Photo by Jack GouldNone of this will make sense at first. Don't worry, it's not supposed to—because that's how Christopher Cox wants it.
Given the words that came out of his mouth on the evening of Feb. 17, chances are Chris Cox would prefer you never hear what he said and, if you do hear or read what he said, that you not understand what he meant, which explains—or doesn't—the e-mail he sent me, the one he said explains—or doesn't—what he said.
Got it? Let's review: Cox is a Republican congressman from Newport Beach, and one of the most powerful men in the country by virtue of his chairman's seat on the House Committee on Homeland Security. At a Feb. 17 banquet for the Conservative Political Action Conference, Cox said, "America's Operation Iraqi Freedom is still producing shock and awe, this time among the blame-America-first crowd. . . . We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq."
This was news to us—and to reporter Michelle Goldberg. Writing Feb. 19 on Salon.com, Goldberg noted, "Apparently, most of the hundreds of people in attendance already knew about these remarkable, hitherto unreported discoveries, because no one gasped at this startling revelation."
It was a startling revelation: A month before, a blame-America-firster by the name of George W. Bush had said American forces would no longer search for chemical and biological weapons in Iraq because they had never found any and never would.
So, this seemed weird: a Republican congressman at odds with a Republican president over facts the Republican congressman believes vindicate the Republican president's reason for launching a war to find weapons the Republican president admits never existed.
I know, I know, I know. . . .
So I called Cox's Washington office and talked to the receptionist. I said I wanted to talk to the congressman about his quote in Salon about the WMDs.
"Ahhh," she said. "The Salon quote."
She said she'd have Marilyn, who deals with the media, give me a call. Marilyn did, and when she asked what I needed, I said I wanted to talk to the congressman about the Salon quote. Was she familiar with it?
"Ooooh, yes," she replied.
Marilyn took down my number and said she'd see if Cox could get back to me. Later, she called to ask for my e-mail address because the congressman wanted to send me a statement.
Now I must warn you: this is where things start to pickup speed, like really quick, so be prepared to have your head explode.
Soon, an e-mail arrived from Congressman Cox. He wrote: "Michelle Goldberg, writing in Salon, has committed the egregious but all-too-common journalistic sin of tendentiously editing quoted material. The sentence she quotes was not a vague, general statement. Rather, it was immediately followed by two sentences that clearly explained the biological agent referred to was ricin and the chemical agent was sarin—and that these might be packaged in, among other things, perfume containers.
"Here [Congressman Cox continued] is the passage in context (note there is NO reference to WMDs, which is an assumption you made, understandably, based on the tendentious report that appeared in Salon)."
To provide the context he said was missing because of tendentious editing, Cox included a more complete passage from the Feb. 17 speech. It reads:
"Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Left persists with the fiction that our efforts in Iraq are a distraction from the war on terrorism. No, this is the war on terrorism. We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq, and even more about their intended use. A plan to disperse sarin and the lethal poison ricin in the United States and Europe was actively being pursued as late as March 2003. The facility in which the weapons were being made also housed a large inventory of perfume atomizers of various shapes and sizes to mimic the existing brands on the store shelves in the United States. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand the implications, but it does take imagination and determination to combat it, which is why it is so important we have an administration that gets it."
Now, remember, the administration that "gets it" is also the administration that last month said it wasn't looking for this stuff anymore because there's nothing to find.
How did Cox—one of the most powerful men in Washington, a man who has the best of the American intelligence community on speed dial—how did that man get this information?
Yes, it was Fox News.
Actually, it was FoxNews.com, the same news organization that, as of this writing, features a story headlined "Naked Paris . . . Grrr!"
I know that Cox's source was FoxNews.com because he said so in his e-mail. "What I said came straight from news reports the preceding weekend. That is why, as Goldberg wrote, 'most of the hundreds of people in attendance already knew about these remarkable, hitherto-unreported discoveries' and did not gasp when I said it."
In fact, when I did a search for "news reports" on the subject of ricin and sarin and Iraq between Feb. 1 and Feb. 21, I found just two: one on FoxNews.com and the other in the Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
Helpfully, the congressman included the FoxNews.com story on Feb. 13, 2005:
The Iraqi Survey Group also found that supposed 'humanitarian' imports under Oil-for-Food gave Saddam the ability to restart his biological and chemical warfare programs at a moment's notice. [UN weapons inspector Richard] Spertzel said what scared him the most in Iraq was the discovery of secret labs to make deadly weapons like the nerve agent sarin and the biological poison ricin in spray form.
"If that were released in a closed [area], such as Madison Square Garden or even some, some of your smaller closed malls, shopping malls, it would have a devastating effect . . . killing hundreds or thousands," Spertzel said.
