Image: Us Soldier Pore Through Documents
U.S. soldiers pore through documents during a WMD raid conducted at a community center in Baghdad in June.
By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com

With all the faulty data thrown at the world to make the case for war in Iraq, some people, from deeply skeptical critics to right-wingers who support the war’s aims, are asking the obvious next question: Why didn’t the United States plant the WMD evidence? Don’t think it wasn’t discussed.

While no evidence exists that “planting” WMD in Iraq has been discussed officially inside the Bush administration, intelligence sources confirm what just about anybody could deduce: The idea has come up in casual conversation.

“Over beers, between consenting professionals, sure,” says a retired U.S. intelligence official with continuing ties to his former colleagues who requests not to be identified. “Options are options when you’ve put the country’s prestige on the line, and you discuss them all even if some of them seem outrageous.”

Ray McGovern, a retired career CIA analyst who writes often on intelligence issues, believes this could still happen: “Some of my colleagues are virtually certain that there will be some weapons of mass destruction found, even though they might have to be planted,” he told AFP, the French news agency. “I’m just as sure that some few will be found, but not in an amount that by any stretch would justify the charge of a threat against the U.S. or anyone else.”

Loose lips, hot tips
In a dozen interviews by MSNBC.com with former and current intelligence professionals, none felt that McGovern’s fears are warranted. But they agree that planting such evidence would not be too difficult from an evidentiary standpoint.

For one thing, most of Iraq’s supply of biological weaponry actually came from the United States: ordered and delivered to the Iraqis over the course of a decade starting in 1985 by the U.S. Army’s main biological laboratory in Frederick, Md., as easily as if Saddam Hussein were merely ordering a new mattress from Sears.

Over about a decade between the mid-1980s and 1996, when this unfathomable security flaw was discovered, Iraq ordered and received 24 different strains of biological samples from the Army, including the military-grade “Fort Detrick strain” of anthrax. The vast majority of biological agents found and destroyed after the first Gulf War by U.N. inspectors were “grown” from these American seeds.

Still, Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer, dismisses the idea of planting evidence out of hand — but not because of any moral qualms.

“Can’t be done,” he says. “Why? Because Americans can’t keep a secret.”

Peters and others say that intelligence agencies know the boundaries they work within. The fact that America is an open society, they say, is a powerful disincentive to try to falsify the central piece of information in a global controversy.

“It would be very simple to do,” says Rick Francona, a retired Army intelligence officer who worked with the CIA in Iraq and elsewhere. “The reason, probably, they didn’t do it is that it just wouldn’t stay a secret. It would offend someone, somewhere, their sense of propriety.”

Integrity or pragmatism?
There are some who believe that American credibility is worth the risk of discovery, however.

“It would be nice if the CIA occasionally would provide the American people with a Plan B,” a congressional Republican staffer quipped when asked about the talk of planting evidence. “They’re not that clever.”

Indeed, whatever one’s position on the legitimacy of the Iraq war, either today or during the Ides of March, it is hard to shrug off the number of gaffes, missteps and outright land mines that were sewn into the administration’s case for war by faulty intelligence.

Both the U.S. and British intelligence services contributed enormously to skepticism about the war’s motives by making assertions mouthed by their political leaders that turned out to be demonstrably false. Large portions of a supposedly secret British “dossier” on Iraq turned out to be plagiarized from a decade-old American doctoral thesis. U.S. claims that Saddam had reconstituted his nuclear program, was tied to the 9/11 attacks and sought to buy uranium in Niger are also discredited.

None of it would matter, of course, if international weapons disposal teams were now busy destroying huge stocks of biological and chemical weapons found in the dictator’s arsenal. Neither side of the argument would have shed a tear if a safe fell on Saddam’s head or if his people rose against his tyrannical rule. But the gap between the “imminent threat” rationale given for going to war and the postwar reality has turned out to be gargantuan.

So gargantuan, in fact, that one of the administration’s most important and influential supporters, The Economist magazine, a global publication read by world’s elite, felt the need this week to apologize and publish a special report on the implications of the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found.

“No matter, some British and American officials imply: The war is won, and there are bigger things to worry about,” the magazine wrote. “They are wrong: on the vindication of the prewar claims about Iraq’s illegal arsenal hangs public trust in government; the practicality of the doctrine of pre-emptive war; and much besides.”

A silk purse from a sow's ear
After months of ignoring the widening credibility gap and asserting, retroactively, that the real reason for the war was to rid the world of a brutal dictator, the Bush administration has identified the WMD issue as a cancer in its poll numbers. Rather than submit to the knife, however, the prescribed medicine so far is confined to speech therapy.

In the past several days, the administration has scheduled Iraq-centric speeches by Condoleezza Rice,

President Bush , and, today, Vice President Cheney at the Heritage Institute.

“Let there be no mistake — right up until the end, Saddam Hussein continued to harbor ambitions to threaten the world with weapons of mass destruction and to hide his illegal weapons programs,” Rice told the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday. She then quoted from last week’s report from David Kay, the U.S. official running the search for WMD in Iraq, detailing the evidence he had uncovered so far — all of it on paper or in the form of interviews with former Iraqi scientists.

What she does not quote is this key paragraph from Kay’s statement to the Senate intelligence committee: “We have not yet found stocks of weapons, but we are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapon stocks do not exist or that they existed before the war and our only task is to find where they have gone. We are actively engaged in searching for such weapons based on information being supplied to us by Iraqis.”

As they did in the run-up to war, administration officials continue to put the best face on the facts. And you could come up with a worse definition for politics, after all.

Yet some see the need for more frankness at this point. One former intelligence official — the same one who acknowledged that “planting” evidence might have been bandied about over a few beers — says the continuing search for WMD is, in itself, proof of pure motives.

“The fact that it didn’t happen should be seen as a good thing. It shows that, whatever turns out to be right or wrong, Bush and Cheney genuinely thought the weapons were there,” the official says.

But Peters, among others, says there is another, less convenient explanation for the ongoing, frustrating, WMD hunt.

“Cynical though I can be on many issues, I do not believe we would attempt to plant strategic evidence — simply because it wouldn’t work and would be exposed,” says Peters, who worked at the highest levels of U.S. Army intelligence during his career. “Doubtless, many a brooding neo-con has fantasized about such matters. But it would only work in the movies.”

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