By ROBERT COLLIER AND ANNA BADKHEN
San Francisco Chronicle
November 21, 2005
As the Bush administration and war critics, most of them Democrats, are engaged in a slashing battle of words over the conflict in Iraq, what the president and his advisers knew and when they knew it have become a domestic second front. In the past week, this verbal battlefield consumed the House of Representatives and stretched across the Pacific to Asia, where President Bush delivered major defenses of his Iraq policies.
Here is a review of the factual basis for some of the White House and Democratic claims:
Claim: Democrats and war critics have long claimed that the administration manipulated intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. In his Veterans Day speech this month, Bush in rebuttal said Democratic leaders "are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs."
Facts: Many of the administration's prewar claims have proved to be false or misleading. Reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee, released in July 2004, and the Silberman-Robb Commission, released in March, came to no firm conclusions about who was at fault, generally blaming the fiasco on sloppy work by CIA analysts. However, neither report attempted to interpret how the administration had used the intelligence or whether it had ignored dissenting views.
This gap caused a major fight on the Senate floor this month, when Democrats complained that the GOP leadership of the Intelligence Committee had quashed a section of the probe that was to cover the administration's prewar use of intelligence on Iraq. Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., finally relented and allowed this second phase to continue; results are not expected to be completed until late next year.
So far, there has been no official attempt to assess why Vice President Dick Cheney, during the run-up to the war, continually made dramatic assertions that - it is now known - had already been discredited by internal intelligence reports. For example, he repeatedly claimed that the Sept. 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi government agents not long before the terrorist attacks, that Iraq had mobile biological weapons laboratories and that Iraq was harboring and training al Qaeda terrorists - claims that had been questioned in numerous CIA memos and later turned out to be false.
The administration's inaccurate claim that Iraq was trying to import yellowcake uranium from Niger has blossomed into a legal nightmare for the administration, as Justice Department special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has indicted Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements. More indictments are possible.
Who knew what?
Claim: The White House has accused Democratic leaders of hypocrisy, saying they had also believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Last week, Cheney said, "There was broad-based bipartisan agreement that Saddam Hussein was a threat ... that he violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and that, in a post-9/11 world, we couldn't afford to take the word of a dictator who had a history of (weapons of mass destruction) programs, who had excluded weapons inspectors ... who had committed mass murder. Those are the facts."
Facts: The White House version is largely correct. Most Democratic leaders don't like to admit it now, but they roundly supported the prewar conventional wisdom that Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear program. From former President Bill Clinton to former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to 2004 presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the consensus was overwhelming - Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
The chorus about Iraq's weaponry was reinforced by the vast majority of think-tank analysts.
"The consensus of the intelligence community was probably the most important factor" in the unanimity about Iraq's possession of weapons, said Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution in Washington, who was an influential voice in the prewar debate. "I was listening to the intelligence analysts. More the fool me, but they were absolutely adamant."
What the vote meant
Claim: The White House says the October 2002 war-powers resolution passed by the House and Senate was essentially a vote on whether to invade Iraq. Democrats say it was merely a vote to give the president increased leverage over Hussein in jockeying over U.N. weapons inspections.
Facts: The White House version is correct. At the time of the vote, it was widely understood that the vote was about whether to invade Iraq.
But from the perspective of the tiny handful of experts who dissented from the conventional wisdom about Iraq's weapons, both Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
"The White House wasn't misleading Congress because Congress was playing the game," said Scott Ritter, the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 through 1998. Ritter was derided by many commentators for his claims in the prewar debate that Iraq did not have any banned weapons.
"It was politically expedient for all," he said. "The problem is that no politician, Republican or Democrat, had the courage to stand up and speak the truth about Iraq, because that would ... not only fly in the face of the American policy of 'regime change,' but also damage them politically because people would say: 'You're supportive of Saddam.' Everybody fell right in line and said: 'Yes, Saddam is a threat,' when they knew there was no information out there to sustain this information."
The same intelligence?
Claim: Democrats had access to the same intelligence about Iraqi weapons that the White House saw.
Facts: The White House version is only partly true. The Democrats had access to final CIA reports assessing Iraqi weapons, but they did not have access to dissenting reports from mid-level intelligence officials that cast cold water on erroneous or exaggerated claims.
Democratic leaders "didn't have the same intelligence by any means, and a lot of these guys look at the press because they have no ability to get classified information," said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector who now is president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
"What the administration did was spin up the information," Albright said. "The White House made it look like (an Iraqi attack with weapons of mass destruction) could happen anytime. ... There was the CIA making mistakes, hyping stuff up, suppressing dissent, belittling dissent; you had the White House exaggerating what the CIA was saying; and you had Kay exaggerating even what the White House was saying," Albright said, referring to former U.N. inspector David Kay, who before the Iraq invasion was a strident pro-war commentator. After the war, Kay headed a CIA team in Iraq searching for the weapons and - when he found none - became an equally strident Bush critic.
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