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One More Bogus Rationale

The Emperor’s New Crumbs

by DAVID J. LEDERMANN

You flip and you flop under the Big White Top
where the long-legged ring-mistress starts and stops.
But you know, after all, the act is wearing thin —
as the crowd grows uneasy and the boos begin.
But you balance your world on the tip of your nose —
you’re a SeaLion with a ball at the carnival.

– Ian Anderson,
"SeaLion" from War Child (Jethro Tull, 1974)

With the recent release of the Iraq Survey Group’s final report on the search for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, the administration and its supporters have rushed to embrace those few crumbs thrown in their direction by ISG head, Charles Duelfer, the special advisor to the Director of Central Intelligence hand-picked for the job by the president. Those crumbs are encapsulated in language probably as favorable to the administration’s position as any by a headline appearing on the Pentagon’s Armed Forces Information Service website on the day of the report’s release, "Saddam Had WMD Ambitions." Duelfer’s paltry leavings, however, principally the report’s indications that Saddam harbored an apparent "intent" to pursue illegal weapons in the future, are not likely to do much to relieve the anguish of Carlos Arredondo, who set himself and a military van ablaze after three uniformed Marine casualty officers arrived at his Florida home bearing news that his 20-year-old son, Alexander, had been killed in Najaf.

Nor are Duelfer’s crumbs likely to temper Sue Niederer’s anger, which last month got her arrested at a campaign event where she interrupted a Laura Bush speech attired in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "President Bush You Killed My Son," 24-year-old Seth Dvorin, who died in Iraq trying to disarm an explosive device along a military supply route. They probably won’t go very far either toward easing the pain of Rosemarie Slavenas, whose son Brian died in Iraq for what his mother called America’s lack of a "civilized foreign policy." Duelfer’s crumbs probably won’t ameliorate the grieving of Ruth and Agustin Lau, parents of 20-year-old Karina, who walked away from a four-year music scholarship to enlist in the Army only to be blown out of the sky by a shoulder-fired missile that took down the transport helicopter starting her toward home from Fallujah for a two-week leave. Nor will they bring back to her husband and family Karen Unruh-Wahrer, dead at 45 of a heart attack suffered just hours after seeing for the first time the lifeless body of her son, Robert, who was killed by enemy fire near Baghdad last month.

For anyone who missed it, the Duelfer report’s central findings were that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 or for most of the 12 years leading up to it and that no such weapons had been produced in Iraq after 1991. By 1996, Iraq had eliminated all of its weapons programs and production capabilities for manufacturing WMDs, and no efforts were ever made to convert so-called "dual use" facilities to weapons manufacture. Through the 1990s and after, Iraq’s nuclear capabilities had deteriorated, not advanced, as the Bush administration had so volubly maintained. Finally, the report concludes that Saddam never attempted to reconstitute his capacity for making illegal weapons.

Duelfer skewered virtually every claim made by the administration in the run-up to war, from tales of chemical and biological weapons stockpiles and aluminum tubes for processing nuclear fuel to horror stories about mobile biological weapons laboratories and attempted purchases by Saddam of nuclear yellowcake. Not only did the Duelfer report demonstrate that there were no illegal weapons, and no "weapons programs," as the original Bush fallback position claimed, but it discredits even the president’s back-up fallback position — his fabulously labored assertion in the 2004 State of the Union Address that Saddam was engaged in "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." Commenting on the report, David Kay, who led the ISG until January of this year and who had by then concluded that no weapons of mass destruction existed, stated that Duelfer’s report flatly repudiated the administration’s pre-war hype and that it showed Saddam "was not an imminent threat." Kay explained that whatever Saddam’s intentions may have been, the report demonstrates that he "had no plans for moving from intent to production."

About the always fanciful notion that the Iraqi government had spirited weapons of mass destruction out of the country without anyone noticing, Kay had this to say on CNN: "Right now we have a lot of people who are desperate to justify the Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq. . . . They will focus on issues such as intent. You will also hear that although we haven’t found the weapons or manufacturing capability, they could have been shipped across the border. You can’t ship that which you haven’t produced. You can’t bury that which you haven’t obtained or produced."

All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion, one most of the world had arrived at before the war began, that the primary justification the administration gave for the invasion of Iraq was without foundation. The Bush team is nothing if not creative, however, and the president came out swinging after the Duelfer report’s release. It seems that rather than undermine the rationale for war, the report actually provides justification for it — though not exactly the justification that had been advertised. For Duelfer had divined Saddam’s intent to someday produce weapons of mass destruction (albeit not, as advertised, to attack the United States or give to terrorists, but as a deterrent, mainly against Iran).

