Using flip charts, deputy CIA director John
McLaughlin presented the evidence while President Bush watched
impatiently. When McLaughlin finished, Bush reportedly remarked, “Nice
try” and added “I’ve been told all this intelligence about having WMD
and this is the best we’ve got?”
According to Woodward’s account, CIA director
George Tenet then rose from a couch, threw his arms into the air and
exclaimed, “It’s a slam-dunk case!”
When Bush pressed – “George, how sure are you?” –
the CIA director supposedly threw his arms up again and declared, “Don’t
worry, it’s a slam dunk!” According to Woodward, Bush then cautioned
Tenet several times, “Make sure no one stretches to make our case.”
Almost a year later, in an exclusive interview with
Woodward on Dec. 11, 2003 – after the U.S. invasion of Iraq had come up
empty in the search for caches of WMD – Bush confided to Woodward that
Tenet’s assurance had been “very important” in the presidential decision
to go to war.
When the “slam-dunk” story appeared in Woodward’s
2004 book, Plan of Attack, it immediately made Tenet the butt of
endless jokes and portrayed Bush as the skeptical leader who wanted the
truth but was misled by his subordinates.
While some Bush critics immediately questioned
Woodward’s version of events, the Washington Post star reporter carried
tremendous weight among his mainstream journalistic colleagues who
enshrined Woodward’s inside story as the new conventional wisdom.
However, in the two years since publication of
Plan of Attack, other evidence has emerged suggesting that Woodward
was acting less as an objective journalist than as a stenographer taking
down the preferred history of Bush’s inner circle. The legendary hero of
the Watergate scandal may have been the one who was slam-dunked.
A contrary version of that Oval Office meeting
appears in Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which drew
heavily from U.S. intelligence officials much as Woodward’s book relied
on senior White House officials.
According to Suskind, the two CIA officials – Tenet
and McLaughlin – have very different recollections of the Dec. 21, 2002,
meeting. They remember it more as “a marketing meeting” about how to
present the WMD case, not a review of the quality of the underlying
Both Tenet and McLaughlin say they don’t even
recall Tenet exclaiming the words “slam dunk,” although Tenet won’t
dispute the version from Bush and his top aides, Suskind wrote.
“McLaughlin said he never remembered Tenet saying
‘slam dunk,’” Suskind wrote. “He doesn’t recall Tenet ever, in any
context, jumping up and waving his arms. … The President’s question,
McLaughlin recalled, was ‘whether we could craft a better pitch than
this – a PR meeting – it certainly wasn’t about the nature of the
While it’s certainly true that each side in this
dispute has reason for slanting the story one way or another – Bush
wants to avoid the historic judgment that he willfully lied the nation
into a war and Tenet knows that his legacy will always be captured in
those two words – the preponderance of evidence now tilts against
For instance, in 2005, leaked British documents
revealed Bush – in 2002 and early 2003 – to be eagerly pushing U.S.
intelligence agencies toward hyping and twisting the evidence to build
the strongest possible case against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
According to one of those documents, the infamous
Downing Street Memo, dated July 23, 2002, British Prime Minister
Tony Blair had already secretly agreed to Bush’s plan for invading Iraq
– nearly a half year before the “slam-dunk” meeting.
In the Downing Street meeting – between Blair and
his top national security advisers – Richard Dearlove, chief of the
British intelligence agency MI6, described his trip to Washington in
July 2002 to discuss Iraq with Bush’s national security officials.
“Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military
action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the
intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” Dearlove
The memo added, “It seemed clear that Bush had made
up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet
decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his
neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North
Korea or Iran.”
Rather than the reluctant warrior, as portrayed in
Woodward’s book, Bush appears to be hell-bent for war, according to the
contemporaneous record which is now public.
Another leaked British document recounted an Oval
Office meeting between Bush and Blair on Jan. 31, 2003 – a little more
than a month after the “slam-dunk” meeting. Bush again was scheming to
find excuses for invading Iraq, even as he was publicly telling the
American people that he viewed war as a “last resort.”
Bush expressed hope that he still might be able to provoke the Iraqis
into some violent act that would serve as a pretext for invading,
according to minutes written by Blair’s top foreign policy aide David
Manning. Bush suggested painting a U.S. plane in United Nations blue and
flying it over Iraq with the goal of drawing Iraqi fire, the minutes
“The U.S. was thinking of flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft with
fighter cover over Iraq, painted in U.N. colours,” according to the
minutes. “If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.”
Regardless of whether any casus belli could be provoked, Bush
already had “penciled in” March 10, 2003, as the start of the U.S.
bombing of Iraq, according to the memo. “Our diplomatic strategy had to
be arranged around the military planning,” Manning wrote.
According to the British memo, Bush and Blair acknowledged that the
U.N. inspectors then scouring Iraq had found no WMD and were unlikely to
find any in the coming weeks, but that wouldn’t get in the way of the
U.S.-led invasion. [NYT, March 27, 2006]
Spin & Lies
Bush’s tendency to lie and spin also continued in
the months after the invasion. For instance, by summer 2003, Bush had
begun revising the pre-war history to make his invasion seem more
justified, by claiming that Hussein had rejected a U.N. demand that
inspectors be allowed into Iraq.
Though the record was clear that the inspectors had
returned to Iraq by November 2002 and only left in March 2003 because
Bush had decided to invade, Bush began insisting that Hussein had barred
the inspectors, thus provoking war.
“We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in,
and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request,
we decided to remove him from power,” Bush said on July 14, 2003, less
than four months after the invasion.
In the following months and years, Bush repeated
this claim dozens of times in slightly varied forms. It became part of
his litany for arguing that it was Hussein who “chose war.”
Despite Bush’s record of deception, Woodward still
treated Bush in Plan of Attack as a credible figure who was
concerned about the evidence and went to war only after an ironclad
assurance from his intelligence chief.
It is, of course, possible that elements of both
Woodward’s account and Suskind’s version are accurate. As former deputy
CIA director McLaughlin is quoted as saying in Suskind’s book, the
context of the “slam-dunk” discussion was more about P.R. presentation
than whether the underlying intelligence was sound.
Since the Downing Street Memo and other documents
make clear that Bush had made his judgment to invade Iraq much earlier,
it makes sense that the Oval Office meeting might have been like an
advertising agency’s presentation to a prospective client, with the
client shaking his head and telling the ad men to punch up the content.
McLaughlin’s flip charts were like a rough cut that
needed a lot more work.
Though that interpretation of events would fit with
the known facts, it would reflect badly on both Bush and Tenet, since
the CIA director would seem to have crossed a bright line in trading in
his duties to provide objective information for a job selling the case
for war to the American people.
But that line was one that Tenet crossed again
several weeks later when he agreed to sit behind Secretary of State
Colin Powell during his misleading presentation to the United Nations
Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003.
Powell’s speech could be viewed as a more polished
version of McLaughlin’s flip-chart performance in the Oval Office. In
other words, Bush’s dissatisfaction as expressed on Dec. 21, 2002, could
have been the impetus to spice up the content by the time Powell spoke
to the U.N. several weeks later.
If that was the case, Tenet’s supposed assurance
that the sales pitch would be a “slam dunk” would turn out to be true.
Virtually across the board, the major U.S. news
media hailed Powell’s presentation as compelling and convincing. The
next day, the Washington Post’s Op-Ed page was a solid wall of praise
for Powell and his WMD case.
Today, however, from the perspective of three-plus
years of war – and tens of thousands of dead – it appears that Bob
Woodward and the U.S. press corps were not the only ones who got
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'