Nine years ago, a panel commissioned by President George W. Bush concluded: “The Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.” Bush’s decision to wage war on Iraq by linking Saddam Hussein to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had been accepted with little scrutiny by lawmakers of both parties. The president had used the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, which left a nation confused and grieving, to pursue Hussein, diverting efforts from the real culprit, Osama bin Laden.
“On a matter of this importance, we simply cannot afford failures of this magnitude,” said the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, created by executive order. “The Intelligence Community needs to be pushed. It will not do its best unless it is pressed by policymakers — sometimes to the point of discomfort.”
Yet 11 years after the launch of a war that left as many as half a million dead, according to a joint international study that included the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins University, the facts are still being rewritten to justify it. Last week, an Iowa state senator seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, told The Des Moines Register’s editorial board there was actionable intelligence for invading Iraq because Saddam Hussein had WMDs. After those remarks made national news, she tried this week to walk them back.
It came up when candidate Joni Ernst, who served in Iraq as a lieutenant colonel with the Iowa Army National Guard, was asked what she would consider a basis for future military actions. She referred to “actionable intelligence” about threats to national security and to U.S. interests in a region. I asked her if she believed there was actionable intelligence for going into Iraq.
“I do believe at that time there was,” she replied. “Now I wasn’t at a level to know. Obviously the president thought that there was actionable intelligence, so as an Iraqi war veteran, I stand beside that and I’ll stand beside every other soldier I served with in believing we were on a clearly defined mission to go into Iraq.”
“Even though Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction?” I pressed.
“We don’t know that there were weapons on the ground when we went in, however I do have reason to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” replied Ernst. “That was the intelligence that was operated on. I was not at a level to question that.”
“Are you now?” an editorial writer asked her. “I have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Ernst repeated. Asked for specifics, she said her husband served in Saudi Arabia as the Army Central Command sergeant major for a year, “and that’s a hot button topic.”
On Monday, Ernst, who has previously made late night talk shows for a campaign ad boasting of castrating hogs on the family farm growing up, issued a statement saying what she meant to say was that Iraq had had and used WMDs in the past, but clearly didn’t have them in 2003. The CIA’s Iraq Study Group reported in 2004 that chemical weapons were likely present but destroyed before 1991. To the editorial board, however, Ernst made no attempt to distinguish between 1991 and 2003.
It’s easy to get confused being grilled on camera by half a dozen people. But the Iraq War has been our most defining and divisive issue for over a decade. It was Ernst’s life. It drove Barack Obama’s election as president. The 4,800 coalition troops who lost their lives in it were disserved by their leaders and the faulty intelligence it was based on. So wouldn’t standing by them demand a little indignation?
As a soldier, you’re expected to obey orders and trust that your elected officials wouldn’t send you into harm’s way unnecessarily. As a senator, you’re expected to cast such critical votes using independent judgment and facts. In the same interview, Ernst ironically said since she hasn’t seen proof that climate change is all man-made, she won’t support mandates to reduce it.
As polarized as our nation may be politically, some facts are not open to debate. Some Americans have been swayed by talk-show spin claiming we found WMDs in Iraq after 2003. National columnist Leonard Pitts told me he was sent an article falsely claiming the same thing, and briefly wondered if he’d somehow missed the news.
Before we can develop a national consensus on anything, especially war, Americans need to operate with the right facts. Candidates can advance or set back democracy by acknowledging or distorting them. To all who are running now, however you seek to distinguish yourselves, please handle the truth with care.
Ernst’s comments about WMDs in Iraq can be seen in this video starting around 23.30: www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/elections/2014/05/12/joni-ernst-wmd/9003823/
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.