They Knew

Despite the whitewash, we now know that the Bush administration was warned before the war that its Iraq claims were weak

David Sirota and Christy Harvey August 3, 2004

If des­per­a­tion is ugly, then Wash­ing­ton, D.C. today is down­right hideous.

As the 911 Com­mis­sion recent­ly report­ed, there was no cred­i­ble evi­dence” of a col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ship between Iraq and al Qae­da. Sim­i­lar­ly, no weapons of mass destruc­tion have been found in Iraq. With U.S. casu­al­ties mount­ing in an elec­tion year, the White House is grasp­ing at straws to avoid being held account­able for its dishonesty.

The white­wash already has start­ed: In July, Repub­li­cans on the Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee released a con­tro­ver­sial report blam­ing the CIA for the mess. The pan­el con­ve­nient­ly refus­es to eval­u­ate what the White House did with the infor­ma­tion it was giv­en or how the White House set up its own spe­cial team of Pen­ta­gon polit­i­cal appointees (called the Office of Spe­cial Plans) to cir­cum­vent well-estab­lished intel­li­gence chan­nels. And Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney con­tin­ues to say with­out a shred of proof that there is over­whelm­ing evi­dence” jus­ti­fy­ing the administration’s pre-war charges.

But as author Flan­nery O’Conner not­ed, Truth does not change accord­ing to our abil­i­ty to stom­ach it.” That means no mat­ter how much defen­sive spin spews from the White House, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion can­not escape the doc­u­ment­ed fact that it was clear­ly warned before the war that its ratio­nale for invad­ing Iraq was weak.

Top admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials repeat­ed­ly ignored warn­ings that their asser­tions about Iraq’s sup­posed Weapons of Mass Destruc­tion (WMD) and con­nec­tions to al Qae­da were over­stat­ed. In some cas­es, they were told their claims were whol­ly with­out mer­it, yet they went ahead and made them any­way. Even the Sen­ate report admits that the White House mis­rep­re­sent­ed” clas­si­fied intel­li­gence by elim­i­nat­ing ref­er­ences to con­tra­dic­to­ry assertions.

In short, they knew they were mis­lead­ing America.

And they did not care.

They knew Iraq posed no nuclear threat

There is no doubt even though there was no proof of Iraq’s com­plic­i­ty, the White House was focused on Iraq with­in hours of the 911 attacks. As CBS News report­ed, bare­ly five hours after Amer­i­can Air­lines Flight 77 plowed into the Pen­ta­gon, Defense Sec­re­tary Don­ald H. Rums­feld was telling his aides to come up with plans for strik­ing Iraq.” For­mer Bush coun­tert­er­ror­ism czar Richard Clarke recount­ed vivid­ly how, just after the attack, Pres­i­dent Bush pres­sured him to find an Iraqi con­nec­tion. In many ways, this was no sur­prise – as for­mer Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Paul O’Neill and anoth­er admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial con­firmed, the White House was actu­al­ly look­ing for a way to invade Iraq well before the ter­ror­ist attacks. 

But such an unpro­voked inva­sion of a sov­er­eign coun­try required a pub­lic ratio­nale. And so the Bush admin­is­tra­tion struck fear into the hearts of Amer­i­cans about Sad­dam Hussein’s sup­posed WMD, start­ing with nuclear arms. In his first major address on the Iraqi threat” in Octo­ber 2002, Pres­i­dent Bush invoked fiery images of mush­room clouds and may­hem, say­ing, Iraq is recon­sti­tut­ing its nuclear weapons pro­gram.”

Yet, before that speech, the White House had intel­li­gence call­ing this asser­tion into ques­tion. A 1997 report by the U.N.’s Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency (IAEA) – the agency whose pur­pose is to pre­vent nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion – stat­ed there was no indi­ca­tion Iraq ever achieved nuclear capa­bil­i­ty or had any phys­i­cal capac­i­ty for pro­duc­ing weapons-grade nuclear mate­r­i­al in the near future.

