"Death on a massive scale," said Dick Cheney. "Grave and growing danger," said George W. Bush. The specter of the mushroom cloud was raised, a scarecrow for skeptics and peaceniks.
Who would have guessed that the threat the president, the vice president and their senior security officials were describing was posed by a fourth-rate military power, one whose vile dictator truly didn't have the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, or the ties to terrorists, he said he didn't have?
Lots of people, actually. And many of the ones who best knew what they were talking about get their say in Uncovered: The War on Iraq, Robert Greenwald's sober evisceration of the White House case for a pre-emptive invasion of an economically ravaged country of 23 million.
As filmmaking, Uncovered is as straightforward as it gets. Most of it consists of video clips of various Bush administration honchos telling the public why war is necessary and inevitable. Following is talking-head commentary from more than two dozen experts -- primarily intelligence or national-security veterans, but also journalists and politicians -- telling Greenwald, and us, why those reasons are bunk.
There's nothing here of the jokes, pyrotechnics and cinematic bravado of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11; no broad-brush theories about Bush family ties to the Saudi ruling family. Indeed, even Iraq's status as an oil producer gets scant mention. But even news junkies are likely to find something useful in this detailed summary of White House deceptions, which was partly funded by the liberal groups MoveOn.org and Center for American Progress (who released an earlier, shorter version of Uncovered on DVD in December 2003).
Hindsight is clarifying, of course, but it would be hard to dispute the testimony -- bipartisan, with some commentators even pro-war -- that the Bushies were just making stuff up. "It was clear that Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons program," says 20-year CIA analyst Mel Goodman. Robert Baer, a former CIA operative with a quarter century in Iraq and Lebanon, speaks about the political pressure the White House placed on supposedly politics-free intelligence analysts to come up with the information it wanted. Greenwald shows how the infamous National Intelligence Estimate was scrubbed of all negative assessments of the Iraqi threat -- even of language expressing doubt -- before the White House spooned it to the public.
Then there are deceptions the public and the mainstream media ought to have questioned. For instance, the Bushies repeatedly linked Saddam Hussein to terrorists -- but why, asks career diplomat Joseph Wilson, would a control freak like Saddam give potent weapons to groups like al-Qaeda, who hated him? And why did anyone pay a moment's attention to U.S.-bankrolled Iraqi expatriate informers such as Ahmad Chalabi? Yet Chalabi sold the Pentagon's political appointees on WMD, and the informers' vaporous information was peddled to the press, who "confirmed" it by checking with Pentagon sources who'd been fed the same pabulum.
Even in his 83-minute movie, Greenwald's cut-and-dried approach occasionally goes slack. A detour into details of the leak that exposed Joseph Wilson's wife as a covert CIA operative (allegedly in retaliation for his debunking White House claims about Iraq buying uranium from Niger) suggests volumes about Bush administration perfidy, but tells us little about the case for war. And Uncovered's concluding sequence, meant to be a stirring defense of patriotic dissent and skepticism, seems repetitive and unnecessarily apologetic.
Still, Uncovered is occasionally entertaining as well as informative. It even has a star of sorts in Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst from 1964 to 1990, a leader of the nonpartisan Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, and a wit to be reckoned with. When Greenwald needs a retort to Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, talk at the U.N., arguing for war, he turns to McGovern, who calls Powell's address "theater" and puckishly notes a saturnine CIA Director George Tenet sitting nearby Powell on the TV screen, "back there as a prop, almost a potted plant."
So wide is the web of deceptions spun around the Iraq war, and so vast the printed and videotaped global info-load produced about it, that a concise work such as Uncovered is useful even just as a reminder of key facts. Weapons inspections did happen in Iraq (contrary to what Bush later claimed), and they worked; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said post-invasion of WMDs, "We know where they are" -- then joined his colleagues in craven backpedaling as the weapons' absence grew increasingly clear; as late as July 2001, Condi Rice was saying that Saddam had not rebuilt his arsenal. Even for those to whom its revelations are not news, Uncovered plugs the memory hole.