21 November 2003

The Vanishing Case for War

Byrd blamed the emotion of the moment, and that is surely part of it; but for the bigger part I blame the insistence of the President that Iraq threatened America, the willingness of the CIA to create a strong case for war out of weak evidence, and the readiness of Congress to ignore its own doubts and go along. Their faith in the case for war confirms that something has been going on deep in the American psyche since the beginning of the cold war, a progressive withering of the skeptical faculty when 'secret intelligence' is called in to buttress a president's case for whatever he wants. The vote for war on Iraq was not unprecedented; forty years ago Congress voted for war in Vietnam in the Tonkin Gulf resolution, too timid to insist on time to weigh reports of an attack on American ships at sea%u2014reports that were either plain wrong or misleading. Again and again throughout the cold war Congress voted billions for new weapons systems to meet hypothetical, exaggerated, or even imaginary threats - routinely backed up by evidence too secret to reveal.

Years of talk about sources and methods, spies and defectors, classified documents and code-word clearances, spy satellites and intercepted communications, have generated a mystique of secret intelligence that chills doubt and freezes debate. The result is a tiptoeing deference which treats classified information as not only requiring special handling, but deserving special respect. 'As always,' George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee during the war resolution debate last fall, 'our declassification efforts seek a balance between your need for unfettered debate and our need to protect sources and methods.' The committee might have balked and asked for a closer look, but did not. When Congress voted last October it seemed to have lost some fundamental equilibrium - as if caution itself were aid to an enemy. A Congress so easily manipulated has in effect surrendered its role, allowing presidents to do as they will.

'My colleagues,' Colin Powell said at the UN, 'every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources.... What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.' But now, only six months later, we have ample reason to conclude that the intelligence wasn't solid at all, there was no need for war, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. This discovery ought to put the American people on constructive notice that the functioning of our democracy is threatened by the nexus of the White House and a too-pliant CIA - a closed loop of presidents who know what they want, intelligence chiefs willing to make the argument and classify the evidence, and members of Congress under their spell. The hazard in this mix shows itself early - when the briefers assure Congress that their high confidence rests firmly on evidence too secret to share.

It is worse for a US hyperally which relies on an unquestioned intel feed from the US and Britain and then accepts uncritically the solutions and actions propsoed by the US.

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