Author’s note: Today, the Sept. 11, 2001 Ground Zero memorial was dedicated in New York City. And while we know today the terrorist attacks of that horrible day were totally unconnected to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, there was nonetheless an effort by the George W. Bush administration to make that connection, despite a lack of evidence. Opinion polls at the time found many Americans believed Iraq was somehow involved with the Sept. 11 attacks, which we know now where planned in Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden.
On Sept. 11, 2008, I wrote a piece for the now-defunct Las Vegas CityLife that examined the selling of the Iraq War to the American people. Unfortunately, due to technical issues, that story is no longer available online. But because this chapter of American history is important, and because of the actions of those responsible for the Iraq War must not be forgotten, I’m taking the liberty of reprinting that story in full here. It’s my hope that — especially on a solemn day of remembrance — we also remember to question our government, no matter who’s running it, when it comes time to make the terrible decisions of war and peace. If we’d done that in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, we may have avoided much unnecessary suffering and bloodshed in the days and years that followed.
Death, lies and accountability
This essay will be published Sept. 11, 2008, exactly seven years after al-Qaida terrorists killed thousands with airplanes turned into missiles.
In the years since, America went to war, in the Middle East, and at home. A huge part of the rationale was Sept. 11. It still hangs heavy over our politics and boomerangs around our public discourse.
But even after 4,155 American soldiers have given their last full measure of devotion in harsh foreign deserts half a world away, we still struggle with one simple question.
We know most of the reasons we were given before the war — from finding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to preventing Saddam Hussein from getting the bomb — are lies. Worse, we now know the administration knew those rationales were lies, consciously deceiving Congress, the American people and the world.
But if those reasons were false, what was the real reason?
Authors as diverse as Frank Rich (The Greatest Story Ever Sold), George Packer (The Assassin’s Gate), Ron Suskind (The Way of the World), Vincent Bugliosi (The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder) and Richard Clarke (Against All Enemies), to name just a few, have established that Bush seemed bent on war in Iraq, but none has thus far offered a completely satisfying answer to the question, why?
Was it a historical alignment of events that allowed a devoted group of intellectuals — who happened to be in the right place at the right time — to finally put into practice decades of political theories about the Middle East? Was it hubris, a desire to reshape the world by American might? Was it a nakedly political exercise, sold to the American people like a box of cereal in the service of creating a permanent Republican majority? Or was it more personal — a desire by President George W. Bush to either outshine his ex-president father, or avenge him?
Did we do it because we could?
We still don’t know, and may never. But with 4,155 Americans dead — to say nothing of thousands of Iraqis, innocent and otherwise — it’s a question that screams out for an answer.
LIES: THE BEGINNING
When did we decide to invade Iraq?
According to some, the decision was contemplated long before Sept. 11, 2001. Iraq had been of particular interest to a group known as the neoconservatives, former anti-communists who believed, according to Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate, that American power since World War II had “gone wobbly.” In Iraq, they saw an opportunity to demonstrate that power to the world, a demonstration that could cause a cascade of democracy in nearby nations. Their Project for a New American Century pushed a politically weakened Bill Clinton hard enough to make regime change in Iraq the official policy of the United States.
And while Bush cannot be numbered among the neoconservatives, their ideas found fertile ground in him. After promising on the campaign trail to avoid “nation building” and open-ended military commitments, the new administration’s very first National Security Council meeting focused on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad, according to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s book (written with Suskind) The Price of Loyalty.
“It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying, ‘Go find me a way to do this,’” O’Neill said in a Jan. 11, 2004 interview with 60 Minutes.
That first meeting was eight months before Sept. 11 made al-Qaida a household name, when the administration, according to Clarke, was vigorously ignoring a man named Osama bin Laden.
LIES II: IRAQ + AL-QAIDA
When the Twin Towers tumbled, the saying went, everything changed.
