with members of Congress on that date, the President said: “The danger to our country is grave. The danger to our country is growing. The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons…. The regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile material, could build one within a year.”

These are the President’s words. He said that Saddam Hussein is “seeking a nuclear bomb.” Have we found any evidence to date of this chilling allegation? No.

But, President Bush continued on that autumn day: “The dangers we face will only worsen from month to month and from year to year. To ignore these threats is to encourage them. And when they have fully materialized it may be too late to protect ourselves and our friends and our allies. By then the Iraqi dictator would have the means to terrorize and dominate the region. Each passing day could be the one on which the Iraqi regime gives anthrax or VX–nerve gas–or some day a nuclear weapon to a terrorist ally.” [Rose Garden Remarks, 9/26/02]

And yet, seven weeks after declaring victory in the war against Iraq, we have seen nary a shred of evidence to support his claims of grave dangers, chemical weapons, links to al Qaeda, or nuclear weapons.

Just days before a vote on a resolution that handed the President unprecedented war powers, President Bush stepped up the scare tactics. On October 7, just four days before the October 11 vote in the Senate on the war resolution, the President stated: “We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy–the United States of America. We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade.” President Bush continued: “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses…. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.”

President Bush also elaborated on claims of Iraq’s nuclear program when he said: “The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. Saddam Hussein has held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his ‘nuclear mujahideen’–his nuclear holy warriors…. If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.” [Cincinnati Museum Center, 10/7/02, pg. 3-4]

This is the kind of pumped up intelligence and outrageous rhetoric that were given to the American people to justify war with Iraq. This is the same kind of hyped evidence that was given to Congress to sway its vote for war on October 11, 2002.

We hear some voices say, but why should we care? After all, the United States won the war, didn’t it? Saddam Hussein is no more; he is either dead or on the run. What does it matter if reality does not reveal the same grim picture that was so carefully painted before the war? So what if the menacing characterizations that conjured up visions of mushroom clouds and American cities threatened with deadly germs and chemicals were overdone? So what?

Our sons and daughters who serve in uniform answered a call to duty. They were sent to the hot sands of the Middle East to fight in a war that has already cost the lives of 194 Americans, thousands of innocent civilians, and unknown numbers of Iraqi soldiers. Our troops are still at risk. Hardly a day goes by that there is not another attack on the troops who are trying to restore order to a country teetering on the brink of anarchy. When are they coming home?

The President told the American people that we were compelled to go to war to secure our country from a grave threat. Are we any safer today than we were on March 18, 2003? Our nation has been committed to rebuilding a country ravaged by war and tyranny, and the cost of that task is being paid in blood and treasure every day.

It is in the compelling national interest to examine what we were told about the threat from Iraq. It is in the compelling national interest to know if the intelligence was faulty. It is in the compelling national interest to know if the intelligence was distorted.

Congress must face this issue squarely. Congress should begin immediately an investigation into the intelligence that was presented to the American people about the pre-war estimates of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and the way in which that intelligence might have been misused. This is no time for a timid Congress. We have a responsibility to act in the national interest and protect the American people. We must get to the bottom of this matter.

Although some timorous steps have been taken in the past few days to begin a review of this intelligence–I must watch my terms carefully, for I may be tempted to use the words “investigation” or “inquiry” to describe this review, and those are terms which I am told are not supposed to be used–the proposed measures appear to fall short of what the situation requires. We are already shading our terms about how to describe the proposed review of intelligence: cherry-picking words to give the American people the impression that the government is fully in control of the situation, and that there is no reason to ask tough questions. This is the same problem that got us into this controversy about slanted intelligence reports. Word games. Lots and lots of word games.

Well, this is no game. For the first time in our history, the United States has gone to war because of intelligence reports claiming that a country posed a threat to our nation. Congress should not be content to use standard operating procedures to look into this extraordinary matter. We should accept no substitute for a full, bipartisan investigation by Congress into the issue of our pre-war intelligence on the threat from Iraq and its use.

The purpose of such an investigation is not to play pre-election year politics, nor is it to engage in what some might call “revisionist history.” Rather it is to get at the truth. The longer questions are allowed to fester about what our intelligence knew about Iraq, and when they knew it, the greater the risk that the people–the American people whom we are elected to serve–will lose confidence in our government.

This looming crisis of trust is not limited to the public. Many of my colleagues were willing to trust the Administration and vote to authorize war against Iraq. Many members of this body trusted so much that they gave the President sweeping authority to commence war. As President Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify.” Despite my opposition, the Senate voted to blindly trust the President with unprecedented power to declare war. While the reconstruction continues, so do the questions, and it is time to verify.

I have served the people of West Virginia in Congress for half a century. I have witnessed deceit and scandal, cover up and aftermath. I have seen Presidents of both parties who once enjoyed great popularity among the people leave office in disgrace because they misled the American people. I say to this Administration: do not circle the wagons. Do not discourage the seeking of truth in these matters.

The American people have questions that need to be answered about why we went to war with Iraq. To attempt to deny the relevance of these questions is to trivialize the people’s trust.

The business of intelligence is secretive by necessity, but our government is open by design. We must be straight with the American people. Congress has the obligation to investigate the use of intelligence information by the Administration, in the open, so that the American people can see that those who exercise power, especially the awesome power of preemptive war, must be held accountable. We must not go down the road of cover-up. That is the road to ruin.

Senator Robert C. Byrd represents West Virginia.

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