Politics & Media

Beyond The Sixteen Words That Lead to War

John Prados'  book Hoodwinked, The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War uses smoking gun evidence to expose the administration that knowingly deceived the American public in the build up to the Iraq War.

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Many Americans are vaguely aware that George W. Bush lied us into a war. Everyone knows about the infamous 16 words in his State of the Union speech and Valerie Plame. But few appreciate the full extent to which the administration brazenly manipulated intelligence, the United Nations, Congress, the media and ultimately the American people. The common perception is that Bush was just misled by his intelligence analysts. That he may have been wrong about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction but was only acting according to what the CIA told him. This is false.

In perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of the Iraq war deception, Hoodwinked, The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (published in 2004), John Prados, an analyst for the National Security Archive who has spent decades observing the CIA, exposes in great detail with smoking gun evidence how the administration knowingly deceived the public and forced CIA director George Tenet to take the fall during the lead-up to war. With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the recent propaganda blitzes by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, now is an important time to reflect on where our government has taken us since that fateful September morning, as the assault on truth and the rule of law launched by Bush has opened the floodgates for executive overreach, which has arguably increased under Obama.

On August 29, 2002, Bush issued a directive for “the essential marching orders, the goals, objectives, and strategy for a war on Iraq,” according to Prados. On this day, in other words, Iraq’s fate was sealed. All that was left to do was persuade the American people that war was essential for national security.

“Until August [2002],” Prados writes, “the Bush administration had assumed it could launch a pre-emptive war against Iraq without qualms about public opinion. Even then the White House still supposed that a war could be conducted without formal authorization, on the authority of the president as commander-in-chief, and under the Congressional resolution hastily passed after the 9/11 attacks. That notion evaporated in the first days of September. While it seemed desirable in the White House to avoid any declaration of war or congressional authorizing resolution, political soundings confirmed that would be a dangerous path to take [because the public was already becoming skeptical about Bush’s Iraq policy]. Once it became clear to Bush that the road to war would have to comply with a legislative process, political concerns assumed tremendous importance.”

Accordingly, Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card created a special unit called the White House Information Group (WHIG), which was designed “to ensure that elements throughout the executive office were working the Iraq issue,” Prados writes. Rumsfeld launched a parallel unit at the Pentagon. WHIG was so important “that it rated the super secret Situation Room for its weekly meetings and was chaired by the president’s political guru Karl Rove.”  Members of the group included Condoleezza Rice, Scooter Libby, and Bush’s chief congressional lobbyist, Nicolas E. Calio. Cheney exerted tremendous influence over WHIG, and the unit had “the highest presidential priority,” Prados says.

This propaganda machine paved the way for war. It launched a campaign to convince a skeptical American public that Saddam was a serious threat to the United States. In doing so, it grossly distorted and manipulated efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations, and intelligence community. Everything was orchestrated consciously and deliberately.

On September 6, 2002, the Bush administration offered the media a “new” report from the IAEA, which indicated that satellite photos depicted construction at hundreds of Iraqi buildings, including several nuclear sites. The IAEA had established months before that the construction had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, asserting “construction of a building is one thing. Restarting a nuclear program is another.” Nevertheless, Bush publicly referred to the report to support his case for regime change, saying, “I don’t know what more evidence we need.”

That very day, the administration issued its next strategic leak to The New York Times charging that Saddam sought to buy aluminum tubes to construct a nuclear weapon. Cheney appeared on Meet the Press shortly thereafter to reiterate the allegation, and Rice followed up on CNN with a warning about mushroom shaped clouds. This was a carefully orchestrated disinformation campaign. A little over a week later, David Albright, a physicist who had worked in Iraq as a UN inspector in 1996, “showed convincingly that the tubes were of dubious value as components of centrifuges,” according to Prados, because the specifications and construction of the tubes could not have been used to build a bomb. Furthermore, Prados says leaks from the UK revealed that British intelligence “believed the tubes were not for nuclear programs.” Nevertheless, Bush had planted the seeds for his impending UN speech.

