In a story
that seems to have inspired a collective "Huh?" around the blogosphere (including some conservatives), Vladimir Putin is now claiming that Russian intelligence informed the U.S., after 9/11 but before the Iraq War, that Saddam's regime was planning terrorist attacks inside the U.S. and against U.S. interests abroad:
By BAGILA BUKHARBAYEVA, Associated Press Writer
ASTANA, Kazakhstan - Russian President Vladimir Putin (news - web sites) said Friday his government warned Washington that Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s regime was preparing attacks in the United States and its interests abroad — an assertion that appears to bolster President Bush (news - web sites)'s contention that Iraq (news - web sites) was a threat.
Putin emphasized that the intelligence didn't cause Russia to waver from its firm opposition to the U.S.-led war last year, but his statement was the second this month in which he has offered at least some support for Bush on Iraq.
"After Sept. 11, 2001, and before the start of the military operation in Iraq, the Russian special services ... received information that officials from Saddam's regime were preparing terrorist attacks in the United States and outside it against the U.S. military and other interests," Putin said.
And yet, Putin still claims to maintain his opposition to the war:
"Despite that information ... Russia's position on Iraq remains unchanged," he said in the Kazakh capital, Astana, after regional economic and security summits. He said Russia didn't have any information that Saddam's regime had actually been behind any terrorist acts.
"It's one thing to have information that Saddam's regime is preparing terrorist attacks, (but) we didn't have information that it was involved in any known terrorist attacks," he said.
OK, so let me get this straight. The Bush administration had solid information that the Iraqi regime was actually planning terrorist attacks against the United States, but instead of actually telling anybody that, they chose to make a case for war based on nebulous claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, even more nebulous claims of Iraqi ties to Al-Qaida, discredited allegations of uranium precurement in Niger, and the peculiar notion that Saddam was somehow responsible for the presence of Zarqawi in the Kurdish-controlled no-fly zone. Meanwhile, not to be outdone in borderline-inexplicable behavior, Putin knowingly handed the U.S. information that would justify the war in almost everyone's eyes, yet continued to oppose it on the grounds that Iraq had not actually committed any terrorist acts recently. (One wonders if Putin's security forces have standing orders not to interfere in assassination plots against him unless the suspects have carried out assassinations before.)
On the U.S. side, the only clarification we've had so far is this:
In Washington, a U.S. official said Putin's information did not add to what the United States already knew about Saddam's intentions.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Putin's tip didn't give a time or place for a possible attack.
Frankly, I don't see how that makes any difference, especially considering the flimsiness of some of the information that the Bush team *did* use. Even then, the fact that no time or place was given seems irrelevant. After all, we've been going after Al-Qaeda for almost three years now on the grounds that we know they want to attack us again, even though we don't know when or where. As for Putin, shouldn't he have realized that he was at risk of looking like an idiot by passing along this information but continuing to oppose the war? How would it have appeared if, in the middle of the haggling at the United Nations, the U.S. had suddenly announced that one of the war's leading opponents possessed intelligence indicating that Saddam's regime was actively planning terrorist attacks? There is, after all, a world of difference between disrupting an actual plan of attack and going to war on the grounds that another country *might* attack for some unstated reason in the future, which is what the Bush administration did.
On the surface, then, this makes no sense at all. It makes no sense for the Bush administration not to have used this information, it makes no sense for Putin to have shared it if he really didn't want the U.S. to go to war in Iraq, and it does indeed add to "what we knew," at least to the extent that "what we knew" was ever revealed to the public. There would seem, then, to be several possibilities here:
(1) Both sides are telling the truth -- and are therefore both astoundingly incompetent when it comes to PR. I could, with great difficulty, accept that the Bush team are so entrenched in their certainty of being Right About Everything that they didn't even bother to make the best argument they could for their position (though it seems unlikely that Colin Powell or someone else at the State Department would not have insisted on using this information if they knew about it). I can't really believe that Putin is that clueless, however.
(2) Both sides are telling the truth, and the Russians, for some reason, asked the U.S. not to disclose the information. Unfortunately I don't know the world of spooks well enough to know how likely this is -- could the Russians have had a human asset inside the Iraqi regime that would have been exposed even if the U.S. had issued a statement as vague as, say, "Intelligence reports which we cannot discuss further indicate active planning of anti-American attacks by the Iraqi regime"? If this were the case, then perhaps the asset is no longer part of the Iraqi leadership or even alive. Putin, then, might feel free to discuss it now, while the U.S. may have been caught off guard by his choosing to do so, thus the incongruous comment from an American official that the Russians had not provided significant information on Iraq (which, of course, would simply have been the party line up until now). I'm not sure this completely accounts for Putin's vocal opposition to the war, however. Why not just get on board with the stated Bush/Blair rationale for the war? Would he really have been more afraid of breaking with France or Germany than of looking bad later if the information got out?
(3) Both sides are kinda sorta telling the truth. For example, maybe the intelligence indicated that certain people in the Iraqi regime did indeed discuss planning attacks against the U.S., but they decided (or just Saddam decided) that it was unlikely to be successful and/or too dangerous in terms of being caught and provoking retaliation. (After all, I doubt many would dispute that Saddam and others in his regime probably would have liked to attack the U.S. if they were capable of it and thought they could get away with it -- the question was whether they were in fact capable of it and likely to think they could get away with it.) Even then, it's difficult to explain why the Bush administration wouldn't have still tried to spin this as part of the case for war in the first place, rather than waiting for Putin to bring it up a year and a half after the fact.
(4) Both sides are fabricating. The Bush administration needs a retroactive justification for the war, and Putin has decided to help out because he has decided, for whatever reason, that the Bush administration's good fortunes are his. This certainly seems plausible in light of another recent comment he made which, any way you read it, seems aimed specifically at Democrats:
Putin said opponents who criticize Bush on Iraq "don't have any kind of moral right. ... They conducted exactly the same kind of policy in Yugoslavia."
Russia vehemently opposed the NATO bombing attacks on Yugoslavia in 1999, which the United States pushed for under President Clinton.
An article running in the Baltimore Sun
includes comments from two Russian political scientists to this effect (though one of them says he does not question Putin's veracity):
"It appears Mr. Putin is trying to help Mr. Bush win his second election, that Moscow is becoming a player in the American political scene," said Lilia Shevtsova, a political scientist at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
Sergei Markov, director of Moscow's Institute for Political Studies, said he doesn't doubt Putin's claim. But he sees the timing of the disclosure as an effort to support the U.S. president's chances of re-election.
The Kremlin, Markov said, sees the Democrats as too critical of Russia's record on support for human rights and democracy.
Shevtsova of the Carnegie Center said Soviet and Russian leaders have a history of gradually establishing good relations with Republicans and quarreling with Democrats.
Putin, she said, feels close to Bush. And to a large extent, she said, "Russia still sees itself through the prism of its relationship with Washington."
This is assuming, of course, that Putin thinks he won't suffer any significant damage from the apparent inconsistency (which is certainly plausible at least on the domestic front -- from what I can tell, nothing short of a meteor landing on his head is likely to dislodge him from power in Russia any time soon).
(5) Some combination of the above. The Russians were protecting a source at the time and/or the information is only kinda sorta true, but now Putin thinks that helping Bush is more important.
As you can see, I am utterly befuddled myself. Anyone else have a clue what's going on here?