The Bush administration followed a trail of wishful thinking into Iraq

July 2, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 2, 2013

Last year, journalist Kurt Eichenwald released a detailed history of the roughly 18-month period between the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the start of the Iraq war. Among other things, Eichenwald’s book, 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars, reinforces just how shockingly quickly American officials began turning their attention from finding and punishing those responsible for 9/11 to deposing Saddam Hussein.

On the night of Sept. 11, the Central Intelligence Agency director, George Tenet, told President George W. Bush and his advisors that “Bin Laden’s fingerprints were all over this operation, but other actors may have played a supporting role. He wouldn’t be surprised, Tenet said, to find Iran or Iraq wrapped into this somehow.”

At that meeting, the officials recognized that their immediate response must involve both Afghanistan, which harbored al Qaeda under the aegis of its Taliban-controlled Islamic fundamentalist government, and Pakistan. Engaging the latter state would be tricky, those at the gathering knew, since Pakistan officials actively supported the Taliban.

No matter, Bush said. The United States was at war with a merciless enemy, and governments around the world would have to choose sides. “This is an opportunity beyond Afghanistan,” he said. “We have to shake terror loose in places like Syria, and Iran, and Iraq.”

He surveyed the room with calm eyes. “This is an opportunity to rout out terror wherever it might exist.”

One significant strand in 500 Days involves the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his efforts to channel Bush administration anti-terror responses in productive ways. Almost from the beginning, Blair was troubled by what he heard out of the American president. He felt Bush’s lack of interest in building coalitions would ultimately hamper the global war on terror. He also was alarmed by the hostility Bush expressed toward Iraq.

“The evidence would have to be very compelling indeed to justify taking any action against Iraq,” Blair told Bush in a phone conversation just three days after the Twin Towers had fallen. Presciently, the prime minister added: “I would strongly advise dealing with Afghanistan very distinctively. To go after Iraq would be certain to lose Russia and France.”

Immediately after the conversation ended, Blair conferred with his cabinet. “Rumsfeld has been looking for reasons to hit Iraq,” said Geoff Hoon, the British defense secretary, referring to his American counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld. “They definitely want regime change, and that has been the channel of advice Bush has been getting since the election.”

“They would be mad to do Iraq without justification!” British foreign secretary Jack Straw said, Eichenwald reported. “They’ll lose world opinion.” 

Days later, Bush deputies started writing a blueprint for U.S. anti-terror strategy.

To spell out the new mission in detail, administration officials immediately began work on a more specific, twelve-page authorization — called National Security Presidential Directive number nine, “Combating Terrorism” — that listed the new duties of every agency and department playing a role in the country’s national security system.

Attached to the directive were annexes, dividing up the strategy by region. In Annex A was Afghanistan. In Annex B, Iraq.

As this document came together, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, prepared a strategy memo for the global war on terror. “Hitting terrorists in another country, Feith maintained, would put fanatics everywhere on notice that the Bush doctrine had placed them all in America’s crosshairs.

“Already, the early rumblings about launching a war against Iraq were strong.”

Around the same time, retired general Wesley Clark visited the Pentagon. A senior officer invited Clark into his office, Eichenwald writes.

Once they were alone, the general blurted out the news. “We’re going to war with Iraq.”

Clark was perplexed. Bin Laden, the fundamentalist, was a sworn enemy of Saddam Hussein, the secular leader. What did Iraq have to do with this?

“Did they find more information connecting Saddam to al-Qaeda?” Clark asked.

No, the general replied. “There’s nothing new that way,” he said. “They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq.”

The whole idea seemed to have been born of uncertainty, he said. “I guess it’s like we don’t know what do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments,” the general said.

Remember that old cliché, he said. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem has to look like a nail.”

Clark returned to the general’s office two weeks later, following the start of the war in Afghanistan.

“So,” he asked, “are we still going to war with Iraq?”

“Oh, it’s worse than that.” The general grabbed a piece of paper off his desk. He had just received the document from the office of the secretary of defense.

“This is a memo about how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years,” he said, “Starting with Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and finishing off, Iran.”

These grandiose schemes distracted top administration leaders even as a noose was tightening around the most wanted man in the world.

