Russert let McCain blame false prewar claims on "colossal intelligence failure"


On NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert did not challenge Sen. John McCain's assertion that the Bush administration's false prewar claims about Iraq represented a "colossal intelligence failure" and that "[e]very intelligence agency in the world believed that he [former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction." In fact, many of the Bush administration's most dramatic prewar claims -- about Iraq's supposed nuclear program, its alleged ties to Al Qaeda, and its willingness to attack the United States -- had been questioned by U.S. intelligence agencies.

On the April 2 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert did not challenge Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) assertion that the Bush administration's false prewar claims about Iraq represented a "colossal intelligence failure" and that "[e]very intelligence agency in the world believed that he [former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction." In fact, many of the Bush administration's most dramatic prewar claims -- about Iraq's supposed nuclear program, its alleged ties to Al Qaeda, and its willingness to attack the United States -- had been questioned by U.S. intelligence agencies. On these issues, the dissenting intelligence agencies made their views known to the Bush administration, and there is evidence that President Bush either knew or should have known that members of the intelligence community disputed many of the claims he and his administration used to make the case for war.

Nuclear program

In making the case for war, Bush and members of his administration repeatedly claimed that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program and developing nuclear weapons. As evidence, the administration frequently asserted that high-strength aluminum tubes that Iraq had attempted to import were intended for use in uranium-enriching centrifuges. In his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, Bush claimed, "Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."

But while most U.S. intelligence agencies agreed that the aluminum tubes were evidence of Iraq's renewed nuclear program, two agencies -- the Department of Energy (DOE) and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) -- disagreed. Their objections were published in a classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was readily available to members of the Bush administration. The NIE contained a box titled "State/INR Alternative View of Iraq's Nuclear Program":

In INR's view, Iraq's efforts to acquire aluminum tubes is central to the argument that Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, but INR is not persuaded that the tubes in question are intended for use as centrifuge rotors. INR accepts the judgment of technical experts at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) who have concluded that the tubes Iraq seeks to acquire are poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment and finds unpersuasive the arguments advanced by others to make the case that they are intended for that purpose. INR considers it far more likely that the tubes are intended for another purpose, most likely the production of artillery rockets."

As Media Matters for America has noted, reporting by National Journal investigative reporter Murray Waas indicates that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (now secretary of State) were aware of DOE and INR's objections. Citing "records and knowledgeable sources," Waas reported on March 2 that a one-page President's Summary of the October 2002 NIE "specifically told Bush that although 'most agencies judge' that the use of the aluminum tubes was 'related to a uranium enrichment effort ... INR and DOE believe that the tubes more likely are intended for conventional weapons uses.' " These dissents conflicted with the public assertions Bush subsequently made about the aluminum tubes, as Waas noted:

The disclosure that Bush was informed of the DOE and State dissents is the first evidence that the president himself knew of the sharp debate within the government over the aluminum tubes during the time that he, Cheney, and other members of the Cabinet were citing the tubes as clear evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program. Neither the president nor the vice president told the public about the disagreement among the agencies.

Waas reported that other members of the Bush administration were also informed about DOE and INR's dissenting view:

In addition, Rice, Cheney, and dozens of other high-level Bush administration policy makers received a highly classified intelligence assessment, known as a Senior Executive Memorandum, on the aluminum tubes issue. Circulated on January 10, 2003, the memo was titled "Questions on Why Iraq Is Procuring Aluminum Tubes and What the IAEA Has Found to Date."

The paper included discussion regarding the fact that the INR, Energy, and the United Nations atomic energy watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, all believed that Iraq was using the aluminum tubes for conventional weapons programs.

In addition, in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush stated: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

But in the October 2002 NIE, INR objected to the judgments of other U.S. intelligence agencies that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Africa, calling such claims "highly dubious." Moreover, INR disputed the majority view that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program at all, noting in the NIE that there was not "a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons."