In Feb­ru­ary 2001, the CIA deliv­ered a report to the White House that said: We do not have any direct evi­dence that Iraq has used the peri­od since Desert Fox to recon­sti­tute its weapons of mass destruc­tion pro­grams.” The report was so defin­i­tive that Sec­re­tary of State Col­in Pow­ell said in a sub­se­quent press con­fer­ence, Sad­dam Hus­sein has not devel­oped any sig­nif­i­cant capa­bil­i­ty with respect to weapons of mass destruction.”

Ten months before the president’s speech, an intel­li­gence review by CIA Direc­tor George Tenet con­tained not a sin­gle men­tion of an immi­nent nuclear threat – or capa­bil­i­ty – from Iraq. The CIA was backed up by Bush’s own State Depart­ment: Around the time Bush gave his speech, the department’s intel­li­gence bureau said that evi­dence did not add up to a com­pelling case that Iraq is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing what [we] con­sid­er to be an inte­grat­ed and com­pre­hen­sive approach to acquir­ing nuclear weapons.”

Nonethe­less, the admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ued to push for­ward. In March 2003, Cheney went on nation­al tele­vi­sion days before the war and claimed Iraq has recon­sti­tut­ed nuclear weapons.” He was echoed by State Depart­ment spokesman Richard Bouch­er, who told reporters of sup­pos­ed­ly grave con­cerns about Iraq’s poten­tial nuclear programs.”

Even after the inva­sion, when troops failed to uncov­er any evi­dence of nuclear weapons, the White House refused to admit the truth. In July 2003, Con­doleez­za Rice told PBS’s Gwen Ifill that the administration’s nuclear asser­tions were absolute­ly sup­port­able.” That same month, White House spokesman Scott McClel­lan insist­ed: There’s a lot of evi­dence show­ing that Iraq was recon­sti­tut­ing its nuclear weapons program.”

They knew the alu­minum tubes were not for nuclear weapons

To back up claims that Iraq was active­ly try­ing to build nuclear weapons, the admin­is­tra­tion referred to Iraq’s impor­ta­tion of alu­minum tubes, which Bush offi­cials said were for enrich­ing ura­ni­um. In Decem­ber 2002, Pow­ell said, Iraq has tried to obtain high-strength alu­minum tubes which can be used to enrich ura­ni­um in cen­trifuges for a nuclear weapons pro­gram.” Sim­i­lar­ly, in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush said Iraq has attempt­ed to pur­chase high-strength alu­minum tubes suit­able for nuclear weapons pro­duc­tion.”

But, in Octo­ber 2002, well before these and oth­er admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials made this claim, two key agen­cies told the White House exact­ly the oppo­site. The State Depart­ment affirmed reports from Ener­gy Depart­ment experts who con­clud­ed those tubes were ill-suit­ed for any kind of ura­ni­um enrich­ment. And accord­ing to mem­os released by the Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, the State Depart­ment also warned Pow­ell not to use the alu­minum tubes hypoth­e­sis in the days before his Feb­ru­ary 2003 U.N. speech. He refused and used the alu­minum tubes claim any­way.

The State Department’s warn­ings were soon val­i­dat­ed by the IAEA. In March 2003, the agency’s direc­tor stat­ed, Iraq’s efforts to import these alu­minum tubes were not like­ly to be relat­ed” to nuclear weapons deployment.

Yet, this evi­dence did not stop the White House either. Pre­tend­ing the admin­is­tra­tion nev­er received any warn­ings at all, Rice claimed in July 2003 that the con­sen­sus view” in the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty was that the tubes were suit­able for use in cen­trifuges to spin mate­r­i­al for nuclear weapons.”

Today, experts agree the administration’s alu­minum tube claims were whol­ly with­out merit.