On September 12, Bush made his case for regime change at the United Nations, charging Saddam of violating UN resolutions and claiming that Iraq “would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year” if they were to acquire fissile material. The next day the WHIG unit released its first public paper called “A Decade of Deception and Defiance,” detailing Saddam’s contempt for international law. On September 17, the government of Iraq announced it would permit UN inspectors to return and investigate all weapons programs without restraint.

In truth, Bush did not care what the United Nations concluded. He was going to war no matter what. He appealed to the UN to manipulate Congress and the public. When Bush asked Congress to authorize the use of force on September 19, he created the false impression that the effort to disarm Iraq would be a UN initiative, and that the threat of US military action was merely supposed to give the inspections scheme teeth, leading the public to believe the UN would place checks and balances on American power. But this was a cynical ruse. According to Prados, “Bush encouraged that impression even as his administration argued at the UN for a Security Council resolution that would permit war at the first sign of Iraqi intransigence, and moved openly to put forces in place for the invasion.”

The administration took some highly unusual measures in dealing with the United Nations inspections effort. According to Prados, Rice “became the first adviser to deal openly with a subordinate UN body, in this case Hans Blix’s UNMOVIC, in an attempt to influence its activities.” When Blix began the investigation into Iraq’s WMD, the Bush administration did not readily supply him with intelligence about where the weapons were. This was problematic because, as Prados explains, “section 10 of Security Council Resolution 1441, the very UN inspection authority that Washington relied on and needed for war, called upon member states to provide the international inspectors with all available intelligence help.”

As such, Blix publicly asked Washington to provide him with the intel. In response, the Bush administration pressured Blix to send the White House reports from UNMOVIC about the inspections in exchange for intelligence. Ultimately, it took Bush a month to send Blix a limited flow of U.S. intelligence, which Blix described as “a little opaque,” and the President withheld some “sensitive” data. Meanwhile, “Washington moved rapidly ahead with war preparations during this same period,” Prados says. “General Franks tested his plan with an exercise held at command posts in the Gulf and at home. Secretary Rumsfeld signed deployment orders for large combat forces just before Christmas, and additional personnel of the Reserves and National Guard were mobilized just after that holiday.”

The farcical nature of Washington’s approach to the inspections is further highlighted by the fact that Bush made demands he knew Saddam could not fulfill. In his speech outlining the Iraqi threat, delivered in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, he declared that, “In addition to destroying all of its weapons of mass destruction, Iraq must end its support for terrorism. It must cease the persecution of its civilian population. It must stop all illicit trade outside the Oil for Food program. It must release or account for all Gulf War personnel, including an American pilot, whose fate is still unknown.”

These demands go well beyond the UN resolutions, which were solely focused on disarmament. According to Prados, “it was highly unlikely Saddam Hussein would agree to any such conditions, as Bush well knew. In essence, President Bush designed a set of demands likely to ensure a war. As desirable as it was to get the Saddam regime to end its domestic repression and manipulation of the sanctions system, to proceed in this fashion was a clear interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, prohibited by both the UN Charter and U.S. law.”

Throughout the inspections, every step of the way the White House unleashed propaganda blitzes to counter revelations that no WMD had been found. The WHIG unit, Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld and co. all stayed on message that they knew Iraq had weapons and were deceiving the inspectors.  But UNMOVIC found nothing. And on the morning of Bush’s State of the Union speech, Blix “reported no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found despite 300 visits to 230 different sites,” according to Prados. Furthermore, after conducting 139 visits and inspecting 106 sites, the IAEA issued a report that Prados says “discredited the Bush administration’s claims regarding Iraq’s importing aluminum tubes, finding no connection between those and any nuclear enrichment effort.” The IAEA said “we have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons program since the elimination of the program in the 1990’s.”

With little time left before the State of the Union, the administration frantically searched for a way to salvage its case for war. This is where the 16 words come into play. Prados reports “the White House communications staff now decided to change the State of the Union draft so as to attribute each of its statements about Saddam’s Iraq to a specific source. Three lines of the speech were changed, resulting in the ‘Sixteen Words’ storm.” Bush had wanted to include the 16 words in his Cincinnati speech months earlier. But the CIA advised against it, saying the intelligence was unreliable.

