All that was missing was the flight suit and the aircraft carrier. On June 21, Senator Rick Santorum joined Representative Pete Hoekstra, the suave Michigan Republican who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, to make a surprising revelation. "We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq--chemical weapons," Santorum announced at a joint press conference. His evidence? A just-declassified study by the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center (ngic) noting that 500 chemical munitions shells had been unearthed near the Iranian border.
Unfortunately for Hoekstra and Santorum, the shells weren't part of Saddam Hussein's illusory stockpile of WMD. Rather, they were artifacts of the Iran- Iraq war, during which Saddam (helped, incidentally, by the Reagan administration) acquired chemical weapons. Panicked intelligence officials, worried about another Iraq-WMD misinformation fiasco, immediately told reporters that "there is not new news."
And that's when Hoekstra and Santorum made the White House's battle with the CIA their own. On June 26, they took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to unleash a larger allegation: that some officials in the intelligence community are attempting to destroy the Bush administration--and the United States itself. "People who leak the existence of sensitive intelligence programs like the terrorist surveillance program or financial tracking programs to either damage the administration or help al Qaeda, or perhaps both, are using the release or withholding of documents to advance their political desires," they wrote. In other words, the reason we haven't found out about Saddam's WMD is because Al Qaeda sympathizers in the intelligence community don't want us to know.
Welcome to the new smear. Previous GOP attacks on the intelligence community have merely alleged that Langley is full of Bush-haters. Now Hoekstra and Santorum are implying that the CIA contains not just liberal squishes but actual fifth columnists. "Good grief," sighs Jane Harman, Hoekstra's Democratic counterpart on the House intelligence committee. "I am not aware of anyone [in the intelligence community] who harbors sympathy for Al Qaeda. I think that is a reckless claim."
It's easy to see why Hoekstra and Santorum--and much of the conservative faithful--would like to believe that allegation. For Republicans, locked into supporting an unpopular war, convincing their constituencies that American troops need to die for an elusive Iraqi democracy is an increasingly tough sell. But the Bush administration, sensitive these days on the subject of crying wolf over WMD, has not embraced the unearthed shells. So the GOP Congress has resolved that someone else must rise to the challenge. It's not that Bush doesn't want to speak the WMD truth, Hoekstra and Santorum assured Journal readers. It's that he's "often paralyzed" by the intelligence bureaucracy and an irresponsible liberal press. The enemy within--that is, the Al Qaeda- cooperative intelligence community--cannot be allowed to prevail, Hoekstra and Santorum concluded. And, over the past few weeks, the dynamic duo, with the help of their GOP friends, has stepped up the campaign to stop them.
NOT LONG AGO, the conspiracy theory that Iraq harbored stockpiles of WMD at the outset of the war was reserved for cheap-hotel ballrooms packed with conservative conventioneers. (As in a February conference in Arlington, Virginia, that featured a panel on "Saddam's WMD Tapes: `The Smoking Gun' Evidence.") Now it's being taken seriously in the halls of Congress. On June 29, the House Armed Services Committee held a surreal hearing on the ngic report. A Virginia Republican named Thelma Drake suggested that Saddam's WMD might have been detonated just that morning in Israel by Palestinian terrorists. Not to be outdone, Pennsylvania's Curt Weldon defiantly rebutted the charge that the munitions were ancient history by referring to the U.N. resolutions demanding Iraq's disarmament: "It didn't say `pre-'91 chemical weapons.' It didn't say `post-'91 chemical weapons.' It said `chemical weapons.'" A weary David Kay, the CIA's first postwar WMD-hunter, had the thankless task of informing the committee that "it really should not be a surprise to anyone that chemical munitions produced in Iraq between 1980 and, roughly, 1991 have been found there."
The campaign continued last Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation. There, addressing a panel of right-wing experts assembled to discuss so-called "new information" about pre-war Iraq, Hoekstra emphasized the fact-finding part of his crusade. (Santorum backed out of the event last week for reasons his staff wouldn't explain, and he did not reply to requests for comment for this piece.) He demanded Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte release everything his office knows about Iraq, including tens of thousands of captured Saddam-era files and videotape, currently located in a U.S. warehouse in Qatar. It was clearly a tactic to appear less a conspiracy nut than a defender of government transparency out to fix a broken intelligence apparatus--an image the press has been happy to accommodate.
But Hoekstra has difficulty concealing the more vivid aspects of his imagination. In a recent letter to Bush about being kept out of the loop on secret counterterrorism intelligence programs, he insinuated that CIA Deputy Director Steve Kappes is part of "a strong and wellpositioned group within the Agency [that] intentionally undermined the Administration and its policies." And when, at the Heritage event, I asked Hoekstra about his charge that certain members of the intelligence community seek to "help Al Qaeda," he stood by it. But, curiously, he couldn't finger any specific Al Qaeda sympathizers in the CIA. "If I were aware of anyone by name or by position that I believe at this point in time was there because their intent was to help those who might attack us, they wouldn't be there," he assured.
Then why make the claim?
"You have to hold that out as a possibility," Hoekstra explained. "I mean, every day--not every day, but on occasion, and more frequently than what we would like--we find out that the intelligence community has been penetrated, not necessarily by Al Qaeda, but by other nations or organizations that we are spying on. And so to rule out the possibility that there are people in the intelligence community that are doing this to help Al Qaeda, I think, would be naive."
Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA Middle East analyst, is not comforted by Hoekstra's vigilance. Hoekstra and Santorum's claim is "just going off the deep end," he says. Pillar has already been on the receiving end of conservative smear jobs. In 2004, Robert Novak portrayed an off-the-record talk Pillar gave expressing concern about Bush's handling of Iraq as evidence of a CIA putsch to derail his reelection. By comparison, though, Pillar was treated with kid gloves. "Talk about a smear. Helping Al Qaeda?" he says. "Of course, this theme of intelligence officers allegedly being out to undermine the president--we've had that in spades. But I've never heard it take quite this shape."
In essence, Hoekstra's gambit reflects a deepseated conservative belief: No matter what the facts say now, history will inevitably vindicate the pro-war position. If Negroponte agrees to declassify a torrent of captured documents, the thinking goes, there must be some pearl for the war supporters within Saddam's filing cabinets. Members of the Heritage panel of experts--Thomas Joscelyn of the Claremont Institute; Michael Tanji, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer; and Heritage's own Peter Brookes--swear that they're not trying simply to revive Bush's case for invading Iraq, but rather to bring out the full truth. Yet even that might not be enough to get the right to stop suggesting that Bush was correct all along. One audience member, who identified himself as a military officer and former U.S. adviser to the Iraqi foreign ministry in 2003, recounted how he saw rooms full of "fine ashes," presumably the remnants of the information that, had the Baathists not destroyed it, would vindicate Bush's prewar claims. "Don't hold it personally if you don't find any real smoking gun here," he encouraged the panel, "because the Saddam regime went to very great pains to see that that didn't happen." Apparently, according to the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, so did the U.S. intelligence community.
This article originally ran in the July 31, 2006, issue of the magazine.