The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat says he knew that the American public was being misled into the Iraq war but remained silent because he was sworn to secrecy as a member of the intelligence committee.
“The information we had in the intelligence committee was not the same information being given to the American people. I couldn’t believe it,” Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said Wednesday when talking on the Senate floor about the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002.
“I was angry about it. [But] frankly, I couldn’t do much about it because, in the intelligence committee, we are sworn to secrecy. We can’t walk outside the door and say the statement made yesterday by the White House is in direct contradiction to classified information that is being given to this Congress.”
Mr. Durbin’s comments come after years of inquiries and debate about prewar intelligence, and as congressional leaders clash over Democrats’ calls to pull out of Iraq.
The White House responded by saying Congress had access to the same intelligence and voted overwhelmingly to go to war.
“We all understand today that there were intelligence failures, but there was no effort to mislead either members of Congress or the American people,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
Mr. Durbin yesterday said there was no “ethical” way to notify the public of specific misleading information being touted by the Bush administration because it would have required revealing top-secret information being provided to the intelligence committee.
He cited the White House’s claim that Iraq was trying to acquire aluminum tubes needed for a nuclear weapons program — details of which have since been declassified — as an example of bad intelligence, saying that there was an ongoing debate within the administration as it was being used in public.
Mr. Durbin, whose floor comments were part of the debate before yesterday’s passage of an emergency war-funding bill, said he and half the Democrats on the intelligence committee voted against the war over concerns of the White House’s “very flimsy case, but it was given to the American people as a proven fact.”
Congress authorized the 2003 use of armed force against Iraq by votes of 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate. Five of nine Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted for the measure as did all eight Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office circulated an e-mail Wednesday highlighting Mr. Durbin’s comments, but his office didn’t respond to requests yesterday to elaborate on the e-mail.
The e-mail said Mr. Durbin’s comments were inconsistent with the words of other Democrats on the committee, including Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Carl Levin of Michigan. Those two Democrats said publicly before the war that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was intent on pursuing nuclear weapons. Mr. Rockefeller voted for the war, but Mr. Levin did not.
A congressional official familiar with the information about Iraq that was provided to the intelligence committee in 2002 said it did not differ from what the administration was saying publicly about the need to go to war in Iraq.
“If [Mr. Durbin] thinks the president of the United States is lying to the American public about the war, he’s wrong,” the official said.
The official added that if Mr. Durbin felt so strongly that the administration was misleading the public, “he should’ve done something about it.”
But a spokesman for Mr. Durbin said the senator did publicly voice general, nonspecific concerns about the administration’s promotion of the need for military intervention in Iraq prior to the war.
He added Mr. Durbin could have faced criminal charges if he had publicly revealed specific intelligence details before the Iraq war.
“For a senator on the [intelligence] committee, it’s a pretty bright line that they can’t cross,” Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker said, adding that his boss has repeated the same concerns he voiced on the Senate floor Wednesday “maybe seven or eight times” in recent years.
“The other side is just throwing mud and seeing if it’ll stick.” Mr. Shoemaker said.
Mr. Durbin drew rebukes from Republicans in June 2005 when he compared the U.S. military’s treatment of a suspected al Qaeda terrorist at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay with the regimes of dictators Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot, whose regimes each killed millions of their own people.