Tony Karon's Weblog: Will Blair's Iraq Firestorm Burn Bush?

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We are accustomed to the Washington tradition of slow leaks about political deceit that turn into a torrent as elements of the bureaucracy step over each other in the race for the exits, and then finally a scandal worthy of the suffix "-gate". Of course the imbroglio over the Bush Administration's failure to find the evidence to back its scary prewar claims about the threat to America supposedly posed by Saddam Hussein has not yet reached the point of critical mass that would leave editors scratching their heads over just what noun to put before that suffix — Iraq-gate? Saddam-gate? War-gate? What is already marking the current unraveling as different from any that have gone before is its transatlantic dimension: President Bush, for example, invoked British government findings to underscore the authority of his claims against Saddam — most unfortunately in the case of the false claim in his State of the Union address that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The transatlantic connection means it's not just in Washington that the case for going to war in Iraq is being subjected to increasingly traumatic evidentiary tests — if anything, it's happening a lot more quickly, and brutally, in Britain, Australia and other nations. Just this week, for example, Tony Blair found himself under withering fire from two former members of his cabinet, testifying before a parliamentary inquiry into allegations that Blair had deliberately distorted intelligence findings to exaggerate the threat posed to the West by Saddam's regime in order to persuade Britons to join the U.S. war effort.

Most damaging for Blair — and by extension, Bush — is that these are not the allegations of antiwar outsiders pouncing on the failure of coalition forces to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; Claire Short and Robin Cook were both informed insiders privy to at least some of Blair's insider information until shortly before the invasion began. And both insisted in their testimony that during their private briefings from senior British intelligence officials, it was made clear that Blair was exaggerating the threat presented by Saddam. Short claims she was told by three different senior officials that Blair had, in fact, made a pact with Bush last summer to support an invasion by mid-February, and the weapons evidence had to manipulated to sell that decision to parliament and the public. In Blair's mind, she said, it involved "honorable deception." Cook testified that his own briefings confirmed that British intelligence believed that Iraq possessed no weaponized chemicals, let alone — as Blair claimed in parliament — chemical munitions that could be fired at 45 minutes notice.

It's not only the British insiders who're spilling the beans. A star witness at the British inquiry was a certain Andrew Wilkie, who quit his job as a senior Australian intelligence official, privy to U.S. intelligence briefings, in protest against what he saw as a deliberate distortion of WMD evidence to support "ridiculous", "preposterous" and "fundamentally flawed" claims made to justify the invasion. And Wilkie's testimony has prompted other Australian officials to come forward and trash the "garbage" intelligence that helped make the case for war.

Right now, for Bush, the hottest potato may be the fact that a falsehood known as such to the U.S. intelligence community — the allegation that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Niger — had made its way into the President's State of the Union address. That one got even some of the neo-conservatives who had most fiercely championed the war demanding an explanation, if only for the record.

National Security Adviser Condi Rice gamely defended the Administration on last Sunday's talkshows, saying "Maybe someone knew in the bowels of the [CIA], but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery." But Knight-Ridder reports that the CIA briefings pooh-poohing the claim had gone all the way to the top, and had been ignored by Vice President Dick Cheney and other advocates of war. The Administration might be in real trouble, of course, if its credibility were being measured by the various statements of the Vice President in the months and weeks preceding the war, most notably his March 16 statement that "We believe [Saddam] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." (See The Sydney Morning Herald for a useful catalogue of prewar claims made by leaders of the "coalition of the willing.")

None of this has particularly deterred President Bush, and why would it when polls find that upward of 80 percent of Americans still believe the Administration's prewar claims on Iraqi WMD and one-third even believe WMD have actually been found in Iraq. It would appear that President Bush himself may be among that third: Three weeks ago, Bush told a Polish TV interviewer that "we have found the weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. That came as news to even his staunchest allies — the president appeared to be referring to two trailer-mounted laboratories that the CIA had deduced must have been for the production of biological weapons as it could imagine no other use for the facilities. But reports quickly emerged that CIA analysts were sharply divided over the conclusion that the labs had a WMD function, and this time the transatlantic connection produced worse news: The official British intelligence inquiry found that the labs couldn't be used in a WMD program, and were intended to produce hydrogen for artillery balloons sold to Iraq by a British company in the 1980s.

Et Tu, Ari?

Even Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer has since backed away from the claims over the mobile labs, saying they were "not irrefutable." Nor was that sign that different elements of the administration were spinning incompatible versions of the story. Fleischer this week, for example, dismissed as "fanciful" the suggestion that Saddam might have destroyed his WMD on the eve of an invasion. But among the previous sources of that "fanciful" suggestion was Defense Secretary Rumsfeld

Other advocates of the invasion are ready to concede to the deception, but only to the extent that the time-frame was exaggerated. Okay, so Saddam posed no immediate threat to the U.S. but he would eventually pose such a threat, so better to eliminate his regime now — thus former NSC staffer Ken Pollack. The Democrats appear confused on whether to exploit the intelligence meltdown, with most hewing cautiously to the belief that the WMD claims that justified their vote for war will eventually emerge. But presidential contender Senator John Kerry this week accused President Bush of lying in making his case for war — perhaps a reflection that Kerry, who voted for the war, is losing ground among the party's liberal base to the consistently antiwar Vermont governor Howard Dean. (Kerry has not thus far indicated whether he would have voted differently if he knew then what he knows now.)

Although the polls show the public behind him, President Bush is far from happy about the squalls building up across the Atlantic, which could soon bring storms to Washington. This week he lashed out at what he called "revisionist historians" questioning the administration's case for war in Iraq. The metaphor was an unfortunate one for Bush, in the sense that revisionist historians are those that reinterpret evidence to challenge existing judgements on history — but in the case of Iraq's alleged WMD, the problem is that the evidence on which the administration's case was based has either failed to materialize, or in some cases simply been negated. And among those "revising" the history of the Iraq campaign to deemphasize the importance WMD is Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, ostensibly the war's intellectual author.