It seems to me that the public controversy over the WMD issue has gotten considerably off track — in a way that diminishes its overall importance to the country and, incidentally, depreciates our contribution to the debate.
This became clear to me the other evening when I watched a discussion between Senators Richard Lugar and Joseph Biden, senior Republican and Democratic members of the Foreign Relations Committee, respectively. They both agreed that the task of collecting and evaluating intelligence about a subject like WMD was very difficult, but that in the case of Iraq, it really didn’t matter very much whether prohibited weaponry was ever discovered. After all, it was clear that Saddam Hussein was a monster, and that a commendable service was performed by the United States in eliminating him. The rest of the world seems to be concerned that America’s declared reasons for launching a war are turning out to be somewhat dubious, observed both Lugar and Biden, but the important thing is that the American people don’t seem to care very much about that; the great majority feel that the outcome has been a resounding national triumph.
That attitude has contributed to what I see today as a real diversion from the important central issue. The debate has indeed now degenerated almost entirely into a mean-spirited squabble between various bureaucratic elements in Washington over how certain intelligence about Iraq was evaluated, and whether partisan elements might have manipulated the raw intelligence data to support particular policy objectives. On a certain level these are still very legitimate issues that deserve to be investigated with great care. The debate surrounding them has not been irrelevant or without purpose. But that’s not really my point.
Rather, I think the time has come to try to lift the substance of the dialogue to a much higher level. We need to leave behind the haggling over methods and procedures and get back to some very important principles that have been violated.
We might start by reminding our audience that there are several subjects that are NOT germane to the current debate, because they are not questioned by anyone. These include the following:
1. That Saddam Hussein was a vile despot who terrified and enslaved the population of Iraq;
2. That Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, that he used them against his own people, and that he probably would not have hesitated to reconstitute his WMD program at some future date if given the opportunity.
Those subjects should be excluded from the debate entirely.
The issues that are critically important, on the other hand, are these:
1. The Bush Administration declared that it had irrefutable, ironclad proof that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction that posed an imminent threat to the safety and security of the United States, and this claim was used as the justification for launching a preemptive war.
The whole question of whether initiating preemptive military action is appropriate at all for a democracy like ours, under any circumstances, is a subject that deserves much more careful debate on the national level here in the United States than it has received — in terms of its moral justification, its constitutional legitimacy and its practical utility as an instrument of national policy. But on one vital point EVERYONE is already in complete agreement — that preemptive war cannot possibly be considered unless there is compelling evidence of an imminent threat to our national security. Not an unprovoked attack against a POTENTIAL FUTURE threat; not a war based on an intellectual conviction that harm COULD be done to us someday by a particular foreign enemy. Those are ideas that are new and unique to the self-proclaimed “Bush Doctrine”. We are, by our own established moral and legal constraints, limited to launching military attacks ONLY against an enemy who poses an IMMINENT threat to our physical safety and our vital national interests, or who has already committed an act of war against the United States. There has been no national debate in which a change in those long-accepted and time-honored criteria has even been proposed for consideration, much less approved.
Today, it is very clear that no legitimate casus belli existed. In fact, many of the intelligence reports on which this momentous decision was based, and which were used to give that decision a patina of moral justification, were largely unsubstantiated. Some of the intelligence was even based on documentation that was known at the time to have been forged. In other words, it should be acknowledged beyond any question that the claimed “imminent threat to the safety of America” was a complete myth.
2. The main issue, we must conclude, goes far beyond the question of how available information was evaluated and used in making policy decisions. We are not talking just about errors of judgment on the part of earnest and conscientious analysts in Washington, and we are not denigrating the quality of U.S. surveillance technology or challenging the probity of our human intelligence sources. Nor are we limiting our concern to the question of whether or not certain individual officials in the Administration tinkered with the intelligence process to please their bosses or to support partisan political agendas — serious as such corruption would certainly be.
What emerges as beyond dispute is the simple and straightforward reality that a preemptive war was launched on the basis of intelligence information that was represented to the American people and to the world by our leadership as incontrovertible proof of conditions that they must have known perfectly well did not really exist. Thousands died in that war. Immeasurable physical damage was done to an entire nation. A critically important principle of international law was violated and mocked. That was not only dishonest and immoral. It was a crime against those values for which America stands most proud.
Ray Close was a CIA analyst in the Near East division. He is a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.