As Joe Biden joins the far-too-wide 2020 Democratic field, various media outlets have published stories noting that his 2002 vote in the Senate for a resolution that granted President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq could come to haunt his campaign. After all, during the 2008 Democratic primary, Barack Obama effectively cited Hillary Clinton’s vote for that measure, which led to Bush’s war and its awful aftermath, as a reason to question her judgment. And Biden was one of the 29 Democrats to support the Iraq war resolution. (The final vote was 77 to 23, with 21 Democrats saying nay.) Yet Biden’s role in that episode is more complicated than a single vote—and this one chapter in his long career of government service illuminates key aspects of Biden’s political personality.
In the summer of 2002, less than a year after the horrific 9/11 attacks, the Bush-Cheney administration initiated a PR campaign to win support for the idea of attacking the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In a speech at the national conference of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vice President Dick Cheney proclaimed, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” Actually, that was a lie. Within the intelligence community, there was no consensus that Saddam was stockpiling WMD to strike the United States. Anthony Zinni, a former commander in chief of US Central Command and then a Middle East envoy, was sitting onstage during Cheney’s address, and, as he later said, he was stunned by the vice president’s remarks: “It was a total shock. I couldn’t believe the vice president was saying this, you know? In doing work with the CIA on Iraq WMD, through all the briefings I heard at Langley, I never saw one piece of credible evidence that there was an ongoing [WMD] program.”
But thus began the notorious White House spin crusade to convince the American public that Saddam posed a WMD threat to the United States to justify a military invasion of Iraq. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was in the middle of the WMD debate. As Michael Isikoff and I reported in our 2006 book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, a few weeks after that Cheney speech, in late September, Biden was chairing a classified hearing at which CIA Director George Tenet was the key witness. Tenet told senators that there was intelligence showing that Saddam had acquired aluminum tubes used for enriching weapons-grade uranium, that he had a fleet of mobile biological weapons labs, and that he was developing drones that could transport and deliver chemical and biological agents. As Tenet testified, Biden envisioned these drones being launched off tankers cruising along the coast of the United States and attacking Philadelphia or Charleston, South Carolina. This was hair-raising stuff.
But Biden and other committee members pressed Tenet for evidence backing up these frightening claims. And a staffer passed Biden a note with a suggested question: What “technically collected” evidence of Iraqi WMD did the CIA possess? In other words, did Tenet have any concrete proof? Had the CIA tracked radioactive emissions from supposed nuclear sites, gathered electronic intercepts in which Iraqis communicated about their various WMD, or obtained samples of biological agents? “None, Senator,” Tenet answered.
A hush fell on the room. None? Nothing at all? Biden was bothered. “George, do you want me to clear the staff out of the room?” he asked. This was Biden’s way of inquiring whether the CIA chief had some super-secret intelligence nailing Saddam that he was hesitant to share with staffers present. “There’s no reason to, Senator,” Tenet responded—a signal he wasn’t holding anything back. A Biden staffer, a former Pentagon contractor who specialized in nuclear technology, went home that night and told his wife, “They’re going to war and there’s not a damn piece of evidence to substantiate it.”
At this point, the public debate concerned a congressional resolution Bush and Cheney were pushing that would provide Bush the authority to attack Iraq. Bush was essentially asking the Senate and the House to give him a go-to-war-free card, with no restraints on the option to order military action in Iraq as he saw fit. Biden, perhaps because he had seen that the case for war was flimsy, joined with two Republicans on his committee—Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel—in a bipartisan effort to restrict Bush’s authority to invade Iraq. They proposed an alternative to Bush’s resolution that would only allow Bush to attack Iraq for the purpose of destroying WMD and only after seeking UN approval. If the UN turned Bush down, he would have to come back to Congress and prove Saddam posed a WMD threat so “grave” that only military action could eliminate it. Bush couldn’t just hop into war on his own.