The Road to 'Operation Iraqi Freedom'
Editor’s Note: As the war in Iraq enters its sixth year, a common refrain from politicians who supported the invasion is “don’t dwell on the past, think about the future.” It is an argument that distracts Americans from the important lessons that this history can teach.
In this guest article, investigative reporter Jason Leopold recalls that history of how America was misled into the Iraq War:
The Iraq War, which was predicated on the existence of weapons of mass destruction and fear of another 9/11, has resulted in the deaths of nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and has cost taxpayers roughly half-a-trillion dollars. (Estimates of Iraqi dead range into the hundreds of thousands.)
Yet, the invasion of Iraq was conceived prior to 9/11, according to Paul O'Neill, President Bush's first Treasury Secretary. In the book, The Price of Loyalty, journalist Ron Suskind interviewed O'Neill who said that the Iraq War was planned just days after the president was sworn into office.
"From the very beginning, there was a conviction, that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," O'Neill told Suskind, adding that going after Saddam Hussein was a priority 10 days after the Bush's inauguration and eight months before Sept. 11.
"From the very first instance, it was about Iraq. It was about what we can do to change this regime," Suskind said. "Day one, these things were laid and sealed."
As Treasury Secretary, O'Neill was a permanent member of the National Security Council. He says in the book he was surprised at the meeting that questions such as "Why Saddam?" and "Why now?" were never asked.
O'Neill was fired from his post for disagreeing with Bush's economic policies. In typical White House fashion, senior administration officials have labeled O'Neill a "disgruntled employee," whose latest remarks are "laughable" and have no basis in reality.
But a little known article in the Jan. 11, 2001, edition of the New York Times entitled "Iraq Is Focal Point as Bush Meets with Joint Chiefs" confirms that the incoming Bush administration was working on a plan to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, even before Bush’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2001.
"George W. Bush, the nation's commander in chief to be, went to the Pentagon today for a top-secret session with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review hot spots around the world where he might have to send American forces into harm's way," the Times story says.
Bush was joined at the Pentagon meeting by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The Times reported that "half of the 75-minute meeting focused on a discussion about Iraq and the Persian Gulf, two participants said. Iraq was the first topic briefed because 'it's the most visible and most risky area Mr. Bush will confront after he takes office, one senior officer said.'"
"Iraqi policy is very much on his mind," one senior Pentagon official told the Times. "Saddam was clearly a discussion point."
WMDs Cited for "Bureaucratic Reasons"
On Sept.13, 2001 – two days after the terror attacks – during a meeting at Camp David with President Bush, Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials, Wolfowitz said he discussed with President Bush the prospects of launching an attack against Iraq, for no apparent reason other than a “gut feeling” Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks, and there was a debate “about what place if any Iraq should have in a counter terrorist strategy.”
“On the surface of the debate it at least appeared to be about not whether but when,” Wolfowitz said during a May 9, 2003, interview with Vanity Fair. “There seemed to be a kind of agreement that yes it should be, but the disagreement was whether it should be in the immediate response or whether you should concentrate simply on Afghanistan first. ...
"The decision to highlight weapons of mass destruction as the main justification for going to war in Iraq was taken for bureaucratic reasons."
When the United Nations chose Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, in January 2002 to lead a team of U.N. weapons inspectors into Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction Wolfowitz contacted the CIA to produce a report on why Blix, as chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency during the 1980s and 1990s, failed to detect Iraqi nuclear activity, according to an April 15, 2002, report in the Washington Post.
The CIA report said Blix "had conducted inspections of Iraq's declared nuclear power plants fully within the parameters he could operate as chief of the Vienna-based agency between 1981 and 1997," according to the Post.
Wolfowitz "hit the ceiling" because the report failed to provide sufficient ammunition to undermine Blix and, by association, the new U.N. weapons inspection program," according to the Post, quoting a former State Department official familiar with the report.
"The request for a CIA investigation underscored the degree of concern by Wolfowitz and his civilian colleagues in the Pentagon that new inspections – or protracted negotiations over them – could torpedo their plans for military action to remove Hussein from power," the Post reported.
Blix accused the Bush administration of launching a smear campaign against him because he did not find evidence of WMD in Iraq. He said he refused to pump up his reports to the U.N. about Iraq's WMD programs.
In an interview with the London Guardian newspaper, Blix said "U.S. officials pressured him to use more damning language when reporting on Iraq's alleged weapons programs."