Nevertheless, the 16 words appeared in the State of the Union, and Bush shamelessly forced CIA director Tenet to take the fall afterwards.

Sadly, this is far from the only case in which Tenet did Bush’s dirty work and accepted blame. The entire buildup to war revolved around misinformation coming out of the CIA. Tenet found himself in a very precarious position because many had been calling for his removal after the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11. It was essential therefore, that he maintain the President’s approval.

When Congress asked for a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) before granting authorization for force against Iraq, two highly unusual things occurred. First, Prados explains that this was “the first time in U.S. history that the legislative branch of government, not the executive, provided the impetus for such high-level intelligence analysis as the subject received.” In truth, according to Prados, “the White House did not want a national estimate about Iraq [his italics]” because they knew it might undermine their case for war.

But when Congress requested the NIE, Cheney, who had “breathed down the CIA director’s neck when Tenet first briefed the top congressional leaders at the beginning of September,” visited CIA headquarters several times during the months leading up to war. Prados says “this kind of interference from the executive branch is extremely unusual; vice presidents almost never go out to the CIA except for morale purposes or ceremonial occasions. Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush (I), and Clinton had each been to the CIA once, Reagan twice perhaps, never for a working visit, their vice presidents never at all. Rather, the CIA’s briefers go to them.”

The NIE was hastily produced, “completed in a single meeting,” according to Prados, “where such scrubbing often take weeks and numerous sessions of the high-level board to complete,” a “fact in itself” which “suggests that a directed position might have been involved.” Although the NIE, which had been only partially declassified when Hoodwinked was published, largely said what Bush wanted it to say—that “Iraq could make nuclear weapons in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons grade [sic] material”—it also reflected the general consensus in the intelligence community by establishing that “Iraq does not have a nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make one,” and projecting that Iraq won’t acquire a nuclear weapon until at least 2007-09. It further concluded that there was little reason to believe Saddam would be foolish enough to use a nuclear weapon against the United States, especially considering that he had never threatened America.

Shortly after, powerful Congressmen working on crafting a war resolution told the White House they needed a public document with evidence of the Iraqi threat to make their case for war. Accordingly, Bush had Tenet release a white paper with select “facts” culled from the NIE for public consumption. Prados says, “the white paper’s specific purpose was to help the Bush administration secure passage of a war resolution against Iraq. It represented a special effort, a public intelligence estimate of a kind the CIA has produced only a few times in its past, always when an administration wished to persuade Americans of a threat. Notable examples are white papers from the 1980’s on an alleged Nicaraguan threat to Central America, and on Soviet laser missile defense capabilities.”

The white paper is one of the most ominous elements of Bush’s hoodwinking of America. There are “over a dozen instances in which important qualifiers applied to intelligence judgments in the NIE were dropped from the CIA white paper,” which “had the effect of converting cautious evaluations into assertions of fact.” The white paper is filled with blatant lies, revisions, and suppression.

Some of the highlights include suppressing the fact that the Department of Energy, which is “the most expert U.S. agency on centrifuge technology” according to Prados, dissented on the allegation that Iraq was acquiring aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment. The white paper also fraudulently charges that “Baghdad has begun renewed production of chemical warfare agents” even though the CIA knew this to be false. It further claims Iraq had restarted its nuclear program even though “evidence available at the time of the drafting implied the opposite of the U.S. claim of reconstitution” according to Prados, as the IAEA had already conducted 139 inspections and said there was no weapons program, and in the NIE the State Department’s intelligence unit dissented from the view that Iraq restarted its program.

Even more brazen is the map of supposed Iraqi weapons sites. Prados reveals that the map was actually made in 1990-91 during the Gulf War. “While the map is impressive,” he explains, “claims of Iraqi power as of 1991 are not relevant to an evaluation of Iraqi capabilities in 2002.” Similarly, the white paper claims Baghdad possessed nerve gas even though “Iraqi weapons program manager Hussein Kamel [Saddam’s brother-in-law, who was eventually murdered by the dictator], who defected in 1995, told UN weapons inspectors that Iraq had made the gas, but destroyed all its stocks and dismantled the equipment for making that agent.”

