Foggy Bottom Memos: The Hemorrhaging of Iraq War Minutes

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET
  • William E. Jackson Jr. Columnist, foreign policy expert, former U.S. Senate staffer and State Department/ACDA official


It was such a disgraceful performance by the Bush White House that it is painful to be reminded of it on television: the most credible figure in the Administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, was trotted out at the UN in February 2003 to present a pile of official legerdemain--based on shoddy intelligence--that provided the WMD rationale for the imminent invasion of Iraq. Has anyone been held accountable?

Powell's performance on the world stage was transmitted uncritically by the mainstream press. Presumably, "Dead Wrong" is CNN's penance for such a colossal meltdown in news reporting. In the process, Powell's code of honor has been left in tatters. Not to mention the tragically irresponsible leadership of the Bush-Cheney White House; the cowardice and pliability of the CIA director; and the cavalier conduct of the secretary of defense.

Secretary POWELL before the UN Security Council: "What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." He had chosen to hold up the central pillar in the argument the Vice President and the President had been using for preemptive war.

Col. Lawrence WILKERSON, chief of staff to the Secretary of State, is shown on camera referring to the preparations for the big scam at the UN as "the lowest point in my life. I wish I had not been involved." The information in Powell's presentation had come from a "Chinese menu" and was "anything but an intelligence document," with some assertions based on the word of known fabricators such as the source code-named "Curveball"--who had been served up by none other than Ahmed Chalabi.

The CNN documentary, hosted by David Ensor, raised more questions than it answered; but it delivered authoritative primary source material on the American decision-making process that led to war on Iraq. Ensor: "For the first time we hear from key players, on camera and on the record, who were there when some of the mistakes were made."

David Gregory, NBC's White House correspondent, is shown asking Judge Laurence Silberman, co-chairman of the commission appointed by President Bush to study government intelligence in the lead up to the war against Iraq: "Did this commission not ask the tough questions? And doesn't ultimate responsibility rest with the President of the United States?" SILBERMAN: "Our job was to look at the intelligence that came from the intelligence community." They did not interview the President, or the Vice President. Like earlier congressional investigations, the presidential commission did not look at HOW the Commander-in-Chief and his top aides used intelligence to make the case for war.

Ensor comments: "So what may be the last official review of how the mistakes were made [gave] policymakers a pass."

Dumbing Up Intelligence Estimates

Throughout the CNN documentary there is a distinct undertone of analysts in the intelligence community feeling pressure to give the Commander-in-Chief intelligence estimates that fit the White House's preconceptions. Intelligence officials on camera: "Who is to blame? No question, it's the intelligence community. We did it to ourselves. *** The problem is the White House didn't go to the CIA and say, tell me the truth, it said give me ammunition." Beginning in the spring of 2002, Vice President Cheney had begun visiting the CIA--an unusual role--to question analysts working on Iraq and WMD in the intelligence assembly line. The result was that no major assessments were seriously out of line with White House propaganda on the rationale for attacking Iraq.

Michael SCHEUER, former CIA analyst who wrote a book under the pseudonym "Anonymous," critical of CIA leadership in the war on terror: "The CIA is, at the end of the day, the peculiar instrument" of the executive branch and the presidency. "But under George Tenet it became very much focused on the President. He was called the 'First Customer' and clearly became the be all and end all of our efforts."

James PAVITT, former CIA deputy director of operations: "Policymakers love intelligence when it supports their policy and they have difficulty with intelligence when it does not."

Yet, argues John MCLAUGHLIN, the deputy director of the CIA: "There is always a danger in the intelligence business of getting too close to the policymaker. But if you aren't close enough to understand what they're thinking and how they're operating and what their requirements are, you're not going to serve them well."

The predominant cross-government consensus in 2002 was that Saddam had not abandoned his drive for weapons of mass destruction--while, at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld set up a special civilian office to provide him with alternative intelligence analysis that focused on the link between Saddam and al Qaeda.

Larry JOHNSON, former State Department counterterrorism official: This "office of special plans" even briefed their findings to the intelligence community, and the community would come back and say: "Wait a second, you don't know what you're talking about. That's garbage. That's misleading, that misrepresents." But "then they would take the same brief or an even more extreme version and bring it directly to people like the Vice President." That is, cherry-picking by choosing scraps of intelligence to prove a worst-case scenario.

Preparations for War in the Summer of 2002

In July of 2002, the MI6 chief had briefed Prime Minister Tony Blair on his recent discussions in Washington. According to notes from that Downing Street meeting, he reported that President Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action. The intelligence and facts, he said, "were being fixed around the policy."

CNN reports: In the summer of 2002, the White House Iraq Group, WHIG, quietly began a campaign to build support for war. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Karl Rove and Karen Hughes and the chiefs of staff to both the president and the vice president planned strategy in weekly meetings.

CHENEY in August 2002: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq regime has, in fact, been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents and they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago. We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons."

