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The only thing protecting the White House? Its timid Democratic opposition.

By Joe Conason

06/10/03 (Salon) The gathering storm over the White House


What did the president know? He knew that his categorical statements about Iraq's possession of forbidden chemical and biological weapons -- and similarly scary remarks and speeches by his vice president, national security advisor, secretary of state and secretary of defense -- were unsupported by hard intelligence. When did he know it? If he and his subordinates were paying attention, they were aware of the deep uncertainty about Iraq's weapons programs during the entire period that his government was driving the world toward war.

Those are the only conclusions that can reasonably be drawn, at least until the Senate Armed Services and intelligence committees extract (and release) more data from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the others responsible for assessing the situation in Iraq. While Bush and his aides continue to insist that weapons of mass destruction will be found someday, their promises are growing vaguer and their excuses are becoming less believable.

What protects the White House now, as the media begin to ask questions that would have been more timely six months ago, is the timidity of the Democratic opposition. If the Clinton administration had misled the nation in this manner, the Republicans would be seizing their pitchforks.

Over the weekend, the Washington Post provided a must-read review of the record, contrasting statements last fall by Bush and his aides with what is now known about the information they had received from the CIA and the DIA. While those agencies told the adminstration's top officials that Saddam Hussein "probably" had some chemical and biological munitions, those qualified (and so far unsubstantiated) findings were transformed into political speeches of absolute certainty.

Leading this parade of demagogy was Dick Cheney, who told the Veterans of Foreign Wars last Aug. 26: "Simply stated, there's no doubt that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction." (It was Cheney, too, who went furthest in terrifying claptrap about the alleged Iraqi nuclear program, when he said on March 16, "We know [Saddam] has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." The dictator couldn't have "reconstituted" nuclear weapons, as Cheney knew, because he never had any.)

As proof of their pre-war alarms recedes, the president and his aides are frantically revising their claims downward. Belatedly, they are enveloping the debate in a cloud of vagueness and spin. This morning Bush said, "Iraq had a weapons program ... Intelligence throughout the decade shows they had a weapons program. I am absolutely convinced that with time, we'll find out they did have a weapons program." Those comments are open to almost any interpretation. Yes, Iraq did have a weapons program during the past 10 years. But the justification for war was far more pointed. Iraq was alleged to have produced and concealed tons of chemical and biological munitions, in direct violation of U.N. resolutions.

Bush has also said that the alleged "mobile labs" found in Iraq since the war's end constituted proof of the weapons program. But whether those trailers prove anything at all remains highly questionable, and the president has since backed away from that claim. It seems dubious that the Iraqis really cooked up anthrax or botulinus toxins in a vehicle with canvas sides. (The Guardian reports today that in the late '80s, a British firm sold Iraq similar vehicles. Those contraptions produced hydrogen for artillery balloons, not bioweapons.)

As for terrorism, the administration's rhetoric convinced the American people that Iraq and al-Qaida were not only allied, but shared responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet today the New York Times reveals that White House officials knew the captured al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah had denied any such connections ever since his interrogation during the year before the war began. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, reputedly al-Qaida's chief of operations, reportedly has corroborated those denials since his capture in early March.

Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Powell must have known that, too.


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