Century of U.S. Meddling in the Middle East

Post 20. Selling the Second War on Iraq

July 22, 2020

[Featured Image: Getty Images]

First responders were still searching the rubble of the twin towers when Bush and his inner circle pivoted from tracking down Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to invading Iraq.

[Eric Draper / Bush Presidential Library]

Richard Clarke was in the White House on the night of 9/11, he recalls, “Rumsfeld came over . . . and the president finally got back [from reading The Pet Goat]. We had a meeting . . . and Rumsfeld said, ‘You know, we’ve got to do Iraq, . . . There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan. We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kind of attacks.'”

Not enough targets? Yes, Rumsfeld was saying we should go to war with a country that didn’t attack us because it had more targets than the one that did. Blimey.

1. The Neocons

The urge to invade Iraq did not come out of the blue, and more targets was the least of it. During the Reagan and Bush Senior administrations, a cohort of so-called “neoconservatives” – in media shorthand, “neocons” – gained increasing influence., and during the Clinton years had stayed closely linked via right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute. 

At the top of the list: Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defense under Reagan, Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy under Bush, and two of his former aides, Lewis “Scooter “Libby and Stephen Hadley, also Douglas Feith, special counsel to Perle, and last but not least, Elliott Abrams, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs under Reagan, who in 1991 was convicted along with Oliver North of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra.

Although they fancied themselves hard-bitten realists, the neocons really were, one can say, heads in the clouds fabulists. Their dream, in the words of David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil (2004), was “a world at peace, governed by law, in which all peoples are free to find their own destinies.” Noble goal. Fatal flaw was they believed that they could create this brave and wonderful new world at the point of a gun, with American military might. 

In 1992, Wolfowitz and Libby had supervised the drafting of the Defense Planning Guidance, which directed the Pentagon to “establish and protect a new order under unchallenged American authority,” including “‘deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” And, chillingly, it contemplated the unilateral and preemptive use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons “even in conflicts that do not directly engage US interests.” In short, a doctrine of American hegemony.

Paul Wolfowitz [AP]

Chest-pounding on steroids, it became known as the “Wolfowitz Doctrine.” Senator Ted Kennedy (D. Mass.) did not mince words, “This is a call for 21st century imperialism that no other nation can or should accept.” Nutty is another word for it.

Just before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Perle would tell Australian journalist John Pilger, “This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there. All this talk about first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq . . . this is entirely the wrong way to go about it. If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war . . . our children will sing great songs about us years from now.” Beyond nutty. Lunacy.

The neocons believed that Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, made a big mistake at the end of the First Gulf War by not going on to Baghdad and taking out Saddam Hussein.

In January 1998, Wolfowitz, Abrams and Perle, along with Rumsfeld, John Bolton and thirteen other members of a new neocon think tank called The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) – Dick Cheney was also a member – delivered a letter to President Bill Clinton, its core premise, “Removing Saddam Hussein . . . from power . . . [should be] the aim of American foreign policy, . . . if [he] acquires . . weapons of mass destruction, . . . the safety of American troops, . . . our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil will all be put at hazard.” 

To Perle and gang, it was all so simple, take out Saddam and ten thousand Iraqi democrats will spring out of the ground and shower us with kisses, and Iraq will become a beacon, a model, for a transformed Middle East. But as Jim Baker, Secretary of State for Bush Senior, pointed out, “Are they talking about restoring democracy in Iraq? There’s never been democracy in Iraq.” In short, not a plan, not a strategy, just wishful thinking. 

In April 2003, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who in fact supported the invasion of Iraq, told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “I could give you the names of 25 people, all within a five-block radius of this D.C. office, who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.” He was talking about the neocons.

But why the obsession with Iraq in the first place? Short answer. Israel. Almost to a man, the neocons – many are Jewish – were militantly pro-Israel, and viewed U.S. policy in the Middle East through that prism. If Saddam Hussein was not an existential threat to America, he certainly was, in their eyes, to Israel. And they were out to get him. The trail is well-marked.

Netanyahu + Rabin [Ronen Zvulun / Reuters]

In 1995, a right wing zealot assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s “dovish” Prime Minister. In the next election, the ultra-hawkish Likud Party defeated Rabin’s “land for peace” Labor Party, making hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu Israel’s next Premier.

The following year, 1996, Feith, Perle and his protégé David Wurmser wrote a policy statement for Netanyahu, A Clean Break, A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, declaring Israel’s “claim to the land (including the West Bank) is legitimate and noble, . . . [and] only the unconditional acceptance by Arabs of our rights is a solid basis for the future.” In short, Palestine belongs to us, all of it. Nothing less than a shameless repudiation of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. 

Indeed, because of its relentless occupation and taking of Palestinian land, Israel has made many enemies in the Middle East, and until he was deposed in 2003, it saw Saddam Hussein as the most dangerous. In the early ’70’s, Iraq purchased two French research reactors, along with a plutonium separation lab from an Italian company, prompting Israel in June 1981 to bomb Iraq’s Isiraq reactor before it could come online. 

Israel has always maintained a policy of “opacity” – in Hebrew, amimut – about its WMD programs, they won’t admit they have it. But during the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Egypt and Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized the deployment of 20-kiloton tactical nuclear weapons if Israel’s battlefield position worsened, and by the mid-90’s Israel had an estimated 300 nuclear devices in its arsenal.

Saddam argued that it was hypocritical for the U.S. to say, “Israel can have nuclear weapons, but Iraq and other countries in the Middle East cannot.” Fair point, but for Israel and its U.S. supporters, really beside the point. 

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007)made the very convincing case that Netanyahu’s Likud government and its U.S. supporters, with neocons as the point of the spear, pushed the Bush administration to invade Iraq not because it was in the strategic interests of the U.S., but to destroy one of Israel’s enemies. 

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw observed, “It’s a toss-up whether on any given day Lewis Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans.” As Muhammed Idrees Ahmad, in The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (2014), succinctly put it, “The war on Iraq was conceived in Washington, but its inspiration came from Tel Aviv.” 

Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings [James K.W. Atherton/The Washington Post]

On May 6, 2004, the Charleston Post and Courier published an essay, “Bush’s Failed Mideast Policy is Creating More Terrorism,” by Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a long-serving – 39 years – conservative Democrat from South Carolina, in which he stated that the main driver for the war was to “guarantee Israel’s security,” not because Iraq posed any danger to the United States.

Jewish political figures and organizations accused Hollins of “anti-Semitism,” but he did not back down, saying, “I don’t apologize for this column, President Bush went to war in Iraq “to secure Israel, . . . and everybody knows it.” 

Caveat: This is not to suggest that Jews in the U.S. supported the war on Iraq. To the contrary, polls indicate that they were more opposed to the war than the American public as a whole. The same was true in Israel itself. It was Netanyahu’s right-wing government that lobbied the Bush administration to invade Iraq, just as they have since lobbied the Trump administration to take military action against Iran. From their perspective, it makes sense to weaken Israel’s enemies, whether or not war on Iraq or Iran is in the strategic interests of the United States. 

Right or wrong, the PNAC letter tipped over the first domino to war. Just nine months later, Clinton would sign the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which stated that “[I]t should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq,” specifically, in the form of financial and military assistance to Iraqi opposition groups.

Regime change in Iraq was now official U.S. policy and a plank in the Republican Party’s 2000 campaign platform. But because the Act expressly denied the President authority to use military force to remove Saddam Hussein, it was a painless exercise for Congress, passing 360 – 38 in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate. 

2. Bush v. Gore.

On January 20, 2001, George Bush was sworn in as 43rd President of the United States, courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s frankly political, results-oriented, decision in Bush v. Gore, halting a recount of the November 7 presidential election in which out of almost six million votes cast in Florida, Bush’s margin was 537, barely 0.01%, over Al Gore. After a machine recount, the gap was down to 329, and on November 21, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that manual recounts should continue in counties with a “statistically significant number of challenged ballots.”

[Larry Downing / Reuters]

The Bush campaign appealed, and on December 12, in a 5–4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Florida Supreme Court on the grounds that a recount could not be completed in time to satisfy the federal deadline for the selection of state electors. Not enough time. 36 days after the election. 

The Court’s decision gave Florida’s 25 electoral votes to Bush and a total of 271 to Gore’s  266, making Bush the first president since Benjamin Harrison in 1888 to win despite losing the popular vote. Nation-wide, Gore got almost 500,000 more votes. In 2016, Donald Trump would crush that ignominious record, winning the Electoral College despite getting out pipped by Hillary Clinton to the tune of 2.9 million votes. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg [Getty Images]

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg , joined by John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer, opened not with the customary “I respectfully dissent,” but a terse “I dissent,” then noted acidly, ”Were the other members of this court as mindful as they generally are of our system of dual [federal and state] sovereignty, they would affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.” 

In a separate dissent joined by the other three, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “Although we may never know with complete certainty the . . . winner of this . . . election, . . . the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as the impartial guardian of the rule of law.” 

