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Reframing the Iraq War

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Washington, DC -- The more we learn about how the Iraq War began the worse the story gets. For all we thought we knew, now a new set of formerly secret records of both the Bush administration and the British cabinet of Tony Blair sheds glaring light on the prewar machinations of both governments designed to make the conflict happen. Posted as a three-part series by the National Security Archive, the documents, along with extensive analyses by Archive Iraq Project co-directors Joyce Battle and myself, plus British journalist Christopher Ames, lay out the case in unprecedented detail. The analysis demonstrates that the Bush administration swiftly abandoned plans for diplomacy to curb fancied Iraqi adventurism by means of sanctions, never had a plan subsequent to that except for a military solution, and enmeshed British allies in a manipulation of public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic designed to generate support for a war. This time the case is made with actual secret government records, not merely the press releases and talking points of the neo-cons.

Just three days into the Bush administration, the documents released by the National Security Archive show, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had already been made aware that regime change in Iraq would be a primary focus of Bush policy. The administration's intent to have its way, by opinion manipulation if necessary, is indicated by its determination to exploit the perceived propaganda value of certain aluminum tubes seized in the summer of 2001, even before any technical evaluation of their utility in Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs had been completed. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued his first instructions regarding an Iraq war plan to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on September 29, 2001--even as the first CIA teams arrived in Afghanistan and before the United States had begun bombarding that country. From December 2001 on the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) revised and refined attack options, continually prodded by Rumsfeld.

In contrast to an extensive record of planning for actual military operations, there is no record that President George W. Bush ever made a considered decision for war. All of the numerous White House and Pentagon meetings concerned moving the project forward, not whether a march into conflict was a proper course for the United States and its allies. Deliberations were instrumental to furthering the war project, not considerations of the basic course. Moreover, the administration engaged in active measures to avoid scrutiny of its intentions, with the president repeatedly claiming there were no war plans "on his desk." The testimony of senior British military officers to the United Kingdom's Iraq Inquiry (the Chilcot commission), documented in the Archive's analyses, explicitly demonstrates that even America's closest ally was closed out of the CENTCOM planning until "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was far down the road.

Also in contrast to the military planning, there is no record that the Bush administration crafted any plan to attain its goals by means other than covert operations or war. The concerns of the British government that the United States was rushing into conflict without building proper domestic and international support, led to the closest approach to a decision point that occurred, the Bush-Blair summit at Crawford, Texas, in April 2002. At that meeting, evidence presented to the Chilcot commission indicates, Prime Minister Blair agreed to participate in a war providing only that international support was secured. The weakness of the Bush commitment to pursuing the "United Nations route" is indicated by the necessity for Blair--and Colin Powell--to intervene repeatedly to ensure that President Bush in fact sought a Security Council resolution. Apart from the (real) questions surrounding whether the UN resolution actually obtained constituted a true legal authority for war, which will have to be engaged elsewhere, the reluctance of the Bush administration to follow through on its commitments here furnishes additional evidence of its basic intentions.

A major facet of the push for conflict lay in the steadfast focus on shaping the public debate. While there has been a great deal of discussion of the various claims made by officials on both sides of the Atlantic, documents released by the National Security Archive in these postings reveal that Anglo-American collaboration on their public presentations of the Iraqi "threat" were quite close. The CIA "white paper" and the British Iraq "dossier" were compiled in close proximity, with British officials bringing drafts to discuss in Washington, trans-Atlantic videoconferences, and cabled updates. British intelligence officials included some items in their dossier simply because they had been mentioned in speeches by Vice-President Richard Cheney. The British were also prepared to misrepresent their own intelligence projection of the date at which Iraq might be expected to produce a nuclear weapon to make it seem to be in line with what President Bush had said at the United Nations, and to suppress their own assessment of the effectiveness of economic sanctions against Iraq. British officials suggested edits to the CIA white paper where it discussed the capabilities of Iraqi drone aircraft. The documents show that Blair government spin doctors had a much larger role in the crafting of the dossier--purported to be an intelligence product--than has ever been understood.

In one of the worst aspects of this sordid story, a State Department intelligence report posted by the National Security Archive shows that intelligence analysts expected that a war in Iraq would, among other things, "bring a radicalization of British Muslims, the great majority of whom opposed the September 11 attacks but are restive." Testimony to the British Iraq Inquiry by Baroness Manningham-Buller, director of the security service MI-5 from 2002 until 2007, confirms that the Iraq war had precisely that effect. Some American Muslims have been radicalized as well, as recent terrorist incidents demonstrate. That this impact of war in Iraq had been predicted long in advance, and that prediction ignored by the Bush administration in its quest to overthrow the Iraqi government, is a stunning comment on how obtuse was the Bush war policy.

John Prados is a Senior Fellow of the National Security Archive and co-director of its Iraq Documentation Project. His current book is Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (University of Kansas Press).