The administration quickly cast its eye toward Afghanistan, where the Taliban government provided aid and comfort for bin Laden and al-Qaida, men who (with American assistance) had routed the Soviet Union’s occupation of that country in the 1980s.
Most of what we now know about the rationale for war with Iraq has emerged in the years since the March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq; with some notable exceptions, the reporting in the mainstream media in the runup to war was credulous to a fault.
But the political campaign to invade Iraq started long before the November 2002 congressional votes to use force in Iraq. In fact, it began almost immediately after Sept. 11. According to Clarke, Bush himself asked on Sept. 12, 2001, for Clark to investigate any links between the attacks and Iraq.
Clark found none, and by Sept. 21, 2001, the highly classified President’s Daily Brief stated unequivocally that there were no connections between the two.
But that didn’t stop Bush from at least connecting the two in his mind: Precisely two months later, according to Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, the president asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to ask Gen. Tommy Franks to examine plans for removing Saddam Hussein.
Vice President Dick Cheney danced around the issue during the Sept. 8, 2002 edition of Meet the Press, saying that while he could not directly link al-Qaida and Sept. 11, there “has been reporting that suggests there have been a number of contacts over the years.” He repeated then his assertion — first made Dec. 9, 2001 and confirmed earlier by a Czech intelligence official — that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer. It was established later that meeting never took place, and Cheney would later deny ever mentioning it.
On Sept. 26, 2002, Rumsfeld discussed alleged collaboration between al-Qaida and Iraq during a Pentagon briefing, and two days later, Bush said Iraq has “longstanding and continuing ties to terrorist groups,” and claimed there were al-Qaida terrorists inside Iraq. He repeated the allegations in a speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, claiming Iraq had trained al-Qaida operatives and “… we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
Within four days, the Senate and the House had passed resolutions authorizing the use of force in Iraq. (Despite the intense rhetoric and a mid-term election less than a month away, 133 members of the House of Representatives and 23 U.S. senators felt there was enough evidence to vote against the resolution.)
On March 9, 2003, speaking on Face the Nation, [then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice claimed Iraq provided training for al-Qaida in chemical and biological weapons. Her report was based on the testimony of a detainee that the Defense Department had concluded in February 2002 was lying and “describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest.” (In January 2004, that informant would recant his claims.)
On Jan. 15, 2004, Bush stated flatly: “The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaida is because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida.”
They were all wrong.
The Sept. 11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee would later conclude that — notwithstanding “contacts” over the years — there was absolutely no cooperation between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaida. It was a conclusion that made sense, given Hussein’s secular government and al-Qaida’s fundamentalist ideology, not to mention the first, last and only goal of Hussein’s government, to retain power. Surely providing help for an operation targeting America would see him driven from power just as the Taliban had been in Afghanistan.
But even well after the links were discredited, Bush continued to insist and imply one existed. He frequently mentioned Sept. 11 in the same context as the war on terror often, as in this line from a Feb. 24, 2006 speech: “We’re taking the fight to those that attacked us,” Bush said.
Pressed directly, the president demurs, however. Asked at an Aug. 21, 2006 news conference about what Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had to do with Sept. 11, Bush replied, simply, “Nothing.”
That came as news to many Americans, who polls showed believed Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the Sept. 11 plot. Where did they get that idea? How about their government?
LIES III: THINGS WE KNEW
We knew, for example, that Saddam Hussein was not an imminent threat to the country.
Vincent Bugliosi, in his exacting The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, reports that in an Oct. 7, 2002 letter to U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (then chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) the CIA concluded “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [chemical or biological weapons] against the United States. Should [Saddam] Hussein conclude that a U.S. led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions.”
In other words, Saddam Hussein was in his box, unless we moved against him.
But that very night — in his first nationally televised speech on Iraq, the now-infamous Cincinnati speech — Bush told America that Hussein was a “great danger to our nation” and that Iraq may conduct missions against the U.S. using unmanned aerial vehicles armed with chemical or biological weapons, or give those weapons to terrorists to attack the United States. This could happen, Bush said, “on any given day.”