Duelfer’s offerings concerning Saddam’s state of mind, though meager, are worth more than their weight in political gold. Indeed, they may be all that stands between another four years marking the most virulent strain of crony capitalism the country has seen since Warren Harding’s administration and the eviction of George W. Bush from the White House. Those tiny morsels Duelfer left him have over recent days been strung together as a political lifeline for Bush, one to which he and the members of his administration are desperately clinging to maintain their grip on power. Leaving nothing to chance (and certainly nothing to truth or accuracy), the president and his staff are grasping at Duelfer’s crumbs for all they are worth and a whole lot more.

It matters not that the portion of the Duelfer report now being used to rationalize the Iraq invasion is almost purely speculative and appears to have been presented more as a gift to the president that appointed the ISG head than a finding based on solid evidence. As the AP summarized, Duelfer’s team found that "Saddam was particularly concerned about the threat posed by Iran," and the deposed Iraqi ruler said that "he would meet Iran’s threat by any means necessary, which Duelfer understood to mean weapons of mass destruction." It seems then that the most significant "evidence" of Saddam’s intent to pursue illegal weapons consists of an inference drawn by presidential appointee Duelfer from an unspecific and hardly incriminating statement made by Saddam, under interrogation, about his determination to defend his country from a hostile neighbor.

With nothing more alarming than Duelfer’s meditations on Saddam’s presumed intent to justify their war, it obviously wouldn’t do for administration officials to simply recite those portions of the ISG report without adding a little bit of rhetorical gloss. The president did not disappoint when upon the report’s release, he brazenly asserted that Saddam "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction, and he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies." During the second presidential debate two days later, Bush proclaimed that "Saddam Hussein was a threat because he could have given weapons of mass destruction to terrorist enemies," while on the stump, Bush continues to defend the war on the grounds that he acted to prevent the threat of terrorists gaining access to such weapons.

Never mind that the Duelfer report concluded that Saddam had neither the "materials" nor the "means" to produce weapons of mass destruction, much less the ability or the desire to pass them along to terrorists. As even Fox News acknowledged, the ISG report "concludes that Saddam wanted WMDs not to attack the United States or to share them with terrorists, but to deter his old enemies Iran and Israel." This conclusion comes as no surprise, as it mirrors the CIA’s pre-war assessment, ignored by the administration then just as Duelfer’s affirmation of it is now, that even if Saddam possessed illegal weapons, he was unlikely to ever use them against the U.S. or its allies unless they attacked him first.

The president’s misstatements were seconded by Condoleeza Rice, the former Chevron Oil Company director turned National Security Advisor. Before the war, Rice did her level best to panic an apparently insufficiently jittery post-9/11 America by invoking the spectre of a Saddam-configured "mushroom cloud" blossoming any day overhead. Obviously unchastened by having virtually her every public pronouncement for two solid years proven wildly and disastrously off the mark, Rice appeared on the Fox News channel the Sunday following the Duelfer report’s release to declare that Saddam was a "gathering and growing threat," a statement directly contrary to the report’s findings that Saddam represented a diminishing threat through the 1990s and by the time of the American-led invasion in 2003 was no threat at all. Vice-president Cheney, who has distinguished himself in recent months (when not hurling expletives on the Senate floor) by repeating at every opportunity the completely discredited claim that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda, greeted the ISG report with the assertion that it showed that "delay, defer, wait wasn’t an option." Huh?

Bush and his staff appear as nothing so much as textbook examples of the old adage that once you start lying, it’s almost impossible to stop. These folks have been hyping the Iraqi "threat" for over two years now, and with just days remaining in which to solidify or completely lose their grasp on power, the administration’s lying today is as fevered as ever. Anyone inclined to believe that administration officials weren’t deliberately deceiving the public about Iraq before the war need only consider their pronouncements on the ISG report and how much they conflict with the report’s actual contents. It is the same approach the administration took to the pre-war "intelligence" it claimed established Saddam was an "imminent threat" but which for the most part led to the opposite conclusion.

In fact, reliable information discrediting the administration’s claims about Iraqi weapons was substantial and readily available before the war to anyone interested in the truth. During the pre-war period, the administration and the mainstream media trumpeted as established fact the self-serving fabrications of Ahmad Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles in the pay of the U.S. government. While these stories garnered headlines, credibly sourced, and as everyone now knows, entirely accurate, reports contradicting the administration’s claims were appearing in the international press, and less prominently, in U.S. media outlets, as well.

