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September 06, 2007

Salon WMD Story Seemingly Overstated

updated below

Salon is running a big story by Sidney Blumenthal headlined "Bush knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction." But while I hate to throw a wet blanket on everyone, and it's hard to know for sure, it appears overstated.

The story's about Naji Sabri, Saddam's foreign minister. As has been known for several years, Sabri was recruited as a spy by France, which then arranged for him to provide information to the US. And while he didn't say Iraq was teeming with banned weapons, he apparently also didn't say they were clean. Here's a Washington Post story from 2006:

[Sabri] provided information that the Iraqi dictator had ambitions for a nuclear program but that it was not active, and that no biological weapons were being produced or stockpiled, although research was underway.

When it came to chemical weapons, Sabri told his handler that some existed but they were not under military control, a former intelligence official familiar with the situation said. Another former official added: "He said he had been told Hussein had them dispersed among some of the loyal tribes."

Now, here's how Blumenthal's story begins:

On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam's inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail. Tenet never brought it up again.

These stories actually don't contradict each other. According to the Post, Sabri did say the Iraqi government itself had no actual banned weapons. So Blumenthal's story is literally correct that Sabri claimed "Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction." However, there's a significant difference between the head of the CIA telling the president "we have a spy who says Saddam wants a nuke, is hiding WMD programs and gave out chemical weapons to his tribal allies" and "we have a spy who says Iraq isn't hiding anything." The way the story's written gives you the impression it was the latter rather than the former. (And since it was the former, Sabri's claims haven't "turned out to be accurate in every detail.")

In fact, the Sabri story has always been the one part of all this that's made me feel sympathetic toward the Bush administration. If what Sabri was saying had been right, then they would have been justified in believing Iraq truly wasn't taking this last opportunity to come clean. They might well have believed that, whether or not the Iraqi military turned out to have actual WMD when U.S. troops arrived, Sabri's claims made it clear there was no way to disarm Saddam without an invasion.

So while no one wants to see these guys nailed on the WMD issue more than me, I don't think the Salon story does it. Instead, I get the impression Blumenthal's CIA sources are spinning what happened pretty hard. The clearest evidence of this is Tenet's February 5, 2004 speech on Iraq, in which he made reference to Sabri:

[A] source who had direct access to Saddam and his inner circle said Iraq was not in the possession of a nuclear weapon. However, Iraq was aggressively and covertly developing such a weapon.

Saddam had recently called together his nuclear weapons committee, irate that Iraq did not yet have a weapon because money was no object and they possessed the scientific know-how. The committee members assured Saddam that once fissile material was in hand, a bomb could be ready in 18 to 24 months. The return of U.N. inspectors would cause minimal disruption because, according to the source, Iraq was expert at denial and deception.

The same source said that Iraq was stockpiling chemical weapons and that equipment to produce insecticides under the oil-for-food program had been diverted to covert chemical weapons production.

The source said that Iraq's weapons of last resort were mobile launchers armed with chemical weapons which would be fired at enemy forces in Israel; that Iraqi scientists were dabbling with biological weapons with limited success, but the quantities were not sufficient to constitute a real weapons program.

It would be pretty odd if Tenet had told Bush in September, 2002, "Sabri says they have nothing!" and then said this in public eighteen months later. I strongly suspect he said the same thing both times, and the "Saddam's regime itself doesn't have WMD right this second" part is being cherry picked out of it in 2007.

In any case, the most interesting part to me is what Sabri was up to. Was he lying? Or unknowingly providing false information—and if so, why did he believe it? Maybe someday we'll find out, since according to the Salon piece he's now spending France's money in Qatar.

UPDATE: Thanks for the comments. To clarify, I agree the WMD issue is a distraction. The only thing that matters is Bush & co. wanted war and didn't care what the facts were. Moreover, in politics, spending time on "intelligence" is always a trap. It has almost nothing to do with what happens. (See Arthur Silber.)

