The Corner

Of Rice, Mushrooms, and Lies

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.

Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, served as undersecretary of defense for policy from July 2001 to August 2005.


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