Round 4: Wehner vs. Corn on Bush and the Iraq War

Published March 26, 2010

Politics Daily

As readers of Politics Daily are aware, David Corn and I have gone back and forth with one another on whether President Bush lied us into the Iraq war. The whole exchange was triggered by something I wrote here, which actually had nothing to do with the reasons we went to war. But my piece led to this , this , and this.

In his most recent column on the subject, Corn went after me, my former White House colleague Karl Rove, and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat for daring to challenge the “Bush lied” mantra. Corn lists what he thinks is the strongest evidence to prove Bush lied — and he issued this challenge: “I dare any of them to attempt a line-by-line response.”

Since both Karl and Ross are busy with far more important things, I'll gladly take up Corn's challenge — and add some further points of my own.

A careful analysis of several of these charges will reveal, I think, how remarkably weak and misleading is the case that supposedly “proves” George W. Bush took America to war based on a pack of lies. For more, read on. (Because of the unusual length of this response, I'm dealing with just five of Corn's main charges.)

1. David Corn claims this:

During an Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, Bush said that U.N. inspectors had “concluded” that Iraq in the 1990s had actually produced “two to four times” the 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents than it had acknowledged making. Bush continued: “This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, and capable of killing millions.” But U.N. inspectors had concluded no such thing. They had reported destroying key facilities Iraq had used to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The inspectors had encountered discrepancies in the accounting of Iraq's weapons and WMD material and had noted that Iraq could have produced more weapons than the inspectors had uncovered. Bush was misstating the facts to turn a possible stockpile of WMD into an actual arsenal. [emphasis added]

Now let's see what President Bush really said:

In 1995, after several years of deceit by the Iraqi regime, the head of Iraq's military industries defected. It was then that the regime was forced to admit that it had produced more than 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents. The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount. This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for and [is] capable of killing millions. [emphasis added]

Note what is being done here. Corn takes Bush's description of U.N. inspectors' conclusions that Iraq had “likely produced” biological weapons and warps it into a contention that Iraq in the 1990s had “actually produced” biological weapons. President Bush correctly reported an element of uncertainty in the U.N. inspectors' reports; David Corn dropped it. I wonder why.

Moreover, and in full context, it is clear that Bush was accurately reporting the U.N. inspectors' inability to verify Saddam's claims that he had destroyed his biological weapons (BW) stockpiles, after Saddam had been lying about them for years.

Here is what the UNSCOM inspectors concluded in one of their final reports:

4.10.4 Iraq claims that the BW programme was obliterated in 1991 as demonstrated by the unilateral destruction of the weapons deployed, bulk agent and some documents associated with the BW programme. Iraq, however, retained the facilities, growth media, equipment and groupings of core technical personnel at Al Hakam, and continued to deny the BW programme's existence. In spite of Iraq's continued denial of the preservation of its BW programme, the Government of Iraq has yet to offer documentation of its formal renunciation. The head of the Iraqi delegation took the position that he could offer no defence to justify the concealment and deception prior to 1995. These positions and acts raise serious doubts about Iraq's assertion that the BW programme was truly obliterated in 1991. 5.2 Iraq's FFCD [UN mandated declaration] is judged to be incomplete and inadequate. The information presented by Iraq does not provide the basis for the formulation of a material balance or a determination of the structure and organisation of the BW programme. This is required for effective monitoring of Iraq's dual capable facilities. 5.3 The construction of a material balance, based primarily on recollection, provides no confidence that resources such as weapons, bulk agents, bulk media and seed stocks, have been eliminated. 5.4 The organisational aspects of the BW programme are not clear and there is little confidence that the full scope of the BW programme is revealed. Additional aspects, such as the existence of dormant or additional BW programmes, remain unresolved.

For those not familiar with U.N.-speak, the report could hardly be more damning. Saddam denied for years that he possessed a biological weapons program. Confronted with overwhelming evidence that he was lying, he grudgingly made incomplete, inadequate, and inaccurate declarations. Hence, much deadly material remained unaccounted for.

2. Corn makes this charge:

At a Sept. 7, 2002, joint news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Bush declared that a 1998 International Atomic Energy Agency report had found that Iraq had been “six months away from developing a [nuclear] weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need.” One problem: There was no such IAEA report. In 1998, the IAEA actually had reported there were “no indications” that Iraq was producing nuclear weapons. Bush wasn't citing bad intelligence. He had concocted a nonexistent report to bolster the case for war.

Here is the relevant portion of the press conference transcript to which Corn is referring:

Tony Blair, British Prime Minister: The point that I would emphasize to you, is that the threat from Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological, potentially nuclear weapons capability — that threat is real. We only need to look at the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency this morning, showing what has been going on at the former nuclear weapon sites to realize that.