Greg THIELMANN, State Department official in charge of monitoring WMD: "That speech it seemed to me was basically a declaration of war speech."

MCLAUGHLIN: "We did not clear that particular speech."

SCHEUER: "There was just a resignation within the agency that we were going to war against Iraq and it didn't make any difference what the analysis was or what kind of objections or countervailing forces there were to an invasion. We were going to war."

Bum Steer: Aluminum Tubes

Early every morning, the President received a super secret briefing from the CIA, the only agency in the intelligence community that answered directly to him, and he insisted that George Tenet brief him face to face. Some of the briefings on Iraq came to rely on one analyst, an engineer with limited nuclear weapons experience, known only as "Joe T." He believed he had found the smoking gun, with evidence Saddam was buying high strength aluminum tubes that "Joe T." insisted were meant for centrifuges to enrich uranium.

THIELMANN: "Of all the pieces of evidence, this was potentially the most damning, through uranium enrichment [to] get enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. We were really agnostic at the beginning but we listened to the experts and more and more evidence came in that told us, no, this can't be true."

Carl FORD, former assistant secretary of state in charge of the department's bureau of intelligence: "Why would you immediately jump to the conclusion that these were for their nuclear program?"

"Serendipitous" Collaboration of The New York Times with the Bush White

On Sunday, September 8, 2002, the lead story in The New York Times, co-written by WMD expert Judith Miller and military affairs reporter Michael Gordon, quoted anonymous officials who maintained that the tubes were intended for enriching uranium. "The first sign of a smoking gun," an unnamed official was quoted, "may be a mushroom cloud."

Official on camera: "I would call it official leaking because I think these were authorized conversations between the press and members of the intelligence community that further misreported the nature of the intelligence community's disagreement on this issue."

In coordinated appearances on the Sunday talk shows, the administration peddled a single line of argument.

Condoleezza RICE, Secretary of State: "High quality aluminum tubes that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs. *** We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

CHENEY: "I do know with absolute certainty that Saddam is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon."

Donald RUMSFELD, Secretary of Defense: "Imagine a September 11 with weapons of mass destruction." Later: "We have what we consider to be credible evidence that al Qaeda leaders have sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire weapons of mass destruction capabilities."

Rand BEERS, former NSC official: "As they embellished what the intelligence community was prepared to say and as the press reported that information, it began to acquire its own sense of truth and reality. *** The nuclear menace from Iraq had been planted in the public's mind. Rumsfeld's Pentagon intelligence unit pushed a second threat, a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda."

The March to War

On September 12, the day after the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President BUSH addressed the United Nations: "Our greatest fear is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with technologies to kill on a massive scale. Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger."

Seven days later, the President asked Congress to grant him authority to use any means necessary against the perceived threat from Iraq, including military force. This was the equivalent of a declaration of war. Congress was being asked to give the President authority to launch a preemptive strike before Iraq openly threatened or attacked the United States.

THIELMANN: When it came to presenting the intelligence community's formal judgment on matters White House officials had already publicly addressed-- "especially Iraq's nuclear weapons capabilities"--CIA director Tenet "defended very stubbornly the erroneous CIA interpretation."

FORD: "I thought that the United States, and the President in particular, were taking a terrible risk that they were going to go to war in Iraq and the intelligence community would have pushed them in that direction."

Inasmuch as the aluminum tubes had become the primary evidence for the intelligence community's final judgment (NIE or National Intelligence Estimate) that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear program, CNN reports that the State Department in a strong dissent laid out its doubts about the tubes, termed "highly dubious" the claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa, and refused to predict when Saddam's alleged nuclear program might yield a bomb.

The Flummoxing of Congress

ENSOR sets the stage for Congressional decision: 10:30 p.m., October 1, 2002. The 92-page NIE was delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee by the CIA. The next morning, deputy director McLaughlin briefed the committee in secret session. He was specifically asked whether there was evidence Saddam would give weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda.

MCLAUGHLIN: "The point we made in the NIE was that he would only provide weapons and support to terrorists to attack the United States if he was cornered"--which meant the NIE did not conclude the threat from Saddam was imminent.

To force the information that contradicted Administration claims into the open, the intelligence committee insisted that Tenet produce a declassified NIE. Instead, the CIA director released a document that mirrored in tone a white paper written earlier by the White House Iraq group. Contradictory evidence was played down. Claims that strengthened the case for war were emphasized

The final vote in the Senate: 77-23. The joint resolution granting authority to the President passed on October 10.

Bum Steer # 2: Uranium from Africa

ENSOR further depicts the march-to-war scenario in the executive branch: Saturday, December 21, 2002, the decision to order the invasion of Iraq was looming. Tenet and McLaughlin briefed the president, the vice president and the national security adviser. In Bob Woodward's book, "Plan of Attack," McLaughlin presented the case for Baghdad's possession of weapons of mass destruction. According to what Bush told Woodward, Tenet assured him that the case was "a slam dunk."

