As we note the 10-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq this week, it is worth revisiting for a moment the pre-war debate about whether or not to go to war in the first place. It is now widely acknowledged that the two most important rationales put forth by the Bush administration for invading Iraq were simply untrue: Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, and his regime – for all its many evils – had no meaningful connection to al-Qaeda or like-minded terrorist groups. However, the conspicuous absence of any WMD stocks in Iraq has distorted our collective memory of the pre-war debate. It has caused many Americans to overlook the fact that even if the Iraqi dictator had possessed such weapons, invading Iraq would still have made no sense.
The Bush administration began trumpeting the Iraqi threat from in earnest in September 2002 and quickly called on Congress to authorize the use of military force. Yet by early October the United States intelligence community had reached two conclusions that dramatically undercut the administration’s rationale for war. These conclusions were made public at the time. However, their importance was drowned out by the focus on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction during the lead-up to the war, and the pronounced lack of such weapons has caused them to be largely overlooked during the years that have followed. Nonetheless, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq provided to Congress on October 1 and a closed door meeting between the Senate Intelligence Committee and senior intelligence officials the following day revealed that in the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community, Saddam Hussein was unlikely to support international terrorism against the United States or use WMD against the U.S. unless his hold on power was threatened.
Believing that the Congressional debate on whether or not to authorize U.S. military action was insufficiently informed, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham (D-FL) wrote to CIA director George Tenet on October 4 asking that more information about the intelligence community’s assessments about Iraq be made public. Tenet’s office responded in a letter several days later that declassified several additional statements from the NIE, as well as an excerpt from the committee’s closed hearing on October 2.
On the question of whether or not Iraq was likely to use any weapons of mass destruction in its possession against the United States, Tenet’s letter declassified the following exchange:
Senator Levin [Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan]: . . . If (Saddam) didn't feel threatened, did not feel threatened, is it likely that he would initiate an attack using a weapon of mass destruction?
Senior Intelligence Witness: . . . My judgment would be that the probability of him initiating an attack -- let me put a time frame on it -- in the foreseeable future, given the conditions we understand now, the likelihood I think would be low.
Senator Levin: Now if he did initiate an attack you've . . . indicated he would probably attempt clandestine attacks against us . . . But what about his use of weapons of mass destruction? If we initiate an attack and he thought he was in extremis or otherwise, what's the likelihood in response to our attack that he would use chemical or biological weapons?
Senior Intelligence Witness: Pretty high, in my view.
The reason this is important is that President Bush, officials in his administration, and many supporters of the war have sought to deflect criticism about the lack of WMD by arguing that everyone else thought Iraq possessed such weapons, and that he would have eventually developed them anyway. These two memes, so often intertwined, have been around for years. In an interview with NBC’s David Gregory in January 2005, for instance, Bush stated that “the intelligence that we used was close to the intelligence that the U.N. had about Saddam Hussein and that many countries had about Saddam Hussein. But we did find out that he had the intent and the capability of making weapons, which in my judgment still made him a dangerous man.” Such assertions have not receded with time. In the recently released documentary, “The World According to Dick Cheney,” the former Vice President acknowledged that “We didn’t find stockpiles [of WMD]. . . We did find that he had the capability and we believed he had the intent.”
Yet neither assertion gets Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al off the hook. The long-standing U.S. policy toward Iraq of containment, deterrence, and sanctions worked pretty well. The notion that Saddam Hussein was liable at any time to attack the U.S. or its allies with chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons flew in the face of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessments of Iraq that supposedly informed the nation’s decision to go to war. It is true, as war proponents have so often pointed out, that the Clinton administration, Congressional Democrats, and a number of foreign governments were concerned about Iraq’s WMD programs, but such concerns did not mean that invading Iraq was necessary, or even wise. Had Saddam Hussein possessed chemical or biological weapons at the time of the U.S.-led invasion, he would have had nothing to lose by using them, the very danger the Bush White House said it wanted to avoid.
