Commentary Magazine

Intelligence & Iraq

To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz writes as though the best argument advanced by critics of the Bush administration is that the President knowingly uttered false statements in making the case for war [“Who Is Lying About Iraq?,” December 2005]. That is not so. What critics have pointed out is that many of the public claims of administration officials in the run-up to the invasion were based on information that most U.S. intelligence experts believed to be unreliable. Mr. Podhoretz’s parade of pre-war quotes from Democrats unequivocally establishes that Saddam Hussein was widely believed to be a threat, but they shed no light on the charge that the administration mischaracterized that threat by the negligent or willful misconstruing of intelligence.

Critics maintain that the administration trumpeted fearsome-sounding allegations while systematically disregarding more prudent and accurate analyses; that officials broke with past procedures by analyzing intelligence directly, and were credulous of defectors and prisoners whom intelligence professionals viewed with skepticism; and that specific claims regarding Iraq’s nuclear program and the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda were based on intelligence known to be of dubious accuracy.

All of this goes unmentioned by Mr. Podhoretz. Instead, he breezily declares that “[t]o lie means to say something one knows to be false.” But my dictionary also defines a lie as “something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.” In defining deceit down, Mr. Podhoretz is, at best, engaging in revisionist English.

He points out that the President never uttered the phrase “imminent threat.” This overlooks the fact that the President called Iraq a threat of “unique urgency.” Donald Rumsfeld (unmentioned in Mr. Podhoretz’s essay) said that he “would not be so sure” that the threat from Iraq was not imminent. He also claimed that “we know where [the WMD] are.” At any rate, the administration acted as though the threat were imminent, declining to allow weapons inspectors to complete their work.

Despite Mr. Podhoretz’s obsession with Joseph Wilson, the fact remains that the CIA was dubious of the claim that Saddam sought uranium from Niger even before Wilson made his trip there. Throughout 2002, Bush’s adviser Stephen Hadley ignored CIA warnings that the Niger yellowcake story was false. In the end, by sourcing the report to British intelligence, the administration managed to sneak a scary-sounding assertion into the State of the Union address without taking any responsibility for its accuracy.

Mr. Podhoretz makes much of the fact that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has said that his indictment of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby for his role in the Joseph Wilson/Valerie Plame affair “is not about the war.” But the indictment does give some insight into the Bush administration’s treatment of inconvenient and stubborn facts. When confronted with the public discrediting of a claim it had made in the run-up to war, the administration knew not to insist on its accuracy. Instead, it sought to discredit Wilson, the messenger.

Mr. Podhoretz is capable of much better than “Who Is Lying About Iraq?” I hope he will soon cease laboring to paper over the mistakes the U.S. has made in the past, and work to convince Americans that a secure and democratic Iraq can be a model for the Middle East and a landmark for U.S. foreign policy.

Matthew Foley

Christiansted, Virginia


To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz’s article merely continues the deceit about Iraq. Contrary to what he suggests, the real question is not whether intelligence indicated the existence of WMD in Iraq but whether the WMD threat was so extreme that immediate war was the only realistic policy. The questions “Why war?” and “Why then?” have been ignored by Mr. Podhoretz and other apologists for the Bush administration.

No doubt war was needed to depose Saddam, but not to stop his WMD threat. It is true that (as Mr. Podhoretz notes) President Clinton and other Democrats believed that Saddam probably had WMD, and that in 1998, Democratic Senators urged Clinton to take “necessary actions”—including, “if appropriate, air and missile strikes on suspected Iraqi [WMD] sites”—but that is not the same as deploying a half-million ground troops.

Moreover, by March 2003, Saddam had been forced to readmit the UN weapons inspectors he had ejected in 1998, and the same Democrats were urging President Bush to delay the invasion so that the inspectors would have time to finish their work. To be sure, the inspectors were facing resistance and evasions from Saddam, but progress was being made, and they were beginning to cast doubt on the accuracy of the “estimates” and assertions on which the Bush policy was based.

But Bush could not wait to achieve his true objective of regime change by force of arms. So, to garner the support of the American people for his war of choice, he and his administration exaggerated the threat to U.S. security and offered straw-man arguments—and therein lay the lie.