They knew the Iraq-ura­ni­um claims were not supported

In one of the most famous state­ments about Iraq’s sup­posed nuclear arse­nals, Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address, The British gov­ern­ment has learned that Sad­dam Hus­sein recent­ly sought sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties of ura­ni­um from Africa.” The care­ful phras­ing of this state­ment high­lights how dis­hon­est it was. By attribut­ing the claim to an allied gov­ern­ment, the White House made a pow­er­ful charge yet pro­tect­ed itself against any con­se­quences should it be proved false. In fact, the pres­i­dent invoked the British because his own intel­li­gence experts had ear­li­er warned the White House not to make the claim at all.

In the fall of 2002, the CIA told admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials not to include this ura­ni­um asser­tion in pres­i­den­tial speech­es. Specif­i­cal­ly, the agency sent two mem­os to the White House and Tenet per­son­al­ly called top nation­al secu­ri­ty offi­cials implor­ing them not to use the claim. While the warn­ings forced the White House to remove a ura­ni­um ref­er­ence from an Octo­ber 2002 pres­i­den­tial address, they did not stop the charge from being includ­ed in the 2003 State of the Union.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, evi­dence soon emerged that forced the White House to admit the decep­tion. In March 2003, IAEA Direc­tor Mohammed El Baradei said there was no proof Iraq had nuclear weapons and added doc­u­ments which formed the basis for [the White House’s asser­tion] of recent ura­ni­um trans­ac­tions between Iraq and Niger are in fact not authen­tic.” But when Cheney was asked about this a week lat­er, he said, Mr. El Baradei frankly is wrong.”

Bush and Rice both tried to blame the CIA for the fail­ure, say­ing the asser­tion was cleared by the intel­li­gence ser­vices.” When the intel­li­gence agency pro­duced the mem­os it had sent to the White House on the sub­ject, Rice didn’t miss a beat, telling Meet The Press it is quite pos­si­ble that I didn’t” read the mem­os at all – as if they were option­al” read­ing for the nation’s top nation­al secu­ri­ty offi­cial on the eve of war. At about this time, some high-lev­el admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial or offi­cials leaked to the press that Ambas­sador Joseph Wilson’s wife was an under­cov­er CIA agent – a move wide­ly seen as an attempt by the admin­is­tra­tion to pun­ish Wil­son for his July 6, 2003 New York Times op-ed that stat­ed he had found no evi­dence of an Iraqi effort to pur­chase ura­ni­um from Niger.

In recent weeks, right-wing pun­dits have point­ed to new evi­dence show­ing the Iraq ura­ni­um charge may have flirt­ed with the truth at some point in the dis­tant past. These White House hatch­et men say the admin­is­tra­tion did not manip­u­late or cher­ry-pick intel­li­gence. They also tout the recent British report (a.k.a. The But­ler Report) as defend­ing the president’s ura­ni­um claim. Yet, if the White House did not cher­ry-pick or manip­u­late intel­li­gence, why did the pres­i­dent trum­pet U.S. intel­li­gence from a for­eign gov­ern­ment while ignor­ing explic­it warn­ings not to do so from his own? The record shows U.S. intel­li­gence offi­cials explic­it­ly warned the White House that the Brits have exag­ger­at­ed this issue.” Yet, the admin­is­tra­tion refused to lis­ten. Even The But­ler Report itself acknowl­edges the evi­dence is cloudy. As non­pro­lif­er­a­tion expert Joseph Cir­in­cione of the Carnegie Endow­ment for Inter­na­tion­al Peace recent­ly point­ed out, The claim appears shaky at best – hard­ly the stuff that should make up pres­i­den­tial decisions.”

But now, instead of con­tri­tion, Repub­li­cans are insist­ing the White House’s ura­ni­um charge was accu­rate. Indeed, these apol­o­gists have no option but to try to dis­tract pub­lic atten­tion from the sim­ple truth that not a shred of sol­id evi­dence exists to sub­stan­ti­ate this key charge that fueled the push for war.