And in his concurring opinion, Justice Breyer recounted the deadlocked 1876 election and the blatantly partisan role that one justice, Joseph Bradley, played in handing Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency. Breyer: “This [is] why I think it not only legally wrong, but most unfortunate, for the Court simply to have terminated the Florida recount, . . . we risk a self-inflicted wound that may harm not just the court, but the nation.” 

And how. One can fairly say that five Supreme Court justices did not just decide an election, they paved the path to wars in the Middle East that twenty years later were still not over.

3. The Cheney Administration. 

With zero foreign policy experience – during his father’s presidency, Bush was part-owner and CEO of a baseball team, the Texas Rangers – the newly hatched president was in over his head even before 9/11, and he leaned heavily on his vice president, Dick Cheney, who had been Secretary of Defense under Bush senior from March 1989 to January 1993 during the First Gulf War. 

[Larry Downing / Reuters]

Cheney wasted no time in seeding the administration from top to bottom with his dyed-in-the-wool neocon pals, who during the Clinton years had stayed closely linked via right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute. Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense and Wolfowitz as his deputy, Hadley as deputy National Security Advisor under Condoleezza Rice, Feith as Undersecretary of Defense, Libby as Cheney’s chief of staff and Wurmser as his Middle East advisor, even Liz Cheney, the Vice President’s daughter, as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, and now resurrected from political oblivion, Abrams as special assistant for Middle East policy on the National Security Council. 

Now, after pushing their Saddam-must-go agenda for almost a decade, the neocons were finally in the driver’s seat to get it done. 

In Destiny and Power, his biography by Jon Meacham, former President George H.W. Bush, says of Cheney, “He had his own empire there, . . . The big mistake was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own State Department.”  

At end of the First Gulf War, Cheney, unlike Wolfowitz and many other neocons, was against ousting Saddam. In April 1991, he told the New York Times, “If you’re going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there now. Is it going to be a Shi’a regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Ba’athists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave? . . . I think the decision . . . to stop when we did was the right one.”

But once back in the White House, Cheney did a quick 180. In his insider account, Plan of Attack, Woodward describes Cheney as a “powerful, steamrolling force obsessed with Saddam and taking him out.” Secretary of State Colin Powell called it a “fever, an absolute fever, almost as if nothing else exists.” And Cheney had Bush’s ear almost 24/7. 

Bush did not take much convincing. Inexperienced and insecure, he was an easy mark, lacking the political chops – and, one could say, the spine – to push back against Cheney and the other neocons in and out of the Oval Office every day. He had already been second-guessing his father’s decision let Saddam off the hook and quickly bought into their groupthink. 

The decision to invade Iraq was a disaster because it wasn’t really a decision. It was a foregone conclusion, an assumption, a given, from day one of the Bush administration. The U.S. was going to war against Iraq, it was just a matter of time and what reasons they would come up with to sell it to the American people. 

4. Finding a Way 

In January 2001, as Bush was about to enter the White House, PNAC issued a 90-page treatise titled, in short, Rebuilding America’s Defenses. The core premise: the United States should “seek to preserve and extend its position of global leadership [by] . . . maintaining the preeminence of U.S. military forces,” and that what was needed to assure U.S. global dominance was “some catastrophic and catalyzing event like a new Pearl Harbor.” Eerily prescient. 

Now there is zero evidence that 9/11 was an “inside job” as a few conspiracy theorists claim, but it was for Bush and the neocons their own Pearl Harbor on a silver platter, a catalyst for doing exactly what they had wanted to do for more than a decade, invade Iraq and finish off Saddam Hussein. 

Their first tack was to try to tie Iraq to 9/11, and it started right out of the box. The day after 9/11, Richard Clark recalls, “The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door and said, ‘Saddam! See if there’s a connection to Saddam!’ It wasn’t, ‘See if there’s a connection with Iran, and while you’re at it, do Iraq, and while you’re at it, do the Palestinian Islamic group.’ It wasn’t, ‘Do due diligence,’ . . . it was, ‘I want you to find if Iraq did this.’ Now, he never said, ‘Make it up,’ but the entire conversation left absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said, ‘Iraq did this’ . . . that pretty clearly was the answer he wanted.” 

Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, former CEO of Alcoa Aluminum, recalls Bush saying at the first meeting of his national security council, January 30, just ten days after his inauguration, “Go find me a way to do this [eliminate Saddam Hussein]. . . . It was all about finding a way,” says O’Neill.

Clarke again: “Later on the president would wander unscheduled into the Situation Room  and start talking about Iraq. I told him, ‘We [did] that research prior to the [9/11] attack, there’s nothing there.’ His facial expression told me, ‘That isn’t the right answer.’ So I said, ‘We will do it again.’ And we asked CIA to do it again. CIA did and came up with the same answer, [which] was written up and handed to the president by Tenet in one of their morning meetings. It said, in so many words, ‘For the third or fourth time, we’ve gone back to look at the relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq, and there is no real cooperation between those two.’ But Bush wasn’t buying it, he wouldn’t take no for an answer.” 

Richard Perle [Alex Wong / Getty Images]

Nor would Wolfowitz and gang. On September 18, one week to the day after 9/11, Richard Perle called a meeting of the Defense Policy Board, made up of the secretary of defense, his key Pentagon lieutenants and outsiders with top security clearances, 30 in all. With Rumsfeld and Perle at the helm, the Board had taken a hard right turn, most of them were neocons, diplomats and Democrats had been pushed out.

Perle and gang convened at a downtown D.C. hotel and with a police escort raced in a train of black SUVs out to the still-smoking Pentagon. In a conference room just down the hall from Rumsfeld’s office, Perle introduced two guest speakers. The first was Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Islamic studies at Princeton, well-known both for his hawkish pro-Zionist views and as a “denier” of the Armenian genocide, the mass murder and ethnic cleansing by Turks of 1.5 million Armenians between 1914 and 1923.

Edward Said, Palestinian-born professor of literature at Columbia, on Lewis: “[He] hasn’t set foot in the Middle East, in the Arab world, for at least 40 years. He knows something about Turkey, I’m told, but he knows nothing about the Arab world.” Nevertheless, Perle and company nodded gravely as Lewis opined that America must respond to 9/11 with an enormous show of strength, lest it be seen in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo as weak and vulnerable. 

But Lewis was just the academic warm-up. Ahmed Chalabi was the guest of honor, the darling of Perle and the neocons, a smooth-talking, secular Iraqi who was telling them just what they wanted to hear. 

Ahmed Chalabi [Al-Jezeera]

Chalabi was born into a prominent Shi’a family in Bagdad, who left after the 1958 military coup and assassination of King Faisal II, the end of the Hashemite dynasty in Iraq. In 1975, now with a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, Chalabi and his young family relocated to Jordan, where he formed Petra Bank and amassed an estimated $100 million fortune. When the bank failed in 1989, Chalabi was charged with embezzling bank funds and cooking the books, but fled the country in the trunk of a Jordanian prince’s car. Tried in abstentia, he was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced to 22 years in prison. 

In 1992, now living in London, Chalabi pulled together a grab bag of anti-Saddam factions, Sunni and Shi’a Arabs, Kurds, monarchists and former military officers, to form the Iraqi National Congress, the name coined by John Rendon, the D.C. “perceptions management” guru who helped sell the 1991 Gulf War to the American public, and whose Rendon Group would be paid almost $100 million in government contracts over the next ten years to make the neocon case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. CIA-funded from its inception, covertly in the early 90’s and then as a $97 million budget line item in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, the INC was envisioned as the framework for a post-Saddam government. 

Despite its lofty sounding name, the INC was not ready for prime time, not a fine-tuned shadow government in waiting, really nothing more than a collection of squabbling, back-stabbing groups who loathed each other almost as much as they hated Saddam. When 300 INC delegates gathered in New York in October 1999, it was, according to one delegate, “not a pretty picture. . . they took off their shoes and threw them at each other,” in the Arab world an expression of utter contempt.

Nonetheless, before it was done, they managed to elect a seven-man leadership council with Chalabi presiding, his ticket, he believed, to return triumphantly to Iraq and if the cards fell right become its next president. 

Douglas Feith [AP]

Wolfowitz and Feith were on a roll. Later that month, they created what Feith called the “Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group,” later formalized as the “Office of Special Plans” (OSP), to try to link al-Qaeda and 9/11 to “state actors,” i.e., Saddam and Iraq. Feith told General Greg Newbold, Marine with three stars and director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Why are you going into Afghanistan? We ought to be going after Iraq.” Feith later denied saying this; Newbold said that he would take a polygraph about their conversation. 

A two-man team, Wurmser from Cheney’s office and analyst Michael Maloof, working out of a 15′ by 15′ box on the third floor of the Pentagon, culled through raw CIA intelligence data to create what Maloof call a “mosaic” of evidence tying Saddam to al-Qaeda. “Their goal,” said one CIA officer, “was to leave no dot unconnected.” 

