STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
We're reporting this morning on what the White House knew as it argued for war in Iraq. Critics of President Bush say he misled the nation. In speeches, the president and Vice President Cheney now accuse their critics of rewriting history. Today we will check the facts with a pair of reporters who covered some of that history. NPR's Don Gonyea was at the White House as the case for war was made. NPR's Jackie Northam was in Baghdad in the days after it fell. This morning, together, these two reporters examine what's known now.
DON GONYEA reporting:
Hearing a crescendo of charges that the case for war was based on intelligence, the White House knew or should have known, to be suspect, the president is pushing back aggressively. Here he is on Veterans Day, less than two weeks ago.
(Soundbite of Veterans Day speech)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war. It is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.
GONYEA: The real history, according to the president, is that Iraq was a threat that had to be confronted in a post-9/11 world and that both parties accepted the administration's case for war. One key element of that case was the suggestion that Saddam had or would soon have the deadliest weapons imaginable. In the six months leading up to the war, the president and other top administration officials used stark language to help Americans imagine the dangers.
Pres. BUSH: Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
Vice President DICK CHENEY: We know he's been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.
JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:
There was widespread belief that Iraq did have biological and chemical weapons, but less confidence on the nuclear question. There were deep divisions in the US intelligence community over the issue. And despite months of searching, UN inspectors, both before and after the invasion, failed to find any weapons of mass destruction. In an NPR interview, Hans Blix, the UN's chief weapons inspector for Iraq, said he expressed his skepticism.
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. HANS BLIX (UN's Chief Weapons Inspector): I said to Condoleezza Rice that we were not impressed by the intelligence, and I remember she said, `Intelligence is never a hundred percent.' But it is not intelligence that is indicted. It's the Iraqis who are.
NORTHAM: The administration tried to bolster its case by making a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, which implied a connection to the 9/11 attacks.
GONYEA: On October 7th of 2002, President Bush promoted that connection in a major prime-time speech designed to help build public backing for a still unannounced war.
(Soundbite of speech, 2002)
Pres. BUSH: We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making, in poisons and deadly gases.
NORTHAM: That information came from a captured al-Qaeda operative named Iman Al-Sheik al-Libby(ph). Eight months before President Bush made that speech, the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a report saying that information from al-Libby could not be trusted. Other informants were also ultimately discredited.
GONYEA: Take the case of a man code-named Curveball, an Iraqi who defected to Germany in 1999 and lived under the control of that country's intelligence service. When Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations in February of 2003, six weeks before the war began, some of the key elements in his controversial presentation were the result of information provided by Curveball. Powell offered this assurance that day.
(Soundbite of speech, 2003)
Secretary COLIN POWELL (State Department): My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.
GONYEA: Powell told the United Nations Security Council that Iraq had mobile labs that could produce anthrax and other deadly germs, enough, Powell said, to kill many thousands of people.
NORTHAM: At the time, Lawrence Wilkerson was Colin Powell's chief of staff. He says Powell went to then-CIA Director George Tenet in advance to make sure everything in that presentation was accurate.
Mr. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Colin Powell's Chief of Staff): I remember being in that room with Secretary Powell and George Tenet, and I remember vividly the secretary turning to George and saying, `George, you stand by this, right?' `Yes, Mr. Secretary.' `George, you'd better stand by it because you're going to be at the Security Council with me tomorrow, and you're going to be in camera.'
GONYEA: But Curveball was not a credible source. The Los Angeles Times, in a story this week, reports that the CIA knew the informant was unstable and that he provided fabricated intelligence. US officials had no direct access to him.
NORTHAM: David Kay, former US weapons inspector, says he can't believe the type of flimsy intelligence provided by Curveball is what the government used as a basis for war.
Mr. DAVID KAY (Former US Weapons Inspector): I was flabbergasted when I discovered that we'd had the secretary of State lay this story out, and yet, no American official had ever talked to this individual or been able to directly interrogate him as to what his views are and how he knew what he claimed to know.
NORTHAM: Slowly, the absolute certainty the administration displayed going into the war began to dissolve, as neither al-Qaeda links, nor weapons of mass destruction were found. George Tenet, former CIA director, was left trying to explain what went wrong.
Mr. GEORGE TENET (Former CIA Director): The question being asked about Iraq in the starkest terms is: Were we right or were we wrong? In the intelligence business, you are almost never completely wrong or completely right.
GONYEA: All of this has contributed to the credibility problems the administration is dealing with today on the issue of the war. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll says that 57 percent of Americans believe that the president did deliberately mislead them in making the case for war. Some critics say the administration manipulated intelligence outright, focusing only on things that supported its position, while burying conflicting data. Vice President Cheney has called such allegations reprehensible. The president answers by citing a pair of investigations into prewar intelligence.
Pres. BUSH: These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs.
NORTHAM: But neither of those two bipartisan investigations were asked to probe how the intelligence was presented to the public and Congress or to ask whether someone in the government exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq.
GONYEA: But the White House says before the war, Democrats looked at the evidence.
Pres. BUSH: They looked at the same intelligence I did, and they voted--many of them voted to support the decision I made.
GONYEA: That is a claim made by many administration officials in the past two weeks, that everyone saw the same intelligence. Not so, says former US Senator Bob Graham, who was also a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
NORTHAM: Graham says members of Congress do not have access to the president's daily brief, a highly classified document containing specific and contextual intelligence. Graham says he was stunned to find that the president, in the run-up to the war, did not order a National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq. Graham says the Senate Intelligence Committee demanded that one be drawn up.
Former Senator BOB GRAHAM (Florida): When the NIE was prepared, what we got was a document that was slanted towards, yes, there were weapons of mass destruction at 550 sites in Iraq.
NORTHAM: And Graham says Congress did not have access to anywhere near the amount of raw data that the president has, and the quality of that intelligence is now a major part of the fight between the White House and Democrats on the Hill.
GONYEA: The administration clearly perceives this fight as a threat to its credibility, a threat that it must answer in no uncertain terms. As is often the case in such situations, Vice President Cheney has emerged as the leading figure as the White House fights back.
Vice Pres. CHENEY: A few politicians are suggesting these brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood. This is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety. It has no place anywhere in American politics, much less in the United States Senate.
NORTHAM: But critics say Congress is exactly where these things should be discussed. I'm Jackie Northam.
GONYEA: And I'm Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.