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Monday, September 12, 2011
In Cheney’s Memoir, It’s Clear Iraq’s Lessons Didn’t Sink In
By Bob Woodward
key lesson of the 9/11 decade for presidents and other national security
decision makers is the importance of rigorously testing intelligence evidence:
poking holes in it, setting out contradictions, figuring out what may have been
overlooked or left out. It is essential to distinguish between hard facts and
what is an assessment or judgment.
so-called slam-dunk case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction illustrates
the failure. If anyone should have learned this, it is former president George
W. Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney.
in his new memoir, “In My Time,” Cheney shows he has not fully absorbed that
lesson when he writes about the administration’s response to the 2007 discovery
of a nuclear reactor in Syria that the North Koreans had helped build.
Cheney’s telling, the evidence showed “a clandestine nuclear reactor, built by
two terrorist-sponsoring states.” Given the potential threat, he argued
privately to Bush, and later to top national security officials, that the
United States should destroy the reactor.
a National Security Council session that June, he writes, “I again made the
case for U.S. military action against the reactor. Not only would it make the
region and the world safer, but it would also demonstrate our seriousness with
respect to non-proliferation. It would enhance our credibility in that part of
the world . . . . But I was the lone voice. After I finished, the president
asked, ‘Does anyone here agree with the vice president?’ Not a single hand went
up around the room. I had done all I could, and I’m not sure the president’s
mind would have been changed if the others had agreed with me.”
notes with some relish that two months later the Israelis took unilateral
action and destroyed the reactor. The clear implication is that Bush and the
others had lost their nerve, that they lacked the necessary spine to act as he
accounts from others in these meetings, a public briefing and Bush’s own memoir
present a dramatically different picture of the intelligence on the Syrian
does not reveal that then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden had a team working for
months to examine the intelligence on the Syrian reactor. Participants at the
meetings say that Hayden presented his findings to Bush, Cheney and the others
before Cheney made his arguments for a military strike.
to a principal participant, Hayden made four points, saying: “That’s a reactor.
I have high confidence. That Syria and North Korea have been cooperating for 10
years on a nuclear reactor program, I have high confidence. North Korea built
that reactor? I have medium confidence. On it is part of a nuclear weapons
program, I have low confidence.”
emphasized the last sentence to underscore his uncertainty. He later told
others that he stuck to the intelligence facts and intentionally shaped his
presentation that way to discourage a preemptive strike because the
intelligence was weak.
to the CIA, there was no evidence of plutonium reprocessing capability at the
site or nearby in that region of Syria, though a reactor of that type would be
capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. In addition, there was no
identifiable means to manufacture uranium fuel.
declaration of low confidence was, in effect, his anti-slam dunk.
April 24, 2008, two senior U.S. intelligence officials and a senior White House
official briefed reporters on the Syrian reactor after extensive testimony to
congressional committees on the issue. One of the briefers restated Hayden’s
conclusions and said there was not much physical evidence the reactor was part
of a weapons program, so they had only “low confidence” that it was.
assessment, he said, was that the reactor was planned to be part of a weapons
program, but in an apparent reference to the Iraq WMD mistake, the briefer
said, “There are lessons learned that are — that came out of previous
experience about how to put more rigor into our process. So there’s a
difference between evidence and an assessment.”
his memoir, Bush described the debate about the Syrian reactor, writing that
Hayden and the other intelligence experts “had only low confidence of a Syrian
nuclear weapons program.”
[Hayden]’s report clarified my decision,” Bush wrote, adding that he called
then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who wanted the United States to
destroy the reactor. Bush says he told Olmert, “I cannot justify an attack on a
sovereign nation unless my intelligence agencies stand up and say it’s a
didn’t reveal, however, that his vice president wanted a military strike in the
face of “low confidence” intelligence that the reactor was part of a nuclear
weapons program. Cheney said he wanted the United States to commit an act of
war to send a message, demonstrate seriousness and enhance credibility — a
frightening prospect given the doubts.
participants in the key National Security Council meeting in June 2007 said
that after Cheney, the “lone voice,” made his arguments, Bush rolled his eyes.
the CIA afterward, the group of specialists who had worked for months on the
Syrian reactor issue were pleased they had succeeded in avoiding the
overreaching so evident in the Iraq WMD case. So they issued a very
limited-circulation memorial coin. One side showed a map of Syria with a star
at the site of the former reactor. On the other side the coin said, “No core/No
-This commentary was published in The Washington Post on
-Bob Woodward is an associate editor of The Post. His assistant, Evelyn M.
Duffy, contributed to this column