On the morning of November 27, Tommy Franks was speaking with Victor Renuart Jr., director of operations with Central Command. With Afghani fighters in hot pursuit of al-Qaeda and bin Laden, the two generals were working on plans to provide air support in the battle that was moving into Tora Bora.

Rumsfeld telephoned for Franks.

“General Franks, the president wants us to look at options for Iraq,” he said. “What is the status of your planning?”

Out-of-date, Franks said. The Afghan conflict itself presented some issues for the Iraq strategy, called OPLAN1003. Force levels in the region were different, and much of what had been learned in the past few weeks about the use of Special Forces units needed to be incorporated.

“Okay,” Rumsfeld said. “Please dust it off and get back to me next week.”

On Dec. 14, Pakistani forces captured a number of refugees from Tora Bora. They were led by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a top Qaeda commander. Under questioning by an Federal Bureau of Intelligence agent and a New York City detective, he denied any link between Qaeda and Iraq. But even though al-Libi revealed details of a plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Aden, the CIA’s station chief didn’t believe that the interrogation was effective.

That opinion reached the White House the same day. Clearly, the station chief was right. Al-Libi had to know more than he was telling. He was a senior member of al-Qaeda, and claimed not to know anything about the group’s connections to Iraq? Absurd!

The order went out. This gentle approach wasn’t working. The CIA needed to take over. It was time to get rough.

Al-Libi was threatened with rendition to Egypt, “a terrifying prospect. The Egyptians were widely known as brutal interrogators who resorted to horrific torture if they didn’t lik a prisoner’s answers.”

CIA officers forced al-Libi onto a deck aboard the USS Bataan.

The room was freezing, but that was nothing compared with what might happen to him in Egypt. After about fifteen minutes, the interrogators brought him back up and put him into a chair.

By then, al-Libi had decided — he would tell the Americans what they wanted to hear. Maybe if he lied, they might change their minds about sending him to Cairo.

Yes, he told them, he was a member of al-Qaeda, and proceeded to recite names he had already told the FBI. The American interrogators eventually came back to the issue of Iraq. What were the connections? How was al-Qaeda tied to Saddam Hussein?

There might be training of al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq, al-Libi said. An extremist named Abu Abdullah had told him that a senior al-Qaeda leader had sent him to Iraq three times since 1997 so he could be trained in the use of poisons and mustard gas.

As al-Libi fabricated his stories, the treatment from his interrogators improved. But it still wasn’t enough. He was flown to Egypt a few days later.

There, under torture, al-Libi lied more. He claimed three Qaeda operatives had traveled to Iraq to learn how to use nuclear weapons. This information was quickly passed from Cairo to Washington, D.C.

It was shared among very few officials, but it engendered a great deal of relief. A senior al-Qaeda member not only had revealed the connections between the terrorist organization and Saddam, but in the process had confirmed that Iraq was continuing work on a nuclear program.

Now they had proof — Saddam presented a danger to America and the world. The United States would have to do whatever it could to stop him. The work on plans for a war in Iraq needed to be stepped up.

By March 2002, several key Bush administration officials appeared to be consumed with thoughts of war with Iraq. This alarmed Blair and many of his deputies. “I think there is a real risk that the Administration underestimates the difficulties” in toppling Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, a Blair advisor named David Manning wrote in a private memo that month. “They may agree that failure isn’t an option, but this does not mean that they will avoid it.”

Blair met with Bush in Crawford, Texas, the following month. Iraq was a focal point of many of the discussions. A few weeks later, at the end of June, American and British military commanders met to discuss plans for a strike. Straw, the British foreign secretary, received a memo about those talks.

Straw was bowled over by what he read. The Americans seemed to be planning a war based on wishful thinking that bordered on fantasy. There was nothing to suggest they understood the magnitude and complexity of military action against Iraq, and they seemed to have reverted to the mind-set that, if other nations didn’t see it their way, they would just go it alone.

On July 8, Straw prepared a three-page memo to Blair deriding the American plans as fatally flawed by logical inconsistencies and pie-in-the-sky assumptions.

The Bush administration had “no strategic concept for the military plan and, in particular, no thought apparently given to ‘day after’ scenarios,” Straw wrote.


“The key point,” Straw wrote, “is how to get through to the Americans that the success of any military operations in Iraq — and protection of our fundamental interests in the region — depends on devising in advance a coherent strategy.“

Bush could not simply prepare to celebrate military victory. There also had to be a strong assessment of the economic and political repercussions of the war itself.