They knew there was no hard evi­dence of chem­i­cal or bio­log­i­cal weapons

In Sep­tem­ber 2002, Pres­i­dent Bush said Iraq could launch a bio­log­i­cal or chem­i­cal attack in as lit­tle as 45 min­utes after the order is giv­en.” The next month, he deliv­ered a major speech to out­line the Iraqi threat,” just two days before a crit­i­cal U.N. vote. In his address, he claimed with­out doubt that Iraq pos­sess­es and pro­duces chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal weapons.” He said that Iraq has a grow­ing fleet of manned and unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles (UAVs) that could be used to dis­perse chem­i­cal or bio­log­i­cal weapons” and that the gov­ern­ment was con­cerned Iraq is explor­ing ways of using these UAVs for mis­sions tar­get­ing the Unit­ed States.”

What he did not say was that the White House had been explic­it­ly warned that these asser­tions were unproved. 

As the Wash­ing­ton Post lat­er report­ed, Bush ignored the fact that U.S. intel­li­gence mis­trust­ed the source” of the 45-minute claim and, there­fore, omit­ted it from its intel­li­gence esti­mates. And Bush ignored the fact that the Defense Intel­li­gence Agency pre­vi­ous­ly sub­mit­ted a report to the admin­is­tra­tion find­ing no reli­able infor­ma­tion” to prove Iraq was pro­duc­ing or stock­pil­ing chem­i­cal weapons. Accord­ing to Newsweek, the con­clu­sion was sim­i­lar to the find­ings of a 1998 gov­ern­ment com­mis­sion on WMD chaired by Rums­feld.

Bush also neglect­ed to point out that in ear­ly Octo­ber 2002, the administration’s top mil­i­tary experts told the White House they sharply dis­put­ed the notion that Iraq’s Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cles were being designed as attack weapons.” Specif­i­cal­ly, the Air Force’s Nation­al Air and Space Intel­li­gence Cen­ter cor­rect­ly showed the drones in ques­tion were too heavy to be used to deploy chem­i­cal/bi­o­log­i­cal-weapons spray devices.

Regard­less, the chemical/​biological weapons claims from the admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ued to esca­late. Pow­ell told the Unit­ed Nations on Feb­ru­ary 5, 2003, There can be no doubt that Sad­dam Hus­sein has bio­log­i­cal weapons and the capa­bil­i­ty to rapid­ly pro­duce more, many more.” As proof, he cit­ed aer­i­al images of a sup­posed decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion vehi­cle cir­cling a sus­pect­ed weapons site.

Accord­ing to new­ly released doc­u­ments in the Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee report, Powell’s own top intel­li­gence experts told him not to make such claims about the pho­tographs. They said the vehi­cles were like­ly water trucks. He ignored their warnings.

On March 6, 2003, just weeks before the inva­sion, the pres­i­dent went fur­ther than Pow­ell. He claimed, Iraqi oper­a­tives con­tin­ue to hide bio­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal agents.”

To date, no chem­i­cal or bio­log­i­cal weapons have been found in Iraq.

They knew Sad­dam and bin Laden were not collaborating

In the sum­mer of 2002, USA Today report­ed White House lawyers had con­clud­ed that estab­lish­ing an Iraq-al Qae­da link would pro­vide the legal cov­er at the Unit­ed Nations for the admin­is­tra­tion to attack Iraq. Such a con­nec­tion, no doubt, also would pro­vide polit­i­cal cap­i­tal at home. And so, by the fall of 2002, the Iraq-al Qae­da drum­beat began.

It start­ed on Sep­tem­ber 25, 2002, when Bush said, you can’t dis­tin­guish between al Qae­da and Sad­dam.” This was news even to mem­bers of Bush’s own polit­i­cal par­ty who had access to clas­si­fied intel­li­gence. Just a month before, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R‑Neb.), who serves on the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee, said, Sad­dam is not in league with al Qae­da‚ I have not seen any intel­li­gence that would lead me to con­nect Sad­dam Hus­sein to al Qaeda.

