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U.S.: Bush Says 'Revisionist Historians' Questioning Threat Posed By Iraq

The White House says U.S. President George W. Bush remains confident that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction before and during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Spokesman Ari Fleischer says that despite persistent questions about the reliability of prewar intelligence reports, Bush believes he received accurate information on Iraqi weapons programs from U.S. intelligence agencies and that weapons of mass destruction will eventually be found in Iraq.

Washington, 18 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is complaining that its critics are acting like "revisionist historians" by questioning its reasons for going to war in Iraq.

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, used the term several times in recent interviews with U.S. broadcasters in response to accusations that the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before he was toppled by U.S.-led forces.

Bush himself used the same term on 16 June in an address to business executives in New Jersey, and added: "This nation acted to a threat from the dictator of Iraq. Now, there are some who would like to rewrite history -- revisionist historians is what I like to call them. Saddam Hussein was a threat to America and the free world in '91, in '98, in 2003. He continually ignored the demands of the free world, so the United States and friends and allies acted."

While Bush and Rice have been responding to questions about Iraq's suspected weapons programs, they may soon be defending the administration's assertions that Iraq was harboring terrorists, another reason that Washington and London cited for going to war.

U.S. forces have been searching areas of northeastern Iraq for militants linked to Al-Qaeda, which is blamed for the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of U.S. troops in Iraq, says one U.S. brigade arrested 74 such suspects on 12 June in the region near Kirkuk.

But on 16 June, Colonel William Mayville, who is in charge of that U.S. brigade, told AP that he knew nothing of the arrests.

Coalition forces in Iraq have been targeted by guerrillas since major fighting in the war was declared over on 1 May. At least 50 U.S. military personnel have been killed in the past six weeks, but there is no evidence that international terrorists are responsible for the attacks.

RFE/RL recently interviewed a man in Baghdad who claims to be a former Iraqi intelligence official. He told our correspondent that Hussein's regime was not cooperating with Al-Qaeda. The man -- who asked not to be identified -- claims Iraq's secret services were more interested in acquiring advanced technology for their weapons programs than establishing contacts with terrorist organizations.

There had been reports that an intelligence officer working in the Iraqi Embassy in Prague had met in the Czech capital with Al-Qaeda hijacker Muhammad Atta a few months before the 11 September attacks. But he told our correspondent the meeting with Atta never took place.

"To my information, there is no connection with Al-Qaeda, not at all. It is not defending the regime of Saddam, but this is the truth. We don't have any connections with Al-Qaeda. The rumors which said that [one] of our intelligence officers met Muhammad Atta are totally out of truth. I myself spoke with the guy who was in Prague. He assured me that he didn't meet [Atta]. But we felt afraid for him. For this reason, we withdrew him from Prague," the man claimed.

His statements could not be independently confirmed.

Some Western analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say they believe the Bush administration may have been relying on faulty intelligence in arguing that Hussein was in league with terrorists, or that he at least permitted them to operate from Iraqi territory.

Retired U.S. Army General Edward Atkeson, who served as an intelligence officer in Europe, said he believes Bush administration officials are eager to find evidence of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to silence critics who say the war was fought unnecessarily.

"They've come up with the idea that if they can't find weapons of mass destruction, they'll go find some connection with Al-Qaeda. And I think in that respect, they're barking up the wrong tree," Atkeson said.

Atkeson told RFE/RL that he believes the intelligence does not support assertions made by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell before the UN Security Council in February. Powell pointed to satellite photos of trailers that he said could be used only to manufacture illegal weapons, and accused Hussein of being linked to terrorists.

According to Atkeson, Powell was selective in how he interpreted intelligence information in his fruitless effort to persuade the Security Council to support the Anglo-American policy on Iraq.

"I think that Colin Powell has had to stretch himself in order to stay a loyal member of the regime that we've got. He made an enormous point at the presentation to the [UN] Security Council about these trailers being clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction. The explanation given [by Iraq] that they could have been made for simply producing hydrogen for balloons holds just as much water as anybody else's argument," Atkeson said.

Atkeson said such selective use of intelligence is not uncommon in an effort to bolster policy. But Judith Kipper, a Middle East analyst, said she hopes this is not the case. Kipper studies issues in the Persian Gulf region at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research center in Washington.

Kipper told RFE/RL that if Atkeson's analysis is correct, it is time for the Americans to reform their intelligence operations. "It doesn't make sense to me. I hope it's not true. Obviously, the ultimate responsibility rests with the director of Central Intelligence and the people who pass the reports on to him for the consumption of the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department. If that is the case, obviously there is some reform that's required," Kipper said.

But Kipper stressed that senior intelligence officials should not bear the greatest blame for any manipulation of intelligence data. After all, she said, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cannot publicly divulge classified material in order to defend his credibility.

Kipper said the ultimate responsibility for using intelligence properly lies with the country's political leaders. "[CIA officials] have a hard time defending because the public doesn't get to see that information, and they're easy scapegoats for political people. I think the real question is whether our political leaders exaggerated information in a way that helped to orchestrate the American support for the war in Iraq," Kipper said.

John Wolfstahl, a former nonproliferation official with the U.S. Energy Department, has supported the Bush administration's Iraq policy, but concedes that as with the search for weapons, the search for Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers has so far yielded few, if any, results.

Wolfstahl -- now the deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington think tank -- said this does not mean that there are no terror cells in Iraq, just as the so-far fruitless search for chemical and biological weapons does not mean that Hussein was not developing them. What it means, he said, is that the expectations of the Bush administration and the U.S. intelligence community have simply not been met.

According to Wolfstahl, it is important for the United States to determine whether there are illegal weapons and terrorists in Iraq and, if so, the extent of their presence. He said the threat posed by Hussein was great, but merely deposing him is not enough to eliminate any remaining threat to the region and elsewhere.

"If there are still terrorists in Iraq, they do present a threat to U.S. troops there. And if there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq still, and I think that's still a possibility, and terrorists, then that also presents a major security threat not just to the U.S. and the region, but broadly," Wolfstahl said.

Wolfstahl also conceded that U.S. officials may have been selective in choosing intelligence data that supported their Iraq policy. But he said he believes that if they erred, they did so out of caution to protect the American people, and that the American people understand this.

"[Americans are] willing, in fact, they even want their administration to err on the side of caution. They want them to be overprotective when it comes to these potential threats. The danger in my mind, of course, is if you exaggerate [the threats] too often, the more they think you're crying wolf," Wolfstahl said.

Atkeson views Bush's motives differently. He noted that a year from now, Bush will be campaigning vigorously for president, and that he wants to have something concrete to show for the war in Iraq. He said Bush's complaint about "revisionist historians" is nothing more than a political slogan that he can use to belittle his opponents.

But Atkeson said that "simplistic talk" may not be enough to turn back a well-organized political challenge if no chemical or biological weapons, and no terrorists, are found in Iraq by the time Americans vote for president in November 2004.

(RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite contributed to this story.)