In other words, Bush warned America of exactly the opposite of what his own CIA was telling Congress, and what he himself was no doubt hearing from his own CIA Director, George Tenet. (Unless, of course, Tenet told the president one thing, and a senator the exact opposite.)
Speaking of opposites, consider further the changes between an Oct. 1, 2002, National Intelligence Estimate, which stated (erroneously, as it turned out) that “We judge that Iraq has some lethal and incapacitating [biological weapons] and is capable of producing and weaponizing a variety of such agents, including anthrax, for delivery by bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers and covert operatives.”
In a declassified version of this document turned out three days later (known as the White Paper), qualifications and expressions of doubt were rewritten as fact, including that first line, which in the White Paper read, “Iraq has some lethal…” And appended to that last line is a statement that didn’t appear in the original intelligence estimate at all: “…including potentially against the U.S. homeland.”
An exaggeration? An extrapolation? Or a manipulation of the evidence for the case that the president was about to make in his Cincinnati speech?
Oh, and the passage included in the letter to Graham, about Saddam Hussein’s containment? Gone entirely from the White Paper.
We also knew that there was no truth to reports that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Africa in order to rebuild its then-nonexistent nuclear weapons program. Not only had documents purporting to outline the transaction been disproved as fakes, not only had the State and Energy departments concluded that aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq were unsuitable for nuclear-weapons use, not only had reports from Niger discounted those reports, not only had the French intelligence agency discounted those reports, and not only had former Ambassador Joe Wilson investigated and found nothing, but a National Intelligence Council report sent to the White House on January 24, 2003 concluded the claim was baseless.
But on Jan. 23, 2003 — one day before receiving that estimate — … Rice published an op-ed in the New York Times saying Iraq was trying to buy the uranium. And just five days later, Bush said in his now-infamous State of the Union speech that the British government had learned that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa.
He wasn’t technically lying — the British had so reported. But the totality of the evidence suggested the president was dead wrong.
At this, and many other turns in the road to war, Bush would choose to believe the intelligence that buttressed his case for war, and ignore much more compelling evidence that he was wrong.
According to The Greatest Story Ever Sold, it was what Greg Thielmann, a high-level official in the State Deparment’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research called “faith-based intelligence,” used for “cherry-picking” the case for war.
“The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction,” said Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, to Vanity Fair for the magazine’s July 2003 issue.
Finally, on Jan 20, 2004, Bush would pivot, forced to downgrade his assertion that Iraq had WMDs to saying Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.” He then added, “For all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam Hussein’s regime is a better and safer place.”
The rationale for war — begun with the universally agreed-upon WMDs — had officially shifted.
LIES IV: THINGS WE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN
On Jan. 14, 2007, 60 Minutes broadcast an interview in which Bush said, “Everybody was wrong on weapons of mass destruction, and “the minute we found out … [Bush] was the first to say so.”
It was two more lies.
As it turns out, there were two very highly placed sources who told the administration the entire concept of Iraqi WMD was a total fiction. The first, according to Suskind’s The Way of the World, was Naji Sabri, Saddam Hussein’s last foreign minister, who was being paid by the French as a spy.
Sabri told the Americans — via the French — that Saddam “neither possessed WMD nor was trying very hard to procure or develop them.” The CIA’s man in Paris flew to Washington and informed CIA, and Tenet told Bush.
But the president wasn’t interested, nowhere near as interested as he was in information from “Curveball,” a source who claimed an extensive weapons program but who would later be discredited.
The report from Sabri underwent some creative editing, Suskind reports. A new introductory paragraph had been added that claimed not only did Saddam Hussein’s regime have biological and chemical weapons, but that it was “aggressively and covertly developing” nuclear weapons.
It was the precise opposite of what Sabri had said.
