intelligence to start a war.
*[**_Simon Dodge_ is the son of David Dodge, and the late Doris Westfall
Dodge, of Princeton. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, he is the son, grandson
and great-grandson of former presidents of the American University of
Washington Post -- Sunday, 15 October 2006
*Book World Section
Burden of Proof
Two reporters charge the Bush administration with using fraudulent
intelligence to start a war.
Reviewed by MARTIN KETTLE*
In October 2002, a file of documents from the U.S. embassy in Rome
arrived on the desk of one of the State Department’s senior nuclear
proliferation analysts. The papers had been handed over by an Italian
journalist, who had been given them by an informer who had, in turn,
obtained them from a mysterious source in the embassy of Niger. The
documents purported to show that Niger had signed a July 2000 deal to
supply Iraq with 500 tons of yellowcake uranium — about one-sixth of the
African country’s annual production and a key ingredient in a
uranium-enrichment process that could provide Saddam Hussein’s regime
with a nuclear bomb.
As Simon Dodge of the State Department’s intelligence bureau began
to review the documents in Washington, he soon concluded that they were
fakes. One of the papers described a secret meeting in Rome at which
representatives of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya and Pakistan formed a joint
“plan of action” to defend themselves against the West in alliance with
“Islamic patriots accused of belonging to criminal organizations.” Dodge
later told Senate investigators that he considered the claim “completely
implausible,” or, as Michael Isikoff and David Corn put it, “something
out of James Bond — or maybe Austin Powers.” Niger embassy stamps,
palpably fake, linked the “plan of action” document to those depicting
the Iraq deal. The papers are a hoax, Dodge e-mailed colleagues.
This was not what most in the White House wanted to hear. By October
2002, when Dodge began examining the Niger documents, the Bush
administration was already accelerating its drive for war against Iraq.
An authoritative demolition of one of the most dramatic parts of that
case — that Baghdad was building a nuclear weapon — was deeply unwelcome
and, coming from the diplomats at the State Department, viewed with
particular suspicion by Vice President Cheney’s office. Partly by
accident (the CIA merely put its copy of the “obviously forged” Rome
papers in a vault and left them there) and partly because it simply did
not want to know, the White House remained in denial about the
unreliability of the whole Niger uranium story. Fatefully, the president
would use the claim in his State of the Union address in January 2003.
It was the principal basis for the administration’s repeated rhetorical
flourish that the Iraqi smoking gun might “come in the form of a
mushroom cloud.” And it was a phony.
The Niger claim provides the central thread in Hubris, Isikoff and
Corn’s exhaustive reconstruction of the formulation and selling of the
Iraq War. For those who wish to understand how one of the most powerful
officials in the land — Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff,
I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby — came to be under indictment for obstruction
of justice, perjury and making false statements arising out of the Niger
story, this book is indispensable.
But Niger was not the only proffered justification for the attack on
Iraq that eventually crumbled to dust in the light of day. So did the
false claims of Iraqi defectors, such as the shadowy informant known as
“Curveball,” that Iraq possessed mobile biological laboratories, a claim
that was a centerpiece of thensecretary of state Colin Powell’s U.N.
presentation in February 2003. So did the misguided conviction that
Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes was proof of a nuclear-arms program.
So did the long-disproved claim that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with
Iraqi intelligence agents in Prague in April 2001, which became almost
an article of faith for the administration’s hawks.
There have been many books about the Iraq war, and there will be
many others before we are through. This one, however, pulls together
with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and
statecraft that led so many people to persuade themselves that the
evidence pointed to an active Iraqi program to develop weapons of mass
destruction and that it was in the interests of the United States to
overthrow Saddam Hussein.
This is seemingly an eternal theme. The deeper we are drawn into
Isikoff and Corn’s account, the more we enter March of Folly territory.
When the late Barbara W. Tuchman published her masterly 1984 account of
the ruinous policies that governments have pursued through the ages, she
ranged across a canvas stretching from the Trojan war to Vietnam.
To qualify as folly, Tuchman wrote, a policy must meet three
criteria: It must have been seen at the time as counterproductive; a
feasible alternative course of action must have been available; and the
policy must have been that of a group of people, not merely a single
tyrant or ruler. If ever a policy qualifies on all counts, it was the
U.S.-imposed regime change in Iraq. Isikoff and Corn are reporters (for
Newsweek and the Nation, respectively), not historians, but they still
compel the reader to confront a further, essential dimension of folly’s
march. In each case — the Niger uranium papers, the mobile labs, the
aluminum tubes, the Atta-Iraq link — there were people up and down the
policy chain, including some at the very top, who either knew at the
time or should have known that the claims were false or unreliable.
Many critics of the Iraq War have highlighted the ideological drive
behind the invasion. Fewer have grappled with the more complex question
of why it was impossible for skeptics, doubters and more scrupulous
analysts to stop it. Isikoff and Corn enable us to understand better how
this devastating policy tragedy played out. But as Coleridge once
observed, the light of experience is but a lantern on the stern,
illuminating only the waters through which we have passed. Sadly,
Isikoff and Corn can’t tell the next generation how to avoid such tragedies.