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Records Could Shed Light on Iraq Group

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THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - June 12, 2008
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Records Could Shed Light on Iraq Group
by: Walter Pincus, The Washington Post

There is an important line in last week's Senate 
intelligence committee report on the Bush administration's 
prewar exaggerations of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. 
It says that the panel did not review "less formal 
communications between intelligence agencies and other 
parts of the Executive Branch." 

More important, there was no effort to obtain White House 
records or interview President Bush, Vice President Cheney 
or other administration officials whose speeches were 
analyzed because, the report says, such steps were 
considered beyond the scope of the report. 

One obvious target for such an expanded inquiry would 
have been the records of the White House Iraq Group 
(WHIG), a group set up in August 2002 by then-White 
House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. 

The group met weekly in the Situation Room. Among the 
regular participants (many have since left or changed 
jobs) were Karl Rove, the president's senior political 
adviser; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary 
Matalin and James R. Wilkinson; legislative liaison 
Nicholas E. Calio; and policy aides led by national 
security adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, 
Stephen J. Hadley, as well as I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, 
Cheney's chief of staff. 

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As former White House press secretary Scott McClellan wrote 
in his recently released book, "What Happened," the Iraq 
Group "had been set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate 
the marketing of the war to the public." 

"The script had been finalized with great care over the 
summer," McClellan wrote, for a "campaign to convince 
Americans that war with Iraq was inevitable and necessary."

In an interview with the New York Times published Sept. 6, 
2002, Card did not mention the group, but he hinted at its 
mission. "From a marketing point of view, you don't 
introduce new products in August," he said. 

Two days later, WHIG's product placement was on display. 
It began with a front-page story in the Times describing 
Iraq's clandestine purchase of aluminum tubes that, the 
story said, could be used to produce weapons-grade uranium. 
The story said that information came from "senior 
administration officials." 

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The story also spoke of "hardliners" in the Bush 
administration being "alarmed that American intelligence 
underestimated the pace and scale of Iraq's nuclear 
program before Baghdad's defeat in the gulf war." They 
"argue that Washington dare not wait until analysts have 
found hard evidence that Mr. Hussein has acquired a nuclear 
weapon. The first sign of a 'smoking gun,' they argue, may 
be a mushroom cloud," the Times story said. 

That same morning, the message was carried on three network 
news shows. Cheney appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and, 
referring to the Times story, said that intelligence showed 
that Hussein "has reconstituted his nuclear program to 
develop a nuclear weapon." The Iraqi leader was "trying, 
through his illicit procurement network, to acquire the 
equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make 
the bombs," Cheney said. 

That same day, on CNN's "Late Edition," Rice said, "There 
will always be some uncertainty" in determining how close 
Iraq may be to obtaining a nuclear weapon but, "we don't 
want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." 

On CBS's "Face the Nation," Defense Secretary Donald H. 
Rumsfeld was asked about the Times story and whether 
Hussein had nuclear weapons. "Is there a smoking gun 
here?" host Bob Schieffer asked. "'Smoking gun' is an 
interesting phrase," Rumsfeld said, and then he went 
to the same message his colleagues had given. 

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"The problem with that is the way one gains absolute 
certainty as to whether a dictator like Saddam Hussein 
has a nuclear weapon is if he uses it ... and that's a 
little late." Bush picked up the slogan a month later 
in his nationally televised speech on the threat from 
Iraq. 

McClellan wrote that WHIG was not used to "deliberately 
mislead the public" but that the "more fundamental problem 
was the way [Bush's] advisers decided to pursue a political 
propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people.

"As the campaign accelerated," he added, "caveats and 
qualifications were downplayed or dropped altogether. 
Contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or simply 
disregarded." 

WHIG's records would shed much light on whether, as Sen. 
John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the 
intelligence panel, put it: "In making the case for war, 
the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as 
fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even 
nonexistent." 

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