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7/01/2004

The Best They've Got?

In today's Washington Post, Bob Novak attacks the NBC/Miklaszewski article discussed here - the article that alleges Bush passed on chances to "wipe-out" an Ansar chemical plant because it would undermine his case for invasion.

The article has some problems - some serious problems, even. But its central question: why did we need an invasion to take out the camp? - is valid, and unanswered. If Novak's "answer" is the best explanation the administration can muster, then there is probably something important here. My reactions to each paragraph in Novak's essay:

WASHINGTON -- On ABC's "This Week" program Sunday, host George Stephanopoulos picked up a chestnut that's been bouncing around Washington for three months and tossed it in National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's lap. Why, he asked, did the United States pass up chances to kill terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi in 2002 and 2003? "We never had a chance to get Zarqawi," Rice replied. That exchange tells a lot about this year's presidential politics.
Rice's response might be true - we might never have had concrete, real-time intelligence on Zarqawi's location. Given that the entire case for war was built on shoddy or fabricated intelligence, it is likely that we never had much of a clue at all as to where Zarqawi was. What we did know, based on Powell's speech, was the location of the reputed poisons and chemical weapons camp - in the Halabja valley, somwhere near Khurmal. Maybe Stephanopoulos asked the wrong question - maybe he should have asked why we didn't attack the Zarqawi-linked Ansar al-Islam camp. Regardless, Rice's answer doesn't come close to closing the issue.
Why would Stephanopolous bring up another network's March broadcast of an obscure story never reported elsewhere? It has been spread by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to imply President Bush held back the attack in order to gain support for invading Iraq. Unless Rice's flat disavowal stops it, this threatens to become an urban legend used against Bush in the next 17 weeks.
It is not an urban legend. It is an unaddressed question, with a logical answer. Rice's "disavowal" is no such thing - we had intelligence on the location of the camp, and could have taken it out with the cooperation of the Kurds, and probably the Iranians. Even if the Zarqawi connection was light (which is true, but undercut Powell's case before the UN), there was evidence that up to a hundred former al-Qaeda fighters had sought safe harbor in the Ansar camp, called "little Tora Bora" by the Kurds. Unless the administration provides a reason for not taking out the camp, there are only two logical suppositions: 1. we wanted to use the camp for some reason; 2. the camp wasn't much of a threat. Both are probably true.

I wonder if the Hillary Clinton irrelevance would have been there two weeks ago, before the ridiculous reDrudging of the right's 1990s fantasies. Clinton's involvement in the story is actually reassuring, given how risk averse she generally is.
One CIA source puts this aborted Zarqawi raid in the same category as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11," which spreads such false information as George W. Bush's conspiring to get Osama bin Laden's relatives out of the U.S. after the terrorist attacks. The persistence of these stories sets the level of discourse about Bush's Iraq policy during a presidential campaign.
I am shocked that anyone in the CIA would talk to Bob Novak, the man who trashed a NOC. Not that a "CIA source" is the best place to go for movie criticism anyway...
On March 2, terrorist attacks brought the death toll attributed to Zarqawi to over 700. Jim Miklaszewski, the longtime Pentagon correspondent for NBC, reported multiple U.S. chances to "wipe out" Zarqawi and his bioweapons lab. The chances were missed, according to unnamed "military officials," because "the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq would undercut the case against Saddam."
It's true that Miklaszewski relied on anonymous sources - a practice not unknown to Mr. Novak. They raise a good question, though, and it hasn't been answered. Even if we didn't know that Zarqawi was in the area, why not "wipe out" his lab?
Sources quoted by name were Roger Cressey, who worked closely with Richard Clarke in the Clinton White House (staying on for a while in the Bush administration), and Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon, who supports John Kerry for president. Cressey was quoted as saying Bush officials were "more obsessed" with overthrowing Saddam Hussein than fighting terrorism.
Another gratuitous Clinton reference. See below for more on Cressey. It's nice the way Novak forgets to mention Clarke's connection to Reagan and H.W. This is my favorite Bush-defender tactic: "Once you vote with Bush, serve in his cabinet, or spin for him in a classified briefing, you're trapped. If you change your mind, he'll dredge up your friendly vote or testimony and use it to discredit you." If you ever trusted us, you are screwed. Cressey, a non-partisan guy, is written off because Bush betrayed him. Michael O'Hanlon is written off solely because he supports John Kerry, thereby rendering him incapable of stating anything true.
Rep. Vic Snyder, a Clintonite Democrat from Arkansas, at a hearing the next day read the NBC report in full and asked Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Rodman whether "that story is true or not." Rodman said he never heard anyone oppose an attack because "it would interfere with a plan to go after Saddam," adding that an attack on a bioweapons lab "could have strengthened our case."
Another gratuitous Clinton reference. Rodman's denial is certainly not the strongest imaginable - he never heard it, but he doesn't rule it out. When this exchange took place, in March 2004, it had been a year since we had wiped out the "bioweapons lab" and found it to be garbage, with not a poison in sight. In fact, just days after Powell's speech, a British journalist visited the site, and discovered nary a test tube.
Sen. Clinton on the next day, March 4, called the NBC report "troubling" and asked Gen. John Abizaid about it. The Central Command commander in chief replied, "I would be very surprised to find out that we had a precise location on Zarqawi." Unsatisified, the senator asked for "further investigation."
Another gratuitous Clinton reference, and again, a non-answer. Why didn't we attack the camp? We didn't need to know Zarqawi's location. And again, this is a weak denial - Abizaid doesn't give the administration's reason for not taking out the camp.
On March 9, Hillary Clinton asked CIA Director George Tenet about the story. Tenet: "I don't know that Zarqawi was up there at the time, Senator. And I don't know that the report accurately reflects the give-and-take of the decision-making at the time." In CIA-speak, that was a "no."
Nice of Novak to translate the CIA speak for us. I would read that as "I don't have a clue why we didn't take out the camp."
Paul Begala, my colleague on CNN's "Crossfire," picked up the scent. A former Clinton White House aide and tireless Bush-basher, Begala put bluntly what Snyder and Clinton only hinted. On May 14, Begala said the terrorist leader's "mere presence" in Iraq "was used to justify Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq." On June 23, he said that thanks to Bush's emphasis on making "a case for invading Iraq," Zarqawi was permitted "to live and to kill and to kill and to kill."
Another gratuitous Clinton reference, this time left to stand on its own as the rebuttal of everything Begala said.
Stephanopoulos, like Begala a former Clinton White House political aide, took up the story on ABC Sunday but without overt accusations against the president. Unlike the cautious responses by the Defense and CIA officials, Rice's flat denial might make it more difficult to keep the urban legend going through the campaign.
Another gratuitous Clinton reference. Rive did not give a "flat denial." The new Stephanopoulos is not known for his partisanship. Once a Clintonite, always a Clintonite, I suppose.
Jim Miklaszewski told me he stands by his story, and pointed to House Armed Services Committee hearings April 21. Congressman Snyder brought the NBC story up to retired Gen. John Keane, and asked why the attack was rejected. "No, I can't help you," the former Army acting chief of staff replied. "We were looking at it as early as the Fourth of July weekend before we commenced activities against Iraq." That confirmed an attack on Zarqawi's camp was considered. It did not confirm the Iraqi urban legend spread by Hillary Clinton and friends.
Another gratuitous Clinton reference. John Keane has no idea why we didn't take out the camp. Novak has no idea why we didn't take out the camp. He's just sure that it couldn't have been because bush wanted to keep the camp around. Why is he so sure? Because Clintons are involved.

 

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