In its final report in September 2004 (also known as the Duelfer Report), the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) concluded that "Iraq did not possess a nuclear device, nor had it tried to reconstitute a capability to produce nuclear weapons after 1991." In addition, the ISG found no evidence that Iraq sought uranium from abroad after 1991 and concluded that Iraq's interest in high-strength aluminum tubes was "best explained" by its conventional weapons programs.

Attacks on the United States

In his March 2 article, Waas noted that in the months leading up to war, Bush and other administration officials repeatedly warned of the threat that Iraq would attack the United States. In one example cited by Waas, Bush warned in an October 7, 2002, address: "We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVS for missions targeting the United States."

Waas reported, however, that "[o]n at least four earlier occasions, beginning in the spring of 2002 ... the president was informed during his morning intelligence briefing that U.S. intelligence agencies believed it was unlikely that Saddam was an imminent threat to the United States."

Waas further reported that in January 2003, Bush received a summary of another NIE, in which "U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously agreed that it was unlikely that Saddam would try to attack the United States -- except if 'ongoing military operations risked the imminent demise of his regime' or if he intended to 'extract revenge' for such an assault."

Ties to Al Qaeda

In the run-up to war, the Bush administration repeatedly asserted that Iraq provided Al Qaeda operatives with training in biological and chemical weapons. According to a November 10, 2005, web-exclusive article by Newsweek investigative correspondents Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, "the principal basis" for these claims rested on statements made to investigators by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured Al Qaeda commander. As Isikoff and Hosenball noted, Bush referenced al-Libi's claims in his October 7, 2002, address, stating, "We've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases."

In his February 5, 2003, speech to the United Nations Security Council, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell apparently referred to al-Libi:

POWELL: Al Qaeda continues to have a deep interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. As with the story of [terrorist leader Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi and his network, I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to Al Qaeda.

Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story. I will relate it to you now as he, himself, described it.

In a November 6, 2005, article, Washington Post staff writer Walter Pincus noted that "in January 2004 al-Libi recanted his claims, and in February 2004 the CIA withdrew all intelligence reports based on his information." But Pincus reported that in February 2002 -- eight months before Bush reportedly first referred to al-Libi's bogus claims -- the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) produced a document in which it concluded that it was "likely" that al-Libi was "intentionally misleading the debriefers." Pincus reported that "the DIA took note that the Libyan terrorist could not name any Iraqis involved, any chemical or biological material used or where the training occurred."

Isikoff and Hosenball reported in their November 10 article that "[a] DIA official confirmed to NEWSWEEK" that a copy of the DIA report "would have been sent" to the Bush administration's National Security Council. Isikoff and Hosenball also reported that the CIA produced a document containing similar conclusions about al-Libi in January 2003 -- before Powell's U.N. speech. Isikoff and Hosenball noted that "[a] counter-terrorism official said that while CIA reports on al-Libi were distributed widely around U.S. intelligence agencies and policy-making offices, many such routine reports are not regularly read by senior policy-making officials."

From the April 2 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: But he [Saddam] was not an imminent threat?

McCAIN: I wouldn't say that he was -- because we know now, or we're pretty sure that he had no weapons of mass destruction. But did he pose a threat? Absolutely, in my view.

RUSSERT: In what way?

McCAIN: He had attempted to, and used, weapons of mass destruction in the past. He had invaded Kuwait and occupied Kuwait. He had killed thousands of people with weapons of mass destruction, and there's no doubt in anybody's mind that he was trying to acquire and would eventually use them again.

RUSSERT: But not nearly as far along in his programs as had been suggested?

McCAIN: That's right. There was a colossal intelligence failure. But I want to point out, that intelligence failure was shared by the British, the French, the Germans, the Israelis. Every intelligence agency in the world believed that he had weapons of mass destruction.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Tim Russert
Meet the Press
Prewar Intelligence/WMD, John McCain, 2008 Elections
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