Just a Spoonful of Anthrax

In his State of the Union address President Bush did his best to foster this subliminal linkage, asking us to “imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans—this time armed by Saddam Hussein.” This followed a sentence about chemical agents and lethal viruses.

The supreme irony is that the specter the president raises is much more likely to become real if the US launches war against Iraq. Such is the considered judgment of the US intelligence community provided in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee on October 7, 2002:

“Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or chemical/biological warfare against the United States. Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions. Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a weapons-of-mass-destruction attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.”

But what about nuclear weapons? Didn’t the president warn last fall that Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon in less than a year?

He did. But apparently his staff has since reminded him of the formal judgment of his own intelligence community, the British, and others that Iraq will not be able to do so until the end of the decade—if then. And the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency reported last week that his inspectors “have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapon program since the elimination of the program in the 1990’s.”

The lack of a persuasive casus belli does not bother the Bush administration, since Congress has already given the president carte blanche to make war and few in Congress are inclined to insist on an answer to why Iraq poses an imminent “grave threat to the United States.” With the spotlight turning this week to the United Nations, administration officials are happy to be able to focus debate more narrowly on UN resolutions.

That Iraq is in violation of Resolution 1441 is as easy to prove as, say, that Israel is in violation of Resolution 242 of 1967 requiring Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab territories. But the case for an imminent attack on Iraq as the preferred solution is far more difficult to build. That is why the Western alliance is more deeply split now than at any time since World War II.

In making its case for war, one of the hurdles the administration faces is, ironically, a function of the wide intelligence sharing arrangements already in place with major allies. This has made it more difficult to manipulate intelligence reporting for political purposes. If there are major surprises in the evidence that Secretary Powell lays before the UN Security Council on Wednesday, our major allies are likely to be more inclined toward skepticism than credulity.

That the best intelligence cannot be shared without jeopardizing “sources and methods” is a red herring. The best intelligence is regularly shared with minimal danger of compromise. In the case of satellite imagery, for example, it is no secret that technology is available to automatically alter the resolution and conceal other parameters before sensitive imagery is passed to those not cleared for the original.

Rather, it is a safe bet that the administration’s main reason for withholding intelligence information on Iraq is that so much of it is so elusive and inconclusive. Perhaps the most revealing recent comment on this came last week from Republican Senator Pat Roberts, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee who described the administration’s case as “compelling but circumstantial—the transportation of ‘X,’ delivered to a shed where ‘Y’ is thought to be happening.” Compelling?

Highly disturbing are the eerie parallels with our country’s misguided slide into Vietnam. Military historian H. R. McMaster has observed that former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s arrogance and disregard for military experience and for history led him to draw principally from his civilian staff in the Department of Defense. This, of course, helped lead to tragedy in Vietnam, as McNamara has since openly acknowledged (“We were wrong, terribly wrong.”)

Against that background retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s deep misgivings over the wisdom of attacking Iraq and his undisguised disdain for Rumsfeld acquire additional resonance.

Armitage should know better. His spoonful of anthrax may help blacken Iraq by innuendo, but it will not make the bitter medicine of war go down any easier.

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years. He is now co-director of The Servant Leadership School, an inner-city outreach ministry in Washington, DC.

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