An anonymous source later told Suskind that “we knew” there were no WMD in Iraq prior to the invasion. How? Because a British agent met with the chief of Iraqi intelligence in a secret location, and told him so.
A second highly placed source. And that information was passed to the White House, as well.
What did Bush say? Suskind asked.
“He said, ‘[Expletive] it. We’re going in,’” Suskind’s source replied.
Whether the president actually said that is up for debate. But Suskind confirmed the story with Sir Richard Dearlove, head of British intelligence at the time. The meeting between the agent, Michael Shipster, and the chief Iraqi spy, Tahir Jalil Habbush, took place in Jordan shortly before the invasion.
Habbush confirmed to Shipster that there were no WMD, but that Saddam Hussein was terrified of his neighbors learning that fact. That information was also shared with the White House, and again, it was tossed aside. “They’re not going to like this downtown,” Tenet said of his bosses in the White House upon hearing Habbush’s account.
“You know, the feeling was that this was a decision the U.S. had made way back and, you know, that was the defining perception,” said Nigel Inkster, the No. 2 man at MI-6 until 2006, according to Suskind. “There was nothing that was going to stop this.”
And even if the administration thought they were being deceived by two top-level Iraqi conspirators, what about the U.N.’s weapons inspectors? They reported to the United Nations on March 7, 2003 that “we are able to perform professional, no-notice inspections all over Iraq and to increase our aerial surveillance.” The teams reported — before the invasion — they had found no evidence of weapons programs, including nuclear weapons programs.
But they, too, were ignored, and ordered out of Iraq.
It was then, on the eve of war, that Bush added a final condition nowhere contemplated by the U.N.’s previous disarmament resolutions: Saddam Hussein had to leave power to avert an invasion.
“To summarize,” Bugliosi writes, “when it became clear that the whole purpose of Bush’s prewar campaign — to get Hussein to disarm — was being (or already had been) met, the despicable man from Crawford and his people, to save their war, came up with a demand they had never once made before — that Hussein resign and leave Iraq.”
He didn’t. And so the bombs fell.
LIES V: IT WAS ALL PRETEND
The inevitable war was also the post-Sept. 11 conclusion of David Manning, a senior foreign policy aide to then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a document that would become known as the “Downing Street Memo,” Manning reported on a July 23, 2002, meeting between Dearlove and top U.S. officials.
In that meeting, Manning wrote, “There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. 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.”
Despite Bush’s longstanding desire to get Saddam Hussein, however, his public statements took pains to portray the decision as still pending. Even after Congress gave him authorization to use force — essentially, a blank check to start a war — Bush would say publicly on Oct. 16, 2002, “I hope the use of force will not become necessary.” In several speeches in January and February of 2003, he used the phrase “if war is forced upon us,” and even said as the war began on March 19, 2003, that “our nation enters this conflict reluctantly.”
But in private, on Jan. 31, 2003, Bush would tell Blair in an Oval Office meeting that while the U.S. would do its best to secure a second U.N. resolution authorizing an invasion, war was inevitable and troops would hit the ground in March.
“The problem,” Dearlove would later tell Suskind for The Way of the World, “was the Cheney crowd was in too much of a hurry, really. Bush never resisted them quite strongly enough.”
Referring to pre-invasion intelligence that suggested there were, in fact, no weapons of mass destruction, and thus, no casus belli to invade Iraq, Dearlove added: “Yes, it was probably too late, I imagine, for Cheney. I’m not sure it was too late for Bush.”
LIES VI: THINGS THEY TOTALLY INVENTED
According to another Manning memo about that Jan. 31, 2003 meeting between Bush and Blair, both men expressed doubts that any WMD would ever be found. (Recall, this was two months before the invasion.)
But more shockingly, the memo says, Bush actually talked about ways to “provoke” a confrontation with Saddam Hussein, including flying a U2 reconnaissance plane painted in U.N. colors over the country. If Iraqi anti-aircraft guns fired on the plane, the country would be in violation of U.N. resolutions, and that could justify an invasion on other-than-WMD grounds.
