Salon WMD story seemingly overstated

updated below

Salon is running a big story by Sidney Blumenthal headlined “Bush knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction.” But while I hate to throw a wet blanket on everyone, and it’s hard to know for sure, it appears overstated.

The story’s about Naji Sabri, Saddam’s foreign minister. As has been known for several years, Sabri was recruited as a spy by France, which then arranged for him to provide information to the US. And while he didn’t say Iraq was teeming with banned weapons, he apparently also didn’t say they were clean. Here’s a Washington Post story from 2006:

[Sabri] provided information that the Iraqi dictator had ambitions for a nuclear program but that it was not active, and that no biological weapons were being produced or stockpiled, although research was underway.

When it came to chemical weapons, Sabri told his handler that some existed but they were not under military control, a former intelligence official familiar with the situation said. Another former official added: “He said he had been told Hussein had them dispersed among some of the loyal tribes.”

Now, here’s how Blumenthal’s story begins:

On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam’s inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail. Tenet never brought it up again.

These stories actually don’t contradict each other. According to the Post, Sabri did say the Iraqi government itself had no actual banned weapons. So Blumenthal’s story is literally correct that Sabri claimed “Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction.” However, there’s a significant difference between the head of the CIA telling the president “we have a spy who says Saddam wants a nuke, is hiding WMD programs and gave out chemical weapons to his tribal allies” and “we have a spy who says Iraq isn’t hiding anything.” The way the story’s written gives you the impression it was the latter rather than the former. (And since it was the former, Sabri’s claims haven’t “turned out to be accurate in every detail.”)

In fact, the Sabri story has always been the one part of all this that’s made me feel sympathetic toward the Bush administration. If what Sabri was saying had been right, then they would have been justified in believing Iraq truly wasn’t taking this last opportunity to come clean. They might well have believed that, whether or not the Iraqi military turned out to have actual WMD when U.S. troops arrived, Sabri’s claims made it clear there was no way to disarm Saddam without an invasion.

So while no one wants to see these guys nailed on the WMD issue more than me, I don’t think the Salon story does it. Instead, I get the impression Blumenthal’s CIA sources are spinning what happened pretty hard. The clearest evidence of this is Tenet’s February 5, 2004 speech on Iraq, in which he made reference to Sabri:

[A] source who had direct access to Saddam and his inner circle said Iraq was not in the possession of a nuclear weapon. However, Iraq was aggressively and covertly developing such a weapon.

Saddam had recently called together his nuclear weapons committee, irate that Iraq did not yet have a weapon because money was no object and they possessed the scientific know-how. The committee members assured Saddam that once fissile material was in hand, a bomb could be ready in 18 to 24 months. The return of U.N. inspectors would cause minimal disruption because, according to the source, Iraq was expert at denial and deception.

The same source said that Iraq was stockpiling chemical weapons and that equipment to produce insecticides under the oil-for-food program had been diverted to covert chemical weapons production.

The source said that Iraq’s weapons of last resort were mobile launchers armed with chemical weapons which would be fired at enemy forces in Israel; that Iraqi scientists were dabbling with biological weapons with limited success, but the quantities were not sufficient to constitute a real weapons program.

It would be pretty odd if Tenet had told Bush in September, 2002, “Sabri says they have nothing!” and then said this in public eighteen months later. I strongly suspect he said the same thing both times, and the “Saddam’s regime itself doesn’t have WMD right this second” part is being cherry picked out of it in 2007.

In any case, the most interesting part to me is what Sabri was up to. Was he lying? Or unknowingly providing false information—and if so, why did he believe it? Maybe someday we’ll find out, since according to the Salon piece he’s now spending France’s money in Qatar.

UPDATE: Thanks for the comments at my site. To clarify, I agree the WMD issue is a distraction. The only thing that matters is Bush & co. wanted war and didn’t care what the facts were. Moreover, in politics, spending time on “intelligence” is always a trap. It has almost nothing to do with what happens. (See Arthur Silber.)

I also agree Tenet was probably spinning things himself at Georgetown (in the other direction). He’s a shameless hack.

However, the reason I pointed this out is because careful journalism is important—because it’s important for people to stay in complicated reality, rather than believing misleading stories because they want to believe them. It concerns me when I see “our” “side” doing this. In particular, I think commenter Donald Johnson is correct that Blumenthal presented things this way because it seems to get Democrats off the hook.