To no sur­prise, the day after Bush’s state­ment, USA Today report­ed sev­er­al intel­li­gence experts expressed skep­ti­cism” about the claim, with a Pen­ta­gon offi­cial call­ing the president’s asser­tion an exag­ger­a­tion.” No mat­ter, Bush ignored these con­cerns and that day described Sad­dam Hus­sein as a man who loves to link up with al Qae­da.” Mean­while, Rums­feld held a press con­fer­ence trum­pet­ing bul­let­proof” evi­dence of a con­nec­tion – a sen­ti­ment echoed by Rice and White House spokesman Ari Fleis­ch­er. And while the New York Times not­ed, the offi­cials offered no details to back up the asser­tions,” Rums­feld nonethe­less insist­ed his claims were accu­rate and not debat­able.”

With­in days, the accu­sa­tions became more than just debat­able”; they were debunked. Ger­man Defense Min­is­ter Peter Stuck said the day after Rumsfeld’s press con­fer­ence that his coun­try was not aware of any con­nec­tion” between Iraq and al Qaeda’s efforts to acquire chem­i­cal weapons. The Orlan­do Sen­tinel report­ed that ter­ror­ism expert Peter Bergen – one of the few to actu­al­ly inter­view Osama bin Laden – said the con­nec­tion between Iraq and al Qae­da are min­i­mal. In Octo­ber 2002, Knight Rid­der report­ed, a grow­ing num­ber of mil­i­tary offi­cers, intel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als and diplo­mats in [Bush’s] own gov­ern­ment pri­vate­ly have deep mis­giv­ings” about the Iraq-al Qae­da claims. The experts charged that admin­is­tra­tion hawks exag­ger­at­ed evi­dence.” A senior U.S. offi­cial told the Philadel­phia Inquir­er that intel­li­gence ana­lysts con­test the administration’s sug­ges­tion of a major link between Iraq and al Qaeda.” 

While this evi­dence forced British Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair and oth­er allies to refrain from play­ing up an Iraq-al Qae­da con­nec­tion, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion refused to be deterred by facts.

On Novem­ber 1, 2002, Pres­i­dent Bush claimed, We know [Iraq has] got ties with al Qae­da.” Four days lat­er, Europe’s top ter­ror­ism inves­ti­ga­tor Jean-Louis Bruguiere report­ed: We have found no evi­dence of links between Iraq and al Qae­da. If there were such links, we would have found them. But we have found no seri­ous con­nec­tions what­so­ev­er.” British For­eign Sec­re­tary Jack Straw, whose coun­try was help­ing build the case for war, admit­ted, What I’m asked is if I’ve seen any evi­dence of [Iraq-al Qae­da con­nec­tions]. And the answer is: I haven’t.’ “

Soon, an avalanche of evi­dence appeared indi­cat­ing the White House was delib­er­ate­ly mis­lead­ing Amer­i­ca. In Jan­u­ary 2003, intel­li­gence offi­cials told the Los Ange­les Times that they were puz­zled by the administration’s new push” to cre­ate the per­cep­tion of an Iraq-al Qae­da con­nec­tion and said the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty has dis­count­ed – if not dis­missed – infor­ma­tion believed to point to pos­si­ble links between Iraq and al Qae­da.” One intel­li­gence offi­cial said, There isn’t a fac­tu­al basis” for the administration’s con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry about the so-called connection.

On the morn­ing of Feb­ru­ary 5, 2003, the same day Pow­ell deliv­ered his U.N. speech, British intel­li­gence leaked a com­pre­hen­sive report find­ing no sub­stan­tial links between Iraq and al Qae­da. The BBC report­ed that British intel­li­gence offi­cials main­tained any fledg­ling rela­tion­ship [between Iraq and al Qae­da] foundered due to mis­trust and incom­pat­i­ble ide­olo­gies.” Pow­ell, nonethe­less, stood before the Unit­ed Nations and claimed there was a sin­is­ter nexus between Iraq and the al Qae­da.” A month lat­er, Rice backed him up, say­ing al Qae­da clear­ly has had links to the Iraqis.” And in his March 17, 2003, speech on the eve of war, Bush jus­ti­fied the inva­sion by cit­ing the ful­ly dis­cred­it­ed Iraq-al Qae­da link.

