On CNN on Sept. 8, 2002, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice infamously warned — incorrectly — that Saddam Hussein may be close to producing a nuclear weapon. When asked how “close” Saddam was to “developing a nuclear capacity,” Rice replied:
RICE: The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.
As a push for action against Iraq, she added, “How long are we going to wait to deal with what is clearly a gathering threat against the United States, against our allies and against his own region?”
Over at the Corner today, Douglas Feith attempts to defend this statement. “Rice’s reference to the mushroom cloud has been widely denounced as a gaffe or a lie,” he writes. “But it was neither.” From his post:
Rice was highlighting the limits of U.S. intelligence. While emphasizing the disparate estimates about how close Saddam was to a nuclear bomb, Rice was saying that the CIA would not necessarily know when Saddam acquired one.
She was warning that we might not learn this until after a detonation. This was an important and accurate statement. … Rice deserves credit for stressing here the gaps and uncertainties in U.S. intelligence.
While there were gaps in U.S. intelligence, the administration repeatedly chose the interpretation that was the most favorable to its case for war. In fact, almost a year before her 2002 interview, Rice’s staff “had been told that the government’s foremost nuclear experts seriously doubted that the tubes were for nuclear weapons.”
Additionally, as Michael Isikoff and David Corn wrote in “Hubris,” speechwriter Michael Gerson — who came up with the phrase — clearly intended the metaphor to be used to sell the American public on the alleged nuclear danger of Saddam. It was also used by President Bush on Oct. 7, 2002, not to debate intelligence gaps, but to push for war:
Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. … Understanding the threats of our time, knowing the designs and deceptions of the Iraqi regime, we have every reason to assume the worst, and we have an urgent duty to prevent the worst from occurring.
So according to Feith, whenever U.S. intelligence officials are unsure of how great a threat a country poses, the United States should just attack anyway?