Chapter 6 The Iraq War: American Decision-Making



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New York Times that “dissenting views were repeatedly discussed in meetings and telephone calls” and presented to senior officials. CIA Director George Tenet told the newspaper that he had “made it clear” to the White House “that the case for a possible nuclear program in Iraq was weaker than that for chemical and biological weapons.” In closed hearings in September 2002, members of Congress heard testimony on the debate over the aluminum tubes.96 The Administration had access to the testimony of Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who defected from Iraq in 1995 after being in charge of Iraq’s WMD programs. Kamel told UN weapons inspectors that Iraq had an active nuclear program before the Gulf War of 1990-91, but had not resumed nuclear efforts after that war.97
Yet, in their public statements, the top officials of the Administration emphasized their certainty that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear weapons. Vice President Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in late August 2002 that “many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.”98 A few weeks later, in a speech to Wyoming Republicans, he said that the United States had “irrefutable evidence” in the aluminum alloy tubes that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons. NSA Rice told CNN on September 8, 2002 that the tubes were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs,” continuing on to say that “we don’t want the smoking gun [definitive proof of Iraq’s WMD capability] to be a mushroom cloud.” The IAEA inspectors who returned to Iraq in November 2002 found by January 2003 that the tubes were being used by the Iraqis for rocket construction. UNMOVIC reported to the UN Security Council on January 27, 2003 that it had found no evidence of a revived nuclear weapons program in Iraq. Despite these public findings, President Bush in his January 28, 2003 State of the Union address cited the tubes, which he said were “suitable for nuclear weapons production,” as evidence, along with the African uranium connection, of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions.99
The Administration’s willingness to accept the contested intelligence judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program is probably attributable to two factors. The first is the motivated psychological bias of accepting information which accords with your preconceptions and which supports conclusions you have already reached.100 Saddam’s Iraq had come close to developing nuclear weapons in the 1980’s, and the intelligence community had misjudged how close Iraq was to nuclear capability then. Moreover, Iraqi defectors involved in the program had already gone public with accounts of Saddam’s effort to reconstitute.101 Why believe the hedged judgments of analysts who had been wrong in the past, when officials inside the program had already come clean about it? The second factor is more instrumental. In mobilizing public support for war, the nuclear issue was galvanizing. The imagery NSA Rice evoked when she warned that the “smoking gun” proving Saddam’s possession of WMD could be a “mushroom cloud” was powerful. For officials who strongly believed that Saddam Hussein possessed biological and chemical weapons, based upon seemingly airtight intelligence, the step to believing that he also was seeking nuclear weapons, despite the more divided intelligence assessments, was short. If the WMD threat was real, and the way to mobilize public opinion to deal with that threat was to emphasize an element of that threat where the evidence was not as strong, perhaps exaggeration could be justified as being in the best interest of the country.102

c) Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda
Perhaps the most politically effective argument made by the Administration in its case for war with Iraq was the alleged connection between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda. In the aftermath of 9/11, any link between the two, particularly any Iraq-al-Qaeda link that related to the 9/11 attacks, would be a clinching argument for American public opinion to support a war against Iraq. Administration officials repeatedly emphasized what Secretary of State Powell called, in his February 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council, the “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al-Qaeda.103
The Intelligence Community was extremely cautious in its analysis of the Iraq-al-Qaeda link in its pre-war analysis, despite the fact that the Counterterrorism Center of CIA was “purposefully aggressive in seeking to draw connections” between the two in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.104 The culminating pre-war report of the intelligence community on Iraq-al-Qaeda links was prepared in January 2003 under the title “Iraqi Support for Terrorism.” On the al-Qaeda link, it cited a number of reports about contacts and relations between the two, but also emphasized that many of these reports came from foreign governments or Iraqi opposition groups whose reliability was questionable.105 The report’s overall conclusion: “In contrast to the patron-client pattern between Iraq and its Palestinian surrogates, the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda appears to more closely resemble that of two independent actors trying to exploit each other.” It further concluded that there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement in or foreknowledge of the 9-11 attacks.106