Take the portions of the 2003 State of the Union address that Mr. Podhoretz himself quotes. Contrary to the President’s rhetoric, no one was suggesting that the U.S. trust “in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein.” No one was insisting that we wait until “terrorists and tyrants”—note the subtle alliterative linking of al Qaeda and Saddam—“announced their intentions.” No one was suggesting that the U.S. allow Saddam’s WMD threat to “fully and suddenly emerge” before taking action. But actions short of a ground invasion were available, from expanding the no-fly zone to gradually more coercive inspections to air and missile strikes on suspected WMD sites or even on the al-Qaeda training camp that purportedly proved Saddam’s alliance with Osama bin Laden.

President Bush would have none of this. He wanted a ground invasion to depose Saddam. So he and his minions pumped up the evidence of WMD to suggest that an attack by the al Qaeda-Saddam alliance was so imminent that immediate invasion was necessary to protect America’s security. That was the deception, and that was how President Bush, in more ways than one, misled us into war.

Michael Starr

New York City


To the Editor:

In building his case that the Bush administration was forthright in leading America into war in Iraq, Norman Podhoretz does what the Bush administration has been accused of doing, namely, obfuscating in order to push an agenda. I will cite but two examples.

Mr. Podhoretz states that even Hans Blix “lent further credibility to the case [that Saddam Hussein was harboring WMD] in a report he issued only a few months before the invasion.” A long quote from Blix about the “discovery of a number of chemical rocket warheads” that possibly represented “the tip of a submerged iceberg” is then offered, but Mr. Podhoretz, in an uncharacteristic effort to save words, shortens the quote with an ellipsis. See, though, how the missing text changes the meaning: “The investigation of these rockets is still proceeding. Iraq states that they were overlooked from 1991 from a batch of some 2,000 that were stored there during the Gulf war. This could be the case.”

To substantiate Bush’s argument for a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, Mr. Podhoretz mentions the “independent British investigation conducted by Lord Butler, which pointed to ‘meetings . . . between senior Iraqi representatives and senior al-Qaeda operatives.’” Again, crucial phrases are left out. The immediately preceding sentence in the Butler Report is this: “Although Saddam’s attitude to al Qaeda has not always been consistent, he has generally rejected suggestions of cooperation.” Elsewhere, Butler stated: “We have no intelligence of current cooperation between Iraq and al Qaeda and do not believe that al Qaeda plans to conduct terrorist attacks under Iraqi direction.”

Paragraph after paragraph, Mr. Podhoretz shades meanings to suit his thesis. The fantasy is complete when he states with confidence that the war is “proving itself more and more every day to be a victory of American arms and a vindication of American ideals.” This ignores the increasing violence in Iraq, reports of prisoner abuses by the U.S. military, the negative view of too many Iraqis toward their American “liberators,” and other blights that have occurred or come to light since our President declared “victory.”

Lee Reich

New Paltz, New York


To the Editor:

I daresay I have read almost everything Norman Podhoretz has written over the last 40 years, such is my respect for what he has to say—though I do not always agree with him—on a wide range of subjects. I applaud him for his summary account of why he believes it is a lie to say that President Bush told a series of lies to justify going to war in Iraq.

My difference here with Mr. Podhoretz is in my judgment that the real or most troubling issue is not whether the President lied. (I may be mistaken, but I know of no Democrat or Republican in Congress who has accused him of outright lying or of fabricating pre-war intelligence.) The serious question is whether George W. Bush shared with Congress all of the intelligence he was given prior to his decision to invade.

Is it true, for example, that (as Hendrik Hertzberg has claimed) such information as the administration did impart to Congress “had been scrubbed of the doubts and refutations of intelligence professionals”? It may well be that what the President chose not to tell Congress (and the American people) does not rise to the level of lying. But did he refrain from telling the full truth when to do so might have made a difference in the debate leading up to the vote on the war?

Perhaps if the President had been more straightforward about the pre-war intelligence, and about the failures in prosecuting the war since the fall of Saddam Hussein, he might not now be having to dissuade the majority of Americans of their belief (as indicated by polls) that he “deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq.”

