Bush's "needless war"
Accusing the president of "pure, unadulterated fear-mongering," Sen. Edward Kennedy delivers a scathing indictment of the administration's case for invading Iraq.

Editor's note: Following are prepared remarks for a speech by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on March 5.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

March 6, 2004  |  Thank you, Glenn Kessler, for that generous introduction. As you all know, Glenn does an outstanding job covering diplomacy and foreign policy for The Washington Post.

It's a privilege to be here today with the Council on Foreign Relations. The Council and its members have a distinguished record of notable contributions to the national debate over the years. On the most important foreign policy issues confronting our nation and the world, the Council is at the forefront. Your views and analyses are more important than ever today, as America tries to find its way in this vastly transformed modern world.

The nation is engaged in a major ongoing debate about why America went to war in Iraq, when Iraq was not an imminent threat, had no nuclear weapons, no persuasive links to Al Qaeda, no connection to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Over two centuries ago, John Adams spoke eloquently about the need to let facts and evidence guide actions and policies. He said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Listen to those words again, and you can hear John Adams speaking to us now about Iraq. "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

Tragically, in making the decision to go to war in Iraq, the Bush administration allowed its wishes, its inclinations, and its passions to alter the state of facts and the evidence of the threat we faced from Iraq.

A month ago, in an address at Georgetown University, CIA Director George Tenet discussed the strengths and flaws in the intelligence on Iraq. Tenet testified to several Senate and House committees on these issues, and next Tuesday, he will come before our Senate Armed Services Committee. He will have an opportunity to explain why he waited until last month to publicly state the facts and evidence on these fundamental questions, and why he was so silent when it mattered most -- in the days and months leading up to the war.

If he feels that the White House altered the facts, or misused the intelligence, or ignored it and relied on dubious sources in the Iraqi exile community, Tenet should say so, and say it plainly.

It is not sufficient for Tenet to say only, as he did last week to the Senate Intelligence Committee, that we must be patient. When he was appointed Director of Central Intelligence in 1997, Tenet said to President Clinton, " ... I have believed that you ... and the vice president must be provided with ... complete and objective intelligence. ... We must always be straight and tell you the facts as we know them." The American people and our men and women serving in Iraq deserve the facts and they deserve answers now.

The rushed decision to invade Iraq cannot all be blamed on flawed intelligence. If we view these events simply as an intelligence failure -- rather than a larger failure of decision-making and leadership -- we will learn the wrong lessons.

The more we find out, the clearer it becomes that any failure in the intelligence itself is dwarfed by the administration's manipulation of the intelligence in making the case for war. Specific warnings from the intelligence community were consistently ignored as the administration rushed toward war.

We now know that from the moment President Bush took office, Iraq was given high priority as unfinished business from the first Bush administration.

According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's account in Ron Suskind's book, "The Price of Loyalty," Iraq was on the agenda at the very first meeting of the National Security Council, just 10 days after President Bush's inauguration in 2001. At that meeting, the president quickly -- and wrongly -- concluded that the U.S. could not do much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said we should "pull out of that situation," and then turned to a discussion of "how Iraq is destabilizing the region."

Secretary O'Neill remembers, "Getting Hussein was now the administration's focus. From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country. And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of It -- the president saying, 'Fine. Go find me a way to do this.'"

By the end of February 2001, the talk on Iraq was mostly about how -- and how quickly -- to get rid of Saddam Hussein. President Bush was clearly frustrated with what the intelligence community was providing. According to Secretary O'Neill, on May 16, 2001, he and the other principals of the National Security Council met with the president to discuss the Middle East. Tenet presented his intelligence report, and told the president that it was still only speculation whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, or was even starting a program to build such weapons.

Secretary O'Neill says, "Everything Tenet sent up to Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney about Iraq was very judicious and precisely qualified. The president was clearly very interested in weapons or weapons programs -- and frustrated about our weak intelligence capability -- but Tenet was clearly being careful to say, here's the little that we know and the great deal that we don't. That wouldn't change, and I read those CIA reports for two years," said O'Neill.

Then came 9/11. In the months that followed, the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden had obvious priority. Al Qaeda was clearly the most imminent threat to our national security. In fact, in his testimony to Congress in February 2001, one month after President Bush's inauguration and seven months before 9/11, Tenet had said, "Osama bin Laden and his global network of lieutenants and associates remain the most immediate and serious threat." That testimony emphasized the clear danger of bin Laden in light of the specific attacks in previous years on American citizens and American institutions.

In February 2002, five months after 9/11, Tenet testified, "Last year, I told you that Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network were the most immediate and serious threat this country faced. This remains true despite the progress we have made in Afghanistan and in disrupting the network elsewhere."

Even during the buildup to the war in Iraq, in February 2003, Tenet again testified, "The threat from al Qaeda remains. ... We place no limitations on our expectations on what al Qaeda might do to survive. ... Al Qaeda is living in the expectation of resuming the offensive."

