Responding last week to the controversy that erupted over former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke's criticism of President Bush's handling of the war on terror, 9th District congressman Harold Ford appeared to be distancing himself from the administration's war policies in Iraq.
Ford, who had previously expressed reservations about the conduct of the war and its aftermath but had declined to cast public doubt on the Bush administration's bona fides, said in a telephone interview that "it now appears from what we've learned in the last couple of days that the president was determined to go to war in Iraq and may have exaggerated the evidence he had for doing so."
Though the congressman, who voted for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, continued to profess his frequently expressed belief that "we are safer with Saddam Hussein out of power," his response still represented a deviation of sorts from the qualified support for the war that he had repeated as recently as early March in an appearance before the Germantown Democratic Club.
At that meeting, during which he had to deal with some animated and occasionally hostile questioning, Ford's criticism of the administration was largely limited to chastising the president for retaining CIA chief George Tenet, whom the congressman blamed for faulty intelligence concerning Iraq's weapons programs or lack of any. The blame-Tenet approach was similar to one advanced by supporters of the president's war policy, including such active promoters as leading neoconservative Richard Perle, until recently chairman of the administration's Defense Policy Board.
What may have been lost in the shuffle of events over the years is the fact that Ford himself was associated very early on with calls for action against Saddam's regime. A reader calls attention to an artifact of that concern, currently featured on the Web site of the Project for the New American Century, an organization in which Perle, Under-Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and other neoconservatives are prominent.
This is a letter to President Bush signed by Ford and eight other members of Congress, including Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The letter, dated December 5, 2001, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and the beginnings of military action in Afghanistan, says in part:
"As we work to clean up Afghanistan and destroy al Qaeda, it is imperative that we plan to eliminate the threat from Iraq.
"This December will mark three years since United Nations inspectors last visited Iraq. There is no doubt that since that time, Saddam Hussein has reinvigorated his weapons programs. Reports indicate that biological, chemical and nuclear programs continue apace and may be back to pre-Gulf war status. In addition, Saddam continues to refine delivery systems and is doubtless using the cover of a licit missile program to develop longer-range missiles that will threaten the United States and our allies."
The letter goes on to praise the "Iraqi National Congress," a group led by then exiled figure Ahmed Chalabi, now president of the U.S.-installed Iraq Governing Council. The congress has been identified as a prime source of early allegations concerning Iraq's possession of WMDs.
"The threat from Iraq is real, and it cannot be permanently contained," continues the December 2001 letter. "For as long as Saddam Hussein is in power in Baghdad, he will seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. We have no doubt that these deadly weapons are intended for use against the United States and its allies. Consequently, we believe we must directly confront Saddam, sooner rather than later. ... [I]n the interest of our own national security, Saddam Hussein must be removed from power."
Other signatories to the letter are Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), and Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.).
Ford's presence in such company reflects his penchant for other positions normally associated with political conservatives. The congressman, currently a national co-chair of the presidential campaign of Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the Democrats' presumptive nominee, is a member of the congressional Blue Dog caucus, composed of conservative Democrats. He is regarded as an almost certain candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2006.