John H. Bunzel

Hoover Institution

Stanford, California


To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz marshals a powerful set of quotations to prove that “it is as close to certainty as we can get that Bush believed in the truth of what he was saying about WMD in Iraq.” But there is one big piece of evidence he does not address. For several months, almost up to the day of the invasion, a substantial group of UN weapons inspectors had found no evidence of WMD. According to Hans Blix:

While inspectors identified and supervised the destruction of missiles that somewhat exceeded the permitted range, they did not find any of the WMD which were unaccounted for, nor did they get credible explanations for their absence. The Iraqis grumbled but behaved tolerably well. They did not even make any serious resistance to inspections of two presidential sites—in their eyes probably the most sacrosanct spots in Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld famously dismissed the failure to find WMD by declaring that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” But surely the absence of evidence would suggest to anyone at least the possibility and, after a time, maybe even the probability, that there was nothing to be found. Bush was undoubtedly well informed about the inspectors’ actions. He no doubt also knew that his own CIA had no useful leads to give to them.

Blix wanted more time to search further. A majority of the members of the UN Security Council wanted to give it to him. But we would not wait. This strongly suggests that Bush’s primary motivation was something other than the threat of WMD. That, together with evidence of the “stovepiping” of intelligence, makes one doubt that he and those around him were being entirely ingenuous with the public.


John M. Levy

Blacksburg, Virginia


To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz points out many important facts and rationales in support of the invasion of Iraq, but he fails to point out the dissenting facts and opinions that were available to administration officials. They got Iraq wrong, and did so for the reason that has been repeatedly pointed out by a range of observers, from former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill to the victims of Hurricane Katrina: this administration does not do its homework, does not systematically analyze the available information, and consequently makes poorly informed decisions. In short, the Bush administration is incompetent.

Charlie Mills

Seattle, Washington


To the Editor:

For Norman Podhoretz to criticize the Democrats who are trying to discredit the Bush team and to redefine their own pre-war positions is fair. My problem with his article lies in the disconnect between the due diligence he attributes to the Bush team’s gathering of pre-war intelligence and its actual execution of the war. Why was that due diligence not apparent in the deployment of larger numbers of American troops, in providing them with the right equipment, in postwar contingency plans, and so on?

If the Bush team had prepared adequately, there would be less reason to write articles defending its conduct of the war. Mr. Podhoretz’s consistent, uncritical support for an administration whose record begs for honest appraisal is disheartening.

Beston Jack Abrams

Trenton, New Jersey


To the Editor:

The basic theme of Norman Podhoretz’s article is that President Bush did not deliberately mislead the American people about Iraq. Mr. Podhoretz does not attempt to prove that Bush did not, in fact, mislead the American people, however innocently. One is left wondering if Bush would have gone ahead had he anticipated more than 2,000 soldiers killed and a protracted insurgency.

Mr. Podhoretz closes by assuring us that the war is being won. I pray that he is right.

Donald Feldstein

Teaneck, New Jersey


To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz makes a strong argument condemning Democrats who have flip-flopped on the war in Iraq, but he seems to have forgotten that the Bush administration was fixated on Iraq from the beginning of its first term. The President raised the issue of revenge in comments about Saddam’s attempt to assassinate his father after the first Gulf war. The administration also tried to persuade us that terrorists were operating inside Iraq prior to the war. There was even talk of an Iraq-9/11 connection. Bush himself may not have lied, but his administration should have been more cautious and in less of a hurry to send others into war.

Michael Parker

Washington, D.C.


To the Editor:

Thank you for the wonderful addition to Norman Podhoretz’s previous “World War IV” articles. I find that one of the common, unchallenged arguments from the Left is the accusation that Iraq was not an “imminent threat.” I like to remind war critics that the Department of Defense under President Clinton believed that Iraq’s WMD were a growing threat, so much so that in January 2001, outgoing Secretary of Defense William Cohen left a report for President Bush stating: “Iraq retains the expertise, once a decision is made, to resume chemical-agent production within a few weeks or months, depending on the type of agent.”