In his testimony last week to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Tenet repeated his earlier warnings. He said again that Al Qaeda is not defeated and that "We are still at war. ... This is a learning organization that remains committed to attacking the United States, its friends and allies."

Tenet never used that kind of strong language to describe the threat from Iraq. Yet despite all the clear and consistent warnings about Al Qaeda, by the summer of 2002, President Bush was ready for war with Iraq. The war in Afghanistan was no longer in the headlines or at the center of attention. Bin Laden was hard to find, the economy was in trouble, and so was the president's approval rating in the polls.

[White House political adviser] Karl Rove had tipped his hand earlier by stating that the war on terrorism could bring political benefits as well. The president's undeniable goal was to convince the American people that war was necessary -- and necessary soon, because soon-to-be-acquired nuclear weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein could easily be handed off to terrorists.

This conclusion was not supported by the facts, but the intelligence could be retrofitted to support it. Greg Thielmann, former director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, put it bluntly last July. He said, "Some of the fault lies with the performance of the intelligence community, but most of it lies with the way senior officials misused the information they were provided." He said, "They surveyed the data, and picked out what they liked. The whole thing was bizarre. The secretary of defense had this huge Defense Intelligence Agency, and he went around it." Thielmann also said, "This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude, its top-down use of intelligence: we know the answers; give us the intelligence to support those answers. ... Going down the list of administration deficiencies, or distortions, one has to talk about, first and foremost, the nuclear threat being hyped," he said.

David Albright, the former weapons inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency, put it this way: "Leaders will use worst-case assessments that point to nuclear weapons to generate political support because they know people fear nuclear weapons so much."

Even though they make semantic denials, there is no doubt that senior administration officials were suggesting the threat from Iraq was imminent.

At a roundtable discussion with European journalists last month, Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld insisted, "I never said imminent threat." In fact, Secretary Rumsfeld had told the House Armed Services Committee on September 18, 2002, " ... Some have argued that the nuclear threat from Iraq is not imminent -- that Saddam is at least 5-7 years away from having nuclear weapons. I would not be so certain."

In February 2003, with war only weeks away, then Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked why NATO allies should support Turkey's request for military assistance against Iraq. His clear response was, "This is about an imminent threat."

In May 2003, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked whether we went to war, "because we said WMD [weapons of mass destruction] were a direct and imminent threat to the United States." Fleischer responded, "Absolutely."

What else could National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have been suggesting, other than an imminent threat -- an extremely imminent threat -- when she said on September 8, 2002, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

President Bush himself may not have used the word "imminent," but he carefully chose strong and loaded words about the nature of the threat -- words that the intelligence community never used -- to persuade and prepare the nation to go to war against Iraq.

In the Rose Garden on October 2, 2002, as Congress was preparing to vote on authorizing the war, the president said the Iraqi regime "is a threat of unique urgency."

In a speech in Cincinnati on October 7, President Bush echoed Condoleezza Rice's image of nuclear devastation: "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."

At a political appearance in New Mexico on October 28, 2002, after Congress had voted to authorize war, and a week before the election, President Bush said Iraq is a "real and dangerous threat."

At a NATO summit on November 20, 2002, President Bush said Iraq posed a "unique and urgent threat."

In Fort Hood, Texas, on January 3, 2003, President Bush called the Iraqi regime a "grave threat."

Nuclear weapons. Mushroom cloud. Unique and urgent threat. Real and dangerous threat. Grave threat. This was the administration's rallying cry for war. But those were not the words of the intelligence community. The community recognized that Saddam was a threat, but it never suggested the threat was imminent, or immediate, or urgent.

In his speech last month at Georgetown, CIA Director Tenet stated that, despite attempts to acquire a nuclear capability, Saddam was many years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Tenet's precise words were: "We said Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon, and probably would have been unable to make one until 2007 to 2009."

The acquisition of enough nuclear material is an extremely difficult task for a country seeking nuclear weapons. Tenet bluntly stated that the intelligence community had "detected no such acquisition" by Saddam. The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate also outlined the disagreement in the intelligence community over whether the notorious aluminum tubes [Iraq had tried to import] were intended for nuclear weapons or not.

Tenet clearly distanced himself from the administration's statements about the urgency of the threat from Iraq in his speech at Georgetown. But he stopped short of saying the administration distorted the intelligence or relied on other sources to make the case for war. He said he only gave the president the CIA's daily assessment of the intelligence, and the rest he did not know.

Tenet needs to explain to Congress and the country why he waited until last month -- nearly a year after the war started -- to set the record straight. Intelligence analysts had long been frustrated about the way intelligence was being misused to justify war. In February 2003, an official described the feelings of some analysts in the intelligence agencies to The New York Times, saying, "I think there is also a sense of disappointment with the community's leadership that they are not standing up for them at a time when the intelligence is obviously being politicized."