To this revelation, Bugliosi poses an important question: If Bush actually believed what he’d said about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs posing an imminent threat to America, why was such a deception necessary?
Then, after a fruitless post-invasion search confirmed Bush’s and Blair’s prediction that no weapons would be found, another devious plot was hatched. According to Suskind, after Habbush, the Iraqi intelligence chief, was safely smuggled out of Baghdad (and given $5 million in CIA cash), the White House concocted a fake letter, backdated to July 1, 2001, claiming that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had trained for his mission in Iraq, and that al Qaida had helped with uranium shipments from Niger. Essentially, it was proof of every lie the administration had told from the start.
The CIA passed it to Habbush, who copied it in his own hand on Iraqi letterhead. It was taken to Baghdad and leaked to a friendly reporter. The story got great play, in England as well as the United States (Meet the Press, The O’Reilly Factor, Today, CNN, the New York Times and Lou Dobbs, before Newsweek began to raise questions about its authenticity.)
Clearly, this blatant attempt to manufacture evidence was not only proof that the administration was wrong in its claims, but also that it would do almost anything to justify its war in Iraq, including lie to the world.
Bugliosi isn’t the first lawyer to consider prosecuting the president. Back in 2006, former U.S attorney Elizabeth de la Vega wrote a book titled U.S. v. Bush, which purported to be a transcript of grand jury proceedings seeking an indictment of Bush for violation of Title 18 United States Code Section 371, which prohibits defrauding the United States.
By lying repeatedly about the casus belli for war with Iraq, Bush and several top officers of the government defrauded the country, de la Vega argues, in a criminal act far worse than, say, the Enron fraud.
“The president, the vice president, and their most senior advisers have perpetrated a massive fraud upon our country. Their crime was — and continues to be — far worse than the Enron fraud. We must not shrug our shoulders and walk away,” de la Vega concludes in an author’s note.
But according to Bugliosi , de la Vega may not have been thinking big enough.
After his usual exhaustive review of the evidence, Bugliosi concludes that — given the evidence and the timeline — Bush and his administration were intentionally lying to make a case for war. In fact, that’s a key component of the murder charge he wishes upon the president.
“The reason is that if a conspirator (or anyone for that matter) deliberately sets in motion a chain of events that he knows will cause a third-party innocent agent to commit an act (here, the killing of American soldiers by Iraqis), the conspirator is criminally responsible for that act.”
But surely the president didn’t intend for Americas to be killed? “The necessary intent that would have to be shown, as indicated, is malice aforethought, satisfied if Bush either intended to kill the soldiers by ordering them to war, or he started the war with reckless and wanton disregard for the consequences and indifference to human life.”
Bugliosi admits that a president has never before been charged with murder for starting a war, but argues that no American president has ever started a war so deliberately. All it would take, he says, is for the attorney general of the United States to bring a case. Even a state attorney general — or a district attorney from any county that’s home to a fallen soldier — could convene a grand jury and start the process.
Will it happen? Pragmatism says forget it, but Bugliosi ‘s book did make an appearance on the New York Times bestseller list (with virtually no exposure in the mainstream media) before falling off. It’s No. 459 on Amazon.com now. [Author’s note: As of May 15, 2014, the book is at 591,949 on Amazon’s rankings.]
Still, if this entire enterprise was based on a lie, or a whim, it can’t stand. This is not a presidential pardon scandal, or a lobbyist peddling influence, or even a “third-rate burglary” with a presidential coverup.
This is a war, one that’s taken thousands of lives, cost billions of dollars and rent two nations asunder, one with bullets and bombs, the other with grievous, manifest lies.
This is an outrage, an offense against democracy and the Constitution.
And worst of all, we still can’t answer the simplest question about the entire thing.