INSIDE THE WMD DEBATE
Bart Gellman and Walter Pincus have a long piece in WaPo that tops the front page and fills two inside pages of the print edition entitled, “Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence.” While they present evidence that the Administration emphasized the worst case scenario, the headline doesn’t match the story, the heart of which appears several paragraphs into it (and off the front page):
By many accounts, including those of career officials who did not support the war, there were good reasons for concern that the Iraqi president might revive a program to enrich uranium to weapons grade and fabricate a working bomb. He had a well-demonstrated aspiration for nuclear weapons, a proficient scientific and engineering cadre, a history of covert development and a domestic supply of unrefined uranium ore. Iraq was generally believed to have kept the technical documentation for two advanced German centrifuge designs and the assembly diagrams for at least one type of “implosion device,” which detonates a nuclear core.
What Hussein did not have was the principal requirement for a nuclear weapon, a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. And the U.S. government, authoritative intelligence officials said, had only circumstantial evidence that Iraq was trying to obtain those materials.
But the Bush administration had reasons to imagine the worst. The CIA had faced searing criticism for its failures to foresee India’s resumption of nuclear testing in 1998 and to “connect the dots” pointing to al Qaeda’s attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Cheney, the administration’s most influential advocate of a worst-case analysis, had been powerfully influenced by his experience as defense secretary just after the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
Former National Security Council official Richard A. Clarke recalled how information from freshly seized Iraqi documents disclosed the existence of a “crash program” to build a bomb in 1991. The CIA had known nothing of it.
“I can understand why that was a seminal experience for Cheney,” Clarke said. “And when the CIA says [in 2002], ‘We don’t have any evidence,’ his reaction is . . . ‘We didn’t have any evidence in 1991, either. Why should I believe you now?’ ”
Some strategists, in and out of government, argued that the uncertainty itself — in the face of circumstantial evidence — was sufficient to justify “regime change.” But that was not what the Bush administration usually said to the American people.
To gird a nation for the extraordinary step of preemptive war — and to obtain the minimum necessary support from allies, Congress and the U.N. Security Council — the administration described a growing, even imminent, nuclear threat from Iraq.
This is classic national security decision-making in action. Given imperfect intelligence as well as a reasonable belief that a regime means us harm, the safe course is not presuming the least compellng case supported by your intelligence.