Note from AlterNet.org: This
is a modified excerpt from the new edition of The
Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq by Robert Scheer, Christopher
Scheer, and Lakshmi Chaudhry. The new edition includes an up-to-the-minute
epilogue analyzing the series of important developments that have
shaped the debate over post-war Iraq, and more importantly, the missing
weapons of mass destruction. To buy advance copies of the latest edition,
On Feb. 17,
President Bush sought once again to extricate himself from the scandal
that simply won't go away: the missing Iraqi WMD. "My administration
looked at the intelligence and we saw a danger," he told thousands
of U.S. soldiers at Fort Polk, LA. "Members of Congress looked
at the same intelligence, and they saw a danger. The United Nations
Security Council looked at the intelligence and it saw a danger. We
reached a reasonable conclusion that Saddam Hussein was a danger."
It's no surprise that the independent commission appointed by the
president has been carefully instructed to only look into lapses in
intelligence-gathering, and not at the ways in which the administration
may have exaggerated or misused intelligence. Now that it has become
clear that Saddam Hussein's fabled weapons programs simply "did
not exist," as the outgoing chief weapons inspector David Kay
put it, the White House is scrambling to cast its now exposed lies
as the inevitable consequence of a massive intelligence failure. In
other words, the flaw lay not in the "reasonable conclusion"
of the administration, but the evidence it was based on.
Whatever the state of U.S. intelligence gathering, the Bush administration's
sales pitch for the Iraq War relied on public displays of classified
data to an unprecedented degree, a practice that has now come to haunt
the White House. Scrutiny of the record since Bush assumed office
shows a clear and disturbing pattern: the manipulation of intelligence
data to fit the administration's preconceived theories to support
a policy based on a political agenda rather than the facts at hand.
The practice, which far surpasses the usual political sleight-of-hand
employed by previous administrations, was so pervasive as to alarm
career intelligence analysts. "I believe the Bush administration
did not provide an accurate picture to the American people of the
military threat posed by Iraq. Most of it lies with the way senior
officials misused the information they were provided," said Gregory
Thielmann, a key whistleblower who was the former director of the
State Departments Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) until
September 2002. "This administration has had a faith-based intelligence
attitude: 'We know the answers -- give us the intelligence to support
those answers, '" he said.
Remember the OSP?
Where Donald Rumsfeld went for his Iraq intelligence was to something
called the Office of Special Plans that he himself had formed as a
sort of personal intelligence agency. The day-to-day intelligence
operations were run by ex-Cheney aide and former Navy officer William
Luti, reporting to Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith, a former
Reagan official. According to the Guardian, "The ideologically
driven network functioned like a shadow government, much of it off
the official payroll and beyond congressional oversight. But it proved
powerful enough to prevail in a struggle with the State Department
and the CIA by establishing a justification for war."
The OSP amassed huge amounts of raw intelligence from "report
officers" in the CIA's directorate of operations whose job it
is to cull credible information from reports filed by agents around
the world. Under pressure from Pentagon hawks, the officers became
reluctant to discard any report, however farfetched, if it bolstered
the administrations case for war.
John B. Judis and Spencer Ackerman revealed in a New Republic
article published in June 2003 that there was "no consensus"
within the U.S. intelligence community on the level of threat posed
by Saddam. Judis and Ackerman reported, "The administration ignored,
and even suppressed, disagreement within the intelligence agencies
and pressured the CIA to reaffirm its preferred version of the Iraqi
threat." Bush then would repeatedly deploy this misleading data
to sell the war in his speeches.
A Pattern of Deception
There is no better example of the pattern of deception that has defined
the administration's case for the war than its claim that Saddam Hussein
possessed a well-established nuclear weapons program.
On Sept. 8, 2002, in a classic example of how easy it is for the White
House to manipulate the media, and thus the public, the New York
Times ran a story planted by the Bush administration. The front-page
article, written by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon and headlined
"U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,"
informed Americans that, according to unnamed Bush officials, Iraq
had repeatedly attempted to secretly purchase aluminum tubes "specially
designed" for enriching uranium as part of a nuclear weapons
program based on their "diameter, thickness, and other technical
It was the ultimate advertorial: great placement, perfect message,
excellent timing -- all basically controlled by the advertiser but
looking as if it came from "neutral" sources. From its August
launch through its acceptance by Congress in October, the Bush marketing
campaign for the war was perfectly executed, and the tubes revelation
was a classic example.
By the time the truth that the attempted purchases were neither secret
nor likely intended for nuclear uses was tracked down and exposed
by whistle-blowers, journalists, and the International Atomic Energy
Agency, it wouldn't matter, having already served dutifully as a scary
totem in Bush speech after Bush speech. When its power did flag, it
would simply be replaced by another shaky fact put into the rotation
and foisted upon a compliant media. This leak-and-retreat tactic proved
astonishingly effective up to and through the war.
One key to a president exploiting shaky yet convenient intelligence
data is to always maintain deniability. Aiding and abetting this is
the array of different intelligence agencies that the president has
reporting to him -- CIA, NSA, FBI and sub-agencies of State, Defense,
and so on -- not to mention the information generated by allied nations'
intelligence agencies that are passed along (more on that later).
Combined, these agencies, each with its own strong institutional biases
and rivalries, generates so much data that it is child's play for
politicians (or reporters with good sources) to cherry-pick opinions
that fit their policy platform (or story angle).
