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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

This Story Is Big

The WaPo goes behind the scenes to see how the story of the Iraqi nuclear threat was promoted.

Administration supporters (yes, that includes me) will seize on this:

Two senior policymakers, who supported the war, said in unauthorized interviews that the administration greatly overstated Iraq's near-term nuclear potential.

"I never cared about the 'imminent threat,' " said one of the policymakers, with directly relevant responsibilities. "The threat was there in [Hussein's] presence in office.

And, later on:

By many accounts, including those of career officials who did not support the war, there were good reasons for concern that the Iraqi president might revive a program to enrich uranium to weapons grade and fabricate a working bomb. He had a well-demonstrated aspiration for nuclear weapons, a proficient scientific and engineering cadre, a history of covert development and a domestic supply of unrefined uranium ore. Iraq was generally believed to have kept the technical documentation for two advanced German centrifuge designs and the assembly diagrams for at least one type of "implosion device," which detonates a nuclear core.

What Hussein did not have was the principal requirement for a nuclear weapon, a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. And the U.S. government, authoritative intelligence officials said, had only circumstantial evidence that Iraq was trying to obtain those materials.

But the Bush administration had reasons to imagine the worst. The CIA had faced searing criticism for its failures to foresee India's resumption of nuclear testing in 1998 and to "connect the dots" pointing to al Qaeda's attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Cheney, the administration's most influential advocate of a worst-case analysis, had been powerfully influenced by his experience as defense secretary just after the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

Former National Security Council official Richard A. Clarke recalled how information from freshly seized Iraqi documents disclosed the existence of a "crash program" to build a bomb in 1991. The CIA had known nothing of it.

"I can understand why that was a seminal experience for Cheney," Clarke said. "And when the CIA says [in 2002], 'We don't have any evidence,' his reaction is . . . 'We didn't have any evidence in 1991, either. Why should I believe you now?' "

Some strategists, in and out of government, argued that the uncertainty itself -- in the face of circumstantial evidence -- was sufficient to justify "regime change." But that was not what the Bush administration usually said to the American people.

The "better safe than sorry" theme collides with "it was the right war, for the wrong reasons".

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