The CIA’s analysis of the Iraq-al-Qaeda link was, however, not the only account of that relationship circulating in policy circles in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith established a “Policy Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group” (PCTEG) in his office. Feith was a public proponent of ousting Saddam Hussein from power before taking up his position in the Bush Administration. This small office (it consisted of two consultants, replaced in a few months by two naval intelligence officers, later abetted by an analyst on loan from the Defense Intelligence Agency) was tasked with re-evaluating information from the intelligence community regarding terrorist groups, state sponsors and the links among them. By November 2001 the PCTEG was briefing Pentagon officials on the link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, painting a much different and more alarming picture of the relationship than the intelligence community did. In early 2002 it produced an extensive presentation on the issue in which it explicitly criticized the intelligence community’s approach to the issue. That briefing was presented to Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, and Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, in September 2002.107 While the office was established to review existing intelligence, it subsequently established its own channels of intelligence collection as well. Richard Perle, an advocate of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group, brokered a connection between the PCTEG and the Iraqi National Congress, the exile Iraqi opposition group headed by Ahmad Chalabi.108
The crux of the PCTEG account of the Iraq-al-Qaeda link was a list of 50 purported instances of contact between representatives of the two sides, which amounted, in the words of the group’s briefing slides, to a “mature, symbiotic relationship” between them.109 Many of those contacts were reported by the intelligence community, but with warnings about the community’s doubts about the reliability of the sources of the information.110 The most notorious of these contacts was the purported meeting, reported by Czech counter-intelligence, between 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta and the head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service office in Prague in April 2001. The PCTEG briefing included the assertion, based upon this meeting, that there were “some indications of possible Iraqi coordination with al-Qaida specifically related to 9/11.”111 That meeting became the centerpiece of the Administration’s public case implicating Iraq in the 9/11 attacks, despite the fact that “the CIA judged that other evidence indicated that these meetings likely never occurred.”112 Secretary of State Powell chose not to mention the purported Prague meeting in his February 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council. The 9/11 Commission subsequently reported that “the available evidence does not support the original Czech report” of a meeting between the two.113
The other major connection pointed to by the Administration in its case for an Iraq-al-Qaeda link was the presence of al-Qaeda affiliate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq before the war. Secretary Powell, in his presentation to the UN Security Council, charged that Iraq “harbors” al-Zarqawi, implying a cooperative relationship. The PCTEG case included the assertion that Iraq provided safe haven to al-Zarqawi and that Saddam’s regime had a “close relationship” with Ansar al-Islam, the Iraqi Kurdish Islamist group with which al-Zarqawi took refuge in the pre-war period.114 The intelligence community emphasized in its reporting that al-Zarqawi and his group had relocated, after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to an area in northeastern Iraq controlled by Ansar al-Islam. It concluded that Saddam Hussein’s regime undoubtedly had knowledge of the presence of al-Zarqawi’s group in Iraq and that Saddam probably acquiesced in that presence, though he did not have control of the territory in which al-Zarqawi was operating. It also reported that al-Zarqawi probably spent some time in Baghdad in the period before the Iraq War, establishing a network of sympathizers. Despite the fact that a foreign intelligence service had informed Saddam’s government of al-Zarqawi’s presence in Baghdad, Iraqi intelligence contended to that service that it could not locate al-Zarqawi. While acknowledging the dangers of Iraqi-al-Qaeda cooperation presented by the al-Zarqawi information, the CIA did not conclude from this that there was Iraqi-al-Qaeda cooperation on terrorist operations. CIA Director Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee (on the relationship more generally, not specifically on the al-Zarqawi link): “These sources do not describe Iraqi complicity in, control over or authorization of specific terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaida.”115
While the PCTEG and the Intelligence Community were producing these different assessments of the Iraq-al-Qaeda link in the lead-up to the Iraq War, a new intelligence source on the issue emerged – captured al-Qaeda commanders. Unfortunately for intelligence analysts, these debriefings provided “contradictory” evidence.116 Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda commander captured in Pakistan in November 2001, said that Iraq had provided chemical and biological weapons training to members of the organization. He later recanted that assertion, though it cannot be established whether that recantation occurred before or after the Iraq War. However, there was evidence before the war that al-Libi was telling different stories to different people about Iraq-al-Qaeda links.117 At least one report from the intelligence community questioned al-Libi’s credibility in making this claim, before the Iraq War.118 On the other hand, Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaeda commander captured in April 2002 in Pakistan, told his captors that he was not aware of a relationship between Iraq and his organization, though he admitted that any such relationship would have been highly compartmentalized within the organization, and he might not know about it. Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan in March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War. Information gleaned from him would not have been part of the intelligence analysis of Iraq-al-Qaeda links in the pre-war period. Like Abu Zubaydah, he contended that he was unaware of any link between bin Laden’s group and the Iraqi regime.119
