He Knew

Sidney Blumenthal writes that President Bush knew Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of Iraq. Or, at least, he was briefed on this but chose to disregard the briefing.

On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam’s inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail. Tenet never brought it up again.

Note in particular (emphasis added):

Nor was the intelligence included in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, which stated categorically that Iraq possessed WMD. No one in Congress was aware of the secret intelligence that Saddam had no WMD as the House of Representatives and the Senate voted, a week after the submission of the NIE, on the Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq. The information, moreover, was not circulated within the CIA among those agents involved in operations to prove whether Saddam had WMD. …

… In the congressional debate over the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, even those voting against it gave credence to the notion that Saddam possessed WMD. Even a leading opponent such as Sen. Bob Graham, then the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who had instigated the production of the NIE, declared in his floor speech on Oct. 12, 2002, “Saddam Hussein’s regime has chemical and biological weapons and is trying to get nuclear capacity.” Not a single senator contested otherwise. None of them had an inkling of the Sabri intelligence.

Apologists for the Administration still insist that Bush’s judgments on WMD were no different from everyone else’s. Just two days ago Republican mouthpiece Ron Christie said on MSNBC’s “Hardball”:

Let me tell you something. This is a man who takes his responsibility his—again, as I said, his responsibility as commander in chief far more seriously than you can imagine when you‘ve never had the opportunity to talk to him and see exactly the deliberation that he goes through.

Let me take that a step further. For you to suggest without knowing what the commander in chief looks at, by way of intelligence—let‘s go back to the Clinton administration, let‘s go back to the previous administrations, people who were convinced that there were weapons of mass destruction, and, in fact, Senator Clinton, many others in the Democrat side of the aisle, believed that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States.

This stirring usage of the “Clinton did it too” dodge leaves out the part about Bush withholding intelligence from Congress, doesn’t it? And regarding the Clinton Administration — it’s true that President Clinton suspected Saddam Hussein of having WMDs, which is one reason why he ordered an air strike of WMD targets in Iraq in 1998. In 2004, weapons inspector David Kay (reluctantly) admitted that the Clinton bombing had effectively destroyed much of Iraq’s remaining chemical weapons program. (See also Fred Kaplan.)

Back to Blumenthal:

On April 23, 2006, CBS’s “60 Minutes” interviewed Tyler Drumheller, the former CIA chief of clandestine operations for Europe, who disclosed that the agency had received documentary intelligence from Naji Sabri, Saddam’s foreign minister, that Saddam did not have WMD. “We continued to validate him the whole way through,” said Drumheller. “The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming, and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy, to justify the policy.”

Now two former senior CIA officers have confirmed Drumheller’s account to me and provided the background to the story of how the information that might have stopped the invasion of Iraq was twisted in order to justify it. They described what Tenet said to Bush about the lack of WMD, and how Bush responded, and noted that Tenet never shared Sabri’s intelligence with then Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to the former officers, the intelligence was also never shared with the senior military planning the invasion, which required U.S. soldiers to receive medical shots against the ill effects of WMD and to wear protective uniforms in the desert.

Instead, said the former officials, the information was distorted in a report written to fit the preconception that Saddam did have WMD programs. That false and restructured report was passed to Richard Dearlove, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who briefed Prime Minister Tony Blair on it as validation of the cause for war.

You’ll remember Richard Dearlove, of Downing Street Memo fame. It was Dearlove who said “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Both the French intelligence service and the CIA paid Sabri hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least $200,000 in the case of the CIA) to give them documents on Saddam’s WMD programs. “The information detailed that Saddam may have wished to have a program, that his engineers had told him they could build a nuclear weapon within two years if they had fissile material, which they didn’t, and that they had no chemical or biological weapons,” one of the former CIA officers told me.

On the eve of Sabri’s appearance at the United Nations in September 2002 to present Saddam’s case, the officer in charge of this operation met in New York with a “cutout” who had debriefed Sabri for the CIA. Then the officer flew to Washington, where he met with CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, who was “excited” about the report. Nonetheless, McLaughlin expressed his reservations. He said that Sabri’s information was at odds with “our best source.” That source was code-named “Curveball,” later exposed as a fabricator, con man and former Iraqi taxi driver posing as a chemical engineer.

I bet you remember Curveball, too. German intelligence tried to tell the Bushies that Curveball was nuts, but the Bushies weren’t listening.