"By and large my relations with the U.S. were good,'' Blix told the Guardian. "But toward the end the (Bush) administration leaned on us.'"
White House Iraq Group
The Bush administration needed a vehicle to market a war with Iraq. So, in August 2002, Bush's former Chief of Staff Andrew Card formed the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) to publicize the so-called threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
The WHIG was not only responsible for selling the Iraq War, but it took great pains to discredit anyone who openly disagreed with the official Iraq War story.
The group's members included Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Bush's former adviser Karen Hughes, then Senior Adviser to the Vice President Mary Matalin, former Deputy Director of Communications James Wilkinson, Assistant to the President and Legislative Liaison Nicholas Calio, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to the vice president and co-author of the administration's pre-emptive strike policy.
Rove chaired the group's meetings. Moreover, Rove's "strategic communications" task force, operating inside the group, was instrumental in writing and coordinating speeches by senior Bush administration officials, highlighting in September 2002 that Iraq was a nuclear threat, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal in October 2005.
Another member of WHIG, John Hannah, along with former Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith and Wolfowitz, were interviewed by FBI officials in 2004, according to a report in the Washington Post, to determine if they were involved in leaking U.S. security secrets to Israel, former head of the Iraqi National Congress Ahmed Chalabi, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
A senior official who participated in the WHIG called it "an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities," according to an Aug. 10, 2003, Washington Post investigative report on the group's inner workings.
During its very first meetings, Card's Iraq group ordered a series of white papers showing Iraq's alleged arms violations. The first paper, "A Grave and Gathering Danger: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Nuclear Weapons," was never published. However, the paper was drafted with the assistance of experts from the National Security Council and Cheney's office.
"In its later stages, the draft white paper coincided with production of a National Intelligence Estimate and its unclassified summary. But the WHIG, according to three officials who followed the white paper's progress, wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence," according to the Washington Post.
Judith Miller and the Mushroom Cloud
The group relied heavily on New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who, after meeting with several of the organization's members in August 2002, wrote an explosive story that many critics of the war believe laid the groundwork for military action against Iraq.
On Sept. 8, 2002, Miller wrote a front-page story for the Times, quoting anonymous officials who said aluminum tubes found in Iraq were to be used as centrifuges. Her report said the "diameter, thickness and other technical specifications" of the tubes - precisely the grounds for skepticism among nuclear enrichment experts - showed that they were "intended as components of centrifuges."
She closed her piece by quoting then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who said the United States would not sit by and wait to find a smoking gun to prove its case, possibly in the form of a "a mushroom cloud."
After Miller's piece was published, administration officials pressed their case on Sunday talk shows, using Miller's piece as evidence that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear bomb, even though those officials had helped supply Miller with the story.
Rice's comments on CNN's "Late Edition" reaffirmed Miller's story. Rice said Saddam Hussein was "actively pursuing a nuclear weapon" and that the tubes - described repeatedly in U.S. intelligence reports as "dual-use" items - were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs ... centrifuge programs."
Cheney, on NBC's "Meet the Press," also mentioned the aluminum tubes story in the Times and said "increasingly, we believe the United States will become the target" of an Iraqi atomic bomb. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on CBS's "Face the Nation," asked viewers to "imagine a September 11th with weapons of mass destruction."
The Cincinnati Speech
In October 2002, President Bush gave a speech in Cincinnati and spoke about the imminent threat Iraq posed to the U.S. because of Iraq's alleged ties with al-Qaeda and its endless supply of chemical and biological weapons
"Surveillance photos reveal that the (Iraqi) regime is rebuilding facilities that it had used to produce chemical and biological weapons," Bush said. "Iraq possesses ballistic missiles with a likely range of hundreds of miles -- far enough to strike Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and other nations -- in a region where more than 135,000 American civilians and service members live and work.
“We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVS for missions targeting the United States.
“And, of course, sophisticated delivery systems aren't required for a chemical or biological attack; all that might be required are a small container and one terrorist or Iraqi intelligence operative to deliver it."
Also in October 2002, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld ordered the military's regional commanders to rewrite all their war plans to capitalize on precision weapons, better intelligence, and speedier deployment in the event the United States decided to invade Iraq.
The goal, Rumsfeld said, was to use fewer ground troops, a move that caused dismay among some in the military who said concern for the troops requires overwhelming numerical superiority to assure victory.