The conflicting accounts between the PCTEG and the intelligence community regarding Iraq-al-Qaeda links were never reconciled in the months leading up to the Iraq War. In August 2002 Undersecretary Feith and the group presented its findings, minus a briefing slide on the purported Atta meeting in Prague and a slide explicitly criticizing the intelligence community’s work on the issue, to CIA Director Tenet and a number of CIA officials and analysts.120 The CIA analysts agreed to include some of the PCTEG’s reports about purported contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda, but did not change their analytical conclusion about the lack of a substantive relationship between the two sides.121 Despite the differences between the two accounts, and unbeknownst to Tenet, the PCTEG a few weeks later presented its findings to Mr. Libby and Mr. Hadley at the White House, including their conclusion that the Prague meeting did occur and including their direct criticism of the Intelligence Community’s work on the Iraq-al-Qaeda relationship.122 The Defense Department’s Inspector-General subsequently found that the activities of Undersecretary Feith’s group, while not illegal or unauthorized, were “inappropriate, given that the intelligence assessments were intelligence products and did not clearly show the variance with the consensus of the Intelligence Community…As a result, OUSD(P) [Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] did not provide ‘the most accurate analysis of intelligence’ to senior Defense decision makers.”123
Despite the clear differences between the conclusions of the intelligence community and the PCTEG, Administration officials used the latter’s analysis in making their public case that the Iraq-al-Qaeda tie justified war.124 Administration officials regularly asserted in the period between 9/11 and the Iraq War that there was a long history of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda, without including the cautions of the community about the reliability of some of the reports and the overall conclusion that there was no operational relationship between the two sides. President Bush referred to Saddam as an “ally” of al-Qaeda in his May 2003 speech announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Vice President Cheney in particular referred to the Prague meetings repeatedly in public, both before and after the war, despite the intelligence community’s judgment that the information was not reliable.125
As in the case of nuclear weapons, two reasons explain the Administration’s acceptance of the more extreme findings of the PCTEG regarding Iraq-al-Qaeda links and its rejection of the more nuanced and less alarmist analysis by the intelligence community. The first is the motivated psychological bias of accepting information that accords with your preconceptions and your goals with little critical review, while subjecting information that goes against your preconceptions and conflicts with your goals to much more stringent standards of acceptance. After 9/11, Bush Administration policy makers were clearly focused on Iraq and disposed to accept the worst interpretation of any information relating Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda. They even created a special intelligence unit, the PCTEG, to develop information about their relations when the intelligence community (unlike the case with WMD) did not produce analysis that confirmed their preconceptions. After the failure of the intelligence community to “connect the dots” regarding the 9/11 plot itself, policy makers were clearly open to the PCTEG’s much more aggressive effort to connect fragmented and questionable information into a coherent picture of long-term contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda. They chose to ignore the community’s warnings about the reliability of the information on which the PCTEG’s case was based.
The second reason is more political than psychological. Mobilizing American public opinion for war against Iraq would clearly be easier to the extent that the public believed that Iraq was linked to al-Qaeda. This was a winning political argument, and the Administration was making it to a public that was disposed to believe it. A September 13, 2001 poll conducted for CNN and Time Magazine found that 78% of those polled suspected that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.126 The Administration sold the Iraq-al-Qaeda link hard, beyond what a responsible reading of the evidence would merit. But it was selling to an audience willing to believe. The exact balance between a cynical desire to manipulate the public and a sincere, though biased and incorrect, belief in an Iraq-al-Qaeda link undoubtedly varies among the senior policymakers of the Bush Administration. What is clear is that even the most committed believers in the relationship had to reject considerable contradictory evidence from the intelligence community to continue to hold on to their belief.