The next day, Sept. 18, Tenet briefed Bush on Sabri. “Tenet told me he briefed the president personally,” said one of the former CIA officers. According to Tenet, Bush’s response was to call the information “the same old thing.” Bush insisted it was simply what Saddam wanted him to think. “The president had no interest in the intelligence,” said the CIA officer. The other officer said, “Bush didn’t give a fuck about the intelligence. He had his mind made up.”

But the CIA officers working on the Sabri case kept collecting information. “We checked on everything he told us.” French intelligence eavesdropped on his telephone conversations and shared them with the CIA. These taps “validated” Sabri’s claims, according to one of the CIA officers. The officers brought this material to the attention of the newly formed Iraqi Operations Group within the CIA. But those in charge of the IOG were on a mission to prove that Saddam did have WMD and would not give credit to anything that came from the French. “They kept saying the French were trying to undermine the war,” said one of the CIA officers.

Those French. Can’t trust ’em.

The CIA officers on the case awaited the report they had submitted on Sabri to be circulated back to them, but they never received it. They learned later that a new report had been written. “It was written by someone in the agency, but unclear who or where, it was so tightly controlled. They knew what would please the White House. They knew what the king wanted,” one of the officers told me.

That report contained a false preamble stating that Saddam was “aggressively and covertly developing” nuclear weapons and that he already possessed chemical and biological weapons. “Totally out of whack,” said one of the CIA officers. “The first [para]graph of an intelligence report is the most important and most read and colors the rest of the report.” He pointed out that the case officer who wrote the initial report had not written the preamble and the new memo. “That’s not what the original memo said.”

And all this time, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his staff were being kept completely out of the loop by everybody.

How much of this was deliberate and conscious lying, and how much stemmed from the fanatic’s absolutist faith in his own version of Truth, is anyone’s guess. And maybe one is not really different from the other, as Digby says

Is it the final straw? Probably not. But it is impossible for anyone anymore to pretend that Bush wasn’t lying about the infamous 16 words. As for Bush lying to himself…it won’t wash. He knew. By the time Tenet briefed Bush about Sabri, two things prevented Bush from behaving like a sane human being. First, he was in too deep. By September ’02, Bush had geared up the country for war – the vote in Congress to come, the UN and the inspections, they were just meaningless diversions. The die was cast and nothing would stop Bush from going to war, let alone something as trivial as contradictory and credible intelligence that there wasn’t even the shadow of a casus belli.

Second, by 2002, Bush’s psychopathic personality was at its most floridly deranged. Riding incredibly high opinion polls, convinced God was speaking to him, having gotten away with stupendous lies and irresponsible behavior throughout his entire career, Bush was incapable of anything but lying when he dismissed the report from Tenet. But simply because he was at the height of mania, don’t make the mistake of thinking he didn’t know where the truth lay. Oh, he knew, all right.

But some people don’t learn. Today righties are complaining because Dems are already dismissing the Petraeus report.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pointedly referring to the Petraeus testimony as “the Bush report presented by General Petraeus,” as opposed to an independent assessment by the top military man in Iraq that has been billed for months now. “Progress is not being made,” Pelosi insisted in a Capitol presser this afternoon, no matter how some people might want to “cherry pick” stories of success. “The plural of anecdotes is not data,” she added.

It’s no secret the White House plans to “tweak” the report, in the same way they “tweaked” the pre-invasion intelligence. (Update: See also “Experts Doubt Drop In Violence in Iraq.”) However, this is a point lost on closet Maha admirer the Confederate Yankee:

Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Chuck Shumer and Democratic Senators/Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were among those Senators who voted to confirm General Petraeus to his position as commander of American forces in Iraq without a single objecting vote, 81-0, on January 26, 2007.

They did not question the capability of the 1974 West Point graduate and Princeton PhD when they had their chance to reject him. Nor did they denounce or even raise serious doubts about allegiences or partisanship then, when they easily could have stated their disgreement with a simple “no” vote.

What a difference 223 days and the fear of success makes.

General Petraeus did have a sterling reputation within the military — which, unfortunately, is going the way of Colin Powell’s reputation. If Petraeus were allowed to make his assessments and report independent of the White House, I’d be inclined to listen to him. However, he isn’t, and I’m not. Fool me once, shame on … well, you know how that goes.