Defense hawk Dicks says he now sees war as a mistake
State congressman says administration "doctored" information and erred in the way it has waged battle.
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — It was after 11 p.m. on Friday when Rep. Norm Dicks finally left the Capitol, fresh from the heated House debate on the Iraq war. He was demoralized and angry.
Sometime during the rancorous, seven-hour floor fight over whether to immediately withdraw U.S. troops, one Texas Republican compared those who question America's military strategy in Iraq to the hippies and "peaceniks" who protested the Vietnam War and "did terrible things to troop morale."
The House was in a frenzy over comments by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who had called for the troops to leave Iraq in six months. In response, the White House initially likened Murtha, a 37-year veteran of the Marines and an officer in Vietnam, to lefty moviemaker Michael Moore.
Then a new Republican representative from Ohio, Jean Schmidt, relayed a message to the House that she said she had received from a Marine colonel in her district: "Cowards cut and run; Marines never do."
During much of the debate, Dicks, a Democrat from Bremerton, huddled in the Democrats' cloakroom with Murtha, a longtime friend. Both men are known for their strong support of the military over the years. Now, they felt, that record was being questioned.
"There was a lot of anger back there," Dicks said in an interview this week. "It was powerful. I can't remember anything quite as traumatic as this in my history here."
Near midnight, he drove to his D.C. home, poured a drink and wondered how defense hawks like he and Murtha had gotten lumped in with peaceniks by their colleagues and the administration.
And he thought about all that had happened over the past couple of years to change his mind about the war in Iraq.
Voted to back Bush
In October 2002, Dicks voted loudly and proudly to back President Bush in a future deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq — one of two Washington state Democratic House members to do so. Adam Smith, whose district includes Fort Lewis, was the other.
Dicks thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and wouldn't hesitate to use them against the United States.
After visiting Iraq early in the war, "Norm told me the Iraqis were going to be throwing petals at American troops," Murtha said in an interview this week.
Dicks now says it was all a mistake — his vote, the invasion, and the way the United States is waging the war.
While he disagrees with Murtha's conclusion that U.S. troops should be withdrawn within six months, Dicks said, "He may well be right if this insurgency goes much further."
"The insurgency has gotten worse and worse," he said. "That's where Murtha's rationale is pretty strong — we're talking a lot of casualties with no success in sight. The American people obviously know that this war is a mistake."
Dicks, a former member of the House Intelligence Committee, says he's particularly angry about the intelligence that supported going to war.
Without the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), he said, he would "absolutely not" have voted for the war.
The Bush administration has accused some members of Congress of rewriting history by claiming the president misled Americans about the reasons for going to war. Congress, the administration says, saw the same intelligence and agreed Iraq was a threat.
But Dicks says the intelligence was "doctored." And he says the White House didn't plan for and deploy enough troops for the growing insurgency.
"A lot of us relied on [former CIA director] George Tenet. We had many meetings with the White House and CIA, and they did not tell us there was a dispute between the CIA, Commerce or the Pentagon on the WMDs," he said.
He and Murtha tended to give the military, the CIA and the White House the benefit of the doubt, Dicks says. But he now says he and his colleagues should have pressed much harder for answers.
"Norm ... has agonized"
"All of us have gone through a difficult period, but Norm really has agonized," Murtha said this week.
Murtha and Dicks were appointed to the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee in 1979, three years after Dicks first was elected to Congress. They rarely have disagreed, especially in their support of the military.
In October 2002, Dicks made an impassioned speech during the House debate over whether to authorize the president to send troops to Iraq without waiting for the United Nations to act.
"Based on the briefings I have had, and based on the information provided by our intelligence agencies to members of Congress, I now believe there is credible evidence that Saddam Hussein has developed sophisticated chemical and biological weapons, and that he may be close to developing a nuclear weapon," Dicks said at the time.
By spring 2003, U.N. weapons inspectors said they hadn't found hard evidence of WMDs in Iraq. But Dicks remained convinced of Iraq's threat.
"We're going to find things [Saddam] had not disclosed," he said shortly before the war began in March 2003. "There is no doubt about that. Period. Underlined."
By June of that year, with no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons found, Dicks remained steadfast in his support for the war but called for a congressional inquiry into the intelligence agencies' work on Iraq. "I think the American people deserve to know what happened and why it happened," he said at the time.
That same month, Dicks was upset when a good friend, Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, was forced into retirement after telling Congress that the secretary of defense was not sending enough troops to win the peace.
On July 6, 2003, Dicks awoke to read the now-famous New York Times opinion piece by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had been sent on a CIA mission to investigate a report that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear materials in Africa.
Wilson wrote that he had found no evidence of such Iraqi intentions and criticized Bush for making the claim in his State of the Union address two months before the invasion.
"That Joe Wilson article was very troubling," Dicks said.
Dicks grew somber about Iraq. Rep. Jim McDermott, who represents Seattle and had opposed the war from the start, talked with him about it.
"Norm is a lot like Jack Murtha. These are guys with a somewhat different philosophy than me," McDermott said recently. "This an extremely difficult time for them because they have to reassess what they were led to believe" about prewar intelligence.
The White House maintains it did nothing to mischaracterize what it knew about Iraq and its weapons.
Dicks' private concerns became more public two months ago. At a breakfast fundraiser on Capitol Hill, Dicks surprised the guests with a tough talk against the war.
The White House last Friday called Dicks to gauge his support. House GOP leaders were pushing for a vote on a resolution they hoped would put Democrats on the spot by forcing them to either endorse an immediate troop withdrawal or stay the course in Iraq.
Dicks said he told the White House that "their attack on Murtha was the most outrageous comment I've ever heard."
The resolution, denounced by Democrats, ultimately was defeated 403-3.
Dicks says the Pentagon should begin a phased withdrawal and leave some troops to help maintain order and train a new Iraq army. "We've got to be very concerned that Iraq comes out of this whole," he said.
But he added, "We can't take forever."
Some people say it takes eight to nine years to control an insurgency, Dicks said.
"I don't think the American people will give eight to nine years, and I sure as heck won't."
Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or email@example.com
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Norm Dicks is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Dicks is no longer a member of that committee, although he participated in various intelligence briefings about Iraq.