d) Assumptions about Post-War Iraq
The most damaging assumptions which the Bush Administration brought to the Iraq War were not about Iraq’s weapons or its ties to al-Qaeda, but about what Iraq would look like after the fall of Saddam Hussein and what the American role in post-Saddam Iraq would be. The incorrect assumptions about weapons and terrorist ties helped to get the United States into a war which turned out to be relatively easy to win. The assumptions about the post-war situation led to mistakes and miscalculations which ensnared the United States in a long, expensive and debilitating occupation. As was the case with Iraq’s nuclear capability and its ties to al-Qaeda, there was considerable debate within the US government before the war about what post-war stabilization would require. There was also a vigorous public discussion about post-war plans that emphasized the costs and difficulties of stabilizing Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Top policymakers can not plead ignorance about the potential problems they faced in Iraq.127 Yet they uniformly accepted the most optimistic assumptions about post-Saddam Iraq.128 Accepting those assumptions left the United States woefully unprepared for what it found in Iraq after the victory over Saddam Hussein. But accepting those assumptions is an important part of the story for how the United States decided to go to war in Iraq in March 2003.
The top policymakers in the Bush Administration thought that the post-Saddam political transition in Iraq would be relatively short and relatively easy. Retired General Jay Garner, the head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (the first American occupation authority in Iraq), when asked shortly before the war in March 2003 about the overall duration of the American presence in Iraq, responded, “I’ll probably come back to hate this answer, but I’m talking months.”129 The Administration planned to fight a different war than the one fought by the United States in Iraq in 1991. Rather than aiming to destroy the Iraqi infrastructure, they would focus their military might against the regime and its security forces, leaving Iraqi society largely intact. They would be fighting a war of liberation on behalf of the Iraqi people, who would for the most part welcome their intervention. Once Saddam’s regime was gone, Iraqi society would quickly recover, a political process would begin, and the United States would be able to leave. NSA Rice told the New York Times in 2004 that “[t]he concept was that we would defeat the army, but the institutions would hold, everything from ministries to police forces. You need to be able to bring new leadership but we were going to keep the body in place.”130
The belief that the Iraqi state, and particularly parts of the Iraqi security forces, would essentially remain intact through the post-Saddam transition was a key assumption in the Bush Administration.131 Barham Salih, an official in Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who went on to high office in post-Saddam Iraqi governments, said “[t]hey were expecting the police to work after liberation…I said, this is not the NYPD. It’s the Iraqi police. The minute the first cruise missile arrives in Baghdad, the police force degenerates and everybody goes home.”132 That belief underlay the Administration’s plans to draw down American forces in Iraq rapidly after the fall of Saddam’s regime. As early as April 19, 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, Gen. Tommy Franks told his field commanders that it was time to make plans to leave. Thomas White, then the Secretary of the Army, later said: “Our working budgetary assumption was that 90 days after the completion of the operation, we would withdraw the first 50,000 and then every 30 days we’d take out another 50,000 until everybody was back.”133
The assumption that there would be little need to maintain a large American military force in Iraq after the war was not simply the result of excessive optimism. It also accorded directly with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s notions of how the American military should be reconfigured for the 21st century.134 Rumsfeld wanted the military to become faster and leaner, able to fight on short notice with smaller forces all over the globe. He was particularly opposed to American military forces taking on long-term commitments to provide political stability and facilitate “nation-building,” as they had in the Balkans during the Clinton Administration. He repeatedly pressed the military, in the lead-up to the Iraq War, to reduce the number of troops in the battle plan.135 In February 2003, on the eve of the war, Rumsfeld gave a public speech titled “Beyond Nation Building,” in which he contrasted the large foreign peacekeeping presence in Kosovo, which he said had created a “culture of dependence,” with the Afghanistan model, where the United States relied largely on the new Afghan army and troops from other countries to help keep the peace.136 Undersecretary of Defense Feith confirmed that the decision to limit the number of American troops in the Iraq War “was strategic and goes far beyond Iraq. This is part of his [Rumsfeld’s] thinking about defense transformation.”137