I also agree Tenet was probably spinning things himself at Georgetown (in the other direction). He's a shameless hack.

However, the reason I pointed this out is because careful journalism is important—because it's important for people to stay in complicated reality, rather than believing misleading stories because they want to believe them. It concerns me when I see "our" "side" doing this. In particular, I think Donald Johnson is correct, below, that Blumenthal presented things this way because it seems to get Democrats off the hook.

Posted at September 6, 2007 08:23 PM | TrackBack

the only concrete conclusion that can be drawn from what we know so far is that the US government doesn't know its ass from its elbow. keeping that in mind, a suggestion:
perhaps sabri was being perfectly honest. maybe saddam HAD distributed small amounts of decades-old chemical weapons among sunni tribes in the west. these weapons may have been whisked out of the country before (or after) OIF, or maybe they were still there and the US had no real way of finding them.
the overarching point, as i see it, is still that the WMD issue is a distraction -- that even if saddam did have antrax, nukes, etc., an invasion followed by an open-ended occupation was the WORST way to deal with such a situation (this is, of course, ignoring the primary fact that such a policy is criminal from its inception).

i appreciate the effort to debunk blumenthal's piece. this 'gotcha' journalism is getting pretty embarassing.

Posted by: uticas at September 6, 2007 11:34 PM

First, you are way too good at this.

But, from the Blumenthal article:
"The information detailed that Saddam may have wished to have a program, that his engineers had told him they could build a nuclear weapon within two years if they had fissile material, which they didn't, and that they had no chemical or biological weapons..."

Tenet's speech seems overblown - no surprise there. If the source he is referring to is indeed Sabri, then these hardly seem like consistent details. A meeting where Saddam's cronies desperately assure him that they could build a bomb if they had fissile material does not constitute "aggressively and covertly developing such a weapon".

Blumenthal seems right in the main point - Sabri provided evidence that Saddam had no nuclear or biological weapons (there seems to be some inconsistency on the chemical weapons in various accounts, so let's ignore those). And none of this was discussed in other places, or used to temper the claim that Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs.

Posted by: saurabh at September 6, 2007 11:35 PM

I appreciate your urge to "balance" your criticism of right and left wing journalists, but all of this misses the point. Bush was NEVER concerned with the truth. Bush NEVER cared one whit about whether or not Saddam had WMDs. None.

Bush's ONLY concern was having HIS WAY. It's all about winning an argument, not about finding the truth. Screw the truth.

By the time the invasion commenced, it should have been patently obvious to everyone paying any attention that Bush had bent every rule, twisted every principle, and outright lied to make this happen. All of it was gambled on the notion that when the dust settled, Americans would be pleased with the outcome. That's it.

Well, the outcome was lousy. That's it.

Please stop all the parsing and hand-wringing. Bush hasn't earned any "fair treatment" or "benefit of the doubt". He begged, borrowed and stole credibility to pull off his war-of-choice. He is responsible for the outcome. If he didn't actually know beforehand that Saddam had no WMDs, then I should feel sorry for him? Does he deserve my pity now?

I guess I am supposed to believe that the most powerful, most sophisticated, most advanced intelligence agency in existence, to have ever existed, is simply incompetent. More likely it's Bush who thinks that I am incompetent, and just can't grasp these facts. He is wrong.

Posted by: DigitalDave at September 7, 2007 12:11 AM

I guess the operative thing here is: If bush & cheney didn't know about that one, what else don't they know?

Posted by: Susan at September 7, 2007 01:02 AM

This emphasizes to me how secretive our government has become from Cheney not telling us who actually works for him to all the closed door shenanigans of the administration and Congress including the Democrats who have been writing free trade agreements behind closed doors. The fact seems to be that most of what is discussed concerning motives is based on conjecture and here-say. Any sympathy I may have had for this government evaporated a long time ago. Still if a national publication is going to claim that Bush knew Saddam was not hiding WMD I would rather that it was not based on spin. Also my impression from the very beginning of this was that when the administration spoke of WMD they were referring solely to nuclear weapons as in those “mushroom clouds” and that it was only later that some began to include chemical and biological weapons under the umbrella of WMD.