Disturbingly, Prados says, “Kamel is cited repeatedly in Bush’s speeches… but only in contexts that call on his authoritative voice to reinforce claims that Iraq possessed powerful weapons of mass destruction.” In reality, across the board “Kamel’s testimony demonstrated the opposite” according to Prados, who adds, “the Bush administration’s treatment of Hussein Kamel’s testimony is plainly misleading.”

Ultimately, the administration’s entire case for war was a pack of egregious lies. Bush claimed the war was about keeping America safe from terror even though, as Prados reports, the NIE predicted an attack on Iraq would likely push Saddam to use weapons of mass destruction if he had any and help terrorist groups like Al Qaeda strike America. Astonishingly, Prados says “this implication was disguised by refusing to permit the public to see the language in the NIE. Congressmen who read the estimate, bound by the strictures of secrecy, could not reveal its contents.”

Leaked intelligence also shows that planners knew a guerilla war would breakout during the occupation, contrary to the message of Bush’s notorious “mission accomplished” speech. The administration, propelled by Rumsfeld’s bizarre insistence on using a smaller military presence, ignored the admonition. Likewise, “planning for the weapons search was completed so close to the invasion that it was impossible for CENTCOM to carry out the mission effectively,” which is “yet another bit of evidence suggesting the Iraqi weapons were less important to the Bush administration in fact than they were to its public relations posture,” Prados writes.

The fallout from Bush’s lies has been dramatic and ominous. When Senator Lindsey Graham asked the administration for more intelligence about Iraq before voting Bush refused, forcing Tenet to send Graham a short letter with limited information instead. This sets a dangerous precedent; the Bush White House effectively kept Congress out of the loop as much as possible all the while using Congress to obtain authority to invade Iraq without alienating the American public. That authority was granted on the assumption that Iraq posed an immediate threat to the United States and that the White House would comply with the UN inspection process.  It was not a blank check for regime change.

The administration later conceded there were no weapons of mass destruction. On top of this, the UN never gave Bush authority to attack Iraq. In fact, on March 19, the day America invaded, the IAEA released a document asserting Iraq posed no threat and had no WMD. Perversely, the UN resolution “would be used as the legal authority for an invasion the UN had not approved. Moreover, the sole reason the UN Security Council did not actually reject the U.S.-led invasion was that it never had the opportunity: Great Britain, acting under American instructions, took off the table a draft resolution for war once it became clear that it could not secure a Security Council approval.” Bush egregiously abused his powers by unilaterally starting a war of aggression without legitimate Congressional approval against a defenseless enemy.

Those who spoke out were punished. Government scientists who objected were expected to remain silent. Senior State Department intelligence analyst Greg Thielmann retired out of frustration over the administration’s pressuring analysts to reach the right conclusions. And on top of the Valerie Plame scandal, Prados says “senior CIA people with the Iraq task force and its analytical group were transferred out of those slots not long after the war” because they objected to the lies and exaggerations peddled by Tenet and Bush. Overall, “CIA officers were restive, dismayed at the disregard for their agency’s reporting displayed by the Bush people amid the administration’s drive into Iraq.”  

That Bush has not been brought to account for his crimes is an outrage. Americans and the rest of the world continue to suffer the consequences. There can be little doubt that Obama felt he could intervene in Libya without Congressional approval because Bush so brazenly manipulated Congress and abused his powers. The fact that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld can still promote their propaganda in spite of their crimes sends an ominous message. It appears 9/11 was the greatest thing that could have happened for Bush and the radicals who continue to make major foreign policy decisions. All abuses of power and government deceit are now justified by the “war on terror.” When the executive branch can start wars of aggression based on lies there are no limits to what it can do. 

—Read Marc Adler at thebloodycrossroads.com 

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