The Real Intelligence Failure
In an effort to control this kind of chicanery, the intelligence agencies
are often required to pool their insights and evidence into overview
documents to see whether or not there is a consensus as to their reliability.
Relevant experts may also be called in, especially in a case like
this where highly technical expertise was essential to separating
fact from fiction.
When the experts looked at the tubes later cited by the White House,
however, questions immediately arose over whether they were appropriate
for centrifuges used in a nuclear reactor. Working under a blanket
of enormous pressure coming from the White House, and especially the
vice president, to find damning things regarding Iraq and nuclear
weapons, a full-blown row soon broke out within the alphabet soup
of U.S. intelligence agencies over this obscure issue.
For their part, CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency believed the
tubes were similar to those used in Iraq's previous attempt to build
nukes, while the State Department's INR and the Department of Energy
were adamant that they were in fact much more appropriate for artillery
shells. The division was made explicit in the 2002 National Intelligence
Estimate report on Saddam's pursuit of WMD, as the State Department
experts insisted a sharply worded dissent be included in the overall
report, controlled by the top dog in the intelligence "community,"
While the NIE cited "compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting
a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program,"
the INR dissent (which was later dismissed by the White House as a
footnote), stated explicitly "the tubes are not intended for
use in Iraq's nuclear weapons program."
Meanwhile, British experts weighed in against the White House's interpretation
and some CIA analysts also expressed doubts. The longer the tubes
bounced around the intelligence community, the iffier it got as a
piece of evidence affirming Iraq's threat to the world. Ultimately,
however, the CIA, as the top intelligence agency, won out, forcing
their analysis into the NIE, leading inevitably to the New York
Times front-page headline trumpeting its scoop.
Role of the CIA
The CIA's complicity in this prototypical Bush bait and switch tactic
can be clearly seen when looking back at the annual reports the agency
delivered to Congress on the global proliferation of weapons of mass
In its 1997 report, Iraq only warranted three paragraphs, to the effect
that Baghdad possessed dual-use equipment that could be used for biological
or chemical programs. There was no mention of a nuclear weapons program.
By 2002, however, the Iraq section was seven times as long, and warned
that "all intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear
weapons" and the country could produce a nuclear bomb "within
a year" if it got its hands on weapons-grade material. The CIA
also reported as late as 2001 that enforcement of the UN arms embargo
on Iraq was "generally successful" -- but this reference
was dropped in the 2002 report sent to a White House that claimed
the embargo wasn't working.
Why, then, had the reports become so shrill on the topic after Bush's
inauguration, presenting the same intelligence with a completely different
interpretation? After all, the CIA even had the same director under
both Clinton and Bush.
"I'm afraid that the U.S. intelligence community, particularly
the CIA . . . is sometimes quite sensitive to the political winds,"
Thielmann, formerly a senior intelligence official at the State Department,
Despite what David Kay may claim, a number of CIA officers clearly
felt the brunt of the administration's desire for the "right"
kind of intelligence. Vice President Cheney, in particular, made a
number of personal trips to the agency's headquarters in Langley,
VA, to meet with low-level analysts who were reviewing the raw intelligence
on Iraq. As one CIA official told the South African Mail and
Guardian, "[He] sent signals, intended or otherwise, that
a certain output was desired from here."
Other visitors to CIA headquarters representing the White House included
Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and ex-Speaker of the House
Newt Gingrich, who joined the Pentagon as a "consultant"
after 9/11. "That would freak people out," a former CIA
official told the New Republic.
The Mythic Consensus
While the Bush administration now claims otherwise, there was no consensus
whatsoever over Saddam's weapons capabilities. The New Republic's
investigation revealed many of the tube skeptics still hopping mad,
incited by the continued use of the centrifuge claim. One intelligence
analyst, who was part of the internal multi-agency tubes investigation,
angrily -- though anonymously -- told the magazine known for its hawkish
stances, "You had senior American officials like Condoleezza
Rice saying the only use of this aluminum really is uranium centrifuges.
She said that on television. And that's just a lie."
And Rice hadn't stopped there. After saying on the Sept. 8, 2002 Late
Edition that the tubes "are only really suited for nuclear
weapons programs, centrifuge programs," she then went on to brandish
the ultimate image of twentieth century terror: "The problem
here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly
[Hussein] can acquire nuclear weapons, but we don't want the smoking
gun to be a mushroom cloud."
And contrary to the president's claims that the UN shared his interpretation
of Saddam's capabilities, the International Atomic Energy Agency was
blunt in its assessment of the tubes. On Jan. 24, ElBaradei told the
Washington Post, "It may be technically possible that
the tubes could be used to enrich uranium, but you'd have to believe
that Iraq deliberately ordered the wrong stock and intended to spend
a great deal of time and money reworking each piece." And on
Mar. 7, the IAEA stated its analysis quite clearly in its formal report
to the United Nations, just two weeks before the war to "disarm
Saddam Hussein" began.
The truth is that the White House continued to be hell-bent on supersizing
our fear in the lead up to the war, turning an admittedly scary world
into a chamber of horrors. And it used every weapon in its arsenal
-- from outright intimidation to skilful media manipulation -- to
achieve its goal. Claiming that this well-oiled campaign was instead
a well-intentioned error is just the latest in a very long list of