Feith’s little group, later expanded from two to five, “stovepiped” their cherry-picked intel directly up to the Oval Office, bypassing the CIA’s protocols for vetting and corroborating sources, no evaluation by intelligence professionals.

And much of it was just plain wrong, for example, a report of an April 2001 meeting in Prague between the lead 9/11 hijacker, Mohamed Atta, and Ahmad Samir al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence officer. The source, it turned out, according to the Boston Globe, was “a single informant from Prague’s Arab community who saw Atta’s picture in the news after 9/11 and later told his Czech handlers that he had seen the two meeting in a Prague cafe.” At best a case of mistaken identity, at worst a deliberate fabrication.


Robert Mueller, then FBI Director: “We ran down literally hundreds of thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on, from flight reservations to car rentals to bank accounts,” and per the 9/11 Commission, “the FBI had [evidence] that Atta was in Virginia Beach on April 4, seen on a bank surveillance camera, and in Coral Springs on April 11, and used his phone to make numerous calls from Florida cell sites.” Bottom line, Atta could not even have been in Prague, much less meeting with al-Ani. 

Facts that didn’t fit the White House narrative? Richard Clarke: “I remember vividly, on the driveway outside the West Wing, Scooter Libby (whose sister Sandra is married to John Rendon) grabbing me, “I hear you don’t believe this report that Mohamed Atta was talking  to Iraqi people in Prague.” Clarke: “I don’t believe it because it’s not true.” Libby: “You’re wrong. You know you’re wrong. Go back and find out; look at the rest of the reports, and find out that you’re wrong.” Reports? Libby was talking about the “intelligence” that Feith was beavering up into the Oval Office.

Libby and Rumsfeld [Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty]

Clark: “[Libby] was saying, . . ‘This is a report we want to believe, and stop saying it’s not true. It’s a real problem for the vice president’s office that you, the counterterrorism coordinator, are walking around saying that this isn’t a true report. Shut up!’ That’s what I was being told.”

But at that point Clarke was just a speed bump. Feith’s team leaked its tale about the Prague meeting to Reuters, which reported it citing “U.S. government sources,” and the story was picked up and repeated by other media, so that in a December 9, 2001 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Cheney could flatly state, “It’s been pretty well confirmed that Atta did go to Prague and met with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in last April, several months before the attack.”

In short, gin up a story, leak it to the press and then cite news articles to say, “It’s all there in black and white.” The message: Iraq was involved in 9/11. 

But simply not true. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission concluded: “[W]e have seen no evidence that . . . contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda ever developed a collaborative operational relationship . . . [or] that Iraq cooperated with al-Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.” Dick Cheney said in 2004 that the 911 Commission was “irresponsible” in making that determination. To paraphrase John Adams, “facts are stubborn things, minds can be even more stubborn.”

Indeed, all of the evidence pointed to Iraq and al-Qaeda as mortal enemies, not cozy collaborators. Saddam, a secular Arab nationalist, outlawed sharia courts and enshrined equal rights for women in Iraq’s constitution, including the right to vote, run for political office and own property. And he cracked down ruthlessly on Islamist movements, just as Nasser had done in Egypt. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden called Saddam an “infidel” and offered to send Afghan mujahideen to Saudi Arabia to oust his forces. During the Lebanese Civil War, Saddam supported the Christian Maronites against Hezbollah, al-Qaeda’s kissing cousins. Al-Qaeda wanted a Islamic caliphate in the Middle East, Saddam just wanted to stay in power.

In short, Saddam was anathema to al-Qaeda and vice-versa; the notion that Iraq was involved in the planning of 9/11 or supported and sheltered the hijackers doesn’t pass the straight face test.   

True or not, Bush and Cheney’s pronouncements and innuendoes did exactly what they intended. In a CBS/New York Times poll taken in April 2003, just after the U.S. invaded Iraq, 53% said that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. Four months later in a Washington Post poll, 69% said that it was “very” or “somewhat” likely that Saddam was personally involved. Eight years later, a University of Maryland 2011 survey, The American Public on the 9/11 Decade, found that 38% still believed that “the U.S. had found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al-Qaeda,” and 15% that Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the 9/11 attacks. 

But poll numbers, widespread belief in Bush and Cheney’s claims about an al-Qaeda-Iraq connection, do not make them true, rather what John Dewey called “conscription of thought.”

“The greatest flaw of the species is the overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth.” Richard Powers, Overstory

4. The Defectors and WMD. 

Realizing that their al-Qaeda–Iraq argument was a very slender reed for war, Bush, Cheney, et al., were already pivoting to a second, more frightening, rationale: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and would use them, an imminent threat.

Paul Wolfowitz later admitted quite frankly, “We settled on weapons of mass destruction because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.” And on WMD, Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress were front and center. 

Between 1998 and 2002, Chalabi and the INC would trot out a series of “defectors” from Iraq with chilling stories of WMD programs in Iraq. First was Khidhir Hamza, an MIT graduate and Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected in 1994. Judith Miller and James Risen highlighted him in the New York Times on August 15, 1998, “An Iraqi Defector Warns of Iraq’s Nuclear Weapons Research, and in 2002 Hamza published a memoir, Saddam’s Bombmaker.

But according to Scott Ritter, a U.N. weapons inspector from 1991 to 1998, Hamza’s name was nowhere to be found in the administrative records of Iraq’s nuclear program seized by inspectors in 2002. He was not who he said he was. Ritter, who admittedly is not without his own blemishes, said of Hamza: “Here we have someone who the CIA knows is a fraud . . . who is allowed to sit in front of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and give testimony as an expert witness. . . . I’ve got a problem with . . . with the American media, I’ve told them over and over again that this man is a documented fraud, a fake, and yet they allow him to go on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and testify as if he actually knows what he is talking about.”

Rafid Alwan al-Janabi, aka “Curveball” [David Levene / Guardian]

And then there was Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, who showed up at a refugee center outside Nuremberg in November 1999 asking for asylum. He claimed he had worked as a chemical engineer at Djerf al Nadaf outside Baghdad, ostensibly a “seed purification plant,” but really, Janabi alleged, a facility for making mobile biological weapons labs to elude U.N. inspectors.

Janabi reeled out his story to the German Federal Intelligence Service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), which gave him the code name, aptly as it turned out, “Curveball.” He refused to meet with American agents, so the BND passed summaries on to the CIA along with what Janabi claimed were detailed diagrams of the plant and mobile weapons trucks that could disperse biotoxins, e.g., anthrax, on the run. 

For greater credibility, Janabi described an accident in which toxins were released from the plant and 12 people died, and he named names, including a widely known nuclear scientist, Dr. Basil al Sa’ati, as a senior official in Iraq’s bioweapons program. But Janabi didn’t know that al Sa’ati had defected earlier in 1999, and when interviewed by MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA, and asked to corroborate Janabi’s story, he exclaimed, “Big lie. . . . [Djerf al Nadaf] really is a seed purification plant.” 

On December 19, 2002, BND chief Dr. August Hanning delivered a letter to Tenet saying that although Curveball’s claims were “plausible,” they “must be considered unconfirmed.” Bottom line, “Don’t rely on this guy.” 

With good reason. After the war, Janabi admitted, one could say bragged, that he had made it all up, start to finish, hoping that the U.S. would overthrow Saddam Hussein. “I and my sons are proud . . . that we were the reason to give Iraq the margin of democracy.” Even today, still living in Germany, Janabi has no remorse. “If I could go back to 2000, if someone asked me,  I would say the same thing because I didn’t want that regime to continue in our country.”

In July 2004, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, nine Republicans and eight Democrats, would release its Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq. Chairman Pat Roberts (R. KS) told NBC’s Tim Russert that “Curveball really provided 98% of the assessment [of Iraq’s biological weapons program], [but] nobody inside the U.S. government had ever actually spoken to [him], except for a single Pentagon analyst, who concluded the man was an alcoholic and utterly useless as a source.”

When the analyst said so, the Deputy of the CIA Counter Proliferation Unit replied, “Let’s keep in mind that this war is going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn’t say. The Powers That Be probably aren’t interested in whether Curveball knows what he’s talking about.” 

Last but not least, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a 43-year old Kurd from Kirkuk, who came up on the INC’s radar screen in mid-2001 after bribing his way out of an Iraqi jail and turning up in Damascus. Haideri, a civil engineer, claimed that, as recently as 2000, he had helped renovate weapons labs and munitions in hidden bunkers at dozens of underground sites, even under private villas and Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad. The INC spirited Haideri away to a safe haven in Thailand, where its director of communications, Zaab Sethna, previously employed and mentored by the Rendon Group, debriefed, i.e., prepped, Haideri for days, then alerted his Pentagon contacts. 