When the war com­menced, the house of cards came down. In June 2003, the chair­man of the U.N. group that mon­i­tors al Qae­da told reporters his team found no evi­dence link­ing the ter­ror­ist group to Iraq. In July 2003, the Los Ange­les Times report­ed the bipar­ti­san con­gres­sion­al report ana­lyz­ing Sep­tem­ber 11 under­cut Bush admin­is­tra­tion claims before the war that Hus­sein had links to al Qae­da.” Mean­while, the New York Times report­ed, Coali­tion forces have not brought to light any sig­nif­i­cant evi­dence demon­strat­ing the bond between Iraq and al Qae­da.” In August 2003, three for­mer Bush admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials came for­ward to admit pre-war evi­dence tying al Qae­da to Iraq was ten­u­ous, exag­ger­at­ed, and often at odds with the con­clu­sions of key intel­li­gence agencies.”

Yet, the White House insist­ed on main­tain­ing the decep­tion. In the fall of 2003, Pres­i­dent Bush said, There’s no ques­tion that Sad­dam Hus­sein had al Qae­da ties.” And Cheney claimed Iraq had an estab­lished rela­tion­ship to al Qae­da.” When the media final­ly began demand­ing proof for all the alle­ga­tions, Pow­ell offered a glim­mer of con­tri­tion. In Jan­u­ary 2004, he con­ced­ed that there was no smok­ing gun” to prove the claim. His admis­sion was soon fol­lowed by a March 2004 Knight Rid­der report that quot­ed admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials con­ced­ing there nev­er was any evi­dence that Hussein’s sec­u­lar police state and Osama bin Laden’s Islam­ic ter­ror net­work were in league.”

But Powell’s state­ment was the excep­tion, not the norm. The White House still refus­es to acknowl­edge wrong­do­ing, and instead resorts to the clas­sic two-step feint, cit­ing sources but con­ve­nient­ly refus­ing to acknowl­edge those sources’ crit­i­cal faults.

For instance, Cheney began point­ing reporters to an arti­cle in the right-wing Week­ly Stan­dard as the best source” of evi­dence back­ing the Sad­dam-al Qae­da claim, even though the Pen­ta­gon had pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cred­it­ed the sto­ry. Sim­i­lar­ly, in June, the Republican’s media spin machine came to the aid of the White House and pro­mot­ed a New York Times arti­cle about a doc­u­ment show­ing failed efforts by bin Laden to work with Iraq in the mid-’90s against Sau­di Ara­bia. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the spin­ners did not men­tion the article’s key find­ing – a Pen­ta­gon task force found that the doc­u­ment described no for­mal alliance being reached between Mr. bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence.”

When the 911 Com­mis­sion found no cred­i­ble evi­dence” of a col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ship between Iraq and al Qae­da, the White House denials came as no sur­prise. Cheney defi­ant­ly claimed there was over­whelm­ing evi­dence” of a link, pro­vid­ed no evi­dence, and then berat­ed the media and the com­mis­sion for hav­ing the nerve to report the obvi­ous. Bush did not feel the need to jus­ti­fy his dis­tor­tions, say­ing after the report came out, The rea­son I keep insist­ing that there was a rela­tion­ship between Iraq and Sad­dam and al Qae­da is because there was a rela­tion­ship between Iraq and al Qae­da.”

That was the per­fect answer from an admin­is­tra­tion that nev­er lets the fac­tu­al record impinge on what it says to the Amer­i­can public.