Heather Ruehl

Chicago, Illinois


To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz’s article might have included some salient remarks made by former President Bill Clinton in a 2003 interview with Larry King. They are particularly troublesome for Democrats seeking to accuse the Bush administration of lying about Iraq’s WMD. As Clinton said, “It is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted-for stocks of biological and chemical weapons. We might have destroyed them in ’98. We tried to, but we sure as heck didn’t know it because we never got to go back in there.”

Gary Hall

Los Angeles, California


To the Editor:

I do not have the words to say how cheered I was by Norman Podhoretz’s recent article, a fantastic summary of who said what about the Iraqi threat prior to the U.S. invasion. Not only does it debunk the allegations of lying by the Bush administration, it shows how biased and hypocritical the Bush critics really are.

Politics is one thing, national security another. I cannot for the life of me understand how a person holding national office or having a national voice in the media could distort the evidence on such an important issue. Thank God we have a few cool and thoughtful observers who can state things objectively.

The only thing I would have added to Mr. Podhoretz’s article was an explanation of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, signed into law by President Clinton. It clearly stated that Saddam was a threat to the United States. How anyone could have voted for that legislation and now backtrack on armed intervention is an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

Richard Jones

Gainesville, Forida


To the Editor:

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Bush did lie; that he knew there were no WMD in Iraq. He would also have known that, sooner or later, this fact would be discovered. Can anyone suppose he would have thought that the media and the Democrats would give him a pass? To ask the question is to answer it.

Thomas Letchfield Palo Alto, California To the Editor: Several decades ago, Richard Rovere wrote a seminal book on the Army-McCarthy hearings in which he addressed the concept of the “Big Lie,” showing how a falsehood repeated again and again could by fatigue alone come to be accepted as the truth.

Norman Podhoretz has now exposed such lies, but in my opinion he might as well be Socrates trying to reason with the Athenian mob. Gone now is adherence to Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s admonition that politics should stop at the water’s edge. Today, everything is for the moment. Failed politicians make speeches overseas and in Iraq itself denouncing their own country. As Senator Joseph Lieberman recently warned, the war in Iraq may be won on the battlefield but, as with Vietnam, lost in Washington.

Frederic Wile

New York City


To the Editor:

The article by Norman Podhoretz is one of the most cogent I have read in a long time. What passes for the “loyal opposition” in the U.S. has long since dropped any pretense of reasoned political discourse. We now are treated to a diet of shrill, strident, and outrageous sound bites, predictably packaged by a press corps lacking even the façade of independence.

J. Paul Giuliani

Montpelier, Vermont


To the Editor:

The extensive documentation Norman Podhoretz has assembled should put to rest forever any notion that the President deliberately lied about the state of Iraq’s WMD program in the run-up to the war. But of course it will not.

Bush’s opponents intend to de-legitimize the war—and his presidency—by any means necessary. In that ongoing campaign, mere facts do not matter. And so we have a relentless series of manufactured “scandals”—the Abu Ghraib orgy, the Cindy Sheehan carnival, the Joseph Wilson/ Valerie Plame charade, the Scooter Libby indictment—each exploited for weeks until it has run out of steam or collapses of its own accord and it is time for the next. But the hardy, indestructible perennial is the “Bush lied” refrain. It was there from the beginning, and returns, it seems, whenever there is a momentary pause in the media hype.

Robert L. Marshall

Newton, Massachusetts


To the Editor:

Thank you for Norman Podhoretz’s refreshing article on the calculated amnesia among certain American politicians as to why the U.S. is in Iraq. Many of us outside the U.S. fully subscribe to his analysis. Prior to the invasion, no Western nation disputed the intelligence on which the war was based, which only shows how far a dictator can get before rightly getting trapped in his own cruel fantasies.

What I find worrisome is that freedom of the press in the U.S. has become a euphemism for a press acting like a political party, publishing only news that agrees with its agenda. It seems that balanced, carefully examined, independent news is nowhere to be found. Only the scoop matters, and only if it matches the prevailing sentiment. Lost in all this is the fact that America’s foreign policy, while hard-nosed and pragmatic, is essentially enlightened and noble.

