WASHINGTON: With Saddam Hussein in the bag, US President George W. Bush seems determined to make US voters forget that Washington invaded Iraq on the pretext that apparently nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) posed a direct threat to Washington and its allies.
The effort so far has taken two forms: the suggestion by administration officials, including Bush himself, that ousting then capturing Saddam were ample justifications for going to war; and the quiet dissolution of the nearly billion-dollar effort to find WMD in Iraq.
In a nationally televised interview earlier this week, Bush himself appeared to dismiss the relevance of whether Iraq actually had WMD and the possibility that he might eventually move to acquire them.
“So what’s the difference?” asked Bush who later added that he was persuaded that Hussein constituted “a gathering threat, after 9/11 … that needed to be dealt with.
“And so we got rid of him, and there’s no doubt the world is a safer, freer place as a result of Saddam being gone,” he said.
Meanwhile, the reported decision by the David Kay, the director of the Iraq Survey Group, to step down appeared to confirm that US intelligence agencies have concluded there is no WMD to be found in Iraq.
Indeed, the timing of the still-unconfirmed report by the Washington Post about Kay’s decision while the US media are still celebrating Hussein’s capture suggested that the administration wants to wind down the effort while US lawmakers, who have been pressing it for evidence of the existence of a WMD threat, are out of session and thus less able to ask embarrassing questions about what the president knew and when it knew it.
“In my many years on (Capitol Hill),” one veteran Congressional staffer said, “I don’t know that I’ve seen anything quite as cynical as this.
They’re clearly hoping that Congress and the American public will just forget that they waged war because of a threat that never existed but that they hyped to kingdom come.”
Several analysts said they believed Kay’s decision, which was reportedly communicated to White House officials and the CIA, which oversees the 1,400-member ISG, was an implicit admission by the former UN inspector, who had called for Hussein’s ouster as early as the mid-1990s, that he did not believe WMD would be found.
“The departure of Kay, who supported the administration’s pre-war WMD claims, is an indicator that the he does not expect to unearth any of the weapons of mass destruction that had previously been cited by the administration as a threat that required US intervention,” said Charles Pena, the head of defense studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
He and others said Kay’s departure should renew questions about the basis for the administration’s pre-war claims, the subject already of investigations by Congressional intelligence committees that, however, will not be reconvening until the middle of January.
When the administration began seriously gearing up for war against Iraq some 16 months ago, it argued that the threat posed by Baghdad were essentially two-fold: that the regime had failed to dismantle and destroy large stocks of WMD and the missiles to deliver them; and that it had operational links with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that were already in effect waging war against the US.
While Washington’s claims about Iraq’s WMD stockpiles were largely accepted many of the same claims were made by the Clinton administration, a point which Bush officials have been making with increasing defensiveness over the past several months Hussein’s links to Al-Qaeda met with skepticism on the part of counterterrorism experts and virtually all of Washington’s foreign allies.
Although Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, in particular, never entirely dropped charges of a Baghdad-bin Laden link, they stressed the WMD threat increasingly in the run-up to the war, with Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld even declaring to reporters March 30, or 10 days into the invasion, “We know where (the WMD) are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.”
Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were particularly insistent that Hussein was well on the way to building a nuclear device, a point suggested in a passage in Bush’s January, 2003, State of the Union Address in which he charged that Iraq had bought many tons of uranium “yellowcake” from an African country, later identified as Niger.
But the pre-war hype began to fall apart once US troops secured most of Iraq, including the area described by Rumsfeld, and rounded up key scientists alleged to have worked on WMD programs in the past. In July, former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had gone to Niger at the CIA’s behest to check out the yellowcake story in early 2002, charged that the administration, and particularly Cheney’s office, must have known that the charge was bogus.
At the same time, Kay, who had long charged Hussein with holding vast supplies of WMD, was hired by the CIA to head a massive, nearly $1 billion, inter-agency effort to find the goods.
Kay filed an initial report in early October that conceded not only that no weapons had been found, but also that there had been no chemical weapons program since 1991. But he stressed that the ISG had found what it called “laboratories” that could be used to develop WMD and was continuing its work.
In fact, however, administration officials appeared already to be distancing themselves from the importance of Kay’s work, and, indeed, the following months, as resistance to the US-led occupation intensified, hundreds of whose members were redeployed to the counterinsurgency effort.
“I think David Kay is at the end of his tether and that if he thought there was a job to be done, he would stay and do it,” Scott Ritter, a former UN arms inspector, said.
“I think the CIA and the White House have concluded that there are no WMD to be found and that’s Kay’s continued presence is itself a distraction,” said Ritter, who was among the very few experts who argued before the war that the administration’s WMD claims were not credible.
Imad Khadduri, a veteran of Iraq’s atomic energy program who has long insisted the administration’s claims were a hoax, also claimed Kay’s reported decision to leave as vindication. “His departure suggests that he has been lying and that now he knows it,” Khadduri said. “Since 1994, (Kay) was obsessed by the idea of knocking over Saddam, no matter what.”
Ritter, whose pre-war skepticism about the administration’s WMD claims often provoked virulent attacks and insinuations that he was working for Hussein, charged that the administration is using Hussein’s capture “to divert attention from the WMD issue. The test will come whether Congress and the American people will stand for that,” he said.