Flash forward to December 17, 2001, in a small hotel room in Pattaya, a beach resort south of Bangkok, where a CIA agent administered a polygraph to Haideri. Sensors on his ring and index fingers to measure heart rate and perspiration, pleated rubber tubes on his chest for respiration, a thick cuff on the brachial artery of his right arm for blood pressure. 

For hours the agent drilled down into Haideri’s story about WMD in Iraq. After reading the peaks and valleys etched by the stylus, the agent concluded that Haideri had “showed deception,” i.e., he was lying, probably hoping to barter his story for a visa and witness protection program in the U.S. or Australia. 

End of story? Not at all. As the CIA agent got a plane back to Washington with the failed lie detector test in his black bag, Chalabi and Sethna got on the phone. Chalabi called Judith Miller of the New York Times, who Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby were using as a channel for anti-Saddam stories. With Chalabi’s encouragement, Miller flew to Bangkok and interviewed Haideri, and on December 20 she hit the newsstands with the headline, “Iraqi Defectors Tells of Work on at Least 20 Hidden Weapons Sites.” 

Judith Miller [Wall Street Journal]

Miller stated flatly that Haideri’s “account gives new clues about the types and possible locations of illegal laboratories, facilities and storage sites the American officials and international inspectors have long suspected Iraq of trying to hide. . . and that Baghdad continued renovating and repairing illegal facilities after barring international inspectors from the country three years ago.” She emphasized that Haideri had “been interviewed  twice by American intelligence officials and . . . experts said his information was reliable.”

Where did she get that from? Scooter Libby? Whatever, no excuse for not doing her job. Although Miller may not have known about the failed polygraph when she interviewed Haideri, she could have tracked it down quickly enough through what she touted as her “extensive contacts in the intelligence community.” But that, of course, would have ruined a really good headline, her big scoop.

Meanwhile, Sethna called Paul Moran, a charismatic 38-year old Australian freelance photojournalist who had worked with him on a number of projects for the Rendon Group in its London offices. He pitched Moran, “I think we have something you might be interested in,” and set up an on-camera interview for Moran with Haideri that would air on Australian Broadcasting just as Miller’s December 20 bombshell was going to print. 

Red meat for the neocons. The story went viral, repeated by newspapers and television networks around the world. Miller’s front page, above-the-fold, article reinforced by Moran’s televised interview would be powerful ammunition for the Bush administration in making its case for invading Iraq and taking down Saddam Hussein. 

Ironically, Moran would be the first foreign journalist to die in the war that he had a hand, however unwittingly, in starting. Fifteen months after his interview with Haideri, he was killed by an Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda offshoot, suicide car bomber at a remote checkpoint in the Kurdish region of northeastern Iraq. Moran had been a long-time advocate for Kurdish independence and felt obligated to cover what was, he promised himself, “my last war.” After his death, his wife Ivana Rapajic established a non-profit foundation for a children’s library in Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. 

In early 2004, less than a year after U.S. forces invaded and occupied Iraq, the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, tasked with actually finding the WMD labs and storage depots that Haideri described, took him back to Iraq. What did they find? Nothing. Nada. His explanation? “They must have moved them.” He might as well have said, “The dog ate my homework.” 

UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter pointed out the obvious, “Well, gosh, . . . Haideri seems to be a very clever engineer. . . . Maybe he could demonstrate how you move an underground facility. . . [made of] impregnated concrete. . . . It’s the classic defense of the fabricator to say, ‘Well, they’re moving it, they’re hiding it’. . . . That’s what Ahmed Chalabi told us every time, . . . ‘they’re too clever for us, too fast, . . .’ No Ahmed, no Mr. Haideri, you’re just liars.” 

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whom U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had cajoled out of retirement to lead WMD inspection teams in Iraq, would tell reporters, “They [the Bush administration] took what the defectors told them at face value because they wanted to believe [Saddam had WMD]. . . . Like the days of the witch hunt, they were convinced that they exist, and if you see a black cat, well, that’s evidence of a witch.” Robert Baer, former CIA official, in a nutshell: “Chalabi was scamming the U.S. because it wanted to be scammed.” 

6. Ginning Up the Case for War

Just days after Miller’s December 20 piece in the Times, Michael Gerson, head White House speechwriter, gave David Frum an assignment. “Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?” According to Frum, “His request to me could not have been more clear. I was to provide a justification for war.”

[Douglas Graham / Getty]

One month later, in his January 29, 2002 State of the Union, George Bush called out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” coined by Frum, which would become the catch phrase, a meme, for Bush policy on Iraq. “States like these, and their terrorist allies,” he declared, “threaten the peace of the world, . . . By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. . . [and] the price of indifference would be catastrophic. . . . We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events while dangers gather. . . . The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” 

At the top of the list, declared Bush, is Iraq, “which continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and support terror. . . [and] has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. . . .” Bush’s State of the Union was the ribbon-cutting for war on Iraq.

After 9/11, Bush’s Iraq fever was higher than Cheney’s. Guilt is a powerful motivator, and Bush knew that he had been asleep at the switch before 9/11. He would later tell the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, “There was a significance change in my attitude after September 11. [Before] I was not on point, I knew he was a menace, . . . but I didn’t feel that sense of urgency.”

He didn’t heed the warnings from Richard Clarke and the CIA, and more than 3,000 Americans had died. Bush now had an almost religious need for redemption and, he decided, his best path there was to become a resolute war time president. 

And when Bush pointed his finger at Iraq, ordinary Americans were only too ready to buy his WMD tale hook, line and sinker. We had been attacked, we were scared, and someone needed to pay. Saddam Hussein, swarthy, bad moustache and all, was the prime candidate, especially after Osama bin Laden slipped out of Afghanistan’s back door into Pakistan.

According to Christopher Gelphi, political science professor at Duke, since Vietnam the most important single factor shaping Americans’ opinions about going to war is not how much it will cost or even how many American soldiers will come home in body bags, but whether they think the U.S. will win. We had run roughshod over Saddam in the First Gulf War, the video game war, and would again. We would have our vengeance. 

In early January 2002, just weeks before the State of the Union, Dick Cheney, obsessed with the notion that Saddam was rekindling a nuclear weapons program, asked the CIA about reports, rumors, that Iraq was trying to buy 500 tons uranium from Niger in the form of a concentrated powder called “yellow cake,” which can be smelted into purified uranium oxide for use as nuclear reactor fuel or enriched into weapons-grade uranium 235. 

In late February, the CIA sent Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate. Wilson had been Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad from 1988 to 1991 and Acting Ambassador on the eve of the First Gulf War, served in various State Department posts in Africa, including Niger at the start of his career in 1976, more recently as Ambassador to Gabon, São Tomé and Principe from 1992 – 1995, and finally as Senior Director for African Affairs on the National Security Council in the Clinton White House. After retiring from public service in 1998, he started an international business consulting firm and so was a civilian when he took the Niger assignment. 

Joseph Wilson [Dudley M. Brooks / Washington Post]

Joe Wilson had been fluent in French since high school and knew his way around West Africa. It took him the proverbial “ten minutes” – eight days actually – to figure out that the uranium story was bunk. 

Niger had only two uranium mines, both operated by Cogema, a French-run consortium, strictly monitored by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and the entire output was pre-sold to nuclear power companies in France, Japan, Spain and Germany. A sale of 500 tons, then about 40% of Niger’s annual output, would have been a very big deal.

As one IAEA official put it, “500 tons can’t be siphoned off without anyone noticing,” anyone including Niger’s Minister of Mines, its Prime Minister, the countries with first dibs on the yellow cake, and last but not least the IAEA itself. Wilson: “There’s simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale [of this magnitude] to have transpired.” His conclusion was shared by U.S. ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, who had done her own digging before Wilson arrived. 

When he returned to Washington, Wilson gave the CIA a detailed briefing, and assumed that as Cheney had asked the question, he would be given the answer: it is “highly unlikely” that Niger was selling any yellow cake to Iraq, much less 500 tons of it. As far as Wilson was concerned, end of story. If only. 

On August 26, 2002, in a speech to a VFW convention in Nashville, Dick Cheney kicked off what former Bush chief of staff Andrew Card described called a plan to “educate the public” about a WMD threat from Iraq. Cheney declared, “The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents. And they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago. . . . We’ve gotten this from the firsthand testimony of defectors, including Saddam’s own son-in-law, who was subsequently murdered at Saddam’s direction. . . . Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction . . . [and] is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” 

The son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s second cousin, married his first daughter, Raghad, and was fast-tracked first to become Lt. General of the Republican Guard, and then in 1987 Minister of Industries supervising Iraq’s weapons development program. On August 7, 1995, feuding with and terrified by Saddam’s psychopathic son Uday, Kamel defected to Jordan, along with his brother, who was married to a second Saddam daughter. 

Kamel brought with him, in a caravan of 14 vehicles – one wonders how, in Saddam’s police state, he managed that – filed with boxes of documents, diagrams, photographs, computer disks, microfiche, etc., going back almost ten years, about Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. An intelligence treasure trove. 

