Who’s Conning Whom?

60 Minutes throws another curve ball at the U.S. commander in chief.

When Colin Powell outlined America’s case for invading Iraq before the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, he relied on an eyewitness account from an Iraqi chemical engineer who knew about Iraq’s mobile production program—a wmd factory on wheels, so to speak. On Nov. 4, 2007, cbs’s 60 Minutes exposed Powell’s source, code-named “Curve Ball,” as a fraud.

“Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction?” correspondent Bob Simon asked at the top of the program. “No, he did not. We’ve known that for some time now. So where did the intelligence come from that he was building up his arsenal? Fantastically, the most compelling part came from one obscure Iraqi defector who came in and out of history like a comet.” Then, at the end of the segment, Simon said the bogus witness pulled off “one of the deadliestcon jobs of our time.”

Blinded by anti-war bias, 60 Minutes identifies one crooked witness as America’s most persuasive proof of Saddam’s wmd build-up, all the while ignoring perhaps the most compelling evidence of all: the 60 Minutes archive.

The Gulf War

A week and a half after the Gulf War began in 1991, Ed Bradley spotlighted Saddam’s nuclear bomb program on 60 Minutes (Jan. 27, 1991). According to Bradley, Saddam had visited the Gara Mountains in northern Iraq seven or eight times to inspect a top secret uranium mine. Bradley relied on satellite photos taken by Moscow to identify the mine’s location. According to the report, Kurdish guerillas in the region said the uranium mine had been targeted by allied sorties during the Gulf War.

The winter after the Gulf War, after spending several days in Iraq, Bradley began another 60 Minutes segment by comparing Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler. “What we saw were detailed records like the Nazis used to keep, extensive files of murders and destroyed villages. Even videotapes of Iraqi soldiers carrying out these atrocities” (Feb. 23, 1992). In an act of revenge against Kurdish support for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam destroyed more than 4,000 villages. Some of the destruction was “proudly recorded” by the Iraqi Army, Bradley noted. “Drive down any road in this part of Iraq, and you see what used to be village after village now reduced to rubble. These villages used to be home to at least a half-million people. Tens of thousands of them—the Kurds say almost 200,000—are still missing and presumed dead.”

Bradley concluded his 1992 investigation by saying, “Earlier this week, a United Nations investigator released a report concluding that the scale of Iraqi human rights violations is almost without parallel since the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War ii. And yet not a single official Arab voice has been raised to protest what Saddam Hussein has done to the Kurds.”

Today, the same could be said about many Americans who now believe the Bush administration is morally equivalent to Saddam’s.

Cheerleading Bill Clinton

In 1996, correspondent Mike Wallace blamed Saddam Hussein for letting the biological genie out of the bottle. Since Saddam’s defeat in the Gulf War, Wallace intoned, “[E]xperts from the special UN commission who have been searching Iraq for all weapons of mass destruction have discovered that Saddam’s biological weapons hoard was much more extensive than anyone had believed.” That’s what the United Nations said—five years after the Gulf War.

Later in 1996, after President Clinton began bombing Iraq, 60 Minutes rushed to the president’s defense. Five days after Clinton’s surprise attack, cbs blew the dust off its archival shelves and re-packaged Ed Bradley’s 1992 report on Saddam’s massacre of the Kurds. “For decades,” Lesley Stahl said at the top of the program, “whenever he’s had the opportunity, Saddam has waged war on the Kurds. He has seemed bent on more than simple domination; he often seemed bent on annihilation” (Sept. 8, 1996). Then, after airing Bradley’s original report, Stahl concluded, “Whether Saddam is hiding any poison gas is still an open question. He says he isn’t, but he has spent the last five years playing cat and mouse with the UN inspectors trying to find and destroy chemical weapons stocks. The Kurds can be forgiven if they don’t believe anything Saddam Hussein says.”

In 1998, tensions between Iraq and the United States once again boiled over. President Clinton stated his case for war by saying Saddam had used chemical weapons “not once, but many times.” During his nationally televised speech, he said Iraq even admitted to developing chemical weapons in 1995 after its chief organizer of weapons (Saddam’s son-in-law) defected to Jordan and spilled the beans. (Later, after coaxing him to return to Iraq, Saddam murdered him.) The president then made this stunning proclamation: “Some day, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the [wmd] arsenal. And I think every one of you who has really worked on this for any length of time believes that too.”

cbs certainly believed it—and long before “Curve Ball” came along. Taking the president’s case for war as their cue, 60 Minutes recruited Ed Bradley to assemble yet another report on the Kurdish genocide and then aired the segment a week and a half later. What happened in the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, Bradley began, “has become Exhibit A in President Clinton’s case against Saddam Hussein.”