BEERS: "Unless you are prepared to resign, it is very difficult to continue to tell the President something that he doesn't want to hear. Because if you're not prepared to resign, you're also not prepared to be fired."

CNN reports: "At the time, in fact, the WMD evidence was falling apart," undercut by the CIA's own reporting and the fact that UN inspectors in Iraq had not found any weapons. In the weeks before the president's 2003 State of the Union address, White House speechwriters searched for something concrete to prove Saddam was trying to build a nuclear bomb. With only days to go, an old piece of evidence that the CIA could not confirm was pulled off the shelf.

BUSH before Congress: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The 16-word indictment inserted a claim that Tenet himself had kept out of the President's speech on the eve of the Congressional vote.

MCLAUGHLIN: "There were reservations that everyone had about this reporting on uranium from Niger and we had serious concerns about whether it was true. Now, how it got in there I don't know."

Powell's Act of Disgrace

Soon after the State of the Union, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case for war at the United Nations.

POWELL: "We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities."

Col. Larry WILKERSON, Powell's chief of staff: "He came through the door that morning and he had in his hand a sheaf of papers and he said this is what I've got to present at the United Nations according to the White House and you need to look at it. *** It was anything but an intelligence document. It was as some people characterized it later, [a] kind of Chinese menu from which you could pick and choose."

CNN reports: At the CIA, Powell and his aides had skeptically questioned, point by point, the menu of charges drafted by the White House. For four days and four nights in the conference room next to Tenet's office, they argued over the intelligence.

WILKERSON: "There was no way the secretary of state was going to read off a script about serious matters of intelligence that could lead to war when the script was basically unsourced.*** He turned to DCI Tenet, and he said, everything here, everything here, you stand behind? And Mr. Tenet said absolutely, Mr. Secretary. And [Powell] said, well, you know you're going to be sitting behind me tomorrow. Right behind me. In camera."

POWELL: "What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." For more than an hour Powell displayed photos, held up a chemical vial that suggested anthrax, showed slides, all to make dozens of claims about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

FORD: "Every single thing we knew was thrown into that speech. This is all we got and we're making these firm judgments?"

Bum Steer # 3: Mobile Bioweapons Labs

POWELL: "One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq's biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents"--bioweapons labs mounted on trucks.

David KAY, former CIA Chief Weapons Inspector: "In fact, Secretary Powell was not told that one of the sources he was given as a source [for] this information had indeed been flagged by the Defense Intelligence Agency as a liar, a fabricator." Powell was also not told that the prime source, an Iraqi defector, codenamed "Curveball," had never been debriefed by the CIA.

JOHNSON: "Maybe the name of the agent was alarming enough. Maybe it should have been 'Screwup' or 'A Lying Sack of Manure.' But to know that you're giving the President a ticket to go to war based on one source, at that point you want to drag the source in and talk to him yourself."

The day before Powell's speech, a CIA skeptic had warned about the defector's reputation as a liar. In an e-mail reply, his superior acknowledged the problem but added: "This war is going to happen regardless. The powers that be probably aren't interested in whether Curveball knows what he's talking about."

POWELL: "Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option. Not in the post September 11th world."

WILKERSON: "He had walked into my office musing and he said words to the effect. I wonder how we'll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing.*** I look back on it and I still say it's the lowest point in my life. I wish I had not been involved in it."

THE speech would turn out to be riddled with numerous bogus allegations. Both men have to live with it.

War and the Bottomless Rationale

CNN reports: On March 19, 2003, the aerial bombardment of Iraq began--the first preemptive war on this scale in U.S. history. By May 2003, Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, the primary reason for going to war, had not been found.

George Tenet asked David Kay, who had been the chief UN nuclear inspector after the Gulf War, to take charge of the search. KAY: "When I took on this job I had a set of conditions to do it because I was essentially taking on the moral hazard, as I've referred to it, for the CIA. That is, it was a CIA conclusion that there were weapons."

Once Kay was in Iraq, it was almost immediately clear to him that the WMD stockpiles were not to be found. The aluminum tubes were an early signal. KAY: "We got in and found they really were part of a [conventional] weapons program." The bioweapons labs described by "Curveball" didn't exist. Kay warned Tenet that the evidence was falling apart.

WILKERSON: "George actually did call the secretary and say, I'm really sorry to have to tell you, we don't believe there were any mobile labs for making biological weapons. This was the third or fourth telephone call and I think it's fair to say the secretary and Tenet at that point ceased being close."

Conclusion: Grounds for Impeachment

Viewing the false and deceptive statements on film by the highest executive branch officials in Washington is enough to document the firm grounds for impeachment that still exist, as American soldiers are dying amidst a civil war in Iraq two-and-one-half-years later. If such gross malfeasance in office is not a "high crime" under the Constitution, then nothing is.