And the policy of inaction is not a policy we can responsibly subscribe to. So the purpose of our discussion today is to work out the right strategy for dealing with this. Because deal with it we must.

Q: Mr. President, can you tell us what conclusive evidence of any nuclear
— new evidence you have of nuclear weapons capabilities of Saddam Hussein?

President Bush: We just heard the Prime Minister talk about the new report. I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied — finally denied access, a report came out of the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need.

Blair: Absolutely right. And what we know from what has been going on there for a long period of time is
not just the chemical, biological weapons capability. But we know that they were trying to develop nuclear weapons capability. And the importance of this morning's report, is that it yet again shows that there is a real issue that has to be tackled here. There are several things to note here. Contrary to Corn's claim, Bush did not “declare” that a “1998 International Atomic Energy Agency report” had found that Iraq had been six months away from developing a nuclear weapons. In fact, Bush never mentioned 1998; what happened is that some reporters (and Corn) wrongly jumped to the conclusion that he meant a 1998 report because that was the year that Saddam expelled IAEA inspectors. The White House press secretary later clarified that Bush was referring to earlier revelations about Iraq's “crash program” to build nuclear weapons that came to light after the first Gulf War. And that made some sense. The crash program was intended to produce a weapon within six months, but the United States unwittingly hampered the effort with its bombing campaign. Nonetheless, when the program was revealed after the war, IAEA inspectors were shocked by how close Iraq had come to acquiring a weapon.

Here is how PBS's Frontline web page described Saddam's progress:

In summary, the IAEA report says that following the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq launched a “crash program” to develop a nuclear weapon quickly by extracting weapons grade material from safe-guarded research reactor fuel. This project, if it had continued uninterrupted by the war, might have succeeded in producing a deliverable weapon by the end of 1992.

David Albright, who investigated Iraq's nuclear weapons program after the first Gulf War and was an IAEA inspector, put it this way:

The goal was to execute this plan and build a nuclear weapon within six months, although by the time of the Allied bombing campaign in mid-January 1991, which stopped the effort, Iraq had fallen several months behind and was unlikely to finish a nuclear explosive device until at least the following summer or the end of the year. A nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile would have taken significantly longer, according to Action Team assessments supported by member states.

Richard Butler, the former head of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), said this:

Saddam has sought nuclear weapons for some two decades. Ten years ago he intensified his efforts, instituting a “crash program.” The Gulf War put an end to this. Subsequent inspection and analysis by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UNSCOM, showed that in spite of relatively deficient indigenous sources of the fissionable material needed to make a nuclear weapon, Saddam's program was as close as six months from yielding a bomb.

I could go on, but the point is clear: Bush did not “lie” and he did not fabricate the fact that in the early 1990s Saddam had been quite close to developing a nuclear weapon and that UN inspectors had reported this to the world. The case against Bush boils down to the fact that there was not an IAEA report that said Iraq was six months from a bomb the year the inspectors were expelled; Bush's statement was based instead on a series of statements by UNSCOM and IAEA officials who said Saddam might have been only six months away from developing a nuclear weapon, though it might have taken Iraq months longer. To David Corn, this qualifies as a “willful campaign of misrepresentation and hyperbole.” I will leave it to discerning readers to determine whether this description better fits Bush or Corn himself.

3. Corn asserts this:

Bush and his aides repeatedly asserted Iraq was loaded with chemical weapons. In a Rose Garden speech on Sept. 26, 2002, Bush insisted that “the Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons. The Iraqi regime is building the facilities necessary to make more biological and chemical weapons.” Yet a September 2002 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which was widely distributed to government policymakers, said, “There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons, or where Iraq has — or will — establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities.”

Here, Corn is quoting Bush correctly. But Bush's assessment is not surprising, since it is very similar to what the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) said on the matter:

We assess that Baghdad has begun renewed production of mustard, sarin, GF (cyclosarin), and VX [chemical weapons agents]; its capability is more limited now than it was at the time of the Gulf war, although VX production and agent storage life probably have been improved.

We judge that all key aspects — R&D, production, and weaponization — of Iraq's offensive BW program are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf war.

Nor is it surprising that Bush would have used language completely consistent with the conclusions of the NIE; after all, the Intelligence Community findings on Iraq had been remarkably consistent over the years (that ultimately was part of the problem), in administrations both Democratic and Republican.

Here is how George Tenet, who served both Presidents Clinton and Bush as CIA director, described the intelligence:

The [October 2002 Iraq WMD] NIE demonstrates consistency in our judgments over many years and are based on a decade's worth of work. Intelligence is an iterative process and as new evidence becomes available we constantly reevaluate.

