Greencastle, Ind. – The most revealing moments in the two CNN-sponsored debates this week involved how the candidates dealt with the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002. It was one of those rare times when such events expose something important about the character of the candidates, like how seriously they do the jobs they have now.
For a moment, let’s turn back the clock to those weeks when the Bush team — Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Powell and the president himself — were flogging their case against Saddam Hussein. This was the period of mushroom clouds; aluminum tubes; chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction; Hussein’s ties to al-Qaida; and Iraq’s role in 9/11. When the president asked for broad authority to use military action against Iraq, four Democratic senators, led by Bob Graham, then the ranking minority member of the Intelligence Committee, requested a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which is the U.S. intelligence community’s most authoritative judgment on a specific national security issue.
This NIE was fast-tracked to have it ready in time for the vote scheduled on October 10, just weeks before the 2002 mid-term elections. What we knew going into this week’s debates is that neither National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice nor President Bush actually read the entire 90-page report. Rice read some of it, and, when asked about Bush, a White House spokesperson replied, “The president of the United States is not a fact-checker.” At the time, the administration was at full gallop, all whip and spur, headed for a confrontation with Hussein.
Inconvenient intelligence was routinely ignored. Rice claimed that no one could have imagined that terrorists would hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings, although official sources had warned against that exact possibility. Also, ten days after 9/11, the president’s daily brief informed Bush that there was no evidence linking Iraq to the attacks and scant evidence that Hussein had any tie to al-Qaida.
Fast forward to this week’s debate stage, where we learned that two of the leading Democratic contenders, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, had not bothered to read the October 2002 NIE. Republican Sens. John McCain and Sam Brownback also ignored it. McCain said he relied on hundreds of briefings, and Brownback said he couldn’t remember the document.
The most interesting, of course, is the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, who indicated that she had been briefed by “State, Defense and the CIA,” meaning she relied on all the official mouthpieces making the case to go to war. It took Barack Obama to make the point that Sen. Bob Graham did read the NIE, and although it was over-hyped about Iraq reconstituting its weapons programs, Graham came away with sufficient doubts to vote against the Bush resolution.
How is it possible that all of these senators ignored the opportunity to make their own judgments about the intelligence that was leading the country into war? Simple. All harbored presidential aspirations, and none could afford to suggest weakness in the wake of 9/11, whatever misgivings they might have harbored about the administration’s motives and evidence.
The debate about Iraq continues to be revealing in the ways it ties candidates of both parties in knots. All of the Democrats want to bring the troops home, but none has a clear idea what will happen if we do.
Clinton says she has no regrets about not reading the NIE and continues to maintain her vote was not wrong at the time. She just will not admit a mistake, and Edwards uses every opportunity to suggest there is a stubborn streak in her.
For his part, Joe Biden is trying out the tortured claim that his vote for the Bush resolution was really a vote not to go to war. On “Meet The Press,” April 29, he told Tim Russert, “I voted to give the president the authority to avoid a war. It said, Mr. President, don’t go to war.” Nice try, Joe.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked the Republicans, “Knowing what we know now, was it a mistake to invade Iraq?” Only long-shot Texas Congressman Ron Paul deviates from GOP orthodoxy on Iraq, saying, “It was a mistake to go and a mistake to stay.” The most interesting response came from Mitt Romney, who replied, “That question is a non sequitur. We knew what we knew at the time.” Meaning what? Meaning there’s no way Romney is going to answer that question.