In U.S. mainstream media, reports challenging the administration’s claims tended to appear, if at all, in the back pages of newspapers, and were practically invisible on the broadcast and cable television news programs. Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post described the consistent slant at his paper, which in a belated and half-hearted apology to readers over its lemming-like pre-war performance acknowledged running some 140 front-page stories favorable to the administration’s case for war in the months leading up to the invasion while contrary information "got lost." Conceded Ricks, "’Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why worry about all this contrary stuff?’" The influential New York Times, which probably advanced the case for war more than any news organization in the country with its breathless headlines parroting administration claims, had previously issued a similar apology to its readers.

The fact that John Kerry cited the same intelligence the administration supposedly believed in justifying his own pro-war vote hardly suggests, as Bush has argued, that "everybody" thought Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction. Retired Marine intelligence officer and former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, a Republican and Bush supporter in 2000, certainly thought otherwise, basing his conclusion that Iraq had rid itself of such weapons on seven years of experience on the ground in Iraq seeking evidence of any. Perhaps more telling, the administration created its own intelligence unit, the Office of Special Plans, precisely because of the pervasive doubts about the existence of Iraqi WMDs being expressed by American intelligence professionals in the established agencies. The Office of Special Plans was set up to circumvent the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, which had been insufficiently accommodating in providing the administration the answers it wanted to support its case for war. Among its operations, the Office of Special Plans channeled uncorroborated and mostly false information from paid Iraqi exiles to the vice-president and other administration officials without vetting by professional intelligence analysts. The erroneous information often found its way into the president’s speeches and other administration pronouncements used to sell the public on the necessity of war.

John Kerry’s conduct in relation to the war does not inspire confidence in the Senator’s judgment or his integrity. Prior to the Senate vote on the Iraq war resolution, Kerry actively promoted the ridiculous notion that the Iraqi regime posed a dire threat to the United States, despite the paucity of credible evidence for the proposition. He then feigned surprise that the administration, which had been chomping at the bit for war ever since assuming office, actually went ahead and launched the invasion once it had the Kerry-supported congressional resolution in hand for all the political cover it needed. Viewed from this writer’s perch in Michigan, where gas guzzlers and flag wavers pretty much rule the road yet both our U.S. senators voted against the Iraq war resolution, Kerry looks to be the worst kind of opportunist.

Michigans’ senior senator, Carl Levin, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Hardly anti-military (just last year he was presented the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Navy, its Distinguished Public Servant Award for his "exceptional service to the Navy and Marine Corps"), Levin declared the Iraq war resolution "unacceptable since it empowers the President to initiate the use of U.S. military force although the threat against which it is used is not imminent." John Kerry, on the other hand, spurned this principled stance for the evidently more politically expedient one of avoiding the prospect of being tagged with an "anti-war" label in his anticipated run for the presidency.

Based on presidential appointee Duelfer’s own report, then, the threat from Saddam was that, although disarmed and without any capability or even plans for producing weapons of mass destruction, he presumably would have liked to pursue illegal weapons, not to attack the U.S. or its allies or give to terrorists, but for purposes of self-defense against openly hostile neighbors that already possess such weapons. Understandably eager to change the subject, the administration and its media amen corner have fastened onto those few additional crumbs laid out by Duelfer regarding Saddam’s efforts to game the oil-for-food program and win support for lifting the crippling economic sanctions on Iraq. These efforts, viewed in tandem with Duelfer’s assessment of Saddam’s intentions, have been fashioned into a new rationale for war, that if and when Saddam succeeded in having the sanctions removed, he was going to restart his weapons programs. It evidently doesn’t matter that such a distant, speculative and improbable scenario (especially as the U.S. was committed to having the sanctions stay in place so long as Saddam remained in power) fails by a long shot to constitute grounds for an invasion under the requirements of any "just war" theory one might find, falls well outside the criteria for permissible military action under international law and would have no standing whatsoever as a basis for war in the moral calculus of any normal human being.

The Duelfer report is just one of several recent blows to the administration’s case for war and America’s credibility in the world. Following upon the September 11 commission’s findings that there was "no credible evidence" that Iraq was involved in the attacks of 9/11 and that "no collaborative relationship" had existed between the government of Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, the CIA reported that it could find no conclusive evidence substantiating the administration’s repeated claims that the former Iraqi government had harbored terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. On the contrary, as Reuters reports, before the war al-Zarqawi "was linked to Ansar al-Islam, a militant group operating in Kurdish-held northern Iraq, an area placed beyond Saddam’s control by U.S. air protection since 1991." Which suggests that if the U.S. government were half as serious about fighting terrorism as it is about controlling the Middle East it could have taken out al-Zarqawi long ago without dropping a single bomb on the hapless residents of Baghdad.