Why wasn't CIA Director Tenet correcting the president and the vice president and the secretary of defense a year ago, when it could have made a difference, when it could have prevented a needless war, when it could have saved so many lives?

It was Vice President Cheney who first laid out the trumped up argument for war with Iraq to an unsuspecting public. In a speech on August 26, 2002, to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he asserted, " ... We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. ... Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." As we now know, the intelligence community was far from certain. Yet the vice president had been convinced.

On September 8, 2002, Cheney was even more emphatic about Saddam. He said, "[We] do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon." The intelligence community was deeply divided about the aluminum tubes, but Cheney was absolutely certain.

Where was the CIA Director when the vice president was going nuclear about Saddam going nuclear? Did Tenet fail to convince the policymakers to cool their overheated rhetoric? Did he even try to convince them?

One month later, on the eve of the watershed vote by Congress to authorize the war, President Bush said it even more vividly. He said, "Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes ... which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. 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. And if we allow that to happen, a terrible line would be crossed ... Saddam Hussein would be in a position to pass nuclear technology to terrorists."

In fact, as we now know, the intelligence community was far from unified on Iraq's nuclear threat. The administration attempted to conceal that fact by classifying the information and the dissents within the intelligence community until after the war, even while making dramatic and excessive public statements about the immediacy of the danger.

In a February 2004 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst who supported the war, said, " ... Time after time senior administration officials discussed only the worst case and least likely scenario, and failed to mention the intelligence community's most likely scenario." In a January interview, Pollack added, "Only the administration has access to all the information available to various agencies of the U.S. government -- and withholding or downplaying some of that information for its own purposes is a betrayal of that responsibility."

In October 2002, the intelligence agencies jointly issued a National Intelligence Estimate stating that "most agencies" believed that Iraq had restarted its nuclear program after inspectors left in 1998, and that, if left unchecked, Iraq "probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade." The State Department's intelligence bureau, however, said the "available evidence" was inadequate to support that judgment. It refused to predict when "Iraq could acquire a nuclear device or weapon."

The National Intelligence Estimate cited a foreign government report that, as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of nuclear material to Iraq. The estimate also said, "Reports indicate that Iraq has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo." The State Department's intelligence bureau, however, responded that claims of Iraq seeking to purchase nuclear material from Africa were "highly dubious." The CIA sent two memos to the White House stressing strong doubts about those claims.

But the following January, the president included the claims about Africa in his State of the Union Address, and conspicuously cited the British government as the source of that intelligence.

Information about nuclear weapons was not the only intelligence distorted by the administration. On the question of whether Iraq was pursuing a chemical weapons program, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded in September 2002 that "there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or where Iraq has -- or will -- establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities."

That same month, however, Secretary Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Saddam has chemical-weapons stockpiles. He said that "we do know that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction," that Saddam "has amassed large clandestine stocks of chemical weapons," that "he has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons," and that Iraq has "active chemical, biological and nuclear programs." He was wrong on all counts.

Yet the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate actually quantified the size of the stockpiles, finding that "although we have little specific information on Iraq's CW [chemical weapon] stockpile, Saddam probably has stocked at least 100 metric tons and possibly as much as 500 metric tons of CW agents -- much of it added in the last year." In his speech at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, Secretary of State [Colin] Powell went further, calling the 100-500 metric ton stockpile a "conservative estimate."

Secretary Rumsfeld made an even more explicit assertion in his March 30, 2003, interview on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." When asked about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, he said, "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat."

The second major claim in the administration's case for war was the linkage between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Significantly here as well, the Intelligence Estimate did not find a cooperative relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. On the contrary, it stated only that such a relationship might happen if Saddam were "sufficiently desperate" -- in other words, if America went to war. But the estimate placed "low confidence" that, even in desperation, Saddam would give weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda.

A year before the war began, senior al Qaeda leaders themselves had rejected a link with Saddam. The New York Times reported last June that a top al Qaeda planner and recruiter captured in March 2002 told his questioners last year that "the idea of working with Mr. Hussein's government had been discussed among al Qaeda leaders, but Osama bin Laden had rejected such proposals." According to the Times, an al Qaeda chief of operations had also told interrogators that the group did not work with Saddam.

Mel Goodman, a CIA analyst for 20 years, put it bluntly: "Saddam Hussein and bin Laden were enemies. Bin Laden considered and said that Saddam was the socialist infidel. These were very different kinds of individuals competing for power in their own way and Saddam Hussein made very sure that al Qaeda couldn't function in Iraq."

In February 2003, investigators at the FBI told The New York Times they were baffled by the administration's insistence on a solid link between al Qaeda and Iraq. One investigator said, "We've been looking at this hard for more than a year and you know what, we just don't think it's there."

But President Bush was not deterred. He was relentless in using America's fears after the devastating 9/11 tragedy. He drew a clear link -- and drew it repeatedly -- between Al Qaeda and Saddam.

In a September 25, 2002, statement at the White House, President Bush flatly declared, "You can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror."

In his State of the Union Address in January 2003, President Bush said, "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda," and that he could provide "lethal viruses" to a "shadowy terrorist network."

Two weeks later, in his radio address to the nation, a month before the war began, President Bush described the ties in detail, saying, "Saddam Hussein has longstanding, direct, and continuing ties to terrorist networks ... "

He said, "Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s. Iraq has sent bomb-making and document-forgery experts to work with al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training. An al Qaeda operative was sent to Iraq several times in the late 1990s for help in acquiring poisons and gases. We also know that Iraq is harboring a terrorist network headed by a senior al Qaeda terrorist planner. This network runs a poison and explosive training camp in northeast Iraq, and many of its leaders are known to be in Baghdad."

In fact, there was no operational link and no clear and persuasive pattern of ties between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda. That fact should have been abundantly clear to the president. Iraq and al Qaeda had diametrically opposing views of the world.

In the march to war, the president exaggerated the threat anyway. It was not subtle. It was not nuanced. It was pure, unadulterated fear-mongering, based on a devious strategy to convince the American people that Saddam's ability to provide nuclear weapons to al Qaeda justified immediate war.

Why would the administration go to such lengths to go to war? Was it trying to change the subject from its failed economic policy, the corporate scandals, and its failed effort to capture Osama bin Laden? The only imminent threat was the November congressional election. The politics of the election trumped the stubborn facts.

Early in the Bush administration, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill had raised concerns about politics pervading the process in the White House. Comparing the Bush administration and previous Republican administrations, he said, referring to Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and [adviser] Karen Hughes, "The biggest difference ... is that our group was mostly about evidence and analysis -- and Karl, Dick, Karen, and the gang seemed to be mostly about politics."

In the late winter and early spring of 2002, in the aftermath of the Enron and other corporate scandals, as Ron Suskind, the author of the O'Neill book wrote, " ... Rove told numerous administration officials that the poll data was definitive: the scandals were hurting the president, a cloud in an otherwise blue sky for the soaring, post-Afghanistan Bush."

The evidence so far leads to only one conclusion. What happened was not merely a failure of intelligence, but the result of manipulation and distortion of the intelligence and selective use of unreliable intelligence to justify a decision to go to war. The administration had made up its mind, and would not let stubborn facts stand in the way.

Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, a recently retired Air Force intelligence officer who served in the Pentagon during the buildup to the war, said, "It wasn't intelligence -- it was propaganda ... they'd take a little bit of intelligence, cherry pick it, make it sound much more exciting, usually by taking it out of context, usually by juxtaposition of two pieces of information that don't belong together."

As it now appears, the Iraqi expatriates who had close ties to the Pentagon and were so eager for the war may well have been the source of the hyped intelligence. They have even begun to brag about it.

The Pentagon's favorite Iraqi dissident, Ahmad Chalabi, is actually proud of what happened. "We are heroes in error," Chalabi recently said. "As far as we're concerned, we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We're ready to fall on our swords, if he wants."

Our men and women in uniform are still paying with their lives for this misguided war in Iraq. CIA Director Tenet could perform no greater service to the armed forces, to the American people, and to our country, than to set the record straight, and state unequivocally what is so clearly the truth: the Bush Administration misrepresented the facts to justify the war.

America went to war in Iraq because President Bush insisted that nuclear weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein and his ties to Al Qaeda were too dangerous to ignore. Congress never would have voted to authorize the war if we had known the facts.

The Bush administration is obviously digging in its heels against any further serious investigation of the reasons we went to war. The administration's highest priority is to prevent any more additional stubborn facts about this fateful issue from coming to light before the election in November.

This debate will go on anyway in Congress and in communities across the country. The most important decision any president makes is the decision on war or peace. No president who misleads the country on the need for war deserves to be reelected. A president who does so must be held accountable. The last thing our nation needs is a sign on the desk in the Oval Office in the White House that says, "The buck doesn't stop here anymore." Thank you very much.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Sound Off
Send us a Letter to the Editor

Salon.com >>
 



Salon  Search  About Salon  Table Talk  Advertise in Salon  Investor Relations


News & Politics | Opinion | Tech & Business | Arts & Entertainment
Indie film | Books | Life | Sex | Comics | Audio | Dialogue
Letters | Columnists | Salon Gear


Reproduction of material from any Salon pages without written permission is strictly prohibited
Copyright 2004 Salon.com
Salon, 22 4th Street, 16th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103
Telephone 415 645-9200 | Fax 415 645-9204
E-mail | Salon.com Privacy Policy | Terms of Service