I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sen. Graham shows that the American people, not Sen. Rockefeller, were misled about the Iraqi threat

The principal spokesman in the media for previously pro-war Senate Democrats who now want to retract their vote and blame the Administration for it has been Sen. Jay Rockefeller, now the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. As I argued last week, Senate Democrats who voted for the war are in the worst position to voice the complaint that the Bush Administration misled the nation into war by virtue of its pre-war manipulation of intelligence, because those Senators – especially Senators such as Rockefeller who were members of the Intelligence Committee – had access before they voted to most, if not all, of the intelligence which they are now pointing to as evidence to show that there was substantial doubt about the Administration’s alarmist claims about Iraq.

While the American people were not told about the intelligence which strongly, and in some cases indisputably, contradicted the pre-war Administration claims about the various Iraqi threats, Senate Democrats like Sen. Rockefeller were aware of it, and thus have no basis for blaming the Administration for their pro-war vote. The reality is that these now-recanting Senate Democrats voted for the war despite these doubts about WMD intelligence because -- in the intense climate of war and in the face of a highly popular President in 2002 -- they were simply afraid not to support Bush’s war.

Former Sen. Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, in his excellent Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post, provides the proof that both of these notions are true -- namely, that Sen. Rockefeller has no grounds for complaining that he was misled, but the American people have ample grounds for this complaint.

Entitled "What I Knew Before the Invasion," Graham explains that while he began with the premise that the Administration’s claims about the Iraqi threat should be trusted, his exposure to pre-war intelligence cast serious doubt on those claims, and these doubts caused him to ultimately vote against the war:

There were troubling aspects to this 90-page document [the National Intelligence Estimate produced by the CIA]. While slanted toward the conclusion that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction stored or produced at 550 sites, it contained vigorous dissents on key parts of the information, especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein's will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.

Under questioning, Tenet added that the information in the NIE had not been independently verified by an operative responsible to the United States. In fact, no such person was inside Iraq. Most of the alleged intelligence came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which had an interest in the United States' removing Hussein, by force if necessary.

The American people needed to know these reservations, and I requested that an unclassified, public version of the NIE be prepared. On Oct. 4, Tenet presented a 25-page document titled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs." It represented an unqualified case that Hussein possessed them, avoided a discussion of whether he had the will to use them and omitted the dissenting opinions contained in the classified version. Its conclusions, such as "If Baghdad acquired sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within a year," underscored the White House's claim that exactly such material was being provided from Africa to Iraq.

From my advantaged position, I had earlier concluded that a war with Iraq would be a distraction from the successful and expeditious completion of our aims in Afghanistan. Now I had come to question whether the White House was telling the truth -- or even had an interest in knowing the truth.

This is the case that needs to be made against the Administration, but this case cannot be made by Sen. Rockefeller or any other Senate Democrat with pre-war access to this intelligence. Graham's narrative shows that Senate Democrats who received the NIE were in a position to know that the Administration’s claims were exaggerated or false, but this information was kept from the American people as the result of the Administration's highly selective, and misleading, exploitation of its classification powers, whereby Bush officials publicly disclosed -- and hyped -- the intelligence supporting its alarmist claims, but kept classified (and therefore concealed from the American people) the intelligence which so strongly undermined those claims.

Sen. Graham used his access to this classified information to determine back then that the Administration was exaggerating the Iraqi threat. What is Sen. Rockefeller’s excuse for not having done the same? Sen. Rockefeller has admitted that he had the same NIE which contained these dissents as well as the underlying evidence which undermined the Administration’s pre-war claims, and yet he still voted to give the President authority to wage war. Now, Rockefeller wants to point to these same dissents and this same evidence – which, like Graham, he had before he voted – in order to claim that he was tricked by the Administration into supporting the war.

Sen. Rockefeller's duplicity is as breathtaking as it is self-evident, and for that reason, having him and those who had similar access be the public faces for the complaints about the Bush Administration's pre-war deceit is undermining the potency of that complaint. If Sen. Rockefeller regrets his vote and believes he erred in his judgment when he supported it, he should say so. And if he supported the war because he was intimidated to do so by the political climate at the time, or because he thought Americans should stand behind the President no matter what in the then-still-recent aftermath of 9/11, he should admit that, too.

But Senators like Sen. Rockefeller are in exactly the worst position possible to blame the Administration for their pro-war votes because they actually did – to use the Bush defenders’ favorite phrase – have access to essentially the same intelligence on Iraq as the Administration did and yet reached the same conclusion as the Administration did, i.e., that war against Iraq was necessary. By stark contrast, Sen. Graham was able, by virtue of his access to this same intelligence, to conclude that there were serious grounds for doubting the accuracy of the Administration’s pre-war claims on Iraq. Sen. Rockefeller could have, and should have, done the same thing.

Particularly in times of national security crises, Americans look to their President for leadership and they trust that what they are told is truthful and accurate. But Americans now realize that this trust in the Administration’s pre-war claims was misplaced -- not necessarily because the White House knew with certainty that the WMD claims it was making were false, but because the White House pretended that they knew these things for certain while concealing the ample evidence casting grave doubt on their accuracy, thus depriving Americans of making an informed choice as to whether the supposed threat posed by Iraq really did justify war. It is for that reason that Americans thus have every right to be angry that they were misled by the Bush Administration with regard to the nature and magnitude of the threat posed by Saddam’s regime.

But now-recanting pro-war Senate Democrats, having access to classified information that American citizens outside the Senate did not, do not have this same ground for complaint. They failed in their duty to serve as a loyal but vigorous opposition to the Administration, as they were too afraid to stand up to the President’s war desires. And in order to excuse their mistakes, they are now seeking to pretend that they were victimized by a deceitful Administration in the same way the American people were.

This is what is allowing Bush defenders the easy out against complaints about the accuracy of the Administration’s pre-war WMD claims. Republicans focus on the hypocrisy and duplicity of this complaint when it is voiced by previously pro-war Senate Democrats by pointing out -- correctly -- that these Senate Democrats had access to much of (not all, but much of) the same intelligence back then. But while the Senate Democrats did have such access, the American people did not, and for that reason, these Senate Democrats should not be the spokespersons for the complaint that the Administration misled the nation into war.

As Sen. Graham’s Op-Ed shows, Senate Democrats such as Sen. Rockefeller failed in their duty to stand up to the Administration prior to the war, and their failures are partially responsible for the fact that the Administration was able to mislead Americans with respect to the Iraqi threat. It is the American people, not Senate Democrats looking for an excuse for their vote, who should be voicing this plainly justifiable complaint that they were misled by the Administration.

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