But don’t take my word for it. A March 2, 2004 report from NBC News relates three separate missions the U.S. military had planned and was ready to execute against al-Zarqawi well before the Iraq invasion, each of which was scrapped by the administration. The reason the missions were called off, according to NBC, was that while military officials insisted their case for attacking al-Zarqawi’s operations was airtight, "the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam." Evidently, with a prize like Iraq in the offing (one the administration carelessly took to be easy pickings), the "war on terror" could take a back seat for a spell while other time-honored American priorities, like converting oil-rich sovereign nations into colonial outposts for politically connected capital, were attended.

By the time U.S. forces hit al-Zarqawi’s camp at the beginning of the war, as the NBC story laments, "it was too late – Zarqawi and many of his followers were gone." Today, al-Zarqawi is deemed responsible for hundreds of recent killings in Iraq (including murders of kidnapped civilians), has pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and according to a recent Knight Ridder report, has been gaining adherents among Iraqis "outraged over the trail of razed neighborhoods and dead civilians left by the U.S. military’s anti-insurgent offensives." Given the administration’s approach to the problem, the president’s recent statement that he didn’t think the war on terror could be won looks more every day like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Despite the strength of the evidence that the administration deliberately misled the public about the Iraqi "threat" to America, it is clear that no meaningful investigation of the Office of Special Plans, which unlike the professional intelligence agencies operated without congressional oversight, will take place. Neither will the administration’s clear abuse of the intelligence process and the manipulations, exaggerations and distortions of fact by administration officials lead to their prosecution. Over the objections of Senator Levin and others, the Republican controlled Congress, which looked on every perceived transgression by Bill Clinton as an opportunity for a formal inquiry, public hearings and with any luck, impeachment proceedings, has all but completely squelched the possibility of an investigation that might result in embarrassing the president, especially before the election. As things stand, what ought to be the most significant and far-reaching inquiry into executive misconduct in at least a generation is being conducted in secret with Bush partisans in control of the proceedings. Though by most accounts the work of the committee investigating the administration’s handling of pre-war intelligence, begun over a year ago, should only have required a few months to complete, the committee holds a politically calculated mandate not to report its findings until after the November presidential elections.

Having reached Duelfer’s post-war conclusions before the war began, Scott Ritter was lampooned in the American media as an Iraqi dupe. Chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, who argued that the UN inspection process should be given more time, and Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who reported two weeks before the invasion that "we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq," had their competence questioned by administration officials and their reputations impugned by the hooligans of the cable news networks and talk radio. These professionals and others, performing their jobs in the field, employing their expertise with no agenda other than establishing the facts, relentlessly maligned by the administration and its media hatchet wielders, all today are vindicated.

The politicians, with their paid informants and rogue intelligence operations, grandiose ambitions and cowboy swagger, have been proven decisively, conclusively and fatally (for others, that is) wrong. The Bush administration, its public relations machinery and the echo chamber of the Washington press corps embracing and amplifying its every official utterance, manifestly deceived the public. The explanation for why "delay, defer, wait wasn’t an option" appears now obvious, though Hans Blix spelled it out seven months ago when he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer concerning the administration’s brief for war, "I think it’s clear that in March, when the invasion took place, the evidence that had been brought forward was rapidly falling apart." Yet those responsible are not to be held to account.

The establishment media, complicit in advancing the administration’s case for war from the beginning and institutionally incapable of challenging power in any event, greets every new revelation of this administration’s malfeasance with a collective yawn. The Republican congressional majority eagerly and quite openly maneuvers to cover the administration’s tracks. Meanwhile, the "opposition" party leadership, including pro-war representative Dick Gephardt, and the like-minded Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, hide in the shadows as Bush’s co-conspirators.

The ball of state legitimacy is being spun as perhaps never before. Bush needs only to keep the beaten and deflated thing afloat a few more days to the election. Concerning which, probably nothing speaks more clearly of the rot at the core of the republic and the corrupted state of our democratic institutions than the fact that this president, who took the country into a disastrous and illegal war on utterly false pretenses, instead of being forced to resign in disgrace or face impeachment, is as likely as not to be rewarded for his crimes with a second term in office.

DAVID J. LEDERMANN is a Detroit-area tax attorney and writer. He can be reached at: djledermann@hotmail.com