Exclusive: The myth that bad intelligence led to the Iraq War won’t die, but the evidence is clear that President George W. Bush decided to invade after 9/11, though Iraq had nothing to do with it, and intel was assembled to sell the invasion to a scared U.S. public, as ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman explains.
By Melvin A. Goodman
Last Sunday, the Washington Post, which itself shares blame for the disastrous Iraq War, used the memoirs of President George W. Bush and other key members of his administration to let those principals express their self-serving views about how specious intelligence had led them to a decision to invade Iraq a decade ago. In their books, they opportunistically portray themselves as misled by bad intel, just like everyone else.
Yet, since the war was, in reality, a deadly undertaking paved by lies and deceit at all levels, it would have been far more useful for the Post’s Feb. 3 retrospective to try to glean from the memoirs the real reasons for the use of force against Saddam Hussein in 2003. To be fair to the Post, the memoirs by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice did not provide much insight; they were noteworthy for being hopelessly unapologetic about their decision to go to war, their conduct of the war, and their handling of the post-invasion situation.
Further, the memoirs provided little sense of the true inside-the-White-House back story, the strategic reasoning behind the urgency of a preemptive war against Iraq, though the participants still claim that the war was “worth the costs.” What self-reflection there is about the prosecution of the war comes mostly in the form of finger-pointing.
Indeed, the memoirs of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice were surprising in their direct criticisms of President Bush, a break with tradition from the memoirs of high-ranking principals from other administrations who generally shield their presidents from criticism even while score-settling with rivals.
In the memoirs from the Bush years, the high-level principals express fondness for the President but fault him for management failures such as allowing too many hands on the policy steering wheel. Rumsfeld described National Security Council (NSC) meetings that ended without precise objectives for the way ahead, even with Bush presiding. Cheney and Rice cite the President’s inability to clearly or firmly resolve key differences within the NSC, which only the President could do.
In their memoirs, Cheney and Rumsfeld particularly eviscerate Powell and Rice for their roles in the Iraq debacle. Cheney is critical of the State Department for failing to conduct post-war planning, although State’s efforts were undercut by the fact that Rumsfeld forbade his subordinates from taking part in inter-agency meetings on the future of Iraq.
Rumsfeld blames Powell for using his State Department deputy, Richard Armitage, to attack the Defense Department; Powell blames Rumsfeld for using his Defense Department deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to attack the State Department. Cheney and Rumsfeld cite Rice’s failure to resolve differences within the policy community and to present President Bush with clear choices.
Cheney also puffs up his role in framing the policy choices for President Bush (the self-proclaimed “Decider”), noting that he (Cheney) received the CIA briefings before the President. That was why high-level CIA officials referred to Cheney as “Edgar” (i.e., Edgar Bergen, the puppet master for the dummy Charlie McCarthy, with Bush playing the dummy in this metaphor).
Some policymakers favored ousting Hussein, followed by a quick handover to the Iraqis, while others wanted a long-term nation-building project. Only after the start of the war did President Bush name Paul Bremer to head the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and manage the transition in Iraq during the post-invasion phase. Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice blame Bremer for botching the occupation and blame Bush for enabling Bremer to ignore the chain of command and “pick and choose” his subordinates. Bremer’s decision-making was opaque, even to the secretaries of state and defense.
But the Washington Post should not have relied on these memoirs to explain any aspect of the war because of the key issues that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice do not address. For instance, there is no explanation of how the actual decision to invade Iraq was made; no indication that the pros and cons of such an invasion were debated; no sign of a policy process that allowed all views to be heard; and no references to any after-action reviews investigating how the failure of intelligence had enabled such a catastrophic misreading of the fact that Saddam Hussein had destroyed his biological and chemical weapons a decade earlier and had no active nuclear weapons program.
The Early Days
The memoirs do provide some new information about how 9/11 became a pretext for the Iraq War. Even before 9/11, Rumsfeld said he had sent a memorandum to Cheney, Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, suggesting a principals’ meeting to develop policy toward Iraq “well ahead of events that could overtake us.”
Unintentionally, the memoirs also demonstrate the chicanery of these principals in taking uncertain and ambiguous intelligence and exaggerating it to create their own facts. But the memoirs do not discuss the key fact that, the day after 9/11, the President asked Richard Clarke, the NSC’s leading specialist on counter-terrorism, to “see if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.”
Every agency and department of government understood that there had been no cooperation between Saddam and al-Qaeda; a memorandum to that effect was sent to the President. But the Pentagon’s focus had already shifted from al-Qaeda to Iraq, reflecting the views of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, who believed that Iraq was the state sponsor for both the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 as well as 9/11.
Of course, the memoirs don’t contain admissions that the Bush administration first decided to invade Iraq and then looked for rationalizations that could be sold to a frightened public to justify war. Predictably, all the principals claim innocence and blame faulty intelligence, which supposedly convinced them that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD and might share it with al-Qaeda, thus forcing Bush’s hand.
But the speeches of the President and the Vice President made clear their readiness to go beyond evidence to justify an invasion of Iraq. The speeches themselves testify to the willingness of senior leaders to present phony and exaggerated intelligence to the Congress and the American people.
When CIA Director George Tenet made his infamous remark that it would be a “slam dunk” to provide intelligence to justify going to war against Iraq, he was responding to the President’s demands for intelligence to convince the American people and the international community about the need for war, not to support the Bush administration’s decisions regarding the use of force against Iraq. That decision to invade was made long before the intelligence was in. What Tenet was saying was that it would a “slam dunk” to pull together some scary material that could be sold to the public.
Nearly ten years after the start of this egregious and unconscionable war, it should be the job of the U.S. news media to focus on the immoral and illegal aspects of the decision to take the country to war, and not just on the political food fight surrounding Secretary of State Powell’s infamous speech to the United Nations several weeks before the war began.
But that would require some soul-searching among the major news organizations. The media, particularly the New York Times and the Washington Post, made it too easy for the United States to go to war against Iraq. Any retrospective must scrutinize the conventional wisdom that dominated the run-up to that war as well as the deceit of the nation’s highest leaders.
Melvin A. Goodman, a former CIA analyst, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers).