As reality intrudes upon the myth-laden arguments for war in Iraq, a strange proxy war has erupted between the White House and Washington’s intelligence community. That conflict could determine the outcome of next year’s Presidential election and the future security of the United States.
The latest salvo landed on Sunday, Oct. 26, when the administration suffered a front-page humiliation in The Washington Post .
Citing internal records and interviews with members of the Iraq Survey Group, the special C.I.A.-led team of military experts dispatched to find Saddam Hussein’s forbidden weapons, The Post ‘s Barton Gellman reported that investigators have reached a devastating conclusion: “Although Hussein did not relinquish his nuclear ambitions or technical records … it is now clear he had no active program to build a weapon, produce its key materials or obtain the technology he needed for either.”
Moreover, added Mr. Gellman, it is now also clear that “Iraq’s nuclear weapons scientists did no significant arms-related work after 1991, that facilities with suspicious new construction proved benign, and that equipment of potential use to a nuclear program remained under seal or in civilian industrial use.”
The Post report also reveals that those famous Iraqi aluminum tubes, emphasized by Colin Powell during his war speech at the U.N. Security Council, could never have been used in a uranium-enrichment centrifuge. Australian Brigadier General Stephen D. Meekin, a top defense-intelligence official who commands the largest unit in the Iraq Study Group, told Mr. Gellman that the tubes were “innocuous” items of no use in building nuclear bombs. He speculated that since the war’s end, most of them had likely been sold as “drain pipes.”
In short, despite all the ominous blather about “mushroom clouds” emanating from the highest ranks of the U.S. government, this administration’s own investigators have established that the Iraqi nuclear program was dismantled after the first Gulf War-just as the United Nations inspectors and the Iraqis themselves insisted last December.
As significant as the facts adduced in the Sunday Post article was its sourcing: The intelligence agents in the Iraq Study Group don’t appear to be following the lead of their boss, David Kay, who has vainly sought to bolster the White House position. The investigators who spoke with Mr. Gellman and leaked documents to him seem to be doing their best to undermine the administration.
If so, they are only responding in kind to attacks on their agency from the White House, which would like to hang the intelligence fiasco on the C.I.A. Shifting blame to the intelligence services also seems to be the objective of Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. On Oct. 24, Mr. Roberts said his committee’s investigation had found that “the executive was ill-served by the intelligence community.”
The following day, three former C.I.A. officers shot back on behalf of their colleagues during a public hearing and press conference called by the Senate Democratic leadership. What Vincent Cannistraro, Larry Johnson and Jim Marcinowski said got little attention from the mainstream media. They described an ongoing clandestine war between the intelligence services and the Bush administration over Iraq.
As explained by Mr. Cannistraro, who served as the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism chief, “We had a pattern of pressure directed at C.I.A. analysts for a long period of time, beginning almost immediately after Sept. 11 …. The pressure was directed at providing supporting data for the belief that Saddam Hussein was, one, linked to global terrorism and, two, was a clear danger not only to his neighbors but to the United States of America.”
That pressure came directly from Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, during repeated visits to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va.
The Beltway warfare escalated dramatically when former Ambassador Joseph Wilson exposed the hollowness of the administration’s claims about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium “yellowcake” from Niger-and persons unknown responded last July by outing his wife, Valerie Plame, as a C.I.A. officer.
Still angry, Mr. Cannistraro told the Senators that the unknown administration officials who committed that “dirty trick” did so not only to “undermine and trash Ambassador Wilson, but to demonstrate their contempt for C.I.A. by bringing Valerie’s name into it.”
Mr. Johnson expressed the bitterness felt by many in the intelligence community toward this President, whose father’s name adorns their Langley headquarters. “We’re all Republicans. We all voted for Bush. And we all contributed funds to him,” he said. But after the assault on the Wilsons and the C.I.A., he believes “there are some bullies in this administration, and the essence of being a bully is being a coward. And I expect President Bush-having voted for him, I expected something different from him.”
All those disappointed patriots know much more than they have yet disclosed. But then, the election year has yet to begin.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.