July 23 2004

Commentary

The Man Behind The Curtain

What exactly can we deduce from the Senate Intelligence Committee Report about President Bush’s role in pushing faulty Iraq intelligence? Because the Senate isn’t taking up the question of how the intelligence was used, many are saying the report neither indicts or exonerates the president. Not exactly, says Prados, an analyst at the NSA. He points to several facts that show the intelligence used to sell the war was an afterthought for the White House.

By John Prados

Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee that last week issued a massive report on its investigation into the prewar intelligence on Iraq, told us on July 14 that, if President George W. Bush had been given accurate intelligence information on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, “I don’t think the president would have said that military action is justified right now.” A week ago, in releasing the Senate’s investigative report, Roberts replied, “I don’t know,” when asked if Congress would have approved the Iraq war had it had the knowledge of the intelligence reporting that we have today. The latest sally is an attempt to excuse President Bush as the victim of CIA phony threat-mongering. But the implication that President Bush, absent the Iraqi weapons, would not have gone after Saddam is false. The record of the months before the war and other data shows Bush’s intent quite clearly. The Senate Intelligence Committee report adds even more to that record.

An Intention To Oust Saddam

There are those who would date the intention to get Saddam to the late 1990s, to the neocons’ letter campaign and the Iraq Liberation Support Act passed in 1998, and we have the word of former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill that President Bush was thinking along these lines from his first days in office. There is independent evidence that the bulk of Bush’s get-acquainted session with the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually involved a discussion of Iraq options. But even giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt over the degree to which he backed Colin Powell’s early pursuit of “smart sanctions” for Iraq, the president had his National Security Council  considering an Iraq “liberation” strategy by the summer of 2001 and the NSC Deputies Committee met on that subject five times before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bush signed an order directing the U.S. military to begin planning against Iraq on Sept. 17, 2001. The orders were a codicil to the national security directive to attack Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. The responsible “joint command” of the U.S. military, Central Command (CENTCOM), designated the Third Army as headquarters for a coalition land force two months later. Two Army colonels, Mike Fitzgerald and Kevin Benson, led the planning groups at CENTCOM and Third Army respectively. The very next day, November 21, President Bush was asking defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to tell him what the options were on Iraq. General R. Tommy Franks of CENTCOM presented his initial invasion concept to Rumsfeld on December 4. The rough concept would be presented to Bush just days after Christmas. All of this long predated any of the intelligence manipulations regarding Iraqi weapons.

Then consider the Bush administration’s diplomatic stage-setting. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress in the second week of February 2002 that the United States was considering a variety of possibilities for regime change in Iraq. In March, Vice President Richard Cheney made a tour of the Middle East and Persian Gulf states along with Great Britain, attempting to line up allies for an invasion. That Cheney got a cold shoulder in everywhere except in London, and that this development did nothing to turn aside the Bush administration initiative says volumes about the intentions of the American president. To fast forward for a moment, the British government has conducted its own official inquiry into Iraq prewar intelligence, and the result, the so-called Butler Report—like that of the Senate intelligence committee in this country—has recently been declassified and released. The Butler Report shows that when President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met at the Bush Ranch in Crawford Texas on April 6 and 7, 2002, the option on the table was already “sustaining the pressure on the Iraqi regime” and that much of the discussion concerned the need for “effective presentational activity.” Bush himself told a television interviewer, “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go.”

Interpreting The NIE On Iraq

This brings us to the first fresh bit of the intelligence story. It turns out that the now-notorious CIA White Paper, with its distortions and exaggerations, was originally commissioned in May 2002 by orders to the CIA from the NSC Deputies Committee (the white paper never actually reached the public eye until October).  This ball was hit out of the White House court; it was not the product of executive action taken as the result Bush’s sudden receipt of alarming intelligence. On June 19, General Franks briefed the president on the newest version of the war plan, and Bush signed a directive to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare to carry out war against Iraq eleven days later. Again, this was not on the basis of U.S. intelligence.

Some of the best evidence that the Iraq war was purposeful and not the result of an intelligence failure is what did not happen. The usual schema for conceptualizing the making of decisions is that a president has some idea for policy, he asks U.S. intelligence for an estimate in order to understand the necessity—or the difficulties inherent in his idea—and he decides after reviewing the intelligence input. In the case of Iraq, the Senate Intelligence Committee now documents, the Bush administration never asked for a National Intelligence Estimate at all, not regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, not even on the capabilities of Iraqi conventional forces to resist a U.S. invasion! Excepting sudden contingencies (Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989), this is the first time in modern history that the United States has engaged in a war without the president first seeking a formal intelligence evaluation. The only reason a National Intelligence Estimate was done on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was because it was requested by Congress, then facing Bush’s demand for a resolution authorizing him to use force against Iraq. An NIE done in response to Congressional request is, again, an extreme rarity in the U.S. intelligence business.

The Iraq NIE did contain numerous alarming allegations regarding weapons of mass destruction, and the Senate report makes clear that most of them were poorly substantiated, based on a train of assumptions, sometimes in the face of contradictory evidence, and, on occasion, even made up. But the CIA was doing its job, as far as the president was concerned. The purpose of the estimate was to convince Congress to vote for war—not to inform the Bush administration about the Iraqi threat.

There is a lengthy story to be told as to how, over the summer and fall of 2002, President George W. Bush used his public appearances to create the specter of an Iraqi threat, and how Bush contrived that his senior officials assist in that endeavor. Much as Richard Cheney, or Rumsfeld, or Wolfowitz or Rice, or any of the others, were in the public eye, it was President Bush, not anyone else, who was the man behind the curtain. Keep your eye on him. Now he wants to evade accountability by pleading it was the CIA’s fault.

John Prados is a senior analyst with the National Security Archive. His current books are  Hoodwinked: The Documents That Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (the New Press), and Inside the Pentagon Papers (University Press of Kansas) Reprinted from TomPaine.com, a project of the Institute for America’s Future.

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