" . . . The nation is engaged in a major ongoing debate about why America went to war in Iraq, when Iraq was not an imminent threat, had no nuclear weapons, no persuasive links to Al Qaeda, no connection to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Over two centuries ago, John Adams spoke eloquently about the need to let facts and evidence guide actions and policies. He said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Listen to those words again, and you can hear John Adams speaking to us now about Iraq. "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
Tragically, in making the decision to go to war in Iraq, the Bush administration allowed its wishes, its inclinations, and its passions to alter the state of facts and the evidence of the threat we faced from Iraq.
A month ago, in an address at Georgetown University, CIA Director George Tenet discussed the strengths and flaws in the intelligence on Iraq. Tenet testified to several Senate and House committees on these issues, and next Tuesday, he will come before our Senate Armed Services Committee. He will have an opportunity to explain why he waited until last month to publicly state the facts and evidence on these fundamental questions, and why he was so silent when it mattered most -- in the days and months leading up to the war.
If he feels that the White House altered the facts, or misused the intelligence, or ignored it and relied on dubious sources in the Iraqi exile community, Tenet should say so, and say it plainly.
It is not sufficient for Tenet to say only, as he did last week to the Senate Intelligence Committee, that we must be patient. When he was appointed Director of Central Intelligence in 1997, Tenet said to President Clinton, " ... I have believed that you ... and the vice president must be provided with ... complete and objective intelligence. ... We must always be straight and tell you the facts as we know them." The American people and our men and women serving in Iraq deserve the facts and they deserve answers now.
The rushed decision to invade Iraq cannot all be blamed on flawed intelligence. If we view these events simply as an intelligence failure -- rather than a larger failure of decision-making and leadership -- we will learn the wrong lessons.
The more we find out, the clearer it becomes that any failure in the intelligence itself is dwarfed by the administration's manipulation of the intelligence in making the case for war. Specific warnings from the intelligence community were consistently ignored as the administration rushed toward war.
We now know that from the moment President Bush took office, Iraq was given high priority as unfinished business from the first Bush administration.
According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's account in Ron Suskind's book, "The Price of Loyalty," Iraq was on the agenda at the very first meeting of the National Security Council, just 10 days after President Bush's inauguration in 2001. At that meeting, the president quickly -- and wrongly -- concluded that the U.S. could not do much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said we should "pull out of that situation," and then turned to a discussion of "how Iraq is destabilizing the region."
Secretary O'Neill remembers, "Getting Hussein was now the administration's focus. From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country. And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of It -- the president saying, 'Fine. Go find me a way to do this.'"
By the end of February 2001, the talk on Iraq was mostly about how -- and how quickly -- to get rid of Saddam Hussein. President Bush was clearly frustrated with what the intelligence community was providing. According to Secretary O'Neill, on May 16, 2001, he and the other principals of the National Security Council met with the president to discuss the Middle East. Tenet presented his intelligence report, and told the president that it was still only speculation whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, or was even starting a program to build such weapons.
Secretary O'Neill says, "Everything Tenet sent up to Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney about Iraq was very judicious and precisely qualified. The president was clearly very interested in weapons or weapons programs -- and frustrated about our weak intelligence capability -- but Tenet was clearly being careful to say, here's the little that we know and the great deal that we don't. That wouldn't change, and I read those CIA reports for two years," said O'Neill.
Then came 9/11. In the months that followed, the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden had obvious priority. Al Qaeda was clearly the most imminent threat to our national security. In fact, in his testimony to Congress in February 2001, one month after President Bush's inauguration and seven months before 9/11, Tenet had said, "Osama bin Laden and his global network of lieutenants and associates remain the most immediate and serious threat." That testimony emphasized the clear danger of bin Laden in light of the specific attacks in previous years on American citizens and American institutions.
In February 2002, five months after 9/11, Tenet testified, "Last year, I told you that Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network were the most immediate and serious threat this country faced. This remains true despite the progress we have made in Afghanistan and in disrupting the network elsewhere."
Even during the buildup to the war in Iraq, in February 2003, Tenet again testified, "The threat from al Qaeda remains. ... We place no limitations on our expectations on what al Qaeda might do to survive. ... Al Qaeda is living in the expectation of resuming the offensive."
In his testimony last week to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Tenet repeated his earlier warnings. He said again that Al Qaeda is not defeated and that "We are still at war. ... This is a learning organization that remains committed to attacking the United States, its friends and allies."
Tenet never used that kind of strong language to describe the threat from Iraq. Yet despite all the clear and consistent warnings about Al Qaeda, by the summer of 2002, President Bush was ready for war with Iraq. The war in Afghanistan was no longer in the headlines or at the center of attention. Bin Laden was hard to find, the economy was in trouble, and so was the president's approval rating in the polls.
[White House political adviser] Karl Rove had tipped his hand earlier by stating that the war on terrorism could bring political benefits as well. The president's undeniable goal was to convince the American people that war was necessary -- and necessary soon, because soon-to-be-acquired nuclear weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein could easily be handed off to terrorists.
This conclusion was not supported by the facts, but the intelligence could be retrofitted to support it. Greg Thielmann, former director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, put it bluntly last July. He said, "Some of the fault lies with the performance of the intelligence community, but most of it lies with the way senior officials misused the information they were provided." He said, "They surveyed the data, and picked out what they liked. The whole thing was bizarre. The secretary of defense had this huge Defense Intelligence Agency, and he went around it." Thielmann also said, "This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude, its top-down use of intelligence: we know the answers; give us the intelligence to support those answers. ... Going down the list of administration deficiencies, or distortions, one has to talk about, first and foremost, the nuclear threat being hyped," he said."
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