Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept
The Washington Post opinion section recently announced that it has hired seven new columnists. One of them is Jim Geraghty, a longtime National Review writer with a brain the size and power of a AAA battery.
I’ve been fascinated by Geraghty ever since a post he wrote in 2006 about the Iraq/weapons of mass destruction issue. To understand how badly Geraghty went astray here, you need some background that he apparently lacked.
I have to emphasize that this background was available in 2006 to anyone who 1) could read English, 2) had a library card and internet connection, and 3) possessed enough intellectual capacity to eat breakfast by putting cereal in their mouth rather than into their ears. It was quality number 3 where Geraghty fell short.
As of 1981, Saddam Hussein’s government had only vague and unorganized ambitions to build nuclear weapons. On June 7 that year, Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor near Baghdad. This would later be hailed by The Atlantic’s current editor Jeffrey Goldberg as “halting — forever, as it turned out — Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.”
In reality, the Osirak bombing generated Saddam’s serious nuclear ambitions. The Osirak reactor was badly suited to create weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. But — as Iraqi scientists unanimously said after the 2003 U.S. invasion — the Iraqi vulnerability demonstrated by the Israeli attack caused Saddam to immediately order the building of a real nuclear weapons program.
This program made significant strides during the 1980s, thanks in part to $5 billion in funding from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, concerned by the rise of Shia Iran, wanted to support the creation of a “Sunni bomb” and to eventually take possession of some of the nuclear devices if Iraq succeeded. The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were well aware of this but ignored it because Iraq was then seen as a U.S. ally.
By the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, its nuclear weapons program was as little as a year away from constructing a functioning nuclear bomb. However, the inspections conducted by the United Nations after the 1991 Gulf War totally dismantled the Iraqi nuclear effort. As the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group reported after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Saddam “ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the Gulf war. ISG found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program.”
For obvious reasons, this conclusion made George W. Bush’s super fans unhappy. The justification for Operation Iraqi Freedom had been the threat posed by Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction. Wasn’t it possible that the CIA and the entire U.S. military had missed Iraq’s huge arsenal of WMD? In fact, didn’t it seem suspicious that these agents of the deep state were so unanimous in their conclusions that Iraq had nothing?
The solution, congressional Republicans decided, was to “leverage the internet” by putting online the tons of Iraqi government documents captured by the U.S. and its allies. Then the right’s sleuths could comb through them and uncover the secrets that surely lay therein. After Republicans on the Hill proposed legislation requiring this, the Bush administration uploaded the material to a website named Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal.
There turned out to be just one problem. The Iraqi government had written extensive reports for the U.N. about their nuclear program. As the New York Times stated in a November 3, 2006, story, these documents included “detailed information on how to build nuclear firing circuits and triggering explosives, as well as the radioactive cores of atom bombs.” And this was now available to anyone on earth with access to the internet. Whoops! The U.S. government quickly took the entire website down.
Here’s how the Times described what had happened. Note in particular the sentence at the end:
Among the dozens of documents in English were Iraqi reports written in the 1990s and in 2002 for United Nations inspectors in charge of making sure Iraq had abandoned its unconventional arms programs after the Persian Gulf war. Experts say that at the time, Mr. Hussein’s scientists were on the verge of building an atom bomb, as little as a year away.
Now we come to Geraghty’s post in reaction to the Times story. Here’s what he wrote:
I’m sorry, did the New York Times just put on the front page that IRAQ HAD A NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM AND WAS PLOTTING TO BUILD AN ATOMIC BOMB?
This EXCITING ALL-CAPS BOLD QUESTION deserves an EXCITING ALL-CAPS BOLD ANSWER. Here it is:
Anyone with any curiosity about the saga of Iraq and its nuclear weapons program would have understood what this sentence — “Experts say that at the time, Mr. Hussein’s scientists were on the verge of building an atom bomb, as little as a year away” — meant. This was not declaring that Iraq was just a year away from building a nuclear weapon right before the 2003 war, but that it had been a year away 13 years earlier, in 1990. What the Times was saying wasn’t any kind of revelation; it was something that had been known since the early 1990s.
This is the first funny aspect of Geraghty’s glitchy old noodle. What really happened with Iraq and nuclear weapons is a fascinating tale of international intrigue and brazen government lies, by the U.S. government in particular. Yet he’d never bothered to learn anything whatsoever about it, presumably because the reality would have made him sad. Meanwhile, he did not allow the fact that his mind was a completely blank slate to stop him from having strong opinions about this subject and expressing them before all the world.
The second funny part is that Geraghty didn’t have to know anything about this to realize that he was obviously wrong. The question of whether Iraq had a nuclear weapons program had recently been the biggest political issue on the entire planet. Even knowing nothing at all, Geraghty should have been able to figure out that the Times probably wouldn’t reveal the total vindication of George W. Bush and his war in one confusingly written sentence in paragraph 14 of a story about something else. Likewise, it seems unlikely that the Bush administration would have failed to mention that they’d been proven completely right.
This brings us to the third funny thing about Geraghty and his frayed dendrites. He took his complete ignorance and used it as a foundation on which to build a gigantic skyscraper of addled conspiracism. The New York Times, you see, intended to make Bush look bad, but instead they “just tore the heart out of the antiwar argument, and they are apparently completely oblivious to it.” Also, this clearly means that Iraq was in fact seeking yellowcake in Niger.
This immediate leap to conspiracies is the bane of conservative thought and as common as dirt. It’s inevitable if you don’t understand basic facts about the world, you’ll fill in the blanks to force everything to make “sense,” e.g., Climate scientists are all working together to keep the sweet grant money flowing, or Anthony Fauci wants us to get vaccinated because it saps our precious bodily fluids.
Geraghty seems never to have mentioned his extraordinary discovery again. Seventeen years later, his first column for the Post indicates he’s still speeding down the Boulevard of Thought at his standard two miles an hour.
In the column Geraghty vociferously praises the smarts of Hung Cao, a GOP congressional candidate in Virginia. Cao is perhaps best known for declaring, in response to a question about gun control right after the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, that “most people get bludgeoned to death and stabbed to death than they get shot.” In reality, guns are used in almost 80 percent of U.S. homicides. You can see why Geraghty saw someone whose skull is filled with mashed potatoes and recognized a kindred spirit.
In any case, the Post’s readers will now be treated to more of the Geraghty oeuvre. The Post’s Editorial Page Editor David Shipley said in the paper’s announcement that the Post had been striving to reach “an even broader readership.” Geraghty’s hiring demonstrates that they absolutely mean this.
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