Russert challenged Democrats -- but not McCain -- about 2002 Iraq intel "caveats"

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER

On the May 13 "Meet the Candidates" edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (AZ), "In hindsight, was it a good idea to go into Iraq?" but did not challenge McCain's reply that the invasion of Iraq "was certainly justified" because "[e]very intelligence agency in the world, not just U.S., believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." Yet on two separate "Meet the Candidates" editions of Meet the Press, Russert did challenge former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) for their 2002 votes giving President Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq, citing the "caveats" in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concerning the purported existence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. The NIE was made available to all members of Congress before the vote, according to The Washington Post. Russert did not challenge McCain with either a general question about the contrary evidence in the NIE or a question about the basis for his explicit assertion one day before the war resolution vote that "[t]o wait for Saddam Hussein to threaten imminent attack against America would be to acquiesce to his development of nuclear weapons."

In addition, during the interview, McCain made the much-disputed assertion that if the United States withdraws from Iraq, "these people will try to follow us home," which Russert also did not challenge.

Russert later cited a report about the current National Intelligence Estimate: " 'It couches glimmers of optimism in deep uncertainty about whether the Iraqi leaders will be able to transcend sectarian interests, fight against extremists, establish effective national institutions and end rampant corruption.' " McCain replied, "Yes, and these same intelligence agencies gave us some very bad intelligence about four years ago, as well, as you might -- as you might recall."

On October 10, 2002, McCain gave a speech on the Senate floor arguing in favor of voting to authorize military action against Iraq. McCain stated:

The President has spoken clearly of the threat Saddam Hussein's regime poses to America and the world today -- even though Iraq today clearly does not meet the Byrd amendment's standard of threatening imminent, sudden, and direct attack upon the United States of our Armed Forces. To wait for Saddam Hussein to threaten imminent attack against America would be to acquiesce to his development of nuclear weapons, to ignore his record of aggression against his neighbors, and to disregard his continuing threats to destroy Israel.

Failure now to make the choice to remove Saddam Hussein from power will leave us with choices later, when Saddam's inevitable acquisition of nuclear weapons will make it much more dangerous to defend our friends and interests in the region. It will permit Saddam to control much of the region, and to wield its resources in ways that can only weaken America's position. It will put Israel's very survival at risk, with moral consequences no American can welcome.

Failure to end the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq makes it more likely that the interaction we believe to have occurred between members of al-Qaida and Saddam's regime may increasingly take the form of active cooperation to target the United States.

McCain had made similar remarks in another floor speech the day before. He claimed that Saddam "continues to attempt to acquire a nuclear weapon," which he called a "well-known fact[]." McCain added: "[E]ach day that goes by he becomes more dangerous, his capabilities become better, and, in the case of nuclear weapons, it is not a question of whether, it is a question of when."

Yet Russert did not challenge any of McCain's comments on prewar intelligence on Iraq, in stark contrast with his discussion of the same topic with Edwards and Biden. In those interviews, Russert mentioned the "caveats" in the October 2002 NIE in which the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) dissented from the intelligence community's majority judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. On the February 4 edition of Meet the Press, Russert challenged Edwards on his vote to authorize military force against Iraq, noting that "the [October 2002] National Intelligence Estimate that was given to you, and now made public, had some real caveats." Russert then quoted from a conclusion reached by the INR in the 2002 NIE: "The activities we have detected do not add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what [the INR] would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." The INR added that it "[l]ack[ed] persuasive evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program."

Similarly, on the April 29 edition of Meet the Press, Russert asked Biden regarding the prewar intelligence: "How could you, as a U.S. senator, be so wrong?" Russert said that "there are a lot of caveats put on the level of intelligence about the aluminum tubes and everything. General Zinni ... said when he heard the discussion about the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had, he said, 'I've never heard that' in any of the briefings he had as head of the Central Command."

Russert also allowed McCain to claim that withdrawing troops from Iraq would be different from the United States' exit from Vietnam because "these people will try to follow us home":

McCAIN: This is a very, very difficult situation, but the consequences of failure, in my view, are unlike the Vietnam War, where we could leave and come home when it was over, that these people will try to follow us home. And the region will erupt to a point where we may have to come back, or we will be combating what is now, to a large degree, Al Qaeda, although certainly other -- many other factors of sectarian violence, in the region.

Russert did not mention that according to an April 6 McClatchy Newspapers article, "[m]ilitary and diplomatic analysts" say that a similar claim Bush has repeatedly made about the Iraq war -- that "this is a war in which, if we were to leave before the job is done, the enemy would follow us here" -- "exaggerate[s] the threat that the enemy forces in Iraq pose to the U.S. mainland." The article continued: "U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic experts in Bush's own government say the violence in Iraq is primarily a struggle for power between Shiite and Sunni Muslim Iraqis seeking to dominate their society, not a crusade by radical Sunni jihadists bent on carrying the battle to the United States." Additionally, according to a March 18 Washington Post article, "U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts" have said that Al Qaeda in Iraq "poses little danger to the security of the U.S. homeland." Moreover, a recent report from National Public Radio's All Things Considered cited a number of experts challenging the Bush administration's claim.

