Christopher Hitchens responds to David Corn.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Sept. 26 2006 5:20 PM

Christopher Hitchens Responds

There's only one reason to go to Niger.

Click here  to read David Corn's critique.

Wissam al-Zahawie did indeed have "a simple explanation" for his 1999 trip: low-level sanctions-busting. He had another equally simple (and laughable) disclaimer: He did not even know that Niger produced uranium. But I repeat the question that Corn declines to ask himself: What is an ambassador to the Vatican, with a background in nuclear diplomacy, doing on such an out-of-the-way mission in the first place? It's hardly my fault if the Senate intelligence committee and the ISG don't ask themselves this: Ambassador Rolf Ekeus (who does ask it) outranks them in the sort of expertise that Corn selectively affects to value. Of course, one may always prefer to rely on the "excerpts of Zahawie's travel report," and the IAEA's discovery that Saddam's envoy—a former friend and colleague of theirs—did not choose to claim that he talked about uranium. This might be described as the Joseph Wilson standard of forensic investigation.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

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The related question—was Niger open for business?—is partly answered by the presence of A.Q. Khan on its territory in 1999 and again in 2000. Corn ignores this completely while making feeble jokes about an Austin Powers alliance between rogue states. Has he cared to look at the list of countries visited and armed by A.Q. Khan, from North Korea to Libya? Has he ever asked himself how our "intelligence" community missed all that, too? The supposed "box" that contained Saddam Hussein contained A.Q. Khan and the nuclear black market as well, not that the CIA had the vaguest idea of that fact or any other.

From the simple-minded presumption of Iraqi innocence to the conspiratorial assumption of American guilt: Corn's original charge was that the administration broke the law in an attempt to expose Wilson's wife. Now that we know that this is false he falls back on the discovery that there were people in the administration who didn't like Wilson and wanted to explode his claims. Well, fine. But how does that become the business of a prosecutor who sends one of our fellow journalists to jail? Meanwhile, for Corn to say that Richard Armitage was "most likely not part of a White House campaign" is to invite and deserve utter ridicule.

This leaves us only with two remaining questions: the forgery, and the rationality of Saddam Hussein as an actor. On the first point, Corn presumably knows that a forgery is not a hoax but an attempted copy of a true bill. The people who attempted to pass off a fake version of Zahawie's visit may have been interested only in money, or they may have been attempting disinformation. Or both. I have canvassed all three propositions, and am relatively neutral as among them. However, any reader of Slate can look up the two independent British commissions of inquiry, both conducted at a time of hysterical accusations against Prime Minister Blair, both of which found that the original intelligence on Niger was well-founded, and that it predated any funny business with the Zahawie seal, or stamp.

It's wearisome at this late date to read again the bland assertion that Saddam Hussein did not do things because it would have been unwise or irrational for him to do so. On that very basis, our intelligence establishment concluded that he would not invade Kuwait, would not set fire to the oil fields, and would not perform any number of other insane actions. His megalomania and volatility were consistently underestimated, with real consequences in the real world. No policy based on the assumption of his rational conduct ever worked. Now, the passage of time has allowed some glib people to represent him as the victim of a frame-up. What an offense to the historical record that is.

I have other reasons, which have been well-enough exposed in Slate and elsewhere, to think that Saddam Hussein's name may indeed be uttered in the same breath as the ambition to recover WMD. Corn seems to believe that the dictator who not only acquired and concealed them, but who actually used them, must be granted the benefit of the doubt. I differ, and yes I do think that post-invasion Iraq was unusually "clean." Even Hans Blix and Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröeder thought that some weaponry would be found, and the list of stocks that Iraq last handed to the United Nations has never been accounted for. Other evidence—such as the centrifuge buried by Saddam Hussein's chief scientist and the Baathist negotiations to buy missiles off the shelf from North Korea—was uncovered only by the invasion itself. So, this is not an induction from no evidence to evidence, but the result of a long experience with a regime highly skilled in concealment and deception. Were it not for his defeat in 1991, and the resulting UNSCOM discoveries, we would not have known the extent of Saddam Hussein's previous nuclear capacities, either. So, even if it is true that he had been wholly or partially disarmed before 2003, that outcome was only the result of sternly refusing to take his word for it, and of the application of a policy of sanctions-plus-force that was opposed by David Corn's magazine at every single step.

This difference among others led me to separate myself from The Nation, where neither my prose nor my socializing were as stellar as Corn recalls. Incidentally, I begin to tire of this sickly idea that I used to be a great guy until I became fed up with excuses for dictators and psychopathic murderers (let alone for mediocre CIA fantasists). Alexander Cockburn is surely nearer the mark when he says that I was a complete shit and traitor all along.

Click here to read David Corn's critique.