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Of Rice, Mushrooms, and Lies



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One viewer of my interviews with Peter Robinson wrote in that among the “lies” of the Bush administration was “Rice’s line about the ‘smoking gun/mushroom cloud.’”

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on September 8, 2002 how close was Saddam Hussein’s government to developing a nuclear capability. Rice said:

“You will get different estimates about precisely how close he is.” She presented a summary of what the CIA was saying at the time about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, and then added: “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

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Rice was highlighting the limits of U.S. intelligence. While emphasizing the disparate estimates about how close Saddam was to a nuclear bomb, Rice was saying that the CIA would not necessarily know when Saddam acquired one.

She was warning that we might not learn this until after a detonation. This was an important and accurate statement.

Everyone now knows that the CIA’s intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was deeply flawed. (It was a diplomatic and political disaster that Rice and all the other top Bush administration officials relied on erroneous intelligence – though they did so in good faith.) Rice deserves credit for stressing here the gaps and uncertainties in U.S. intelligence.

The comment about the mushroom cloud was a way of telling the American people not to expect their officials to know the state of Saddam’s nuclear program at any given moment. It was a clear and proper warning that our country was subject to surprise. And it made the unarguable point that we would not want that surprise to take the form of a mushroom cloud from an Iraqi weapon.

Rice’s reference to the mushroom cloud has been widely denounced as a gaffe or a lie. But it was neither.



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