Posted by: rob payne at September 7, 2007 02:16 AM

Jon, I'm not sure where the sympathy for Bush comes in. As you noted, both accounts concur on the salient point: Iraq possessed no banned weapons at the time of the invasion (or for many years beforehand, a fact which US intelligence already knew from debriefing Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who had been in charge of destroying the weapons programs after the Gulf War). Given this fact, where is the justification for believing that Saddam could not be disarmed without an invasion? He was already disarmed, and the Bush Administration knew it (or could have known it if they'd wanted to know it) from Sabri, from Kamel, and from the dearth of any hard evidence whatsoever, save for fantasies from the likes of "Curveball" and the knowing lies of operators like Ahmad Chalabi.

So again, I don't see how any justification for the war can be wrung from the intelligence provided by Sabri. Nor would I assume that Tenet's speech, citing Sabri's data, is true; in fact, we know some of it was completely untrue, such as the "mobile launchers armed with chemical weapons," which was not in the later Washington Post report you cited. If Sabri told his handlers about chemical weapons launchers, then he was lying. But I suspect that it was Tenet who was lying, deliberately conflating intelligence from Sabri with that of fabricators like Curveball and Chalabi.

As I understand it, the UN resolution that provided Saddam with "one last opportunity to come clean" required Iraq to eliminate its WMD arsenal and development programs. As Iraq had no WMD arsenal and development programs, Saddam was "clean" in terms of this last chance, which the inspectors would have proved in a few weeks' time, just as the Duefler report did years later.

But yes, if one buys the Administration argument that the invasion was "justified" because, as Sabri confirmed, Saddam was still wishing he could have WMDs someday, then Sabri's intelligence bolsters that case. But here we enter the realm of "pre-crime": Saddam has no banned weapons, but he might try to get them again someday, so we are "justified" in invading Iraq now to prevent the realization of this potential, hypothetical situation. But this line of thinking is clearly not a genuine argument; it is only a smokescreen to be hauled out at any time, and against anyone, whenever Washington wants to justify military aggression.

I know that you personally don't think the invasion was justified in any case, and you were just imagining how Sabri's intel might have looked to the Bushists. But I can't have any sympathy with anyone who would use this kind of argument to justify military action; nor, given the history of these past six years, do I think we can assume even the slightest scintilla of good faith or sincerity in the Bushists' motives for war, i.e., that they really were concerned about Saddam's WMD (present or future), and so were looking for any data that would bolster their desire to take preventive action to rid the world of this evil scourge.

That said, I agree the Salon piece was overblown, and not very useful in nailing the Bushists on the WMD issue.

Posted by: Chris Floyd at September 7, 2007 06:24 AM

I only skimmed the Salon article, but it struck me as something a partisan Democrat like Blumenthal would write, because he put a lot of emphasis on the fact that only Bush knew about what Sabri had said---the poor innocent Democrats were kept in the dark. They were misled and if they knew then what they know now, etc....

Posted by: Donald Johnson at September 7, 2007 07:36 AM


Thanks for the comments. I've responded in an update, above.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at September 7, 2007 09:04 AM

The problem is not that they were skeptical of Sabri -- who wouldn't be? -- but that they were dismissive of Sabri on the basis of 3d-rate garbage like Curveball.

Posted by: Anderson at September 7, 2007 11:16 AM

The U.S. also had their own high-ranking Iraqi defector: Hussein Kamel, who told CIA and British intelligence officers and U.N. inspectors that Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them after the first Gulf War.
Sabri confirmed that Iraq had not reconstituted programs since then, but retained the capacity to do so in the future. The UN inspectors had all but confirmed it prior to the invasion. Bush knew.