From the May 13 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:

McCAIN: The consequences of failure, Tim, are that there would be chaos in the region. There's 3 -- 2 million Sunni in Baghdad. The Iranians would continue to increase their influence, the Saudis would have to help the Sunni, the Kurds would want independence; the Turks will never stand for it. Some people say partition. You'd have to partition bedrooms in Baghdad because Sunni and Shia are married.

This is a very, very difficult situation, but the consequences of failure, in my view, are unlike the Vietnam War, where we could leave and come home when it was over, that these people will try to follow us home. And the region will erupt to a point where we may have to come back, or we will be combating what is now, to a large degree, Al Qaeda, although certainly other -- many other factors of sectarian violence, in the region.

RUSSERT: In hindsight, was it a good idea to go into Iraq?

McCAIN: You know, in hindsight, if we had exploited the initial success, which was shock and awe, and we succeeded, and we had done the right things after that, all of us would be applauding what we did. We didn't. It was terribly mismanaged. It was -- I went over there very shortly after the initial victory and came back convinced that we didn't have enough troops on the ground, we were making the wrong decisions, and that [then-Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld was badly mismanaging the conflict. And I spoke about it and complained for years.

So, if we had succeeded and done the right thing after the initial military success, then all of us would be very happy that one of the most terrible, cruel dictators in history was removed from power. Now, because of our failures, obviously, we have paid a very heavy price in American blood and treasure and great sacrifice.

RUSSERT: So it was a good idea to go in?

McCAIN: I think at the time, given the information we had. Every intelligence agency in the world, not just U.S., believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He had acquired and used them before. There's no doubt that he was going to acquire and use them if he could. The sanctions were breaking down. The Oil for Food scandal was in the billions of dollars. And, of course, at the time, given the information we had -- hindsight is 20/20. If we'd have known we were going to experience the failures we experienced, obviously, it would give us all pause. At the information and the knowledge and the situation at the time, I think that it was certainly justified.

RUSSERT: The Pentagon's quarterly report, the director of the CIA, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, all have said that sectarian violence is the problem. In fact, the -- General [Michael] Maples said that Al Qaeda accounts for only a small fraction of the insurgent violence.

[...]

RUSSERT: And the American people are saying, "Why are we shedding our blood and they're taking vacations as a parliament?" They don't have independent soldiers and battalions up and running. Our National Intelligence Estimate "outlines an increasingly perilous situation in which the United States has little control, strong possibility of further deterioration, according to sources familiar with the document.

"It couches glimmers of optimism in deep uncertainty about whether the Iraqi leaders will be able to transcend sectarian interests, fight against extremists, establish effective national institutions and end rampant corruption."

That's our own intelligence agency --

McCAIN: Yes.

RUSSERT: -- four years out.

McCAIN: Yes, and these same intelligence agencies gave us some very bad intelligence about four years ago, as well, as you might -- as you might recall. But the fact is, this is long, hard difficult.

And we talk about these present challenges that we face. We don't talk a lot about what happens if we fail, and I think that that's got to be part of any national discussion that we have. And the consequences of failure are chaos, genocide, and when you -- when -- and I'm sure you will ask this at some point, "What's plan B?" My question to those who say, "Let's set a date for withdrawal" -- "What's your plan B?" And the fact is, if we spent time on plan A, we -- and give it a chance to succeed, I think would be a useful way of spending our time.

RUSSERT: But under your plan, you're strongly suggesting we're going to be there for the next 10 years at least in order to secure and stabilize that country.

From the April 29 edition of Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: But when you read the National Intelligence Estimate, which has now been released, there are a lot of caveats put on the level of intelligence about the aluminum tubes and everything.

BIDEN: Absolutely.

RUSSERT: General [Anthony] Zinni, who's been on this program a few weeks ago, said when he heard the discussion about the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had, he said, "I've never heard that" in any of the briefings he had as head of the Central Command. How could you, as a U.S. senator, be so wrong?

BIDEN: I wasn't wrong. I was on your show when you asked me about aluminum tubes, and I said, "They're for artillery. I don't believe they're for cascading."

RUSSERT: But you said Saddam was a threat, that he had to be --

BIDEN: He was a threat.

From the February 4 edition of Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: At that time, however, that Senator [Edward] Kennedy [D-MA] is saying, "This is not an imminent threat." General Zinni, who led the military in that region, said, "This is the wrong war."

EDWARDS: Uh-huh.

RUSSERT: General [Brent] Scowcroft, former President Bush's national security adviser, and the National Intelligence Estimate that was given to you, and now made public, had some real caveats, and this is one of them: "The activities we have detected do not add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." Do you remember seeing that?

EDWARDS: I did see it. I mean, I think it was -- there were serious questions about whether -- again, we're looking back. Now, we know none of this was true. But, at the time, there were serious questions about any effort to obtain nuclear weapons, which is what that statement just was. All of us believed there was no question that he had chemical and biological weapons, and there was at least some scattered evidence that he was making an effort to get nuclear weapons.

RUSSERT: But it seems as if, as a member of the Intelligence Committee, you just got it dead wrong and that you even ignored some caveats and ignored people who were urging caution.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
NBC
Person
Tim Russert
Show/Publication
Meet the Press
Stories/Interests
Prewar Intelligence/WMD, John McCain, 2008 Elections
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