Is Condi Hiding the Smoking Gun?

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the New York Times

Is Condi Hiding the Smoking Gun?

by
Frank Rich

IF, as J.F.K. had it, victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan, the defeat in Iraq is the most pitiful orphan imaginable. Its parents have not only tossed it to the wolves but are also trying to pin its mutant DNA on any patsy they can find.

George Tenet is just the latest to join this blame game, which began more than three years ago when his fellow Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Tommy Franks told Bob Woodward that Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's intelligence bozo, was the "stupidest guy on the face of the earth" (that's the expurgated version). Last fall, Kenneth Adelman, the neocon cheerleader who foresaw a "cakewalk" in Iraq, told Vanity Fair that Mr. Tenet, General Franks and Paul Bremer were "three of the most incompetent people who've ever served in such key spots." Richard Perle chimed in that the "huge mistakes" were "not made by neoconservatives" and instead took a shot at President Bush. Ahmad Chalabi, the neocons' former darling, told Dexter Filkins of The Times "the real culprit in all this is Wolfowitz."

And of course nearly everyone blames Rumsfeld.

This would be a Three Stooges routine were there only three stooges. The good news is that Mr. Tenet's book rollout may be the last gasp of this farcical round robin of recrimination. Republicans and Democrats have at last found some common ground by condemning his effort to position himself as the war's innocent scapegoat. Some former C.I.A. colleagues are rougher still. Michael Scheuer, who ran the agency's bin Laden unit, has accused Mr. Tenet of lacking "the moral courage to resign and speak out publicly to try to stop our country from striding into what he knew would be an abyss." Even after Mr. Tenet did leave office, he maintained a Robert McNamara silence until he cashed in.

Satisfying though it is to watch a circular firing squad of the war's enablers, unfinished business awaits. Unlike Vietnam, Iraq is not in the past: the war escalates even as all this finger-pointing continues. Very little has changed between the fourth anniversary of "Mission Accomplished" this year and the last. Back then, President Bush cheered an Iraqi "turning point" precipitated by "the emergence of a unity government." Since then, what's emerged is more Iraqi disunity and a major leap in the death toll. That's why Americans voted in November to get out.

The only White House figure to take any responsibility for the fiasco is the former Bush-Cheney pollster Matthew Dowd, who in March expressed remorse for furthering a war he now deems a mistake. For his belated act of conscience, he was promptly patronized as an incipient basket case by an administration flack, who attributed Mr. Dowd's defection to "personal turmoil." If that is what this vicious gang would do to a pollster, imagine what would befall Colin Powell if he spoke out. Nonetheless, Mr. Powell should summon the guts to do so. Until there is accountability for the major architects and perpetrators of the Iraq war, the quagmire will deepen. A tragedy of this scale demands a full accounting, not to mention a catharsis.

That accounting might well begin with Mr. Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice. Of all the top-tier policy players who were beside the president and vice president at the war's creation, she is the highest still in power and still on the taxpayers' payroll. She is also the only one who can still get a free pass from the press. The current groupthink Beltway narrative has it that the secretary of state's recidivist foreign-policy realism and latent shuttle diplomacy have happily banished the Cheney-Rumsfeld cowboy arrogance that rode America into a ditch.

Thus Ms. Rice was dispatched to three Sunday shows last weekend to bat away Mr. Tenet's book before "60 Minutes" broadcast its interview with him that night. But in each appearance her statements raised more questions than they answered. She was persistently at odds with the record, not just the record as spun by Mr. Tenet but also the public record. She must be held to a higher standard — a k a the truth — before she too jumps ship.

It's now been nearly five years since Ms. Rice did her part to sell the Iraq war on a Sept. 8, 2002, Sunday show with her rendition of "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Yet there she was last Sunday on ABC, claiming that she never meant to imply then that Saddam was an imminent threat. "The question of imminence isn't whether or not somebody is going to strike tomorrow" is how she put it. In other words, she is still covering up the war's origins. On CBS's "Face the Nation," she claimed that intelligence errors before the war were "worldwide" even though the International Atomic Energy Agency's Mohamed ElBaradei publicly stated there was "no evidence" of an Iraqi nuclear program and even though Germany's intelligence service sent strenuous prewar warnings that the C.I.A.'s principal informant on Saddam's supposed biological weapons was a fraud.

Of the Sunday interviewers, it was George Stephanopoulos who went for the jugular by returning to that nonexistent uranium from Africa. He forced Ms. Rice to watch a clip of her appearance on his show in June 2003, when she claimed she did not know of any serious questions about the uranium evidence before the war. Then he came as close as any Sunday host ever has to calling a guest a liar. "But that statement wasn't true," Mr. Stephanopoulos said. Ms. Rice pleaded memory loss, but the facts remain. She received a memo raising serious questions about the uranium in October 2002, three months before the president included the infamous 16 words on the subject in his State of the Union address. Her deputy, Stephen Hadley, received two memos as well as a phone call of warning from Mr. Tenet.

Apologists for Ms. Rice, particularly those in the press who are embarrassed by their own early cheerleading for the war, like to say that this is ancient history, just as they said of the C.I.A. leak case. We're all supposed to move on and just worry about what happens next. Try telling that to families whose children went to Iraq to stop Saddam's nukes. Besides, there's a continuum between past deceptions and present ones, as the secretary of state seamlessly demonstrated last Sunday.

On ABC, she pushed the administration's line portraying Iraq's current violence as a Qaeda plot hatched by the Samarra bombing of February 2006. But that Qaeda isn't the Qaeda of 9/11; it's a largely Iraqi group fighting on one side of a civil war. And by February 2006, sectarian violence had already been gathering steam for 15 months — in part because Ms. Rice and company ignored the genuine imminence of that civil war just as they had ignored the alarms about bin Laden's Qaeda in August 2001.

Ms. Rice's latest canard wasn't an improvisation; it was a scripted set-up for the president's outrageous statement three days later. "The decision we face in Iraq," Mr. Bush said Wednesday, "is not whether we ought to take sides in a civil war, it's whether we stay in the fight against the same international terrorist network that attacked us on 9/11." Such statements about the present in Iraq are no less deceptive — and no less damaging to our national interest — than the lies about uranium and Qaeda- 9/11 connections told in 2002-3. This country needs facts, not fiction, to make its decisions about the endgame of the war, just as it needed (but didn't get) facts when we went to war in the first place. To settle for less is to make the same tragic error twice.

That Ms. Rice feels scant responsibility for any of this was evident in her repeated assertions on Sunday that all the questions about prewar intelligence had been answered by the Robb-Silberman and Senate committee inquiries, neither of which even addressed how the administration used the intelligence it received. Now she risks being held in contempt of Congress by ducking a subpoena authorized by the House's Oversight Committee, whose chairman, Henry Waxman, has been trying to get direct answers from her about the uranium hoax since 2003.

Ms. Rice is stonewalling his investigation by rambling on about separation of powers and claiming she answered all relevant questions in writing, to Senator Carl Levin, during her confirmation to the cabinet in January 2005. If former or incumbent national security advisers like Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski could testify before Congress without defiling the Constitution, so can she. As for her answers to Senator Levin's questions, five of eight were pure Alberto Gonzales: she either didn't recall or didn't know.

No wonder the most galling part of Ms. Rice's Sunday spin was her aside to Wolf Blitzer that she would get around to reflecting on these issues "when I have a chance to write my book." Another book! As long as American troops are dying in Iraq, the secretary of state has an obligation to answer questions about how they got there and why they stay. If accountability is ever to begin, it would be best if those questions are answered not on "60 Minutes" but under oath.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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