The Imminence Myth
By Stephen F. Hayes
The Weekly Standard | February 9, 2004


The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, my hometown newspaper, unintentionally broke some news on its website last Thursday after Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet defended his agency in a speech at Georgetown University.

"In his first public defense of prewar intelligence, CIA Director George Tenet said today that U.S. analysts never claimed Iraq was an 'imminent threat,' the main argument used by President Bush for going to war."

I followed the debate over the Iraq war closely and wrote about it extensively. Yet somehow I missed what, according to the Journal-Sentinel, was the "main argument" for the war: an "imminent threat" from Iraq.

The Tenet speech got similar treatment in newspapers and on broadcasts throughout the country. But was this line--8 words out of the 5,400 he spoke--really the "gotcha" moment the media would have us believe? Hardly.

Here is what Tenet actually said, speaking of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate:


This estimate asked if Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. We concluded that in some of these categories Iraq had weapons, and that in others where it did not have them, it was trying to develop them.

Let me be clear: Analysts differed on several important aspects of these programs and those debates were spelled out in the estimate.

They never said there was an imminent threat. Rather, they painted an objective assessment for our policy-makers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests. No one told us what to say or how to say it.


With the hundreds of stories over the past year about how CIA analysts were influenced and pressured to adjust their analyses to fit the Bush administration's political agenda, one might think the most important news from this passage was found in the last sentence. This is especially so since Tenet is the fourth person in the past two weeks to reject explicitly the allegations that politicized intelligence came from the CIA. The others: Iraq Survey Group head David Kay; former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Richard Kerr, the official tapped by Tenet to conduct an in-house CIA review of prewar intelligence; and Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a panel that has just completed its own review of prewar intelligence.

"We've interviewed over 200 people, and not one person to date in very tough interviews has indicated any coercion or any intimidation or anything political," says Roberts, whose committee will be distributing its 300 pages of findings next week. "And that was also replicated or agreed to by Dr. Kay, who had 1,400 people under his command."

That conclusion was not terribly important to most journalists covering the speech. Instead, headlines screamed that Tenet's analysts had not concluded Iraq presented an "imminent threat," and the reporting implied that the CIA director's words somehow conflicted with the public case made by the Bush administration.

It's worth dwelling on that for a moment. It should not be terribly surprising or newsworthy even that the CIA never deemed Iraq an imminent threat. If agency analysts had ever concluded that an attack from Iraq was "about to occur" or "impending," to use the dictionary definition of imminent, it's fair to assume that they would have told the president forthwith, rather than holding the information for inclusion in a periodic assessment of threats. And the president would not have taken 18 months to act to protect the nation.

In fact, the case for war was built largely on the opposite assumption: that waiting until Iraq presented an imminent threat was too risky. The president himself made this argument in his 2003 State of the Union address:


Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans--this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known. We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes.

Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.


It didn't take long for the media to get it wrong. One day after Bush said we must not wait until the threat is imminent, the Los Angeles Times reported on its front page that Bush had promised "new evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime poses an imminent danger to the world." Also, "Bush argued that use of force is not only justified but necessary, and that the threat is not only real but imminent." Exactly backwards.

Is this nitpicking? After all, there were occasions when, under badgering from the media about whether the threat was "imminent," administration spokesmen Ari Fleischer and Dan Bartlett responded affirmatively. And various administration officials described the threat as "grave" or "immediate" or "serious" or "unique" or "gathering." What's the difference? The administration clearly sought to communicate that Saddam Hussein posed a threat we could no longer tolerate.

In doing so, of course, Bush administration officials were considerably less melodramatic than their predecessors in the Clinton administration. Who can forget then-Defense Secretary Bill Cohen's appearance on ABC's "This Week" on November 16, 1997, when he hoisted a 5 lb. bag of sugar onto the interview table. "This amount of anthrax could be spread over a city--let's say the size of Washington. It would destroy at least half the population of that city," Cohen warned dramatically. He then produced a small vial of a substance he likened to VX. "VX is a nerve agent. One drop from this particular thimble as such--one single drop will kill you within a few minutes."

In their prepared speeches, in the National Security Strategy, in media appearances, Bush administration representatives mostly avoided such hype. They did consistently advocate preempting the Iraqi threat--that is, acting before it was imminent. That's precisely what was controversial about their policy.

Senator Ted Kennedy, for one, objected. The day after the 2003 State of the Union address, he introduced a short-lived bill that would have required the administration to show that Iraq posed an imminent threat. It was the administration's willingness to go to war even while conceding that the threat was not imminent that provoked opponents of the war. Inspections could continue, the critics urged, because there was no imminent danger.

But in the present politically charged season, positions have shifted. Many of the same people who criticized the Bush administration before the war for moving against a threat that was not imminent are today blaming the administration for supposedly having claimed that Iraq posed an imminent threat.

There are serious questions to be answered about the prewar intelligence on Iraq's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. But, as Tenet noted last week, "you rarely hear a patient, careful or thoughtful discussion of intelligence these days."

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