It does make for compelling evidence. Whenever world leaders, intelligence services and reporters wanted hard evidence of Saddam’s wmd stockpiles, they often pointed to the villages and towns on which they were “tested.” In the case of Halabja, Saddam used a mixture of mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX during a three-day bombing campaign. Of the 70,000 residents, 5,000 died instantly. “Like the dead of Pompeii,” Bradley intoned, “their corpses were frozen in a moment in time. The bodies of dead children littered the streets like discarded dolls.”

Three-and-a-half months after the Halabja program, Mike Wallace warned Americans about the immanency of biological and chemical terrorism. He said the strike could come from terrorists obtaining germ weapons or—note this—“by nations like Iraq which have amassed secret biological weapon stockpiles” (June 14, 1998). At the end of the segment, he said, “As for Iraq’s stockpile, both the UN and an independent team called for by the Iraqi government have concluded that Iraq still has not come clean about the scope of its biological arsenal.”

So the UN and an independent team—not Curve Ball, or the Bush Administration, or the cia—concluded that Iraq had something to hide.

Media Throws a Curve Ball

When U.S. troops didn’t locate large stockpiles of wmds in Iraq in 2003, you would have thought, judging by media coverage, that President Bush had nuked six dozen Halabjas. After the Iraq Survey Group’s David Kay concluded in January 2004 that weapons of mass destruction would probably not be found in Iraq, Bush-bashing hit fever pitch. Search Nexis for stories that month containing “Iraq” and “weapons of mass destruction” and you get 9,323 hits. Nearly 10,000 stories about Iraq’s wmds, or lack thereof, in just one month.

One week after David Kay’s resignation, having undoubtedly exiled its numerous Halabja tapes to the recycle bin, 60 Minutes ii audaciously declared, “Long before the war, there was plenty of doubt among intelligence analysts about Saddam’s weapons.” The segment was highly critical of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, but certainly not of Ed Bradley, Mike Wallace or Lesley Stahl.

Even after Kay’s comments, Secretary Powell defended the Iraqi invasion: “The bottom line is this: The president made the right decision … based on the history of this regime, the intention that this leader—terrible, despotic leader—had, and the capabilities at a variety of levels: the delivery systems that were there and there’s nobody debating that, the infrastructure that was there, the technical know-how that was there. The only thing we’re debating is the stockpile.”

The major media’s response was much narrower in its focus: “The only thing we’re debating is the stockpile.” Forget about Halabja. Ten years after the wmd massacre, it made perfect sense for President Clinton to make a distinction between Iraq and other rogue states. Saddam had used wmds “not once, but many times.”

But fifteen years after the fact, the Bush administration might as well forget about that history. Halabja, after all, was bombed with “old” wmds. And it doesn’t matter that Saddam confessed to having chemical weapons in 1995. He must have destroyed them after that, even though there hasn’t been one shred of evidence indicating that Saddam ever dismantled anything. He had the weapons, then poof—he didn’t have them.

As to the pre-war intelligence that Iraq transferred wmds to Syria—a claim made by an Israeli prime minister and a UN weapons inspector—this was considered pure speculation. The same is true with post-war intelligence brought forward by an Iraqi air force commander and a U.S. federal agent who was on the ground in Iraq when the U.S. invaded. Their evidence is simply ignored or shoved aside as right-wing propaganda.

And the surveillance tapes with Iraqi officers plotting weapons transfers in late 2002 and early 2003? These poor stooges were duped by Saddam.

And the Saddam tapes leaked in 2006 where he talks openly with top aids about Iraq’s chemical and biological programs, as well as Iraq’s clandestine operations to conceal weapons from UN inspectors? These discussions are inconclusive.

And the wmds discovered in northern Iraq, near the border with Iran? This too was old, pre-1991 poison, certainly not the kind that would have made Saddam dangerous in 2003.

None of this matters. The only item up for debate is the stockpile, which is why 60 Minutes thinks Curve Ball, four years after the invasion, is such an important story.

60 Minutes spent two years and traveled to nine countries in order to solve the “mystery” of an obscure Iraqi defector known as Curve Ball. Prior to that, they spent a full 10 years, relying on numerous witnesses and intelligence sources, warning America that Saddam Hussein had wmds, used them, and was much more dangerous than people generally realized.

But because “there were no wmds” now fits so nicely into its anti-Bush agenda, 60 Minutes now turns a strategically blind eye to all these other stories and compelling witnesses that are much more deserving, especially in a post-9/11 world, of cbs’s vast investigative resources.

Instead, they spend two whole years and who knows how much money to find Curve Ball in order to make the same tired argument: Bush trumped up the evidence in order to invade a nation that was not an imminent threat, and it ended up costing thousands of innocent lives.

If that’s all you’re interested in, fine, but at least point out that German, Russian and British intelligence also exaggerated the threat. So did the United Nations. So did President Clinton.

And, truth be told, so did 60 Minutes.