Okay, let's stop right here for a tick. First, the Iraqi Survey Group (ISG) is a CIA investigative body charged with finding out why we haven't found weapons of mass destruction. But, second, there's something far more interesting here. If you recall, a few paragraphs up, Cox went out of his way to tell me that he never used the term "WMD"—weapons of mass destruction—during his CPAC talk.
But the Fox report clearly says the ISG has discovered Iraqi labs that can produce sarin and ricin in a spray that could be released in public places. Indeed, in his e-mail to me, Cox quoted Spertzel, the former UN weapons inspector, as saying that such a spray could end up "killing hundreds or thousands."
But that's not what Spertzel said. FoxNews.com includes a transcript of Spertzel's interview on TV's Fox News. In that transcript, Spertzel is asked by Fox News correspondent Jonathan Hunt how many people might die if terrorists release sarin and ricin in public places.
Spertzel: Released into a closed area, the limitation would be how many people are there.
Hunt: So, literally, you could walk into Madison Square Garden? Squeeze that aerosol?
Spertzel: Absolutely. If that were released in a closed area such as Madison Square Garden or some of your smaller shopping malls, [it] would have a devastating effect.
Hunt: Killing hundreds? Thousands?
Spertzel: Killing hundreds of thousands.
Spertzel didn't say "hundreds or thousands." Fox's transcript says he said "hundreds of thousands"—which may sound picky if you're the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, who apparently doesn't make fine numerical distinctions where casualties are concerned.
So how "mass" does destruction have to be before Cox considers a weapon a WMD?
We are left with a couple questions:
First, when is a weapon that can kill hundreds of thousands of people—according to sources the congressman cites—not a weapon of mass destruction?
Second, have you already guessed that none of this stuff about U.S. agents discovering Iraqi sarin and ricin labs, perfumeries, and plans for terror attacks is true?
Because what the congressman didn't mention in his speech or in his e-mails to me is that the same Iraqi Survey Group report has this to say about the manufacture of sarin and other deadly chemicals:
"A former IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] officer claimed that the M16 directorate [IIS Directorate of Criminology] had a plan to produce and weaponize nitrogen mustard in rifle grenades and a plan to bottle sarin and sulfur mustard in perfume sprayers and medicine bottles, which they would ship to the United States and Europe. The source claimed that they could not implement the plan because chemicals to produce the CW [chemical weapons] agents were unavailable."
Even more succinctly, the same ISG report says flatly, "ISG has no evidence that IIS Directorate of Criminology (M16) scientists were producing CW [chemical weapons] or BW [biological weapons] agents in these laboratories."
Clear enough? It should be—especially to the chairman of the House's Committee on Homeland Security, who, one assumes, is reading ISG reports before, you know, he has them vetted by FoxNews.com.
So, if Cox knew all this, why did he say what he said on Feb. 17? And then, once quoted on Salon.com, why did he deny saying what he actually said—which was that Iraqis had chemicals that could kill hundreds of thousands?
You already know why. Because he was talking to a bunch of ultra-conservatives, and he wanted them to like him. Like any good performer, he knew his audience—knew what they wanted and gave it to them:
We were right to go into Iraq; anyone who believes otherwise hates America.
This really wouldn't be a big deal—petty politics—except that, as we may have mentioned, Christopher Cox is big. He's not bragging when he says, on his website, "Christopher Cox is the first chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, with primary jurisdiction over the nation's third-largest cabinet agency, the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, the committee has responsibility for government-wide homeland security policy and the most significant responsibility for homeland security policy of any House or Senate committee. In the 109th Congress, he will develop the first standing committee legislation to help the Department navigate the most significant reorganization of national security authority since 1947."
That's Christopher Cox. And when that man plays dumb or acts dumb or says something dumb, it's your life he's playing with.
Lies pretty much got us into this war;lies are what Bush is trying to apologize for as he tours Europe, meekly asking for the help we were told two years ago we didn't need from Europe—another lie.
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Now, Chris Cox is telling yet another whopper, equally pernicious. And when he's caught in that lie, he doesn't own up to it; that would be what folks in his party like to call "personal responsibility." Instead, he blames the person quoting him.
He ended his e-mail to me with this:
"There is an enormous difference between what I said (and clearly did NOT say about WMD), on the one hand, and what you inferred, based on the skimpy Salon out-of-context quote, that I must have said about new discoveries of Iraq WMD. Sarin and ricin are ugly terrorist tools, but they are a separate issue—and my remarks left no doubt which I was talking about. You may not agree with my political judgment—that it's good we have an administration that 'gets it'—but I hope you will help me point out that I have been misquoted."