While parrying partisan attacks on its decision to eject Saddam Hussein from power, the Bush administration last Friday received surprise support from one of the Iraq war's staunchest foes: Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Speaking at a summit in Kazakhstan, Putin served up a shocker. According to Russian intelligence, he said, the Ba'athist regime had been developing plans to strike at the United States, as well as American interests overseas. Putin claimed he took these plans so seriously that he had warned the United States several times after 9-11 about the looming danger posed by Iraq.
Iraq a threat to American national security? You heard heard it from Putin: "I can confirm that after the events of September 11, 2001, and up to the military operation in Iraq, Russian special services and Russian intelligence several times received ... information that official organs of Saddam's regime were preparing terrorist acts on the territory of the United States and beyond its borders, at U.S. military and civilian locations," Putin said.
Further buttressing that claim was the anonymous Russian intelligence agent, who confirmed to the Russian Interfax news agency that Russia had received a report early in 2002, detailing the plans of Iraqi secret agents to launch attacks on U.S. diplomatic and military facilities. He also had some words of wisdom, noting that "in investigating the causes of the Iraq crisis, it is necessary to take into account all of the aspects, including the direct threat to the United States from the Saddam Hussein regime."
With that, the Russians did more than just expose the hollowness of their obstructionist opposition to the war; they also undercut the argument of those critics -- John Kerry springs fleetly to mind -- who claimed that Iraq was a war of choice, a feel-good distraction from more pressing issues of national security.
Putin obviously takes a different view. In his telling, the principal reason Russia objected to the war was that Saddam had yet to attack the United States. That this was indeed Saddam's intention is, to Putin, beyond dispute. As he explained Friday, "It's one thing to have information that Saddam's regime is preparing terrorist attacks, but we didn't have information that it was involved in any known terrorist attacks."
By this logic, if the Bush administration is to be condemned, it is for not sitting back and waiting for the Iraqi attacks to go through the tragic formality of taking place. Bush: Too Quick to Fight Terrorism. You could do worse for an election-year slogan.
OF COURSE, NOT ALL critics see it that way. Skeptics were swift to note that the credibility of the Russian intelligence cited by Putin is impossible to measure. They have a point. But it may be remembered that Russian intelligence services have had a close collaborative relationship with their Iraqi counterparts stretching back three decades, ever since the erstwhile KGB inked a secret intelligence agreement with Saddam Hussein's spooks in 1973.
Nor has the relationship fizzled recently. Back in February, for example, news reports cast light on the continuing cooperation between Iraq and Russian intelligence services, exposing an intelligence swap that included a Russian-supplied list of assassins available for "hits" in the West; details of arms deals in the Middle East; and a signed agreement to share intelligence. As a former KGB head with close ties to Russia's top intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin was clearly privy to this intelligence.
This forces the question: Why wasn't the Russian intelligence included in the administration's case for war? The shocked reaction its revelation elicited from the U.S. intelligence community on Friday suggests an answer: Contrary to the Russians' claims, they never supplied it. And why would they? Armed with a host of compelling justifications for regime change, the U.S. didn't exactly need another reason to oust Saddam. The Russians weren't about to give them one, in any case. Now, eager to mend fences, they've relented.
But possibly the biggest reason to doubt claims that Russia actually turned over the intelligence to the United State is its source, the FSB. The agency put up fierce objections to war in Iraq. So fierce, in fact, that one eminent Russian media defense analyst described the agency in 2003 as "a leading party of the pro-Saddam lobby."
Whatever one makes of the dubious Russian claims about intelligence sharing, the revelation that Saddam had every design to attack the United States underscores the wisdom of the preemptive war against Iraq. Add to this the September 11 commission's findings that there were verifiable contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda, as well as the cropping up of sarin and other chemical weapons in Iraq, and it becomes clear that the administration's policy was correct all along.
Not that Bush came on with such certainty. In laying out his casus belli, the president took great pains to stress that Iraq was not an imminent threat. Maybe he should not have hedged. Better yet, he should have had Vladimir Putin make the case for him.
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