Picking up the gauntlet thrown down by the United Nations, Iraq has wrapped it in 12,000 pages and thrown it back with the thud of a Sunday newspaper at the White House door. Intelligence now moves to center stage.
President Bush’s dilemma was crystal clear when Gen. Amir al-Saadi, an advisor to Saddam Hussein, defended Iraq’s declaration that it has no weapons of mass destruction. On Sunday, Al-Saadi challenged the United States to ”forthwith come up with anything to the contrary” and give it to U.N. inspectors.
Administration officials are likely to keep reciting the mantra that ”the burden of proof is on the Iraqis,” but the Bush team now faces irresistible pressure to release the incriminating evidence it says it has against Iraq.
This mounting challenge was foreshadowed last week when chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix asserted that now is the time ”for those who say they have evidence to put this evidence on the table.” Reflecting Blix’s scarcely concealed impatience, one of his deputies suggested that it would be more helpful if the United States shared with U.N. inspectors whatever leads it might have, rather than sit back and bad mouth the inspection process.
A defensive tone echoed through presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer’s protest last week that President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would not have asserted that Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction ”if they did not have a solid basis for saying it.” Perhaps the prodding by several senators will help pry loose what evidence there is and shed light on why the Bush team has been so reluctant to share it.
While tight-lipped on any specific evidence, the administration has kept up a steady drumbeat of warnings of Iraqi perfidy. Just two days before Iraq delivered its declaration, Rumsfeld voiced his expectation that Hussein will “continue to lie and deceive and deny.”
The drumbeat aside, statements by U.S. officials on and off the record do not inspire confidence in the persuasiveness of the U.S. case against Iraq. Administration officials are now telling the press that there is no single piece of evidence to undermine the Iraqi declaration. Instead, they are relying on ”patterns of Iraqi purchases and scattered reports of defectors,” as well as Hussein’s history of deceit.
Nor was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz entirely convincing in responding to NATO ambassadors last week, when he likened the evidence to pornography: “I can’t define it, but I will know it when I see it.”
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s frantic search for new Iraqi scientist-defectors is another sign that the U.S. case is not airtight. Why is the Bush team pushing so hard for new defectors if it already has ”solid evidence” against Iraq?
Rumsfeld’s penchant for hyperbole is winning few converts. His claim that evidence of close coordination between Iraq and al Qaeda is ”bulletproof,” for example, has made him the laughing stock in Washington.
Less amusing is the fact that the president’s closest advisors have him regurgitating ”intelligence” markedly out of sync with the CIA. For example, Bush’s suggestion on Oct. 7 that Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon ”in less than a year” is at odds with the formal estimate of the entire intelligence community that Iraq cannot do so until the last half of the decade, at the earliest.
When U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., was in Iraq last fall, he was asked on camera whether he thought the president would mislead the American people. I could almost hear a collective gasp go up from the TV rooms of my flag-bedecked neighborhood.
McDermott responded calmly that presidential lying to justify making war has bipartisan precedent. He used the example of Lyndon Johnson’s lying about the second ”firefight” in the Gulf of Tonkin, the gullibility of Congress and the disaster that ensued.
In the coming days, the Bush team will no doubt adduce evidence of Iraqi noncompliance with the latest U.N. resolution. But caveat emptor. The honest-broker intelligence role played in past crises by the CIA has been appropriated by the Department of Defense.
Rumsfeld has consolidated his control over imagery intelligence and defector debriefings. He is likely to have a free hand in selecting, shaping and presenting the intelligence — unless CIA Director George Tenet asserts his statutory prerogative as chief foreign intelligence advisor to the president. The country will be well served if Tenet has the courage to do his job and “tell it like it is.”
… Ray McGovern, a former Army intelligence officer and CIA analyst, is co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an inner-city outreach ministry in Washington.