Calling Out Colin
What Powell got wrong in his U.N. briefing on Iraq.
This was by far the most persuasive part of Powell's briefing. At the time, I called it a "smoking gun," writing, "Assuming the tape is genuine and the translation correct, here is the evidence … that a) the Iraqis possess illegal weapons; (b) they are deliberately hiding them from the inspectors; and c) they are not likely to give up the weapons on their own."
I still stand by the logic of that sentence, but I would like to italicize those first few words: "Assuming the tape is genuine…" Given all the shenanigans that have been revealed since the war ended—the forged letter about uranium from Niger, the fictitious claim in Britain's intelligence dossier that Iraqi troops could fire chemical shells with 45 minutes' notice, and all the rest—it can no longer be assumed that the tape is real or that the people speaking on the tape are who Powell said (and no doubt thinks) they are.
It has been well known since last fall that the Bush administration was actively seeking intelligence that would show Iraq had two things: weapons of mass destruction and a connection with al-Qaida. When the CIA and DIA failed to come up with the goods, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a handful of his top aides formed their own intelligence network to search more carefully. If the word had gone out, to friends far and wide, that Rumsfeld was looking for this sort of evidence, is it not conceivable that someone with an interest in seeing Saddam overthrown—and there were many parties who had such an interest—might have "staged" a phone conversation that they knew the National Security Agency would intercept?
Maybe this is far-fetched. If so, the administration should finally tell us who these officers were. Surely there is no point keeping this information classified; revealing their identities would not put them in any danger. These tapes form the last shred of possible evidence that Iraq might have had chemical or biological weapons in the past nine months—that, in other words, the war had any legitimate cause. If the officers were real, name them.
There is another possibility, perhaps equally far-fetched: that the officers were real but they were making things up, on orders, on the assumption that U.S. agents were listening in. Consider this: If Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, why did he behave as if he did? Deterrence might be a reason. If the United States thought he had these weapons, maybe it wouldn't invade. (CIA Director George Tenet had testified, after all, that Saddam would use these weapons only if his regime were threatened with destruction; this logic was the main reason many Americans opposed the war before it started.)
History is filled with precedents for similar disinformation campaigns. In the late 1950s, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed that his factories were churning out ICBMs "like sausages"—when, in fact, his ICBM program was dreadfully stalled. Khrushchev worried that the Americans were planning a nuclear first strike and thought a Potemkin missile program would give them second thoughts. This was a gross miscalculation; his thundering statements only spurred Eisenhower, then Kennedy, to accelerate and expand the construction of U.S. nuclear missiles.
Monday's Los Angeles Times story reveals that Saddam was a stupid military commander in many ways. For instance, he thought a battle of Baghdad would be a repeat of Black Hawk Down, failing to consider that this time the United States might bring in armor. Maybe he was no less stupid as a diplomat, creating a perception that he thought would dissuade the Americans from invading when in fact it spurred them on.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Colin Powell by Larry Downing/Reuters.