Of all the strange stories to come out of the media's debacle in Iraq, one of the most Orwellian is the fable in which Saddam Hussein tricked America into invading Iraq by making us believe that he had weapons of mass destruction (Extra!, 1-2/04, 5-6/04). Of all the lies, hypocrisies and half-truths of this war, this one may be the most extravagant: a falsehood whose speciousness doesn't even require any checking--at least for anyone whose memory goes back earlier than March 2003.
The latest incarnation of this story appeared in January, when CBS's 60 Minutes (1/27/08) aired an interview with George Piro, the FBI interrogator who was in charge of questioning Saddam Hussein after his capture. Billed as "Saddam's Confessions," the segment promised to divulge the dictator's deepest secrets as they were uncovered during months of clandestine debriefings.
In the web report of the interview with Piro, 60 Minutes provided this incredible account of the prewar controversy over weapons of mass destruction:
Saddam still wouldn't admit he had no weapons of mass destruction, even when it was obvious there would be military action against him because of the perception he did. Because, says Piro, "For him, it was critical that he was seen as still the strong, defiant Saddam. He thought that [faking having the weapons] would prevent the Iranians from reinvading Iraq," he tells Pelley.
Saddam "wouldn't admit he had no weapons of mass destruction"? A lot of things may have taken place since 2003, but it shouldn't be too hard for a CBS viewer to remember that this simply isn't the way things happened. When inspectors were sent back to Baghdad in 2002, Iraq released a massive report insisting there were no such weapons. Indeed, CBS, like every other news outlet, reported this at the time.
Bob Schieffer, the network's Washington bureau chief, announced the news this way (12/8/02): "Saddam Hussein says he has no weapons of mass destruction, but should we believe him?" Interviewing a visiting senator on Face the Nation, Schieffer asked what would happen if U.S. experts "conclude that Saddam Hussein is once again lying, as he has so often in the past...claiming he doesn't have the weapons, when in fact we know that he has. What do we do next?"
Schieffer's question was quickly answered by the White House. "The American people know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction," Bush declared (3/6/03) shortly before the invasion, in a typical pronouncement from that period. "He declared he didn't have any. [The U.N.] insisted that he have a complete declaration of his weapons; he said he didn't have any weapons."
A personal appearance
60 Minutes' claim that Saddam "wouldn't admit he had no weapons of mass destruction" is all the more preposterous since Saddam Hussein actually appeared personally on 60 Minutes II to tell the country in no uncertain terms that had no weapons of mass destruction.
In the interview with Dan Rather that rather famously aired on that program (2/26/03) three weeks before the invasion, Saddam explained that Iraq had agreed to allow inspectors back into the country "even though Iraq was absolutely certain that what it had said--what the Iraqi officials had kept saying--that Iraq was empty, was void, of any such weapons, was the case." He did so "in order to make the case absolutely clear that Iraq was no longer in possession of any such weapons."
Iraq's story had been the same for the greater part of a decade: Part of its weapons cache was handed over to the U.N. The rest was secretly destroyed in 1991 so that the inspectors wouldn't find out those programs had existed. When the U.N. found out anyway in the mid-1990s, the Iraqis took the inspectors to the sites where the weapons debris was buried, and through forensic testing the inspectors were able to confirm that "Iraq undertook extensive, unilateral and secret destruction of large quantities of proscribed weapons and items" (UN.org, "Report on Status of Disarmament and Monitoring," 1/29/99).
Since the U.N. was unable to determine the exact quantities destroyed, it felt it could not be absolutely sure that all the weapons were really gone. The inspectors sought Iraqi documents that could prove that the destroyed weapons represented Iraq's entire cache. But since the destruction had been carried out in secret, most of the relevant documents were also destroyed.
This Iraqi account, which has since turned out to be entirely true (Washington Post, 1/7/04), had been relayed in great detail, before the war, on live American TV by the top Iraqi official in charge of cooperating with U.N. inspectors. General Amar Al-Saadi told reporters at a press conference in Baghdad that all weapons were either handed over voluntarily to the U.N. or destroyed secretly in 1991. As for the documents, Al-Saadi expressed regret that Iraq had destroyed them too (CNN, 12/8/02): "When you remove something completely, it no longer exists, and if you want to do it properly, you also remove all of the evidence of it ever existed. And that's what we did, and, retrospectively, it was a mistake."