Kamel was interrogated by the CIA, MI6 and representatives of UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission), which along with the IAEA, was tasked in 1991 with finding and dismantling Iraq’s WMD programs. Kamel identified a number of WMD sites that he said UNSCOM inspectors missed, and time and time again the Bush administration would recite Kamel’s revelations as proof of Saddam’s WMD threat. 

Rolf Ekeus [Pete Turnley / Corbis]

But when debriefed on August 22, 1995, by Rolf Ekeus, head of the UNSCOM inspection team, Kamel stated unequivocally, “All chemical weapons were destroyed. I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. . . . Not a single missile left. . . . All missiles were destroyed. . . . All weapons – biological, chemical, missiles, nuclear – were destroyed.”

And when interrogated by CIA and MI6 agents later that month, Kamel said exactly the same thing, and again on September 21 in a live interview with Brent Sadler of CNN.

Sadler: “Can you state here and now, does Iraq still to this day hold weapons of mass destruction?” Kamel: “No. Iraq does not possess any weapons of mass destruction. I am being completely honest about this.” Kamel was saying, bottom line, “I tell you, yes, Saddam had WMD, lots of it, but he doesn’t anymore.” Period. 

Footnote: Assured that “all was forgiven,” the brothers Kamel returned to Iraq in 1996, where they were promptly forced to divorce their wives, then tortured and executed by Saddam’s clansmen because they “had brought dishonor on the family.” 

No question, Saddam had been playing a cat and mouse game with UNSCOM inspectors – digging in his heels about when and where inspections could take place, stalling for months on end, denying everything until caught lying – for more than a decade. Why would he do that knowing that the Bush administration was gearing up for war?

Fact is, Saddam was much more worried about Iran than the U.S. After he was captured by U.S. forces on December 13, 2003, Saddam told his interrogator, FBI agent George Piro, that if Iran learned that Iraq did not have nuclear and chemical weapons, it would invade and annex southern Iraq, which like Iran has a predominately Shi’a population.

And even if Saddam was intent on reviving a nuclear weapons program, i.e., he wanted the “bomb,” he wasn’t close to getting one. If he eventually, in five years or ten, did manage to get there, he was no danger to the U.S., or even Israel, which had 300 – 400 atomic devices of its own. Saddam had made huge miscalculations more than once, i.e., going to war with Iraq, invading Kuwait, playing a game of chicken with the U.S. on WMD, but he wasn’t suicidal, not this man who slept in a different bed every night. 

Scott Ritter – UNSCOM inspector [AP]

Scott Ritter succinctly summed up the risk:There’s no doubt Iraq hasn’t fully complied with its disarmament obligations as set forth by the Security Council . . . . [but] since 1998 it has been fundamentally disarmed: 90–95% of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capacity has been verifiably eliminated. . . . We have to remember that this missing 5–10% doesn’t necessarily constitute a threat. . . . It constitutes bits and pieces of a weapons program which in totality doesn’t amount to much, but which is still prohibited. . . . We can’t give Iraq a clean bill of health, . . . we can’t close the book . . . [but] we can’t reasonably talk about Iraqi non-compliance as . . . a de-facto retention of a prohibited capacity worthy of war.”

And the Bush administration knew it. Or didn’t want to know. In mid-August, Rumsfeld asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence director, “What don’t we know about Iraq’s WMD program.” Early in September, an 8-page JCS report, declassified in 2006, came back with  a blunt assessment: “We’ve struggled to estimate the unknowns. . . . We think they possess a viable [nuclear] weapon design, . . . [but] we do not know the status of enrichment capabilities, . . . [or] with confidence the location of any nuclear-weapon-related facilities. . . . We cannot confirm the identity of any Iraqi facilities that produce, test or store biological weapons . . . as for chemical weapons they lack the precursors for nerve agent production . . . [and] we cannot confirm the identity of any Iraqi sites that produce any final chemical agents,” all of this in sharp contradiction to the certainties that Bush, Cheney and company were spouting day in and day out. 

Even for Rumsfeld, notorious for his known unknowns, the memo was sobering. After reading the JCS report, Rumsfeld wrote a terse note to Air Force General Richard Myers, Chair of the Joint Chiefs, “This is big,” because it could undercut the case for invading Iraq. Rumsfeld made sure that Congress, and Colin Powell, never saw it.

Meanwhile, Judith Miller – and the New York Times – continued to carry water for the Bush administration in laying out its case for war, starting with “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” on the front page of NYT, Sunday, September 8, 2002. She and co-author Michael Gordon stated flatly, “In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components [rotor casings] of centrifuges to enrich uranium.” 

What they left out is that the Department of Energy and the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research had both concluded that the tubes were probably for conventional weapons, i.e., rockets, because the walls were too thick and tubes too narrow for gas centrifuges. As one analyst succinctly put it, “The only thing these tubes have in common with centrifuge tubes is that they are both made of aluminum.”

Condoleezza Rice [Getty Images]

But that did not stop Secretary of State Colin Powell from telling Tony Snow on Fox News Sunday, “And as we saw in reporting just this morning [referring to Miller’s article], he [Saddam Hussein] is still trying to acquire . . . specialized aluminum tubing one needs to develop centrifuges that would give you an enrichment capability.” 

Just down the block, Dick Cheney repeated it, almost word for word, to Tim Russert on Meet the Press, as did Condoleezza Rice on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, adding, “The tubes are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, . . . [and] we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” an ominous phrase that would be repeated again and again by White House officials in the coming weeks and months.

In the same article, Miller and Gordon offered up yet another defector, this one anonymous. “Speaking on the condition that neither he nor the country in which he was interviewed [an unspecified European capital] be identified, Ahmed al-Shemri, his pseudonym, said Iraq had continued developing, producing and storing chemical agents at many mobile and fixed secret sites throughout the country, many of them underground. . . . All of Iraq is one large storage facility.” Shemri claimed to have worked for many years at the al-Muthanna chemical weapons plant, but when UNSCOM inspected the site in December 2002, five months before the war started, they found only a derelict factory with rusted tanks. 

Miller and Gordon cited unnamed “Bush administration officials,” when in fact their story was based on leaks from Scooter Libby a few days earlier. As Bob Simon of 60 Minutes pointed out, “You leak a story to the New York Times, which prints it, and then you go on the Sunday shows quoting the Times and corroborating your own information. You’ve got to hand it to them. That takes, as we say here in New York, chutzpah.”

In a May 25, 2004 editorial, the New York Times, after patting itself on the head for “an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of,” issued a tepid mea culpa. “We have found a number of instances of [our] coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been.”

Referring to Chalabi and the defectors, the Times stated that “Administration official now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources, . . . so did many news organizations, including this one. . . . Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried, in some cases there was no follow-up at all.” Indeed. In November 2005, the Times fired Judith Miller, ending her 28-year career as a journalist. Good riddance. 

7.  Selling Congress and the U.N. 

Sen. Bob Graham chairing Senate Intelligence Committee [Tampa Bay Times]

In late August 2002, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had a closed door meeting with George Tenet, who presented the case for WMD in Iraq. Committee chair, Senator Bob Graham (D. Fla.) asked, “What does the National Intelligence Estimate say about this?” Tenet’s answer: “We’ve never done an NIE on Iraq’s WMD.” Graham was floored. 

NIEs are comprehensive assessments produced by the National Intelligence Council reflecting the collective judgment of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. Graham: “We do these on almost every significant security issue, most [of much less import] that getting ready to go to war. . . . But [on Iraq] we were flying blind.” Graham demanded, “We want an NIE,” but Tenet pushed back saying, “We’re doing a lot of things, . . . Our staff is stretched thin.” Graham: “We don’t care, . . . we need to know [what we’re getting into].” 

In less than a month, Congress got not one report, but two. The first, the NIE, said Graham, “tilted towards weapons of mass destruction but with a number of areas of disagreement. . . . We asked that the classified version be scrubbed (of classified material) and then made available to the American people. . . . What we got three days later was not a redacted version of the original classified report, but a wholly new report [eliminating] all of the conditions and doubts, and [now] was a full-scale argument for weapons of mass destruction [and] an imminent threat.” 

Graham was especially incensed that the second report, a ten-page “white paper,” omitted, he said, a statement in the NIE that “Saddam Hussein would not use any weapons of mass destruction he had unless he was first attacked. What does that say? If we don’t attack him, even if he has [WMD], our best assessment is he won’t use them. That was left out of the version that went to the American people.” And the white paper wasn’t even what it was purported to be, a condensed version of the NIE, wasn’t even based on it. Prepared in mid-summer, two months earlier, it had just been taken off the shelf. 