Corn seems to believe that any intelligence report that reinforces his views and is different than, or later superseded by, the NIE — and if it is not mentioned by the president — is proof positive of a massive fabrication campaign. So, for instance, Corn points to a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report that he considers inconsistent with the NIE (and which pre-dated the NIE report) because it asserts, “There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons or whether Iraq has — or will — establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities.”

Yet Corn omits the fact that the DIA report went on to say that Iraq “probably possesses bulk chemical stockpiles, primarily containing precursors, but that also could consist of some mustard agent or stabilized VX.” It also says that Iraq seemed to be “distributing CW munitions” in mid-2002, that it “retains all the chemicals and equipment” to produce mustard gas (although not the more advanced G- and V-series nerve agents), and that it is “steadily establishing a dual-use industrial chemical infrastructure” that could be used to make more chemical weapons. And Corn ignores the DIA report's conclusions: “DIA stands solidly behind the Intelligence Community's assessment that [as of 2002] Iraq had an on-going chemical weapons program that was in violation of United Nations sanctions.”

Moreover, Corn never mentions that Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said his agency concurred with the intelligence community consensus that
Iraq had a program for weapons of mass destruction. Jacoby said that even though DIA “could not specifically pin down individual facilities operating as part of the weapons of mass destruction programs, specifically the chemical warfare portion,” the agency believed nonetheless that such a program was “part of the Iraqi WMD infrastructure.”

No fair-minded person could read both the NIE and the DIA reports and conclude Bush was lying.

4. Corn raises the issue of Saddam's acquisition of aluminum tubes as evidence of Vice President Cheney telling a lie, when Cheney cited the matter as evidence of Saddam's nuclear intentions. While there is no doubt that this issue represents one of the most egregious failings of the intelligence community, the NIE is clear in articulating a majority view of the relevance of the aluminum tubes to Saddam's nuclear program:

Most agencies believe that Saddam's personal interest in and Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotors — as well as Iraq's attempts to acquire magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools — provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment program. (DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is underway but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.)

In addition, the Silberman-Robb Commission found:

The Intelligence Community's judgment about Iraq's nuclear program hinged chiefly on an assessment about Iraq's intended use for high-strength aluminum tubes it was seeking to procure. Most of the agencies in the Intelligence Community erroneously concluded these tubes were intended for use in centrifuges in a nuclear program rather than in conventional rockets. This error was, at the bottom, the result of poor analytical tradecraft – namely, the failure to do proper technical analysis informed by thorough knowledge of the relevant weapons technology and practices.

What we once again see is a persistent habit by Corn. It goes like this: President Bush and Vice President Cheney must side with dissenting views over the mainstream conclusions in an NIE report or risk being called a liar.

Here it's worth stepping back for a moment. The National Intelligence Estimates are the product of a rigorous deliberative process including all intelligence agencies. They are obviously fallible; the actual Iraqi stockpile was far smaller and the actual Iraqi programs far less advanced than the NIE judged them to be in 2002. Still, the NIEs are the U.S. Intelligence Community's most authoritative judgment about matters vital to national security and every president has to take their findings quite seriously.

Corn repeatedly rests his case on the argument that President Bush should have rejected the consensus view produced by the NIE process because of a dissenting view held by one or two offices. Whether or not this is a wise practice — and as a general matter, it's not; few intelligence reports represent a universal consensus, and the NIE (especially pre-Iraq war) was considered the gold standard of intelligence products — how is the failure to do so a lie?

One other remark on this item: Corn suggests that the dissenting voices Cheney should have heeded were those of “scientists at the Department of Energy” who disagreed with the NIE conclusions about the purpose of the aluminum tubes. But Corn doesn't note that the Department of Energy actually agreed that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program; the department simply argued that the tubes were probably not part of the program.

5. Corn asserts that Bush lied by saying that “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”

By this, Bush meant chemical and biological weapons. And here again, the NIE was emphatic: “We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs…Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons.”

The British government issued an unclassified white paper that was largely consistent with those conclusions. Other governments, too, supplied information to the United States regarding reportedly ongoing Iraqi WMD programs. There were, in fact, few doubters among governments or other experts (pro- or anti-Iraq war). In short, Bush's statement is unremarkable, given the intelligence reports he received and the prevailing wisdom.

* * * *

There are several additional points worth making in the context of this discussion.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a Democratic member (and later chairman) of the Select Committee on Intelligence, declared in 2002 that Iraq posed an “imminent threat” to America. In June 2008, however, he issued a report asserting, Corn-like, that “In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent.”

Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post (which endorsed both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004), eviscerated the Rockefeller report, saying:

But dive into Rockefeller's report, in search of where exactly President Bush lied about what his intelligence agencies were telling him about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and you may be surprised by what you find.

On Iraq's nuclear weapons program? The president's statements “were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates.”

On biological weapons, production capability and those infamous mobile laboratories? The president's statements “were substantiated by intelligence information.”

On chemical weapons, then? “Substantiated by intelligence information.”

On weapons of mass destruction overall (a separate section of the intelligence committee report)? “Generally substantiated by intelligence information.” Delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles? “Generally substantiated by available intelligence.” Unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to deliver WMDs? “Generally substantiated by intelligence information.”

As you read through the report, you begin to think maybe you've mistakenly picked up the minority dissent. But, no, this is the Rockefeller indictment.

The Rockefeller indictment, like the Corn indictment, simply dissolves upon inspection.

Nor does Corn ever note that the NIE told policy makers that any gaps in information or uncertainty about it probably led to underestimating the WMD threat posed by Saddam. The NIE reported:

We judge that we are seeing only a portion of Iraq's WMD efforts, owing to Baghdad's vigorous denial and deception efforts. Revelations after the Gulf war starkly demonstrate the extensive efforts undertaken by Iraq to deny information. We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs.

Corn — if his critique were intellectually honest — would, in addition to accusing Bush of lying, have to expand his list to include a boatload of Democrats whose pre-war comments were if anything less qualified than what Bush said. (Notice the number of times the locution “There is no doubt” and “We know” and “We have known” appear.)

For example, Sen. Bob Graham, who in the aftermath of 9/11 was cha
irman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, organized a letter warning President Bush, “There is no doubt that… Saddam Hussein has invigorated his weapons programs. Reports indicate that biological, chemical and nuclear programs continue apace and may be back to pre-Gulf War status.” Similar comments were made by Sen. Rockefeller and Jane Harman, then the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Former Vice President Al Gore claimed, “We know that [Saddam Hussein] has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country.” Gore added this: “Iraq's search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to deter and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power.”

Sen. Ted Kennedy, who opposed the Use of Force Resolution, still insisted, “We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction.”

Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton put it this way:

In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members …. It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.

The list of emphatic statements by Democratic lawmakers about Saddam's WMD program goes on, and on, and on. But wait — there's more.

The list of those who claimed Saddam Hussein has WMD also includes leading political figures from around the world — the prime ministers of Britain, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain and the president of the Czech Republic, for instance. Even foreign governments that opposed the removal of Saddam Hussein from power believed that Iraq had and could readily produce WMD. For example, on February 5, 2003, French Foreign Minister Dominique De Villepin said this :

Right now, our attention has to be focused as a priority on the biological and chemical domains. It is there that our presumptions about Iraq are the most significant: regarding the chemical domain, we have evidence of its capacity to produce VX and yperite; in the biological domain, the evidence suggests the possible possession of significant stocks of anthrax and botulism toxin, and a possibility of a production capability.

For Corn's conspiracy theory to be true, then, it must not only be interRepublican, intergovernmental, and international in its reach and scope; it must very nearly be intergalactic.

One last point needs to be made on all of this: David Corn is strangely resistant to placing any of the blame for the Iraq war on Saddam Hussein, who after all was engaged in a massive, deliberate concealment effort, one that was in violation of agreements to which he was party, and mandates of the United Nations Security Council. Why the reluctance to place appropriate responsibility on one of the most sadistic rulers in modern times? Why does Saddam get a pass? Why do the words “Saddam Hussein lied” not pass the lips of David Corn more often (if at all)? And why the obsession with ascribing blame to President Bush — particularly when, as we have seen, the charges against Bush are discrediting to those who make them?

It is impossible to know the answer to these questions. But this whole “Bush lied” enterprise, in addition to damaging the reputation of those who have engaged in it, has done considerable harm to our country. Propagating fantastic conspiracy theories, sowing unnecessary seeds of distrust and division, and allowing ideology to fan a burning hatred for an American president, often does.

The truth is troubling enough. There were serious intelligence gaps that we failed to find before the war. Some claims — by Bush administration officials as well as by leading Democrats and leaders of other nations — were made with too much certainty. And as I have written multiple times in the past, there were serious mistakes in the conduct of the war prior to the new counterinsurgency strategy being announced in January 2007. I have no interest in whitewashing history. But it is long past time that critics of the Iraq war stop willfully and deceptively twisting history to serve their own partisan ends.

Corn ends his piece by saying, “Bush, Cheney, and other administration aides engaged in reckless disregard of the truth to sell a war.” That claim, as we have seen, is false. But it does raise a counter-question: What are we to make of those who engage in a reckless disregard of the truth because they opposed a war?

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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