America - Andrew Stephen on how Americans don't need facts

Although no weapons of mass destruction have been found, 41 per cent of Americans think they have. W

I was at Camp David that sunny Saturday afternoon last September and remember it well. Tony Blair was being awarded his allocation of six hours on US soil in order to show his solidarity with Boy George over Iraq, and he was speaking with that hint of boyish hesitation he seems to reserve for when he fears his integrity may be questioned. "We only need to look at the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency this morning showing what has been going on at the former nuclear weapons sites," he said. Mystified, I traced the supposed "report" of that morning to something that had appeared in the previous day's New York Times, which was itself a rather bogus effort, reviving something that had surfaced weeks before that. But a re-recycled version had then appeared in that morning's UK Times, and I presumed that Blair had read it in his morning papers on his flight over.

Showing that he can nevertheless be quick on the uptake, having heard of this "report" only moments before, Bush chimed in: "We just heard the Prime Minister talk about the new report." This exchange showed me at the time that both men, in their exhortations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, were (as I wrote in the NS at the time) flying along on a wing and a prayer - or, put another way, were creating new "evidence" of WMDs as they went along. What Jacques Baute, the French physicist in charge of the UN Iraq Nuclear Verification Office, had actually said in the New York Times story was: "We have nothing now that allows us to draw a conclusion."

I went on to write in the NS why I had serious misgivings about Blair's then much-awaited "dossier" linking Saddam Hussein with WMDs and the 11 September atrocities, and predicted there would be much material of "dubious authenticity". And then I quoted the Democratic senator Bob Graham - who was chairman of the Senate select committee on intelligence at the time and privy to all US intelligence - that "Iraq is a primary distraction from achieving our goals or reducing the threat of international terrorism", not knowing that he would become a serious presidential contender to oppose Dubbya next year.

But Graham, a man of unusual integrity for someone at the top of American politics, is still one of the very few important voices here willing to cast doubt on the wisdom of the war in Iraq and the evidence that Saddam possessed WMDs. Indeed, while Blair now sweats in the UK over his "evidence" - and it has to be said it is still barely believable that no WMDs have yet been found - Boy George still rides along on the crest of victory in the US, barely ruffled that neither his Task Force 20 from Delta Force (the equivalent of the SAS) nor the 75th Exploitation Task Force has managed to lay its hands on any of these weapons or, apparently, any Iraqi scientists willing to point the way. It takes a contrarian like John Dean, counsel to President Nixon who was jailed over his role in Watergate, to say that if Bush deliberately misled the nation over WMDs it would be an impeachable scandal and "worse than Watergate".

This is a bloodthirsty country, however, and polls show that success in Iraq - and the discovery of mass graves - have more than satisfied the American people. The Democrats, fearing that the issues of Iraq and WMDs are political losers, are desperate to turn public attention to the parlous state of the economy; people like Graham (though choosing their words carefully) are not only bucking public opinion but also taking immense risks lest WMDs are actually found. In the triumphalist mood that still pervades America, there will need to be positive proof that such weapons do not exist in Iraq - something that it is virtually impossible to produce - before the issue is likely to take off in the US.

But waves of anxiety are beginning to surface in official Washington. Internecine warfare between different intelligence agencies - what, us? - is emerging again, as those responsible rush to cover their backsides. It came out in the open last Monday that Rand Beers, the National Security Council special assistant to the president and senior director for combating terrorism, had abruptly resigned five days before the invasion started. Last Monday also saw the rather mysterious resignation of the Pentagon's chief spokesperson, Torie Clarke, for "personal reasons". Does she foresee a nasty public tussle between the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA over the quality of intelligence?

I always thought that when Colin Powell presented "evidence" of WMDs to the United Nations in February, he looked like a man who would rather be doing anything than present such a dossier. He knew as well as anyone that when the CIA kept propagating its view that there was a distinct lack of evidence of WMDs in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, formed a special Department of Defence team of supposed intelligence-gatherers whose sole purpose was to produce evidence proving that there were WMDs. An air of wishful thinking thus started to envelop the administration; an irrevocable decision to go to war drove the defence department "intelligence" mission while silencing the doubters. It became positively unpatriotic, spoiling all the fun of vicarious war, to voice doubt over the existence of WMDs in Iraq.

The policy of the administration is simply to blur the issue. Dubbya surprised even his supporters by claiming on Polish television earlier this month that two trailers, found without a trace of biological or chemical weapons, were actually the WMDs troops had been looking for all along: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories . . . And we'll find more weapons as time goes on . . . we found them." No mention is made of how old the trailers are, or whether they date from times when we know that Saddam definitely had chemical and biological weapons programmes.

That is the second way the subject is being blurred: nobody can doubt that Saddam Hussein had such weapons in the 1990s, because the much-maligned UN supervised the destruction of hoards of them. But the separate timetables - prior to 1998 and after that date - are being successfully confused in the public perception. The statement that "Saddam Hussein harboured weapons of mass destruction" is indisputably correct; the question of whether he had them in the 21st century is more open to doubt. So were those intelligence analysts here who expressed certainty that Saddam possessed WMDs immediately prior to the invasion merely projecting his earlier behaviour to assume that he pursued the same programmes post 1998?

Thanks to the blurring and the triumphalism, however, the issue remains largely irrelevant here - at least for the time being. A Pipa/Knowledge Networks poll shows that 41 per cent of the American public think WMDs have already been found. Of those who supported the decision to go to war, 52 per cent believe that WMDs have been found; among Republicans, the figure is 55 per cent. With such a triumphalist administration and a dutifully pliant media, who needs the facts?

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