Melvin Goodman, a 20-year CIA veteran and former division chief of the Office of Soviet Affairs: “If you look at CIA statements about [Iraq WMD] before 1998, they’re carefully written, there are caveats, there are grey areas. They recognize subtleties. . . . They know you can’t be sure about a lot of this. [But] from 1998 on, they lose the best intelligence. . . . The CIA had infiltrated the U.N. inspection teams. When they leave and Saddam says, “No, you left, you’re not getting back in, the CIA lost its best collection capabilities. . . . So their information becomes weaker and there’s less of it, yet they become more certain. . . ?”

As Hans Blix, head of U.N. inspection teams in Iraq from March 2000 to June 2003, wryly noted, “It’s sort of puzzling that you can have 100% confidence that Iraq has WMD, but zero certainty about where it is. . . .”

Goodman again: “[The NIE] was comparable to judge shopping in the courthouse: If you want a certain verdict on a decision, you usually know which judge to go to. . . . George Tenet and John McLaughlin picked the very people in the National Intelligence Council . . . who had a very hard line on all of these issues.” 

On September 12, 2002, Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly and, with a mixed bag of truths and half-truths, aka non-truths, accused Iraq of having active chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. In case they missed it, he repeated these accusations in a radio address to the American people on September 28. 

But the die had been cast months earlier. In late March 2002, Cheney told Republican senators that it was only a question of when, not if, the U.S. would invade Iraq. And in June, Rice told one of her deputies who had doubts about a war on Iraq: “Save your breath. The president has already made up his mind.”

Tony Blair [Carl Court / Getty Images]

But Bush wanted backup, and that started with the British. Prime Minister Tony Blair was, at heart, a neocon cut out of the same cloth as those in the Bush administration. Like them he believed that democracies do not go to war with each other and – in an ironic leap – they should use military force to oust dictators, form new democracies and, voilà, make the world a better place. And like them he wanted Saddam gone. 

Easier said than done. In London opposition to an Iraq war was widespread and growing, even in Blair’s own Cabinet. So in early April 2002, when Blair visited Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, his message was, “We need U.N. inspectors to confirm that Iraq has WMD, without U.N. buy-in I can’t sell this to Parliament or the British public.” 

Bush and the neocons had little use for the U.N. Or for most international agencies and agreements, e.g., the Kyoto Protocol, International Criminal Court, etc. But in August, Colin Powell reminded Bush of polls showing that a majority of Americans favored U.N. authorization for war on Iraq. So on September 12, 2002, Bush addressed the General Assembly and announced that the U.S. would “work with the Security Council for the necessary resolutions.”

The White House wanted just a single resolution, one that triggered immediate authorization for war if Saddam did not comply with demands for unfettered inspections and verified elimination of all WMD programs. France’s president, Jacques Chirac, wanted two, one with the demands, a second authorizing military force if Saddam did not comply. What they got on November 8, 2002, Resolution 1441, was a document that could be what anyone wanted it to be. 

John Negroponte, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., had his take: “[T]his resolution contains no “hidden triggers” and no “automaticity” with respect to the use of force, . . . [but] any Iraqi failure to comply is unacceptable and . . . and one way or another, Iraq will be disarmed. . . . [T]his resolution does not constrain any Member State from acting to defend itself against the threat posed by Iraq or to enforce relevant United Nations resolutions and protect world peace and security.” You could, as the saying goes, drive a truck – and several armored divisions – through 1441. 

And Congress was buying what Bush was selling. October 10 – 11, 2002, it passed the Joint Resolution for Use of Force Against Iraq, authorizing the President to use the U.S. military, “as he deems necessary to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq and enforce all relevant . . . Security Council resolutions.” 

The House voted in favor 296 to 133, with only 6 of 221 Republicans voting no, along with Bernie Sanders (I. VT), Nancy Pelosi (D. CA) and 125 other Democrats. The Senate count was  77 yeas, 23 nays. Of 49 Republicans, only one, the honorable Lincoln Chaffee (R.I.), voted no. Notable Democrats in favor: Hillary Clinton (NY), Joe Biden (MD) and John Kerry (MA). Independent Jim Jeffords (VT) voted no, joined by 22 Democrats, including Bob Graham (FL), Ted Kennedy (MA), Barbara Boxer (CA), and Paul Wellstone (MN), the only one of the nays up for re-election. Tragically, Wellstone died in a plane crash 11 days before the election, and thanks to three no-chance candidates siphoning off 60,000 votes, Vice-President Walter Mondale, a last-minute sub on the ballot, lost narrowly to St. Paul mayor Norman Coleman, helping give Republicans control of both houses of Congress in the next term. 

Why did Congress roll over? For starters, after 9/11 Bush’s approval ratings went through the roof, at one point hitting an astonishing 90%. Even Democrats were wary of crossing him. With public opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans believed that Saddam was personally involved in 9/11, being against war on Iraq was seen in many quarters as unpatriotic, and Congress was feeling the heat, it was only three weeks until the November mid-terms. Raising their fingers into the political winds, they decided, “This is going to happen no matter what, so I’m going with the flow.”  

The fully classified NIE, “Iraq’s Continuing Programs of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” was available to any member of Congress to read in a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility,” but, according to the Washington Post [April 27, 2004], most of them never did. “No more than six senators and a few House members logged in to [read it].” They just didn’t do their homework. But even if they had, most of the information in the CIE was outdated and anything new sketchy at best.

NIE aside, with strong backing from Congress, the Bush war train now had a full head of steam. In fact, it had pulled out of the station more than a year earlier. On November 21, 2001, just 72 days after 9/11, Bush pulled Rumsfeld aside and said, “What have you got in terms of plans for Iraq? What is the status of the war plan? I want you to get on it. And I want you to keep it secret.” 

[Alex Brandon / AP]

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward – he of Watergate and Deep Throat fame – had unparalleled access to the Bush White House. Over six months he interviewed more than 75 Bush administration officials and staff, including Bush and Rumsfeld for three hours each, and Colin Powell more than once. 

Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs: “Bob is the New York Yankees of access, the rest of us are the Montreal Expos.” Even when he wasn’t actually in the room, Woodward was the proverbial fly on the wall. 

Gen. Tommy Franks [Robert Ward]

Very much like the First Gulf War, the plan was for an unrelenting aerial bombardment followed by a ground invasion on an enormous scale. Rumsfeld, according to Woodward, gave General Tommy Franks, CENTCOM commander, “a blank check” to prepare for an invasion, and without telling Congress diverted funds from a supplemental appropriation for Afghanistan to start construction of runways, pipelines and other infrastructure in Kuwait as the staging area for an invasion of Iraq. An end run around the Constitution.

But when asked five months later, in May 2002, about any preparations for military action against Iraq, Franks replied, “That’s a great question and one for which I don’t have an answer, because my boss has not yet asked me to put together a plan to do that.” Franks flat out lied. As did his boss, Rumsfeld.

On December 21, Tenet and deputy John McLaughlin met with Bush and Cheney in the Oval Office to present the case the Iraq had active WMD programs. Woodward: “McLaughlin has access to all the satellite photos, and he goes [through] his flip charts. The president listens to all of this and when McLaughlin’s done, . . . the president says, ‘Nice try, but that isn’t gonna sell Joe Public, . . . this is the best we’ve got?’

Tenet’s sitting on the couch, stands up, and says, ‘Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk.’ And the president challenges him again and Tenet says, ‘The case [Iraq has WMD], it’s a slam dunk.’ ” 

Slam dunk. The same basketball metaphor Tenet used in telling Bush that al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were responsible for 911. On that score he was 100% right, so when it came to Iraq and WMD, “slam dunk” resonated powerfully with the president. Woodward wrote that he asked Bush about this, [who] “said it was very important to have the CIA director [tell him] that it was a ‘slam-dunk’. . . a sure thing, guaranteed.”

But “slam dunk,” is an odd expression – one could say flippant, even careless – to use in the intelligence realm, where there are so many greys and unknowns. Especially on Iraq and WMD, especially when analysts inside the CIA, MI6 and the BND were saying that there were a lot of holes in the defectors’ stories about aluminum tubes, yellow cake uranium and mobile bio labs. What possessed Tenet to say it was a sure thing?

Not the least of it was the intense pressure the White House put on CIA analysts to come up with the answers they wanted. In an October 24 briefing at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld admitted without apology that he used cherry-pickings from Doug Feith’s OSP to harass the CIA staffer who briefed him every morning. “She walks through the daily brief and I ask questions, . . . Gee, what about this? Or that? Has somebody thought of this?” Sending the message, “This isn’t what I want, you haven’t done your job, go back, do it right and bring me something different.” 

[Edward Sorel for Vanity Fair]

And then there was Cheney. According to Richard Clarke, Cheney went over to the CIA a dozen times and talked directly to the analysts working on Iraq, a monumental breach of the boundaries between intelligence agencies and decision makers.

