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Still Lying After All These Years

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There will be much gnashing of teeth over former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's new book Known and Unknown: A Memoir, so let this be the beginning of it. In his book and in the exclusive television interview he gave to ABC's Diane Sawyer which aired on February 7th, Rumsfeld steadfastly maintains that the Bush administration -- here he lists a string of officials beginning with Colin Powell and including himself -- never lied about Iraq in starting a war against Saddam Hussein's government. As authority for this statement he invokes the intelligence services of other nations such as the British, the Germans, and so on, who Rumsfeld tells us agreed with U.S. intelligence that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. The fault, Rummy suggests, was in the Bush administration believing the intelligence estimates.

All of this is too clever by half, but I suppose we ought to have expected that from the self-fancied master of logic who takes his title from his own famously obtuse declaration at a press conference. In point of fact the sequence of events was this: Al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. That same day Rumsfeld and others discussed making war on Iraq. Within weeks the Bush administration began confecting war plans against Saddam. Within six months the administration began to assemble forces for that war. It reduced its commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan -- the home of the real 9/11 attackers -- to do that.

President Bush demanded, obtained, and spent budget money to support his concentration of forces. (Interested readers can see the details in the memoir of CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks, American Soldier, 2005.) Rumsfeld refined the war plans. Under the guise of simple air patrols Rumsfeld managed a covert bombing campaign against Iraq to pave the way for the invasion. Only after a year -- almost to the day of the 9/11 attack -- did anyone even ask for an intelligence estimate on Iraq -- and then the estimate was done at the request of Congress, not the administration. By then the final touches had been made to the war plan and forces were beginning to assume their attack positions.

Yes there was an intelligence failure on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But the conclusion is inescapable that the intelligence did not matter to the Bush administration enterprise. The intelligence would not have figured in its calculations at all unless the CIA conclusion had been that Saddam had no weapons, in which case Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, and the others would have had to come up with a way to surmount the obstacle of contrary intelligence. Rumsfeld argues that the intelligence -- though it was wrong -- justified war and takes refuge in the claim that America's allies agreed with the weapons of mass destruction assessments. Wrong on both counts.

Even had Saddam possessed WMD they posed no threat to the United States unless Iraq intended to start a war. That is a preposterous proposition. As for the allies, they made intelligence mistakes too, but more importantly, every one of them had significant disagreements with the U.S. intelligence conclusions. In the United Kingdom an Iraq Inquiry investigating the war has demonstrated that British intelligence perceived no major changes in the Iraqi position since 1998-99, when its consensus had been that Saddam had no current WMD capability.

In both the U.K. and the U.S. the political leadership was ahead of the security services, demanding action and soliciting intelligence to support it. French intelligence disagreed with the allegation that Iraq was procuring uranium in Niger. German intelligence disagreed with the claims of "Curveball," an Iraqi defector whose bogus information on alleged Iraqi chemical and biological weapons factories was the only "hard" data the CIA had on the matter (see Bob Drogin, Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man who Caused a War, 2007). The International Atomic Energy Commission never agreed -- nor did it find evidence upon (prewar) inspection -- that Iraq would soon have a nuclear weapon. Even the CIA disagreed that there was any cooperation between Saddam and Al Qaeda, as the several reports of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence make abundantly clear.

The Iraq investigation of the Israeli Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee observed:

The committee is of the opinion that the uniform international intelligence evaluation in relation to Iraq took root to a certain extent through a sort of vicious circle and by way of repeated reciprocal feedback, which often caused more damage than benefit.

Similarly the Australian parliament's examination of the same matters concluded:

Australian agencies relied heavily on the intelligence from both the UK and US and, in hindsight, at a public level at least, the major documents from both appear to have been flawed.

Across the board, the claim that allied intelligence services agreed with U.S. views disguises the degree to which U.S. data fed to them under various sharing agreements misled their own analysts.

In logic it is permissible -- because that is within the range of tenable propositions -- to do the wrong thing for the wrong reason. To commit an international aggression (make war against Iraq) because of bad intelligence (Saddam's nonexistent weapons) was a mistake and a tragedy. It was also morally wrong, the pious prewar cant about "just war" notwithstanding. For Rumsfeld to do those things and insist he and his Bush administration cronies were correct all along passes beyond logic, not to mention displaying the enormous arrogance of this man. The only way this sequence retains its logical is if the intelligence never mattered to the action -- and it did not, except for the invocation of public fear to win support for war. To mislead is a form of lying and Donald Rumsfeld is still doing it. Under Nuremburg principles, it needs to be said and repeated, international aggression constitutes a war crime.

John Prados is co-director of the Iraq Documentation Project of the National Security Archive. His current book is How the Cold War Ended: Debating and Doing History (Potomac Books).