In 2002, a handful of lawmakers were privy to classified intel about Iraqi WMD. Behind closed doors, there was uncertainty. But in public, Bush officials told a different story. Senator Dick Durbin explains why he didn’t blow the whistle when it might have made a difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, after the President vetoed a War Funding Bill that set a timetable for Iraq troop withdrawal, Congressional Democrats were forced to remount their offensive. Senator Hillary Clinton, who voted for the use of force in Iraq in 2002, this week proposed a measure that would revoke Congressional war authorization.
Meanwhile, majority whip Dick Durbin, who voted against the use of force, said on the Senate floor last week that in the lead-up to the war, the administration was telling the Senate Intelligence Committee one thing and the rest of the world something else. He joins us now. Senator, welcome to On the Media. DICK DURBIN: Thanks. BOB GARFIELD: The issue in question was Saddam's aluminum tubes and whether they were meant for centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel. If, as you say, the administration briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee that it was uncertain about those tubes but then hid that uncertainty in public statements to the American people and to the world, then the President and the Vice President and the Secretary of State Colin Powell are liars, and their lies led us to war. Have I overstated this? DICK DURBIN: You may have overstated it, but not by much. I remember the debate on the aluminum tubes. I would sit there and listen – this has all been declassified, now I can talk about it – I would sit there and listen to the Department of Energy in full-throated debate with the Department of Defense over whether these aluminum tubes were going to be used for nuclear weapons.
And the Department of Energy would say, no, it's the wrong kind of aluminum tube. We think it's just as likely it's going for something else. Department of Defense – no, we think it's nuclear.
You'd walk out of the room and you'd think, well, there's a real difference of opinion here. You'd walk into the corridor and hear announcements from the White House – be prepared, mushroom-shaped clouds, nuclear disaster. And I'm thinking to myself, if they are so uncertain in the confines of this room, how can they say to the American people there is certainty here in terms of the threat? BOB GARFIELD: Well, that's a very good question. And I'm sorry, I simply have to ask why didn't you then call a news conference and say what the administration is telling you is simply not true; it does not reflect their own internal debate over the provenance and the use of these tubes? DICK DURBIN: Because we're duty-bound once we enter that room to respect classified information. Everything you hear is supposed to stay in the room. Some people say, oh, it's just some more stuff we're likely to see in the papers in the morning. Maybe it is.
It might also be a piece of information given to us by someone who's risking their life in doing so. If you decide that you're going to blow the whistle, it could mean someone will lose their life, someone who went out on the limb to help America be safe, gave us information. Now you have that information, and disclosing it, you disclose their identity. BOB GARFIELD: I understand, Senator. On the other hand, many, many thousands of people have lost their lives as a direct result of the invasion. At this point, considering that you discussed this on the floor of the Senate, does that suggest that you have second thoughts about what you did not do four years ago? DICK DURBIN: This is the ninth time that I brought it up on the Senate floor. It was highlighted by The Washington Times and some very conservative blogs, and the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has constructed an ad to run against me and that sort of thing. But it's the ninth time I've said it over a period of years.
And, yes, it has troubled me. It always troubles me, because I think one of the most egregious things that can be done is to mislead the American people into a war. I didn't have the full book of information, of intelligence, but I certainly had enough to know that the statements that were made about mushroom clouds were not the conclusions of someone in the administration who was really being honest about the full debate. But you really know, walking in the room, what the rules of the game will be in terms of this information. BOB GARFIELD: I take a risk of overstating the case, but I'm thinking of a situation on the ground in the military where an officer tells a subordinate to do something that the subordinate knows is actually illegal, against Army regulations and against the Geneva Convention, and immoral and wrong, and the soldier may not obey that order. Just following orders is not a sufficient excuse. DICK DURBIN: Well, let me take exception to that, because I just want to make it clear. If you will look at the speeches given by myself and others who voted against this war, we made it clear that we didn't think the intelligence backed it up or the President made the case for it.
I also want to let you know that the 23 of us who voted that way were not greeted as heroes when we went home. Many of us paid a price for it. In fact, some may have lost an election over it.
In my situation, I lost the endorsement of the major papers in Chicago over my vote on the war. So I don't want to portray myself as some profile of courage here, yet on the other hand, I just don't buy your conclusion that I took the easy way out here. The easy way out was to vote for that war, to look the other way. I didn't. BOB GARFIELD: Fair enough, and I hear you loud and clear. I'm just concerned about the future, and I wonder if this suggests that the sanctity of the briefing room has room for exceptions, and whether as a society we need to rethink what a senator's responsibilities are when he hears something or she hears something in a secret briefing that does not comport with what the government is telling its people. DICK DURBIN: Well, there are ways to handle it within the committee and within Congress. Again [LAUGHS], being sworn to secrecy and covered by a law that requires it, I cannot go into detail other than tell you that some of the things that were suggested by this administration in Iraq, after the invasion, they had to reverse course on because of some of the actions taken by myself and other members of the committee.
We did it within the confines of the Intelligence Committee. We didn't disclose classified information. But there are ways to do this. And I think we have to find those ways and stop acts which are inconsistent with America's values. BOB GARFIELD: Senator Durbin, thank you very much for joining us. DICK DURBIN: Okay. Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Dick Durbin is a Democratic senator from Illinois.
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