Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Weapons of mass... amnesia

Bush team still sparring over who to blame for infamous Iraq WMD speech

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It was the presentation that made the case for war -- and the mistake that someday will make the opening paragraph of Colin Powell's obituary.

On Feb. 5, 2003, at the request of President George W. Bush, Powell went before the UN Security Council, equipped with audiotapes, satellite images and a prop vial, and argued Iraq possessed and was concealing weapons of mass destruction. "Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources," the secretary of state said. "These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."

History would soon show otherwise. But a decade later, Powell and other members of the Bush team, through their memoirs, continue to spar over how this flawed speech came to be and who should shoulder the blame.


Colin Powell in his book It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership:

Because the case against Iraq has become identified in so many minds with my UN speech, I still get asked about it frequently, and it's a target for regular attacks on the Internet. Were we lying? Did we know the evidence was false?

The answer to these questions is no.

There are other questions: Why did so many senior people fall for such shaky sources? Why and how did the CIA fail so massively? Did analysts decide to tell us what they thought we wanted to hear? It was even possible that we had been tricked by Iraqi disinformation. If Saddam wanted us to believe he had WMDs, then he convinced us.

I have no answers to those questions. I wish I did.

My questions don't stop there. I've asked myself again and again: "Should I have seen the NIE's (the National Intelligence Estimate's) weaknesses? Should I have sniffed them out? Did my critical instincts fail me?"

And then I read articles and books by former CIA officials describing their shock at the unsupported claims in my UN speech. Where were they when the NIE was being prepared months earlier, or when these same claims were being written into the president's January 2003 state of the union address?

Yes, I was annoyed, and I'm still annoyed. And yes, I wish there weren't so many unanswered questions. And yes, I get mad when bloggers accuse me of lying -- of knowing the information was false. I didn't. And yes, a blot, a failure, will always be attached to me and my UN presentation. But I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me.


Condoleezza Rice in her book No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington

I've replayed all of this over and over through the years. What could have we done differently? Where did I fail? Clearly, we had allowed the argument concerning WMD to get disconnected from the broader strategic case against Saddam. I should never have sanctioned the use of bits of intelligence, particularly by the president. The intelligence agencies were indeed wrong about the extent of the WMD threat from Saddam but not in saying that there was evidence of a threat. There were competing views in the intelligence community, but the agency thought that he'd reconstituted his biological and chemical weapons capability and all but the State Department thought that he was doing so on the nuclear side. That assessment was shared by several foreign intelligence agencies, too. I bristled as I listened to congressional critics accuse us of inflating the threat while forgetting their own prior statements of the impending doom posed by Saddam's WMD.

Ultimately, the fallout took a toll on all of us. Colin has described the presentation at the United Nations on Feb. 5 as a stain on his career. I am sorry that he feels that way, and it pains me to know that is the moment that is often called up in reviewing the long and stellar record of service of this American hero and my friend. But Colin didn't seek to deceive anyone. None of us did. In retrospect, I wish I'd said over and over again that intelligence always carries uncertainties; that is the nature of the beast.


Dick Cheney in his book In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir

After Christmas the president asked Colin Powell to make the public case against Saddam at the UN. The work Scooter (Libby) and Steve (Hadley) had done, co-ordinating with a CIA officer detailed to the National Security Council and drawing from intelligence community reports, was forwarded to Powell for him to use as he prepared his remarks. I called Colin, told him the package he had received had good material in it and encouraged him to take a look. Powell and members of his staff said later that they threw Steve's and Scooter's documents out and spent several days and nights at the CIA, where they personally confirmed with George Tenet every piece of information that went into his speech...

Later, when it turned out that much of what Powell said about weapons of mass destruction was wrong, I think embarrassment caused him and those around him to lash out at others. Libby seemed to be a particular target of their ire. They excoriated the material that he and the National Security Council staff had provided, while at the same time boasting that they had thrown it in the garbage. As it happened, much of what they discarded focused on Saddam's ties to terror and human rights violations, charges that would stand the test of time.


Donald H. Rumsfeld in his book Known and Unknown: A Memoir

As we now know, portions of Powell's presentation about Iraq's WMD programs proved not to be accurate, but something interesting happened over the years that followed... Over time, a narrative developed that Powell was somehow innocently misled into making a false declaration to the Security Council and the world. Powell himself later contended, in defence of his participation, "There were some people in the intelligence community who knew at the time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn't be relied upon, and they didn't speak up. That devastated me." When asked why these people did not speak up, he replied, "I can't answer that."

Powell had spent decades in uniform and had become the most senior military officer in our country, and at every level he had spent long hours dealing with intelligence. As President Reagan's national security adviser, he routinely had been exposed to reporting and analysis from the intelligence community. As secretary of state, his department's own intelligence agency reported to him. There was no one else in the administration who had even a fraction of his experience in intelligence matters, including CIA director Tenet. Powell was not duped or misled by anybody, nor did he lie about Saddam's suspected WMD stockpiles. The president did not lie. The vice-president did not lie. Tenet did not lie. Rice did not lie. I did not lie. The Congress did not lie. The far less dramatic truth is that we were wrong.


George W. Bush in his book Decision Points

The best way to get a second (UN) resolution was to lay out the evidence against Saddam. I asked Colin to make the presentation to the UN. He had credibility as a highly respected diplomat known to be reluctant about the possibility of war. I knew he would do a thorough, careful job. In early February, Colin spent four days and four nights at the CIA personally reviewing the intelligence to ensure he was comfortable with every word in his speech. On Feb. 5, he took the microphone at the Security Council...

Colin's presentation was exhaustive, eloquent, and persuasive... Later, many of the assertions in Colin's speech would prove inaccurate. But at the time, his words reflected the considered judgment of intelligence agencies at home and around the world.


George Tenet in his book At the Center of the Storm: The CIA During America's Time of Crisis

Colin asked to come out to CIA headquarters along with several of his speech writers and senior aides to work through the speech and make sure it was as solid as possible. Although he didn't say so explicitly, I believe one of the reasons he wanted to have the speech worked on at the agency was the sense that, within our barbed-wire-encircled headquarters compound, we were relatively free from interference from downtown...

When Colin's team first arrived at CIA, they had in their hands a 59-page document on WMD with which they presumed we were familiar. Powell assumed that the White House had pulled the document together in co-ordination with the intelligence community. But what the White House handed him was something very different, something that we had never seen before...

Some members of Powell's team who participated in assembling the speech have subsequently spoken out about the ordeal and given the impression that they were standing alone on the bulwark, keeping out the bad intelligence. That is not how CIA participants remember it... Our memory is that CIA and State Department officials worked side by side to rid the draft of material that would not stand up...

Despite our efforts, a lot of flawed information still made its way into the speech. No one involved regrets that more than I do. But I have often wondered whether we might have uncovered more of those flaws if our people had not had to spend two days getting the garbage out of a White House draft.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2013 A6

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