Rumsfeld’s strategic vision matched nicely with those in the Bush Administration who believed that the Iraq War would leave behind a relatively unscathed Iraqi state and a largely cooperative Iraqi population, ready to take on the responsibilities of government. They combined to produce a plan for a war that would require comparatively few American military forces and little American money. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the intellectual leader of the war hawks, famously summarized those assumptions before Congressional committees. On February 27, 2003 he told the House Budget Committee that “it is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in a post-Saddam Iraq that it would take to conduct the war itself and secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army – hard to imagine.”138 On March 27, 2003 he told the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that “the oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years…We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”139 The Administration’s view on its role in post-war Iraq was neatly summed up by a senior US Agency for International Development officer on March 13, 2003. Wendy Chamberlain told the representatives of non-governmental organizations: “It’s going to be very quick. We’re going to meet their immediate needs. We’re going to turn it over to the Iraqis. And we’re going to be out within the year.”140
These assumptions proved to be devastatingly wrong. They were also not in accord with many of the estimates within the US government about what post-war Iraq would look like and what the United States would be called upon to do there to establish a stable post-Saddam government. On security issues, many government agencies warned before the war that it was likely that public order in Iraq would collapse with the fall of the regime. The National Intelligence Council prepared two reports in January 2003 that highlighted the possibility that the war could produce a deeply divided Iraqi society prone to violent internal conflict and that an armed insurgency could arise against American forces and a new Iraqi government.141 The CIA ran a series of war-game exercises beginning in May 2002 on Iraq, in which “one recurring theme…was the risk of civil disorder after the fall of Baghdad.”142 A CIA spokesman said shortly after the war that the intelligence community warned “early and often” of the challenges the US would face in the post-war environment.143 The Future of Iraq project, a State Department effort to bring together Iraqi exiles and technical experts to plan for post-war Iraq, also emphasized the challenges to maintaining security in the country after the fall of the Ba’thist regime.144
The warnings within the government about the likely collapse of public order in the wake of a successful war against Saddam Hussein were echoed in public debate during the pre-war period. Rend Rahim Francke, an Iraqi exile who was post-Saddam Iraq’s first ambassador to Washington, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 1, 2002 that “the system of public security will break down, because there will be no functioning police force, no civil service, and no justice system.”145 Phebe Marr, a long-time observer of Iraq in both the academic and government worlds, told that hearing that “the removal of the current regime in Baghdad, under certain circumstances, could result in a ‘break-down’ of the central government, and its inability to exercise control over the country.”146 The Council on Foreign Relations, in a study issued on January 1, 2003, warned that “without an initial and broad-based commitment to law and order, the logic of score-settling and revenge-taking will reduce Iraq to chaos.”147
Concerns about post-war stability related directly to the issue of the size of the force the United States was planning to deploy in the Iraq War. A number of internal American government studies indicated that much larger force levels than were being planned would be necessary to secure post-war Iraq. A 1999 exercise conducted by Central Command concluded that the US would need a force of 400,000 to invade and stabilize Iraq. A February 2003 memo generated in the National Security Council concluded that, if the international mission in Kosovo was used as a model, 500,000 troops would have to be deployed in Iraq to secure the country after the fall of Saddam’s regime.148 The chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, in February 2003 told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Something on the order of several hundred thousand are probably, you know, a figure that would be required.”149 Two days later, Dept. Sec. Wolfowitz told the House Budget Committee in a public hearing that such estimates were “wildly off the mark.”150 Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld echoed that sentiment on March 3, 2003, saying “the idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces, I think, is far from the mark.”151
Senior officials in the Bush Administration also grossly underestimated the cost of the Iraq War, in spite of both internal government estimates and public debate on the issue. Before the war, the Administration steadfastly refused to estimate in public what the range of costs of the war would be. In April 2003, the director of the Agency for International Development said that the US cost for rebuilding Iraq would be $1.7 billion, in essence in line with Wolfowitz’s earlier estimate that the reconstruction of Iraq would be self-financing.152 However, within the Administration itself officials were making more realistic estimates. The Energy Infrastructure Planning Group established by Undersecretary Feith in September 2002 reported that Iraq’s oil industry was not nearly as healthy as Saddam’s government had claimed and estimated a range of oil revenues that could be generated post-war. Administration officials always cited the high end of the estimate.153 Col. Sam Gardiner prepared an elaborate study of the fragility of Iraq’s electricity and water systems before the war, and told high-ranking Administration officials that both systems would collapse in the post-war period even if they were not targeted during the war itself.154 The director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Lindsey, told the
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