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Why We Went to War Against Iraq: Re-Writing History Again

The claim by some Republican figures, including Colin Powell, that responsibility for the Iraq War lies with the intelligence community does not stand up to scrutiny.

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Some Republican presidential hopefuls—plus Colin Powell—are trying to shift responsibility for the Iraq War away from Bush administration politicians by blaming the U.S. intelligence community. This is only part of the real story. The rest, which the hoary old intelligence argument is meant to shove off-stage, involved a pre-war PR campaign led by Bush administration hawks like Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. This robust effort to create a case for war involved intelligence that was only partly flawed. It also involved, pushing the envelope on WMD intelligence that was flawed, ignoring solid intelligence on terrorism (including 9/11) not linked to Iraq, and creating their own lurid terrorism pseudo-intelligence to replace the real thing.

Back in May, Jeb Bush conceded, “knowing what we know now…I would not have gone into Iraq.” However, much like President George W. Bush in his 2010 memoir Decision Points, Jeb placed the blame on faulty intelligence. Republican candidates Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina also have said that defective intelligence drove the war. Because of years of such deception, many Americans still accept this flawed narrative.

Powell supported this canard on last Sunday’s Meet the Press when he said: “But the intelligence community, all 16 agencies, assured us that it was right.” Setting the record straight on Powell’s claim is important because he generally has more credibility than most other former Bush administration officials and current Republican presidential hopefuls.

What Powell Knew

Jonathan Schwartz’s Huffington Post article “Lie After Lie After Lie: What Colin Powell Knew Ten Years Ago Today and What He Said” did a nice job of showing how many Powell assertions of certitude in his February 5, 2003 Iraqi remarks to the UN Security Council on Iraq WMD were highly questionable or false. Schwartz showed how they contradicted especially what his own in-house intelligence agency, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), told him in writing on January 29 and February 5, 2003.

What Schwartz may not have known was that after crafting his draft UN speech in a huddle with CIA Director George Tenet at CIA, Powell tried to pass it to INR Director Carl Ford for review. Well aware of Powell’s detailed knowledge of INR’s strident opposition to practically every nuclear claim made by the intelligence community, Ford asked whether the speech contained the nuclear accusations. When Powell said it did, Ford declined to review it, saying essentially that it was Powell’s speech, not INR’s.

Last Sunday, however, Powell referred to the formal October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s WMD, which was produced by all agencies of the U.S. intelligence community. With little knowledge of this document (and INR’s aggressive role in blocking the 16-agency unanimity claimed by Powell), many Americans mistakenly accept that the NIE was a complete disaster.

But INR officially challenged the NIE’s most frightening assertion: the existence of a robust Iraqi nuclear weapons program. So the NIE clearly was not sweepingly blessed by all 16 US intelligence agencies. Indeed, INR included in the NIE a tough, detailed, formal dissent. Powell was well aware of this dissent months before his UN speech.

In the dissent, INR said: “The activities we have detected do not…add up to a compelling case that Iraq is pursuing…a comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons” and “INR considers the available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment.” INR also said that “technical experts at the U.S. Department of Energy,” which possess the U.S. government’s formidable array of advanced nuclear labs, refuted one scientific claim “central to the argument that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.”

Another major WMD-related issue in the NIE involved missiles: “Iraq is deploying its new al-Samoud and Ababil-100 SRBM’s which are capable of flying beyond the UN 150-km range limit.” Fearing war, however, Saddam agreed to cease production of these missiles and allow UN inspectors to destroy them all. This process, already underway weeks before the war, was interrupted by the US invasion.

Also, one key admission of the NIE was: “We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq’s WMD programs.” Given the negative assumptions surrounding the NIE, it was presumed that the US was “seeing only a portion of Iraq’s WMD efforts.” However, there was the additional possibility that what was unseen simply did not exist. And some judgments in the NIE held that Iraq, which had lost almost all its WMD and missile capabilities when inspectors destroyed them after the first Gulf War, was only in the relatively early stages of re-establishing them (hardly a casus belli).

Enter Cheney and Feith

Worse still, the conclusions of the NIE probably would have been somewhat weaker still had Vice President Cheney not leaped into the process. He aggressively challenged CIA briefers on intelligence that didn’t support his Iraq agenda. Cheney also went to CIA on numerous occasions to personally express disappointment with analysis inconsistent with administration views. A vice president jawboning CIA intelligence officials (who prepare most NIE drafts) is practically unheard of. Naturally, the purpose of this heavy-handed intervention was to intimidate the drafters of the NIE into making it more alarming—and thus more useful to support a war. This is why policymaking and intelligence analysis are supposed to be kept apart, and normally are, a fundamental principle Cheney ignored.

Even more damning than the WMD issue regarding Bush administration claims and credibility was the so-called intelligence undergirding officials’ strident pre-war charges that Iraq was deeply involved in international terrorism—possibly even 9/11. On Iraq and terrorism, the intelligence community was unanimous: Iraq was not guilty. Already with enough international problems on his plate, Saddam kept his nose clean in this one area. He also feared, despised, and systematically hunted down any Islamic militants, like those of al-Qaeda responsible for the 9/11 attacks who dared take refuge in Iraq.

Deeply frustrated, the administration turned to Doug Feith’s politicized Pentagon “Office of Special Plans” to say what the intelligence community refused to say: Saddam was hip deep in terrorism. One day an official in INR’s terrorism office showed me Feith’s “report.” It was a simple listing (no analysis—less than two pages long) of press reports and a few pieces of intelligence on terrorism that experts discounted long before. We laughed. But the joke was on us: the Bush administration bypassed the entire unified intelligence community to accept this politicized drivel from one of its own hired guns as proof of Iraq’s guilt.

So, the intelligence community was not united behind its mistaken intelligence on the most frightening nuclear claims. Some of what remained had been made more alarmist by Dick Cheney; most of Iraq’s missiles were being destroyed; and when the intelligence community cleared Iraq on terrorism, the administration manufactured its own politicized pseudo-intelligence to say otherwise. How then can the U.S. intelligence community be made the leading villain for the Iraq War? Clearly, the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq, and nothing was going to get in its way.

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