By July 23, Blair’s top advisors told him that the Americans were determined to invade Iraq, having written off United Nations efforts to rein in Saddam Hussein.

One of the dreadfully fascinating aspects of the Bush administration’s determination to invade Iraq was that the rationale for doing so shifted frequently. One justification was the theory, quite untrue, that Iraq had backed Qaeda’s 2001 terror strike. At one point in the summer of 2002, Paul Hadley, the deputy national security advisor, said that there simply wasn’t any link. “We’ll find it,” Eichenwald reports Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, as replying. “It’s got to be there.”

On Aug. 27, Vice President Dick Cheney argued in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that Saddam Hussein was pursuing weapons of mass destruction; he also said that liberating Iraq would inspire citizens of other nations to overthrow their dictators.

The latter rationale involved some high-flown, but highly speculative, rhetoric. The first rationale, preventing Iraq from obtaining and wielding biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, certainly might have justified war — if there had been any truth to the theory that Iraq was actively pursuing such weapons.

In October, a new National Intelligence Estimate was issued about Iraq. When Ben Bonk, a senior CIA analyst, read the report, he was aghast.

[I]t felt as if there had been a switch-up — al-Qaeda was almost irrelevant in the Iraq debate; it was all “weapons of mass destruction.” Bonk hadn’t even considered the issue worth discussing. There was analysis dating back years that demonstrated Saddam had no such arsenal. Yet even though it was his group that handled Iraq, it hadn’t been asked for input on the National Intelligence Estimate.

Was Bush even getting all of the intelligence? And was the Pentagon burying its own findings? The Defense Intelligence Agency had just issued an analysis that had made its way up the line to Rumsfeld. Bonk had reviewed it — the report showed that no one knew a damned thing. Every piece of information they knew about Iraq’s weapons was, at best, hazy.

The Pentagon report acknowledged that 90 percent of the intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear capabilities was imprecise; that the existence of biological facilities could not be proved and the supposed “mobile weapons labs” could not be found; that the presence of sites to produce chemical agents for weapons could not be confirmed; and that there was no proof that Iraq had any facilities to produce chemical devices. This was the best that the saber rattlers at the Pentagon could do?

Then came this CIA report, roaring with certitudes that put the Pentagon’s timid findings to shame. The agency’s analysts stated they had “high confidence” that Iraq was continuing and even expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs; that it possessed chemical and biological missiles; and that it could make a nuclear weapon in a matter of months once it obtained weapons-grade fissionable material.

Weighing the two reports against each other was dizzying. The CIA had no doubt that the weapons were there, while the Pentagon was unsure whether the capacity to make them even existed. It was as if the intelligence analysts were saying that they were confident that Saddam’s wife was ready to give birth, but remained uncertain if she was pregnant.

Bonk finished reading, then walked down the hall to confront one of the agency’s senior people who had been involved in preparing the intelligence estimate.

“How did we get to this point?” Bonk asked. “What are we saying here? This isn’t even what we said four months ago.”

His colleague fumbled for an answer, but all he could do was mutter some vague generalities. Bonk walked away in near despair. Maybe he could have stopped this if he had seen it coming. It just seemed so obvious to him that Saddam’s arsenal was illusion. He never anticipated that anyone would conclude this imaginary threat was real.

Blair met with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, that same month. “I saw nothing there to support the claims that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction,” Eichenwald reports Putin as telling the British leader, referring to a recent dossier. “The information from the CIA was not any better.”

Putin, in fact, was baffled why the U.S. was so intent on persecuting Saddam Hussein when extremist Islamic terrorists posed a true threat.

“Do you really think that Iraq is more dangerous than this fundamentalism?” Putin asked.

Blair shook his head. “Course not.”

The next day, Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists (affiliated with al Qaeda) bombed two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia. The Oct. 12, 2002, attack killed 202 people and sharpened public debate on the Bush administration’s desire to dethrone Hussein.

“In light of the latest outrage, should we not be targeting all our resources and energies on fighting terrorism, rather than starting another war in the Middle East?” British parliamentarian Alice Mahon asked Blair on Oct. 15. “Surely the prime minister will agree that to start such a war would fan the flame of fundamentalism across the whole area and make matters much worse.”