And how did CBS report Al-Saadi's statement at the time? "This 'the dog ate my homework' excuse has been tried before without success," the network's Baghdad reporter jeered (12/8/02):
'The most important mystery'
The facts about Iraq's weapons have been known for years now. But in the new "tell-all" interview with Saddam's interrogator, 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley tries to build up an atmosphere of breathless suspense around the WMD issue, "the most important mystery Piro was trying to solve."
Recalling how he sat in Saddam's prison cell preparing to put the crucial question to the deposed dictator, Piro recounted: "Oh, you couldn't imagine the excitement that I was feeling at that point." And what was the answer to this enigma for the ages? "He told me that most of the WMD had been destroyed by the U.N. inspectors in the '90s, and those that hadn't been destroyed by the inspectors were unilaterally destroyed by Iraq." In other words, the same answer found in reports that have been posted to the U.N.'s website for over a decade.
But Pelley probed further: "So why keep the secret? Why put [his] nation at risk? Why put [his] own life at risk to maintain this charade?" To this nonsensical question, Piro put forward the theory that some elements of the intelligence community have been trying to spread from the moment they were forced to admit they had been wrong about WMD for so many years.
PELLEY:He believed that he couldn't survive without the perception that he had weapons of mass destruction?
Look closely at this exchange. Piro isn't claiming that this is something Saddam actually told him. The idea that Saddam wanted the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction in order to deter Iran came not from Saddam himself, but rather was cooked up several years ago by U.S. intelligence officials--conveniently exonerating the intelligence agencies from having gotten the WMD story so wrong. "Of course we thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction--he made us think it!"
The most coherent statement of this theory was the CIA's comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report, to which Piro himself made a not insignificant contribution. In it, Charles Duelfer, a former weapons inspector and State Department point man on WMD, used material from interrogations of former Iraqi leaders to try to create the impression that this theory had been confirmed by the Iraqis themselves. But like Piro in his 60 Minutes interview, the Duelfer report never included a direct quote from any of these officials asserting that Saddam had done such a thing. In fact, one of the officials mentioned in the report insisted that "Saddam never talked openly about bluffing in regard to WMD" (Tiny Revolution, 4/20/07).
The theory that Saddam "bluffed the world" is one that is presumably meant for posterity. If it is repeated enough times, some people clearly hope, it will eventually become part of the historical record. It's understandable that these people would try to use the media for their purposes. What is hard to fathom is how journalists can report things that contradict what they saw with their own eyes just a few short years ago. If journalism is the rough draft of history, it is troubling to see how brazenly it can be revised.
I Can't Hear You, I've Got Propaganda in My Ears
"As the U.S. marched toward war and we began massing troops on his border, why didn't he stop it then? And say, 'Look, I have no weapons of mass destruction.' I mean, how could he have wanted his country to be invaded?"
--CBS reporter Scott Pelley, “Interrogator Shares Saddam’s Confessions,” CBSNews.com, 1/27/08.
"I believe that that [the U.S. military preparations in the Gulf] were, in fact, done partly to cover the huge lie that was being waged against Iraq about chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And it was on that basis that Iraq actually accepted [the U.N.] Resolution--accepted it, even though Iraq was absolutely certain that what it had said--what the Iraqi officials...had kept saying, that ... Iraq was empty, was void of any such weapons--was the case. But Iraq accepted that resolution... in order not to allow any misinterpretation of its position...in order to make the case absolutely clear that Iraq was no longer in possession of any such...weapons."
--Saddam Hussein, interview with Dan Rather (CBSNews.com, 2/26/03)
"The Iraq war was triggered by a dictator's suicidal bluff about weapons of mass destruction."
--Jim Hoagland (Washington Post, 6/8/06)
"[In] an eight-page letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan...Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri...asserted that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction for inspectors to find, but he said: 'We are prepared to receive the inspectors within the assigned timetable.... We are eager to see them perform their duties...as soon as possible.'"
--Washington Post (1/14/02)
"Well, one of the puzzling questions about Saddam Hussein--why did he pretend to have weapons of mass destruction when he didn't?"
--CNN anchor Betty Nguyen (CNN Newsroom, 1/26/08)
"The Iraqi government insists it has no weapons of mass destruction, is not involved in any programs dealing in weapons of mass destruction.... The Iraqis have gone to great lengths to challenge the United Nations, especially the U.S. and the U.K., to say if you have other evidence to the contrary, go ahead, show it, make it public and then we will deal with it."
--Wolf Blitzer (CNN, 12/8/02)