They knew there was no Prague meeting

One of the key pil­lars of the Iraq-al Qae­da myth was a White House-backed sto­ry claim­ing 911 hijack­er Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi spy in April 2001. The tale orig­i­nal­ly came from a lone Czech infor­mant who said he saw the ter­ror­ist in Prague at the time. White House hawks, eager to link al Qae­da with Sad­dam, did not wait to ver­i­fy the sto­ry, and instead imme­di­ate­ly used it to punch up argu­ments for a pre­emp­tive attack on Iraq. On Novem­ber 14, 2001, Cheney claimed Atta was in Prague in April of this year, as well as ear­li­er.” On Decem­ber 9, 2001, he went fur­ther, claim­ing with­out proof that the Atta meet­ing was pret­ty well con­firmed.”

Nine days lat­er, the Czech gov­ern­ment report­ed there was no evi­dence that Atta met with an Iraqi intel­li­gence agent in Prague. Czech Police Chief Jiri Kolar said there were no doc­u­ments show­ing Atta had been in Prague that entire year, and Czech offi­cials told Newsweek that the uncor­rob­o­rat­ed wit­ness who per­pet­u­at­ed the sto­ry should have been viewed with more skep­ti­cism.

By the spring of 2002, major news pub­li­ca­tions such as the Wash­ing­ton Post, the New York Times, Newsweek and Time were run­ning sto­ries call­ing the Prague con­nec­tion” an embar­rass­ing” mis­take and stat­ing that, accord­ing to Euro­pean offi­cials, the intel­li­gence sup­port­ing the claim was some­where between slim’ and none’.” The sto­ries also quot­ed admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials and CIA and FBI ana­lysts say­ing that on clos­er scruti­ny, there was no evi­dence Atta left or returned to the Unit­ed State at the time he was sup­posed to be in Prague.” Even FBI Direc­tor Robert S. Mueller III, a Bush polit­i­cal appointee, admit­ted in April 2002, We ran down lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of thou­sands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on, from flight reser­va­tions to car rentals to bank accounts,” but found nothing.

But that was not good enough for the admin­is­tra­tion, which instead of let­ting the sto­ry go, began try­ing to manip­u­late intel­li­gence to turn fan­ta­sy into real­i­ty. In August 2002, when FBI case offi­cers told Deputy Defense Sec­re­tary Paul Wol­fowitz that there was no Atta meet­ing, Newsweek report­ed Wol­fowitz vig­or­ous­ly chal­lenged them.” Wol­fowitz want­ed the FBI to endorse claims that Atta and the Iraqi spy had met. FBI coun­tert­er­ror­ism chief Pat D’Amuro refused.

In Sep­tem­ber 2002, the CIA hand­ed Cheney a clas­si­fied intel­li­gence assess­ment that cast spe­cif­ic, seri­ous doubt on whether the Atta meet­ing ever occurred. Yet, that same month, Richard Per­le, then chair­man of the Bush’s Defense Pol­i­cy Board, said, Muham­mad Atta met [a secret col­lab­o­ra­tor of Sad­dam Hus­sein] pri­or to Sep­tem­ber 11. We have proof of that, and we are sure he wasn’t just there for a hol­i­day.” In the same breath, Per­le open­ly admit­ted, The meet­ing is one of the motives for an Amer­i­can attack on Iraq.”

By the win­ter of 2002, even America’s allies were telling the admin­is­tra­tion to relent: In Novem­ber, British For­eign Sec­re­tary Jack Straw said he had seen no evi­dence of a meet­ing in Prague between Atta and an Iraqi intel­li­gence agent. 

But it did not stop. In Sep­tem­ber 2003, on Meet the Press,” Cheney dredged up the sto­ry again, say­ing, With respect to 911, of course, we’ve had the sto­ry that’s been pub­lic out there. The Czechs alleged that Mohammed Atta, the lead attack­er, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intel­li­gence offi­cial five months before the attack.” He pro­vid­ed no new evi­dence, opt­ed not to men­tion that the Czechs long ago had with­drawn the alle­ga­tions, and ignored new evi­dence that showed the sto­ry was like­ly untrue.