Some members of the international community hoped that war with Iraq could be deterred by inspections. Hans Blix of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission and Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency led organizations responsible for overseeing the searches for contraband. Both men met with the vice president and president of the United States on Oct. 30.

When the White House visitors sat down in Cheney’s office, the vice president did most of the talking.

[Blix] was still troubled by Cheney’s speech in August in which he dismissed weapons inspectors as essentially useless and gave his confident assertion that Iraq undoubtedly possessed weapons of mass destruction. There was a strong chance that Iraqis might be hiding illegal weapons — particularly anthrax, Blix thought. But Cheney seemed to be willfully overlooking evidence — such as the results of earlier inspections — that contradicted his narrative, placing his faith instead in the stories spun by Iraqi defectors about secret weaponry concealed throughout the country.


He looked Blix in the eye. “The United States is ready to discredit inspections in favor of disarmament,” he said.

Blix got the message. If his team found the weapons that Cheney was certain had been secreted away, they had done a good job. If they didn’t, they were a naive collection of bumblers, and Saddam would have to be defanged by military might.

Heads I win, tails you lose.

Blair met with British defense officials in mid-January 2003 and asked them to evaluate the American war plan. Admiral Michael Boyce, the chief of the defense staff, offered one possible worst-case scenario: “Any rapid regime collapse followed by a power vacuum could result in internecine fighting between the Shia and Sunni populations, and adventuring by adjacent countries and ethnic groups that could irretrievably fracture the country.”

Around that time, Bush spoke by telephone with Jacques Chirac, the president of France. “The inspectors need more time,” Chirac said, per Eichenwald. “War should be the last option, and it will be our admission of failure. I am not convinced that the situation is urgent, or even that the weapons are there. Before we take an irreversible step, we need to be certain of our beliefs.”

But Bush, of course, was all too certain of his beliefs. He told Chirac that Biblical prophecies were being fulfilled by events in the Middle East. The religious talk helped convince the French leader to hold his forces out of the battle against Hussein.

The United Nations received a report on the progress of inspections on March 7, 2003. ElBaradei offered a clean bill of health. “After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapon program in Iraq,” he said.

Blix said that minimal contraband had been found, but more time was needed to verify that full disarmament was taking place. “It will not take years, nor weeks, but months,” he said.

The inspectors didn’t get that time. The United States started its war against Iraq by launching an unsuccessful attempt to kill Hussein on March 20, 2003.

The Iraqi dictator was easily deposed, of course. But Mahon and Boyce’s warnings of a chaotic aftermath to war proved all too prescient. Meanwhile, the Americans’ hunt for illusory Iraqi weapons of mass destruction proved — quite predictably — to be fruitless.

Reasonable minds may disagree over whether the Iraq war was ultimately either justifiable or successful. Certainly, the war was breathtakingly expensive and bloody, and it has yet to produce a stable government or society. And inarguably, the war detracted from the nation’s focus on retaliating against at Qaeda, which killed so many Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.

Eichenwald notes in 500 Days that over the last half of 2003, Bush spoke Saddam Hussein’s name nearly 150 times. Osama bin Laden’s name was spoken by the president just thrice in the same period, each time in response to specific questions about the al Qaeda leader at a press conference. Iraq was mentioned by Bush 96 times; Afghanistan, which had harbored bin Laden and al Qaeda, just 19 times. The words al Qaeda were uttered by the president nine times over those six months — including once to claim that Hussein was tied to the terrorist group.

Looking at the evidence in the light most favorable to the Bush administration, it’s clear that the president and his top aides believed that the world would be a better and safer place without Hussein’s tyranny over Iraq. But the Americans had no hard evidence that Hussein posed a threat to anyone outside his own nation, and they had no concrete plan for stabilizing the nation after deposing its leader. And as they devoted ever more resources to their plan to change Iraq’s leadership, Bush and his leadership had no apparent appreciation for how much this effort diminished from the crucial tasks of stabilizing Afghanistan and exterminating al Qaeda.

President Bush and his team conceived of a grand transformational plan and pursued it despite widespread disagreement. Certainly the Iraq war was the product of bold leadership. But as Eichenwald’s 500 Days shows all too clearly, the available evidence indicates that the invasion was not the result of wise decision-making.

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