The Bush Administration’s other argument, of course, was that the Iraqi regime had a collaborative relationship with al-Qaeda and might very well provide the terrorist group with WMD for use against the United States. As with the contention that Iraq had an arsenal of WMD, this charge turned out to be completely false. In this instance, however, Bush administration officials and their allies on the right have sought to defend themselves by arguing that they never claimed there was a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. This assertion is untrue. While the administration’s claims about Iraqi involvement with international terrorism were generally not as concrete as its assertions about Iraqi WMD, the alleged linkage between the two was an ongoing point of emphasis by war advocates. For instance:
- On September 26, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained to reporters that U.S. intelligence pointed to significant, long-standing cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaeda. “We do have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad. We have what we consider to be very reliable reporting of senior-level contacts going back a decade, and of possible chemical- and biological-agent training. And when I say contacts, I mean between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The reports of these contacts have been increasing since 1998. We have what we believe to be credible information that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven opportunities in Iraq, reciprocal non-aggression discussions. We have what we consider to be credible evidence that al Qaeda leaders have sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire weapon of -- weapons of mass destruction capabilities.”
- During his 2003 State of the Union address to the nation seven weeks prior to the invasion, President Bush explicitly connected the Iraqi regime with the terrorist group behind 9/11: “Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.” He added that “chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained.”
- In his national radio address nine days later, Bush drew another direct link. “Saddam Hussein has long-standing, direct and continuing ties to terrorist networks. Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s. Iraq has sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.”
Tenet’s letter also declassified statements from the NIE that Saddam Hussein was not supporting or pursuing international terrorism directed at the United States. Moreover, as with the suspected WMD, the assessment concluded that Iraqi support for al-Qaeda or similar groups was unlikely to occur unless the regime faced an existential threat from the United States:
Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or C.B.W. [chemical and biological weapons] against the United States.
Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions. Such terrorism might involve conventional means, as with Iraq's unsuccessful attempt at a terrorist offensive in 1991, or C.B.W.
Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a W.M.D. attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.
These few sentences, withheld from the declassified version of the NIE released to the public, blew a hole in the notion that removing Saddam Hussein from power would help protect the U.S. from the terrorist threat. The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a document that has been rightly criticized over the years for its shoddy craftsmanship and politicized conclusions, was arguably the centerpiece of the White House’s case for war. Yet to anyone who was looking, the report made plain that invading Iraq would heighten, not diminish, the threat of another mass casualty attack against the United States.
At a White House press conference with the president on November 7, Knight-Ridder reporter Ron Hutcheson asked Bush about the contents of Tenet’s letter. Here is the relevant portion of their exchange:
RON HUTCHESON: Your CIA Director told Congress just last month that it appears that Saddam Hussein "now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks against the United States." But if we attacked him he would "probably become much less constrained." Is he wrong about that?
THE PRESIDENT: No. I think that -- I think that if you would read the full -- I'm sure he said other sentences. Let me just put it to you, I know George Tenet well. I meet with him every single day. He sees Saddam Hussein as a threat. I don't know what the context of that quote is. I'm telling you, the guy knows what I know, that he is a problem and we must deal with him.
Bush’s reply is unsettling not because he disagreed with Tenet’s statement but because he was apparently unaware of it. Given his professed concern about active Iraqi support for terrorism, the intelligence community’s conclusion that this threat was unlikely to materialize absent a U.S. effort to eliminate the regime should have garnered significant attention from the president and his administration, if only to rebut it. In reality, the need for war was self-evident to Bush and those who served under him. The emphasis was on how it could be sold to Congress and the public, not whether it was a good idea.
In looking back on the invasion of Iraq, it’s natural to focus on the fact that Saddam’s alleged WMD turned out to be non-existent. But even if such weapons had been found, they would hardly have justified the war. For anyone who examined the contents of George Tenet’s letter to Senator Graham, it was already evident in the early fall of 2002 that the arguments for the invasion were specious.
-- Richard Purcell