Even today, with all of the intel­li­gence firm­ly against him, Cheney remains unre­pen­tant. Asked in June about whether the meet­ing had occurred, he admit­ted, That’s nev­er been proven.” Then he added, It’s nev­er been refut­ed.” When CNBC’s Glo­ria Borg­er asked about his ini­tial claim that the meet­ing was pret­ty well con­firmed,” Cheney snapped, No, I nev­er said that. I nev­er said that. Absolute­ly not.”

His actu­al words in Decem­ber 2001: It’s been pret­ty well con­firmed that [Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior offi­cial of the Iraqi intel­li­gence service.”

In oth­er words, Cheney hit a new low. He resort­ed not only to lying about the sto­ry, but lying about lying about the story.

Con­clu­sion: They knew they were mis­lead­ing America

In his March 17, 2003 address prepar­ing Amer­i­ca for the Iraq inva­sion, Pres­i­dent Bush stat­ed unequiv­o­cal­ly that there was an Iraq-al Qae­da nexus and that there was no doubt that the Iraq régime con­tin­ues to pos­sess and con­ceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”

In the con­text of what we now know the White House knew at the time, Bush was delib­er­ate­ly dis­hon­est. The intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty repeat­ed­ly told the White House there were many deep cracks in its case for war. The president’s will­ing­ness to ignore such warn­ings and make these unequiv­o­cal state­ments proves the admin­is­tra­tion was inten­tion­al­ly paint­ing a black-and-white pic­ture when it knew the facts mer­it­ed only gray at best.

That has meant severe con­se­quences for all Amer­i­cans. Finan­cial­ly, U.S. tax­pay­ers have shelled out more than $166 bil­lion for the Iraq war, and more will soon be need­ed. Geopo­lit­i­cal­ly, our coun­try is more iso­lat­ed from allies than ever, with anti-Amer­i­can­ism on the rise through­out the globe. 

And we are less secure. A recent U.S. Army War Col­lege report says the inva­sion of Iraq was a diver­sion from the more nar­row focus on defeat­ing al Qae­da.” U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahi­mi put it this way: The war in Iraq was use­less, it caused more prob­lems than it solved, and it brought in terrorism.” 

These state­ments are borne out by the facts: The Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute of Strate­gic Stud­ies in Lon­don reports al Qae­da is now 18,000 strong, with many new recruits join­ing as a result of the war in Iraq. Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, the White House recent­ly said the Amer­i­can home­land faces an immi­nent threat of a ter­ror­ist attack from a still-active al Qae­da oper­a­tion in Afghanistan. Yet, the admin­is­tra­tion actu­al­ly moved spe­cial forces out of Afghanistan in 2002 to pre­pare for an inva­sion of Iraq. Because of this, we face the absurd sit­u­a­tion where­by we have no more than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan hunt­ing down those who direct­ly threat­en us, yet have 140,000 troops in Iraq – a coun­try that was not a seri­ous men­ace before invasion.

Of course, it is those troops who have it the worst. Our men and women in uni­form are bogged down in a quag­mire, forced to lay down life and limb for a lie. 

To be sure, neo­con­ser­v­a­tive pun­dits and Bush admin­is­tra­tion hawks will con­tin­ue to blame any­one but the White House for these decep­tions. They also will say intel­li­gence gave a bit of cre­dence to some of the pre-war claims, and that is cer­tain­ly true.

But noth­ing can negate the clear proof that Pres­i­dent Bush and oth­er admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial offi­cials vast­ly over­stat­ed the intel­li­gence they were giv­en. They engaged in a cal­cu­lat­ed and well-coor­di­nat­ed effort to turn a war of choice in Iraq into a per­ceived war of immi­nent necessity. 

And we are all left pay­ing the price.

David Siro­ta, who writes the Truth & Con­se­quences” col­umn in In These Times, is direc­tor of strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress. Christy Har­vey is deputy direc­tor of strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress.
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