Rumsfeld refused to listen to his military commanders, saying that his plan would allow "the military to begin combat operations on less notice and with far fewer troops than thought possible - or thought wise - before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks," the New York Times reported on Oct. 13, 2002.
"Looking at what was overwhelming force a decade or two decades ago, today you can have overwhelming force, conceivably, with lesser numbers because the lethality is equal to or greater than before," Rumsfeld told the Times.
Rumsfeld said too many of the military plans on the shelves of the regional war-fighting commanders were freighted with outdated assumptions and military requirements, which have changed with the advent of new weapons and doctrines.
It has been a mistake, he said, to measure the quantity of forces required for a mission and "fail to look at lethality, where you end up with precision-guided munitions, which can give you 10 times the lethality that a dumb weapon might, as an example," according to the Times report.
Through a combination of pre-deployments, faster cargo ships and a larger fleet of transport aircraft, the military would be able to deliver "fewer troops but in a faster time that would allow you to have concentrated power that would have the same effect as waiting longer with what a bigger force might have," Rumsfeld said.
Critics in the military said there were several reasons to deploy a force of overwhelming numbers before starting any offensive with Iraq. Large numbers illustrate U.S. resolve and can intimidate Iraqi forces into laying down their arms or even turning against Hussein's government.
The new approach for how the U.S. might go to war, Rumsfeld said in a speech in 2002, reflects an assessment of the need after 9/11 to refresh war plans continuously and to respond faster to threats from terrorists and nations possessing biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.
One of the most vocal opponent of the administration's prewar Iraq intelligence was David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector and the president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington, D.C.-based group that gathers information for the public and the White House on nuclear weapons programs.
In a March 10, 2003, report posted on the ISIS website, Albright accused the CIA of twisting the intelligence related to the aluminum tubes.
"The CIA has concluded that these tubes were specifically manufactured for use in gas centrifuges to enrich uranium," Albright said. "Many in the expert community both inside and outside government, however, do not agree with this conclusion.
“The vast majority of gas centrifuge experts in this country and abroad who are knowledgeable about this case reject the CIA's case and do not believe that the tubes are specifically designed for gas centrifuges. In addition, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have consistently expressed skepticism that the tubes are for centrifuges."
"After months of investigation, the administration has failed to prove its claim that the tubes are intended for use in an Iraqi gas centrifuge program," Albright added. "Despite being presented with evidence countering this claim, the administration persists in making misleading comments about the significance of the tubes."
Albright said he took his concerns about the intelligence information to White House officials, but was rebuffed and told to keep quiet.
"I first learned of this case a year and a half ago when I was asked for information about past Iraqi procurements. My reaction at the time was that the disagreement reflected the typical in-fighting between U.S. experts that often afflicts the intelligence community. I was frankly surprised when the administration latched onto one side of this debate in September 2002. I was told that this dispute had not been mediated by a competent, impartial technical committee, as it should have been, according to accepted practice," Albright said.
"I became dismayed when a knowledgeable government scientist told me that the administration could say anything it wanted about the tubes while government scientists who disagreed were expected to remain quiet," he said.
Albright said the Department of Energy, which analyzed the intelligence information on the aluminum tubes and rejected the CIA's intelligence analysis, is the only government agency in the U.S. that can provide expert opinions on gas centrifuges (what the CIA alleged the tubes were being used for) and nuclear weapons programs.
"For over a year and a half, an analyst at the CIA has been pushing the aluminum tube story, despite consistent disagreement by a wide range of experts in the United States and abroad," Albright said. "His opinion, however, obtained traction in the summer of 2002 with senior members of the Bush Administration, including the President. The administration was forced to admit publicly that dissenters exist, particularly at the Department of Energy and its national laboratories."
But Albright said the White House launched an attack against experts who spoke critically of the intelligence.
"Administration officials try to minimize the number and significance of the dissenters or unfairly attack them," Albright said. "For example, when Secretary Powell mentioned the dissent in his Security Council speech, he said: ‘Other experts, and the Iraqis themselves, argue that they are really to produce the rocket bodies for a conventional weapon, a multiple rocket launcher.’ Not surprisingly, an effort by those at the Energy Department to change Powell's comments before his appearance was rebuffed by the administration."
The 16 Words Were False
Eleven days before President Bush's Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address in which he stated that the United States learned from British intelligence that Iraq had attempted to acquire uranium from Africa, the State Department told the CIA that key intelligence behind the uranium claims may have been forgeries.