“[Cheney] has (from Feith) a series of ‘raw intelligence reports.’ That’s what the spies or informants are saying. . . . He would say, ‘Well, how come you don’t conclude X when there’s this report that says Y?’ Now, frequently, the answer was, ‘Well, Mr. Vice President, if you look at the source for that report, it’s someone we can’t trust and can’t believe, because they have a history of making things up. . . . just because a source told us doesn’t make it true.'”

But, says Clarke, “There’s a point at which multiple visits by a senior official from the White House, when he’s telling you what he believes over and over and over again, and he’s not dissuaded by the evidence you have to the contrary. . . . As an intelligence analyst at CIA, you are now thinking, they want me to say X. Whether or not it’s true, they want me to say X . . . . Now, does anyone ever take the analyst aside and say, ‘To hell with the truth – write this’? No. It’s a little more subtle than that, but not much.”

Kenneth Pollack, an intelligence analyst during the Clinton years, writing in The Atlantic: “Throughout . . . 2002 and well into 200, I received numerous complaints from friends and colleagues in the intelligence community [about] Administration officials reacting strongly, negatively and aggressively when presented with information or analyses that contradicted what they already believed . . . who presented analyses at odds with the pre-existing views of senior Administration officials. [They] were subjected to barrages of questions . . . [and] asked to justify their work sentence by sentence. . . . The Administration gave greatest credence to accounts that presented the most lurid picture of Iraqi activities. In many cases, intelligence analysts were distrustful of those sources, or knew unequivocally that they were wrong. But when they said so, they were not heeded; instead, they were beset with further questions about their own sources.”

George Tenet himself was not immune. He started his D.C. career as a legislative assistant, then staff director, for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. After working on Clinton’s transition team, he was appointed CIA Deputy Director in 1995, and then Director when John Deutch abruptly resigned in December 1996. Much more politician than intelligence guru, he went out of his way to ingratiate himself with Bush père et fils, renaming CIA headquarters for Bush Senior in 1998, and during the 2000 campaign personally briefing Bush Junior, who kept him on after the election. He was not about to push back against the White House, he was going to keep his job. Melvin Goodman: “Tenet was playing the game.”  

Sidebar: In March 1997, the New York Daily News ran a story about Tenet, A Hungry Kid May Lead the CIA. In their teens, George and his twin brother Bill waited table at the 20th Century Diner in Queens owned by their Greek immigrant parents. There George earned the nickname, “Mouthpiece.” A family friend, Sol Winder recalls, “He was always talking, that kid . . . the type of guy who could never keep a secret. . . . It’s funny now he’s going to be chief of the CIA.”

Just days into the new year, Bush informed Colin Powell, at a private dinner in the White House residence, that he had decided to go to war against Iraq. Powell: “But it isn’t just a simple matter of going to Baghdad. I know how to do that. But what happens after. . . you take out a government, a regime, guess who becomes the government . . . and is responsible for the country. You are. So you break it, you own it, . . . 28 million Iraqis will be standing there looking at us, and I haven’t heard enough about the planning for that. . . .”

He wasn’t alone, the French also urged caution. Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, right hand man to French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, along with Jean-David Levite, who has just left his post as French ambassador to the U.N. to become ambassador to the U.S., met with Rice on January 13. They warned her that the war would unhinge Iraq’s ethnic groups, Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds, trigger an anti-U.S. insurgency, and “increase popular sympathy for terrorist objectives.”

As it turned out, dead right on all three counts, and obvious to anyone who knew anything about Iraq and thought about what would happen with Saddam out of the picture. But Bush and company were not the reflective sort, not inclined to look beyond the next few moves, it just wasn’t in their checkers, not chess, mentality. 

Blair’s attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, advised him that an invasion without U.N. authority behind it would violate international law, and so Bush had promised Blair that he would seek a second resolution expressly authorizing the use of military force to disarm Saddam. When that got out to the French, they offered quietly, “Not necessary, if you are determined to go to war with Iraq, 1441 gives you enough cover, we won’t have to use our veto.”

Jacques Chirac et Dominique de Villepin. [Lebon/Gamma-Rapho]

But Bush, fretting about his poll numbers, wouldn’t leave well enough alone, he insisted on pushing for a second resolution, putting France on the hot seat. Chirac went through the roof. His foreign minister, the imperious Dominique de Villepin, speaking to reporters in New York on January 20, did not sugarcoat it. ‘We will not associate ourselves with military intervention that is not supported by the international community. . . . There’s no point in choosing the worst possible solution.”

Now it got personal. Rumsfeld disparaged France and also Germany, which had just been voted onto the Security Council, as “Old Europe.” To express their pique, Republicans Bob Ney (OH), and Walter Jones (NC) changed “French fries” and “French toast” to “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” on the House cafeteria menu. Frat boys both. But the old menu was back in 2006, after the U.S. occupation of Iraq had already gone completely off the rails and, ironically or not, Ney had lost his own freedom, convicted and sentenced to 30 months in the Morgantown federal correctional facility for his role in the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal. 

On January 28 when Bush launched into his second State of the Union address, the world held its breath. Was the U.S. really going to war against Iraq? Bush served dessert first, starting with his plan for more tax cuts to the tune of $674 billion. He declared, “92 million Americans will keep . . . almost $1,100 more of their own money,” glossing over the fact that the lion’s share of his tax cuts would go to big business and the wealthy, including a phasing-out of estate and dividend taxes. He promised $400 billion for Medicare, a single payer system that really works, but not to extend it to all Americans, and touted his “Healthy Forests Initiative” to reduce wild fires, i.e., more clearcutting = fewer trees = fewer trees on fire. And he pledged $15 billion to fight AIDs, $10 billion of it in Africa. On that last score at least, Bush did more for Africa than Clinton ever did, credit is due where credit is due. 

Then, in the next breath, Bush pivoted to Iraq. He announced that Secretary of State Powell would speak to the U.N. Security Council on February 5 to make the U.S. case that Iraq had “illegal weapons programs . . . and links to terrorist groups,” including 9/11. He warned ominously, “Secretly, without fingerprints, [Saddam] could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, . . . Imagine those 19 hijackers. . . . It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.” Scary stuff.

But as evidence of these “terrible threats,” Bush offered only the same old and discredited sources: “From three Iraqi defectors, we know,” he said, “that Iraq in the late 1990s had several mobile biological weapons labs . . . designed to produce germ warfare agents and . . . moved from place to a place to evade inspectors, . . . [that] in the 1990s Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, . . . [and] the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa . . . [and] our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons production [centrifuges].” In sum, uranium plus tubes equals the bomb. Bush concluded, “If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, . . . we will lead a coalition to disarm him,” and he confirmed that U.S. forces were already “assembling in or near the Middle East.”

When Bush declared, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” he was sending the message, “We are not making this up on our own, the Brits have independently come to the same conclusion.” In fact, in a foreword to the Joint Intelligence Committee dossier – the British equivalent of an NIE – issued September 24, 2002, Blair had “hardened up” what was very equivocal intelligence into a certainty: “We have established beyond doubt that Saddam . . . continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons.” 

One very big problem. The British dossier was based on documents, including a half-dozen on Niger government letterhead, that were obvious fakes, “So bad,” said a senior official of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “that I cannot imagine they came from a serious intelligence agency,” for example, a letter dated October 10, 2000, signed with the name of Allele Habibou, a former foreign minister of Niger who had been out of the government for 13 years. And CIA officials knew it, one said, “It wasn’t [that] they were marginal, . . . they were a fraud.” 

It would come to be known as the “dodgy dossier,” both it and Blair eviscerated by the Chilcot Report, the result of a seven-year inquiry headed by Sir John Chilcot, a career civil servant. In giving his evidence, Major General Michael Laurie, Director General of the Defence Intelligence Staff, testified pointedly: “We could find no evidence of planes, missiles or equipment that related to WMD, . . . There has probably never been a greater detailed scrutiny of every piece of ground in any country. . . . We knew at the time that the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence, and that to make the best out of sparse and inconclusive intelligence, the wording was developed with care.” As it was and would be in the Bush White House.

Colin Powell was up next. Bush asked him to appear on February 5 before the U.N. Security Council to lay out the Bush administration’s case against Iraq. Powell said later, “Who else? You can’t send the Secretary of Defense to the U.N. . . . [as for] the U.N. ambassador, that’s above his pay grade. . . . I think the president thought that I had the credibility to deliver a speech and it would be believable.” Despite his deep reservations, Powell would be a good soldier and do what his commander in chief asked, make the case that Saddam had WMD programs.

Powell assumed that his presentation would be prepared by NSC [National Security Council] staff, “but when I asked Condi Rice, . . . where did this come from, it turns out that the vice president’s office [Scooter Libby] had written it.” Now Powell was very uneasy. He told Cheney that he was staking his reputation on what he would say to the Security Council. Ever the cynic, Cheney told him, “Your poll numbers are in the 70s, you can afford to lose a few points.” Cold comfort indeed. 

