America - Andrew Stephen asks when Bush will lie again

Notwithstanding some anxious mutterings, the issue of whether weapons of mass destruction will now b

Well, it convinced me. That was the reaction of an American I know to Colin Powell's briefing of the UN Security Council on Iraq on 5 February. In it, Powell provided satellite images and other "intelligence" supposedly proving that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

The briefing was intended mainly to sway American public opinion at a time when the nation was still not sold firmly on an invasion of Iraq. It succeeded totally: from the moment Powell sat down in New York that day, American public opinion started to rally behind the Bush administration. But, as I reported here weeks ago, there is now a "creeping" fear in Washington that WMDs may not be found in Iraq after all. Frantic ripostes to this possibility have already started to echo around Washington: that Saddam moved all his WMDs into Syria before the invasion; that he destroyed them; that they are so well hidden they will never be found.

I have been rereading a transcript of what Powell said that day; what is striking is that he and/or his State Department officials inserted several personal get-outs for Powell. He made copious use of grainy satellite images even as he admitted that such images are "sometimes hard for the average person to interpret, hard for me". Later, he referred to Iraq's alleged pursuit of centrifugal tubes to make nuclear weapons, saying: "I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but this is an old army trooper. I can tell you a couple of things [sic]." In other words, Powell was making it clear that he was relying on others for the facts he was putting before the UN and the world.

The most blatant example of official chicanery came when President Bush - following the infamous British "dossier" - claimed that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from the West African state of Niger. Bush used it as a prime example in his State of the Union address in January. We now know that documents "proving" this were faked, leading Hans Blix - the UN's chief weapons inspector and imperturbable Swede - to upset the apple-cart last Monday when he said that it was "very, very disturbing" that US intelligence had failed to unearth the documents as forgeries.

In the words of Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia: "There is a possibility that the fabrication of these documents may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq." But the story first emanated from the UK, in that now-discredited dossier of 24 September last; that same day, the CIA director, George Tenet, was telling a closed-door session of the Senate foreign relations committee that between 1999 and 2001, Iraq had sought to buy 500 tonnes of uranium oxide from Niger. In the British "dossier", tributes were made to the collection of intelligence by the "Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Security Service, and the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS)".

But the amateurish falsification of the Niger papers was such that the man listed as Niger's foreign minister had, in fact, ceased to be in that position years earlier. The International Atomic Energy Agency says it "had no great difficulty finding out they were fake". Now we know that the Niger documents were such crude forgeries, we must assume that the British intelligence services mentioned are either extremely gullible - or that the British government was purposely disseminating lies.

Blix said last Monday that "the US was very eager to sway the votes in the Security Council". The US now "sees no immediate role" for Blix and his team; Russia wants the UN inspectors to return. Here in the US, Blix is still widely portrayed as a UN blunderer who was outfoxed by Saddam - while the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, are riding the crest of a wave of triumphalist public acclaim. Notwithstanding the anxious mutterings, the issue of whether or not WMDs will now be found in Iraq has largely been swept under the carpet in Washington; from London, Mike O'Brien says on behalf of the Foreign Office that of 146 possible WMD sites, fewer than a dozen have actually been visited so far.

The issue of whether or not WMDs will be found in serious quantities in Iraq not only puts the credibility of the British and American governments on the line; in Tony Blair's case, the whole justification for the invasion, that of "forcible disarmament", rested on the assumption that there were WMDs in Iraq and that they posed a danger.

In the meantime, sanctions against Iraq imposed by the UN cannot be lifted until Blix and his team certify that the country is free of WMDs, which they clearly cannot do without going back into the country. But the US insists there is no role left for Blix, and that finding WMDs is a matter for the "coalition". Watch this space for news of yet more shenanigans on this one.