Anthony Steyning

Malaga, Spain


To the Editor:

Thank you for Norman Podhoretz’s article. As a career military-intelligence officer with two deployments to Iraq, I can say that the most frustrating thing I have experienced in almost 20 years of service has been the cloud of lies surrounding the war, and the apparent willingness of so many people to believe them, despite all contrary evidence.

I do not mind deploying—leaving behind my wife and small children—or whatever small risks I incur, because, measured against the good we are accomplishing, my inconvenience is a small thing. But it is discouraging to come home and find so many people who are so passionately wrong about why we went to Iraq in the first place. Mr. Podhoretz’s article is a great source of encouragement and a ready supply of ammunition for debate.

Major Steven A. Givler

U.S. Air Force

Carmel, California


Norman Podhoretz writes:

Matthew Foley accuses me of “defining deceit down.” But this, of course, is precisely what he himself, and most of my other critics—in a textbook example of projection—are trying to do. Thus, confronted with the overwhelming evidence that President Bush was convinced that Saddam Hussein possessed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and that he therefore did not lie in telling us so, they immediately seek refuge in softer but no less dishonest formulations of the same accusation. Mainly, the fallback formulations boil down to saying that while Bush and his people may not, in the strictest sense, have lied, they still created a false impression by deliberately misconstruing and/or misrepresenting the intelligence they received (and Lee Reich says much the same thing against my own reading of the evidence).

Now I must confess that I could hardly believe my eyes when I first read Mr. Foley’s statement that the information on which the Bush administration based its claims about WMD was judged by “most U.S. intelligence experts” to be “unreliable.” (I had a similar reaction upon learning that John H. Bunzel knows of “no Democrat . . . in Congress” who has accused Bush “of outright lying or of fabricating pre-war intelligence.”) Quoting Mr. Foley’s statement now, I again rub my eyes in disbelief. For, to repeat what I wrote in my article, the plain and incontrovertible fact is that all fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States, after considering the few reservations and qualifications expressed by this or that member, reached a consensus—and with “high confidence” no less—that Iraq was “continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” Furthermore, the intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and France all concurred in this conclusion. Nor was it challenged by the equivocations of Hans Blix.

Pause, then, for a minute and think what the critics are proposing: that the President of the United States, instead of making a decision by going with the best information he had, should have paralyzed himself by giving greater weight to the doubts of a few dissenters than to the combined judgment of all the intelligence agencies for which these dissenters worked. This is so preposterous an idea that in a saner political climate no rational person would dream of advancing it.

In addition to defining deceit down, the critics resort to the tactic of changing the subject. Defeated on the question of “who is lying about Iraq?,” they immediately retreat to a host of different ones, like “why war?” and “why then?” Yes, some of them acknowledge, Bill Clinton and most other Democrats had warned in ominous terms of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and had contemplated military force against him, but (as the blogger James Lileks once mockingly paraphrased the kind of argument made here by Michael Starr) at least Clinton never did anything about it.

In line with this attitude, the critics also believe that toppling Saddam Hussein was not a good thing—though nary a one of them is either honest or courageous enough to put it so clearly. Nor do they believe that we are winning—or that we can win—the struggle to make Iraq (in Mr. Foley’s words) “secure and democratic, . . . a model for the Middle East, and a landmark for U.S. foreign policy.”

Yet thanks to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is well on its way to becoming just that. Within an amazingly short time, three elections have been held, a constitution has been written, and a government has been formed; great strides have been made in rebuilding the economy and the infrastructure; giant steps have been taken in creating such institutional foundations of a democratic society as a free press; and with every passing day the Iraqis are becoming more and more capable of assuming responsibility for their own security.

Having extensively documented all this in a follow-up article entitled “The Panic Over Iraq” (January), I trust that I need not go over the same ground again here. And so I will conclude by expressing my gratitude for the thoughtful and generous comments of Heather Ruehl, Gary Hall, Richard James, Thomas Letchfield, Frederic Wile, J. Paul Giuliani, Robert L. Marshall, Anthony Steyning, and Steven A. Givler.

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