The revelation of the warning was contained in a closely guarded State Department memo, which didn’t surface until April 2006. On Jan. 12, 2003, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) "expressed concerns to the CIA that the documents pertaining to the Iraq-Niger deal were forgeries," the memo dated July 7, 2003, says.
Moreover, the memo said that the State Department's doubts about the veracity of the uranium claims may have been expressed to the intelligence community even earlier.
Those concerns, according to the memo, are the reasons that former Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to cite the uranium claims when he appeared before the United Nations in Feb. 5, 2003, a week after Bush's State of the Union address.
"After considerable back and forth between the CIA, the (State) Department, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association), and the British, Secretary Powell's briefing to the U.N. Security Council did not mention attempted Iraqi procurement of uranium due to CIA concerns raised during the coordination regarding the veracity of the information on the alleged Iraq-Niger agreement," the memo further states.
Iraq's interest in the yellowcake uranium caught the attention of Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Association. ElBaradei had read a copy of the National Intelligence Estimate and had personally contacted the State Department and the National Security Council in hopes of obtaining evidence so his agency could look into it.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who made the rounds on the cable news shows in March 2003, tried to discredit ElBaradei's conclusion that the documents were forged.
"I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said. "[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past."
As it turns out, ElBaradei was correct, the declassified State Department showed.
The declassified State Department memo was obtained by The New York Sun under a Freedom of Information Act request the newspaper filed in July 2005. The Sun's story, however, did not say anything about the State Department's warnings more than a week before Bush's State of the Union address about the bogus Niger documents.
The memo was drafted by Carl Ford Jr., the former head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, in response to questions posed in June 2003 by "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, about a February 2002 fact-finding trip to Niger that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson undertook to investigate the uranium claims on behalf of the CIA.
The Ambassador Emerges
A day after Bush's Jan.28, 2003, State of the Union address, Wilson said he reminded a friend at the State Department that he (Wilson) had traveled to Niger in February 2002 to investigate whether Iraq attempted to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger, according to Wilson’s July 6, 2003, op-ed published in the New York Times.
In his book, The Politics of Truth, Wilson's said his State Department friend replied that "perhaps the president was speaking about one of the other three African countries that produce uranium: Gabon, South Africa or Namibia. At the time, I accepted the explanation. I didn't know that in December, a month before the president's address, the State Department had published a fact sheet that mentioned the Niger case."
But Wilson was certain that the administration was trying to sell a war that was based on phony intelligence. In March 2003, Wilson began to publicly question the administration's use of the Niger claims without disclosing his role in traveling to Niger in February 2002 to investigate it. Wilson's criticism of the administration's pre-war Iraq intelligence caught the attention of Cheney, Libby and Hadley.
In an interview that took place two-and-a-half weeks before the start of the Iraq War, Wilson said the administration was more interested in redrawing the map of the Middle East to pursue its own foreign policy objectives than in dealing with the so-called terrorist threat.
"The underlying objective, as I see it - the more I look at this - is less and less disarmament, and it really has little to do with terrorism, because everybody knows that a war to invade and conquer and occupy Iraq is going to spawn a new generation of terrorists," Wilson said in a March 2, 2003, interview with CNN.
"So you look at what's underpinning this, and you go back and you take a look at who's been influencing the process. And it's been those who really believe that our objective must be far grander, and that is to redraw the political map of the Middle East," Wilson added.
During the same CNN segment in which Wilson was interviewed, former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright made similar comments about the rationale for the Iraq War and added that he believed U.N. weapons inspectors should be given more time to search the country for weapons of mass destruction
A week later, Wilson was interviewed on CNN again. This was the first time Wilson ridiculed the Bush administration's claim that Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger.
"Well, this particular case is outrageous. We know a lot about the uranium business in Niger, and for something like this to go unchallenged by the U.S. - the U.S. government - is just simply stupid. It would have taken a couple of phone calls. We have had an embassy there since the early 1960s. All this stuff is open. It's a restricted market of buyers and sellers," Wilson said in the March 8, 2003, CNN interview.
"For this to have gotten to the IAEA is on the face of it dumb, but more to the point, it taints the whole rest of the case that the government is trying to build against Iraq," Wilson said.
Less than two weeks later, on March 19, 2003, the U.S. attacked Iraq.
Jason Leopold is the author of News Junkie, a memoir. Visit http://www.newsjunkiebook.com for a preview.
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