News Analysis

Speaking on the Senate floor June 24, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) assailed efforts to cover up the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence to justify war on Iraq. Byrd said, “We must be straight with the American people. Congress has the obligation to investigate the use of intelligence information by the administration, in the open, so that the American people can see that those who exercise power, especially the awesome power of preemptive war, must be held accountable. We must not go down the road of cover-up. That is the road to ruin.”

Over the objections of Democrats, Republicans had forced a closed-door “review” of the administration’s handling of intelligence in the run-up to the war. Condemning the Republican maneuvering, Byrd said, “This is no time for a timid Congress. We have a responsibility to act in the national interest and protect the American people.”

Questions are mounting over the administration’s omissions and distortions of classified intelligence data to build a case that Iraq presented an imminent threat to the U.S. because it possessed nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and had direct links to Al Qaeda.

Investigative reporting by The New York Times, Washington Post and The New Republic reveals a campaign of pressure by the Bush administration and behind-the-scenes struggle over access to intelligence information and interpretation of scientific data that has left members of the Senate Intelligence Committee fighting for declassification of materials and has stimulated calls for public hearings.

United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, who retired June 28, said he believes there was little more than “debris” left of Iraq’s previous weapons program. Many in the international intelligence community and in the Defense Intelligence Agency agree that most of whatever nuclear, biological or chemical weapons Iraq had was destroyed in the 1990s during the first U.S. invasion and actions taken by the UN.

Evidence of a bitter internal struggle that began Sept. 11, 2001, between the CIA and the White House continues to surface. The Bush administration was set on war on Iraq. But even former officials from the first Bush administration and conservatives in Congress were not convinced Iraq posed an imminent danger and was capable of launching an attack on the U.S.

In the fall of 2002, administration officials launched a massive public relations campaign targeting Iraq, using official appearances by President Bush and extensive media interviews with top administration officials to paint pictures of mushroom clouds and ten of thousands of innocent U.S. victims of nuclear terrorism. As Byrd characterized it in his June 24 Senate speech, “It is clear that the administration’s rhetoric played upon the well-founded fear of the American public about future acts of terrorism.”

In a June 15 interview on “Meet the Press,” former Gen. Wesley Clark told NBC’s Tim Russert he had been called by administration officials on Sept. 11, 2001, and asked to make the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda in media interviews. Clark said he was told, “‘You got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein.’” Clark said he replied, “‘But – I’m willing to say it, but what’s your evidence?’ And I never got any evidence.”

During the congressional debate last October on the resolution authorizing war, the Senate Intelligence Committee received classified reports that contradicted the Bush administration’s public statements. Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) became increasingly frustrated that they could not discuss the details because the information was classified. They demanded that the CIA declassify sections especially related to the failure to connect Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. Now other questions they are still not allowed to speak on are beginning to surface from other sources, increasing the pressure for full disclosure of the intelligence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction and links to international terrorism.

Sen. Durbin told the The New Republic, “The most frustrating thing I find is when you have credible evidence on the intelligence committee that is directly contradictory to statements made by the administration.”

The calls from members of Congress, including Byrd’s dramatic Senate speech, for an open investigation with immunity for those who step forward are increasingly important as the Iraq occupation crisis continues and new war dangers grow, targeting Iran, Syria, Korea and Cuba.

The hesitancy of the media as well as some in Congress to challenge the Bush administration underscores the dramatic negative impact that the far right’s aggressive policy of first strike, preemptive war by any means necessary has had on democracy. The administration has seized the momentum through lies and distortions. Unless uncovered, these could propel new military actions and continued momentum to undermine international law and diplomacy globally and democracy here at home.

The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org

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