Posted by: David Campbell at September 7, 2007 01:42 PM

El-Baradei in his presentation to the UN Security Council gave a unequivocal IAEA thumbs down on the nuclear issue (nothing there). So only biological and chemical weapons remained as a potential problem and on those the inspectors were reporting good progress. Moreover, these weapons, if they did exist, could never be delivered to the US or Britain. So there just could be no threat to the US. Iraq was economically broken, its army decrepit... Millions of protesters around the world perfectly knew the score on all of this.

That is all we need on this issue.

Posted by: Paul at September 7, 2007 02:57 PM

What's to be made of "retained the capacity to do so in the future"? Fuck, *I* retain the capacity to build an atomic bomb in the future. It's probably not that hard, if I really wanted to. Nuclear sites around the US aren't very secure, and building a bomb takes almost no brains. Similarly, a competent set of chemists could probably cook up VX and the like without too much hassle. The ability to do shit "in the future" just means you are human and not brain-damaged.

Posted by: saurabh at September 7, 2007 03:08 PM

You are brain dead if you want to build bombs and poison gas.( Or you really, really, hate the neighborhood.)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 7, 2007 07:44 PM

like Donald Johnson I question Blumenthal's assertion that the senate democrats were misled, mainly because I recall a few months ago Dick Durbin getting up on the floor and saying that they ALL knew more than they let on (in the committee he served on with Edwards and HRC- the foreign relations committee, I think) in 2002, but were restrained from telling what they knew by executive order. (Of course they weren't restrained as far as voting went, apart from being restrained by political calculation.)

Do you have any thoughts on Durbin's comments?

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at September 8, 2007 05:48 AM

The Salon piece pulls one small item out of the context of 2002-2003. The IAEA inspections revealed no WMDs, and they went to dozens and doznes of sites in Iraq, often multiple times, given them by the Bush admin in the weeks running up to the war.
Blumenthal was a loyal Clinton administration member; he's pub'ing this to provide cover for the leading Dems running for president. A major theme to Blumenthal's article is that the Bushies didn't pass the info on to the Senate, and so the Democrats get to play dumb, as though there were no other high-grade public record info out there of no WMDs. There was, beginning with the inspections, but including Kamel, the immediate disintegration of Colin Powell's lying presentation to the UN, the disintegration of the UK "dossier," on and on and on.
I repeat, Blumenthal's mission here is to have us believe that W ignored info put directly to him, kept it from being made available to the Democrats, and consequently the Democrats were kept in the dark. T'ain't so; they're war criminals too.

Posted by: Terry at September 9, 2007 12:39 AM

I appreciated the spirit (and factuality) of the original post. Personally, I didn't think your update (at TMW) was necessary. Holding "progressive" journalists to the standards that we hope for -but despair of- in the average MSM doesn't make you an apologist for Bush. It just means you're fair minded enough to know that the need for unbiased news cuts both ways.

People who value rationality, discourse, and (most importantly), access to accurate reporting and insightful commentary, need to be more precise with information and editorializing than the average wing-nut. Precision and discernment are part of our value system (and manifestly not part of the conservatives').

I like to hear Bush slammed in the press as much as anyone. But there is so much real evidence of this administration's lies, deceit and villainy, that surely no spin or exaggeration is needed. It would be a great misfortune if our (perfectly justifiable) anger at Bush led us to be as hypocritical as the people we mock.

To paraphrase an old movie, about spin and slander-mongering. "Our job is to put an end to all that. Because if we do that we win, because our ideas are better."

Anyway, totally pretentious, long winded way of saying, I thought you were dead-on to call Salon out on their spin. I enjoyed reading it very much. No need for back-peddling.

Posted by: Greebs at September 9, 2007 06:55 PM

Thanks for clearing this up, and for reminding us that we can't hold people accountable when we get caught up by misleading info--even when, or especially when it appears to serve our point of view.

Posted by: Eric Carman at September 10, 2007 07:31 PM