Colin Powell (Tenet far left, Negroponte behind Powell) [Thomas Monaster / NY Daily News]

With George Tenet sitting conspicuously behind him – at Powell’s insistence to send the message, “Everything I am about to tell you came from the CIA” – he started by playing scratchy, almost inaudible, tape recordings of several conversations (in Arabic) between officers of Iraq’s Republican Guard about impending inspections, “modified vehicles” and “forbidden ammo,” and their instructions to “clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas, . . . [and] make sure there is nothing there.” There is evidence that transcripts of the tapes were altered to make them say what Powell said they said, but he never even blinked in telling the Security Council, “They were trying to clean up the area to leave no evidence behind of the presence of weapons of mass destruction.” 

But simply not so. The CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, headed by Charles Duelfer, was charged with finding Iraq’s WMD. According to the Duelfer Report, published in September 2004,  when UNSCOM inspectors went back into Iraq in November 2002, Saddam directed the Republican Guard to “cooperate completely” with inspectors and “ensure their units retained no evidence of old WMD.” Saddam knew he would be courting big trouble if the inspectors found any evidence of WMD, no matter how out of date and unusable. So he ordered his commanders to sign documents, which the Survey Group found after the invasion, attesting that there was no WMD in their units, and that if there was, they would be held personally responsible. They all knew that wouldn’t turn out well. So clean it up they did, assiduously, right down to the scrap heaps. That’s what the Iraqi officers were talking about on Powell’s tapes. But we hear what we want to hear.

After the U.S. invasion in March 2003, the Iraq Survey Group, along with units of the U.S. military – see Green Zone starring Matt Damon (2010) – searched high and low, in every nook and cranny, and found no WMD, nada, zilch, nothing but old chemical munitions scattered here and there. 

Whatever was left, Duelfer stated, “Saddam didn’t know he had it. . . didn’t know what was left lying around. . . [it was] not militarily significant that [the Iraqis] were, as a matter of national policy, hiding.” And to put things in perspective, he noted in passing that the U.S. military had, according to the General Accounting Office, misplaced $1.2 billion worth of equipment in just the first year of its occupation of Iraq. 

Before going on, Powell declared, “My colleagues, every statement I make is backed up by solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on intelligence.” The general doth protest too much. Because in private it was a very different story. 

According to Lawrence Wilkerson, his chief of staff, Powell walked into his office one day and said, in almost so many words, “I wonder how we’ll all feel if we put a half million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing.” In his heart of hearts, Powell suspected, if he did not know, that what he was peddling to the U.N. was bogus.    

But Powell plunged ahead anyway, going on at length about aluminum tubes, uranium and, although he did not refer to them by name, the defectors Hamza, al-Janabi, Haideri and “Curve Ball,” and their tales of Saddam’s WMD programs. His presentation has been picked apart many times over the years, but one portion in particular is worth noting. 

James Estrin / New York Times

Powell started with visual aids, show and tell, holding up a vial for all to see. “It took years for Iraq to finally admit that it had produced four tons of the deadly nerve agent, VX. A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. And Iraq had four tons. This admission,” Powell asserted, “only came out after inspectors collected documentation as a result of the defection of Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s late son-in-law,” and Minister of Industries supervising Iraq’s weapons development program.

But what Powell left out, like Bush and Cheney all along, was that when debriefed by UNSCOM inspectors, Kamel testified that by the time he fled Iraq in August 1995, “All weapons – biological, chemical, missiles, nuclear – had been destroyed.” 

It would have been one thing for Powell to question whether Kamel was telling the truth, but quite another for him to omit entirely Kamel’s testimony that all of Iraq’s WMD had been destroyed by 1995. He was intentionally, very deliberately, leaving the wrong impression, suggesting that Kamel had brought with him proof that Saddam had active WMD programs, when in fact Kamel had said exactly the opposite.

And Powell wasn’t the only one. Bush did the same in a prime time speech on October 7, 2002, as would Tony Blair in addressing the House of Commons on March 18, 2003, immediately before it voted for military action against Iraq.

Just sixteen months later, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that “much of the information . . . cleared by the CIA for Secretary Powell’s speech was overstated, misleading or incorrect.” In 2011 Powell admitted, “A failure will always be attached to me and my U.N. presentation. I am mad, mostly at myself, for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me.”

Not just his instincts. Powell knew that invading Iraq had been at the top of the Bush to-do list since day one. He was sitting next to Bush at Camp David four days after 9/11 when Wolfowitz advocated invading Iraq even before going after bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was at the first meeting of the national security council on January 20, 2001, when Bush said, “Go find me a way to do this [eliminate Saddam Hussein].” And he knew that Cheney and Wolfowitz were relentless in making the argument for regime change in Iraq. So he should not have been surprised that they would cook the books, picking and choosing intelligence to justify what they wanted to do all along. 

And it wasn’t as if Powell wasn’t aware he was walking into a diplomatic mine field. U.N. inspectors, headed by the Hans Blix, Swiss-born former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), had gone back to Iraq in November 2002 and found no WMD, and they said so. On January 29, 2003, the very next day after Bush’s State of the Union, Blix had, in a two-hour interview, stated that inspectors had found no evidence that Iraq was moving bio labs on trucks to prevent inspectors from finding them, or sending nuclear scientists to Syria to prevent them from being interviewed, or that Iraqi security agents were posing as scientists or had, as Bush claimed the day before, infiltrated the inspection teams and were giving Saddam a road map to the inspection team itinerary. Blix said it was all nonsense. 

So Powell knew a week before his U.N. appearance that Blix would contradict him, indeed, even before he finished speaking, his speech was blowing up in his face. One U.N. official said, “Everyone felt uncomfortable to see a man [of Powell’s stature] saying these lies, you knew it was all bullshit.” 

On February 14, Blix told all this to the Security Council and added that Saddam was now cooperating with U.N. inspectors, allowing them into Saddam’s presidential palaces and other sites that had previously been off limits. And he was backed up by Mohamed El Baradei, current Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who testified that there was no evidence that Iraq had a viable nuclear weapons program.  

The Bush administration’s case for war was crumbling. After Blix’s speech, Dominique de Villepin told the Security Council, “War is always the sanction of failure.” Mocking Rumsfeld, he added, “This . . . . comes to you from an old country, France, from . . . Europe, that has known wars, occupation and barbarity.” His message: We know better than you what war brings. The room erupted in applause as Powell sat there stone-faced. His aide, Lawrence Wilkerson, said later, “I wish I had not been involved, . . . I look back . . . it was the lowest point in my life.” Powell himself called it a “blot” on his career.

But Bush doubled down. “No matter what the whip count is,” he declared, “we’re calling for a vote. . . . It’s time for people to show their cards, to let the world know where they stand when it comes to Saddam,” but, he added, “We will act, and we really do not need the United Nations’ approval to do so.” 

At least for Blair if nobody else, Bush still wanted U.N. Security Council backing. The U.S. had only four votes, its own, Great Britain, Spain and Bulgaria, and with France, Russia and China saying no, to get a nine-vote majority the White House leaned hard on six small fry, Chile, Mexico, Cameroon, Guinea, Angola and Pakistan, the rotating, non-permanent members of the Security Council. 

No dice. They wanted to give Saddam 45 days to comply with the U.N. ultimatum. The U.S. insisted on seven, ten at most, and wouldn’t budge, even refusing a compromise of three weeks. U.S. forces had been hunkering down in the Kuwait desert for months, and Centcom commanders wanted combat operations to start by the end of March, before the summer heat.  That’s right, the decision about starting a war on Iraq was now being driven by the weather. 

8. War on Iraq.

On March 17, the U.S. and U.K. withdrew the second resolution. Two days later, March 19, Bush ordered U.S. forces into Iraq, telling the American people on prime time television that he was “taking necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those . . . [who] authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks [on 9/11].” As Richard Clarke told 60 Minutes in March 2004, “Americans went to their death in Iraq thinking they were avenging September 11. They died for a lie.” Actually, many lies.


Back on October 2, 2002, Barack Obama, then a relatively unknown Illinois state senator, spoke at an anti-war rally in Chicago:

[Marc PoKempner / New York Times]

Now let me be clear. I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied U.N. resolution, thwarted U.N. inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined costs, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rational and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I am opposed to dumb wars.

Obama might as well have had a crystal ball. He nailed it. But the war on Iraq was not just dumb, although it was certainly that. Also thoughtless, reckless, rash, arrogant, duplicitous in conception, incompetent in execution, expensive, deadly and, in the end, one can say, criminal. We have been dealing with the blow-back ever since. 



Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack [2004]

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007)

James Bamford, The Man Who Sold the War [Rolling Stone – Nov. 2005]

Muhammed Idress Ahmad, The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (2004)

Bryan Burroughs, Evgenia Peretz, David Rose, The Path to War [Vanity Fair – Nov. 2004]

The War Behind Closed Doors [Frontline documentary – 2003]


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We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

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