MARKETING THE WAR….Did the Bush administration lie about WMD before the war? Did they misuse intelligence? This is a subject well worth investigating, but both sides ought to take a deep breath and try to bring a little honesty to the table before we all get buried in our own bloviating.

Liberals, for their part, need to accept the obvious: in 2002, virtually everybody believed Iraq had an active WMD program. The CIA believed it, as their October NIE made clear:

Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons….Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons….has largely rebuilt missile and biological weapons facilities…. has begun renewed production of mustard, sarin, GF (cyclosarin), and VX….most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf war.

The British believed the same thing. The Germans and French believed it. Former Clinton administration officials believed it. Lots of Democratic members of congress believed it. They were all wrong, it turned out, but they weren’t lying. The simple fact is that virtually everyone who had access to the full range of classified intelligence at that point in time thought Iraq had an active WMD program. Scott Ritter is about the only exception.

But that’s not the end of the story ? and that’s a very big “but.” Conservatives are fond of reminding us that there were lots of reasons for the war, but the plain fact, as Paul Wolfowitz admitted two years ago, is that the war was marketed to the American public on the basis of Saddam and his WMD. On that score, conservatives need to face a few facts too. Here’s a sampling:

  • It’s true that virtually everyone believed in 2002 that Saddam had an active WMD program or, at the very least, large stockpiles of existing WMD. But the Bush administration was repeating the exact same arguments about Saddam’s WMD even in March 2003, when UN inspectors had been combing Iraq with the help of U.S. intelligence for three months and had found nothing. The evidence by that time suggested just the opposite of what we originally believed, but that prompted nothing from Bush supporters except heaps of abuse aimed at Hans Blix. The invasion went off as scheduled.

  • Important areas of dissent were covered up in support of the administration’s marketing effort. The most spectacular, of course, involved the existence of nuclear weapons programs, which the administration sold as unequivocal fact. “We know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons,” Dick Cheney said shortly before the war started. “And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.”

    But that wasn’t true, and Cheney certainly knew it. There was virtually no serious evidence for an Iraqi nuclear program, and what little evidence there was had already been persuasively debunked. Both INR and the CIA knew that the African uranium story was bogus, and DOE experts knew that the infamous aluminum tubes were designed to be used in rockets, not as centrifuge tubes.

  • Administration figures continually made sensationalistic claims in public that went well beyond what they could back up with real evidence. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” Condoleezza Rice told Wolf Blitzer ominously a few days before Bush’s UN speech in 2002. “We know where they are,” Donald Rumsfeld asserted flatly about Iraqi WMD even after the war. “There’s overwhelming evidence there was a connection between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government,” Dick Cheney said repeatedly both before and after the war. Colin Powell told the UN that Saddam’s bioweapons program was active, advanced, and an absolute certainty. “These are sophisticated facilities,” he said. “For example, they can produce anthrax and botulinum toxin. In fact, they can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people.”

  • Even among people who believed Saddam had an active WMD program, there was little consensus that it actually posed a danger, something the administration never acknowledged. Even the CIA suspected Saddam would never use WMD unless he was attacked first, and in any case none of Saddam’s weapons posed a realistic threat to the United States. The administration’s absurd claims that Iraqi drones could attack the continental U.S. were debunked almost immediately by Air Force intelligence. Their dissent didn’t make it into the public discourse until after the war, though.

So: Was there a widespread belief in September 2002 that Iraq had an active WMD program? Yes. Did the Bush administration nonetheless lie, exaggerate, and dissemble repeatedly about that program? Yes. Should conservatives be concerned about that? Yes. After all, the next president to market a war this way might not be a Republican. Conservatives should be as interested in learning the truth about this ? and preventing it from happening again ? as the rest of us.

POSTSCRIPT: You can find a more extensive description of the marketing of the war in “The First Casualty,” written in June 2003 by John Judis and Spencer Ackerman. This was the article that apparently first sent Scooter Libby into hysterics and began the campaign to smear Joe Wilson and expose his wife as a CIA agent.