This article is adapted from “Mushroom Clouds,” the third episode of Slow Burn’s new season.
After 9/11, something we now call the Bush doctrine began to show up in the president’s speeches. Its principles went more or less like this:
• Don’t wait to be attacked; take pre-emptive action.
• Don’t be afraid to act unilaterally.
• There should only be one superpower in the world.
• And there are sides.
The Iraq war would be the first test of those principles.
“Everybody oughta be given the benefit of the doubt. But over time, it’s going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity,” Bush said in November 2001. “You’re either with us or you’re against us in the fight against terror.”
The last time the U.S. went into Iraq, in the Gulf War, it was to defend a country under attack. America was part of a coalition of nearly 40 allies. Some American officials at the time—like Paul Wolfowitz at the Defense Department—wanted regime change in Iraq. But that wasn’t the U.N’s mission—so it didn’t happen.
A decade later, influential people inside the Bush administration thought Saddam Hussein being “against” the United States was reason enough to overthrow him. But the public, Congress, the U.N., and potential allies—they all needed more. And the administration wasn’t yet rejecting the need for international support, even if it was headed that way. So it needed that casus belli, a cause for war serious enough to bring all those groups on board.
They’d eventually settle on WMD, but first, the administration tried a different approach.
Jane Green, the chief of the CIA’s Iraq group at the time, told me that people at the CIA, including Director George Tenet, had gathered that Iraq would be a priority for the administration, even before 9/11.
“There was a wide feeling among us that the incoming President Bush, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and Vice President Cheney all had reason to want to redress what they felt was the failure during the Gulf War of leaving Saddam in power.”
The 9/11 attacks only increased the administration’s desire to do something about Iraq. If Iraq had been involved in the attacks, launching a war on Saddam would count as self-defense. That would be as clear-cut a casus belli as you could ask for.
Some members of the administration—most prominently Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and their deputies—started trying to connect 9/11 and Iraq almost immediately. Green remembers Cheney coming to Langley to hear the CIA’s assessment.
“Cheney hated the briefing,” she said. “The bottom line was we didn’t think that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. And he believed the opposite.”
Cheney’s displeasure was a bigger deal than it should have been, because of an unhealthy dynamic between the administration and the CIA.
“At that point in time, the agency was very focused on what was called ‘the first customer,’ which meant the president,” Green said. “To be able to have the ear of the first customer—to tell him the truth about what’s going on in the world and what we felt about it in terms of analytic conclusions, that was the gold standard. And to have the vice president disparage what our work said was very threatening.”
To maintain its relevance, the CIA began to adjust. Those changes started out small—but they quickly added up to something bigger.
“What had been a very careful, analytic element turned into something that was much more aggressive in terms of digging up data points that might possibly be interpreted as showing a connection between Saddam and al-Qaida, Iraq and al-Qaida,” recalls Green.
Here’s how the CIA human intelligence process usually works: CIA field officers collect information from primary sources. Those sources could be anyone, from a trustworthy longtime asset to a guy more or less off the street. Every source has his own agendas and biases. Analysts—like the group Jane Green led—then decide if the source’s intelligence is credible and if it’s relevant. Based on that determination, they deliver a rundown for decision-makers.
Cheney didn’t trust the CIA’s track record on Iraq. He wanted to get as close to the raw intelligence as he possibly could, and he asked for it to be sent his way unfiltered. After 9/11, he treated that raw intelligence like his own personal Twitter feed.
The unfiltered intelligence Dick Cheney was mainlining was … not always reliable. The CIA didn’t have good sources inside Iraq at the time. Field officers were under pressure to pass along more and more information. So Cheney was getting some unverified intelligence—stuff that wouldn’t normally make it to the vice president’s desk.
Information could also flow the other way. High-level officials, especially at the Department of Defense, sometimes brought their own leads to the intelligence agencies. Gary Greco, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, has a name for these sources.
“Entrepreneurs: information entrepreneurs. You get all kinds of people, you know, whispering in the ears of senior decision-makers on their views on things,” he says.
One notorious information entrepreneur? Ahmad Chalabi, the wealthy and influential Iraqi in exile whose life mission was to topple Saddam. Jane Green still can’t get over a piece of information she says Chalabi was pushing.
“A woman who came over to the U.S. claiming that she had been Saddam’s second wife. She’d been standing in the Republican Palace and saw a really tall guy walk by. She was standing with one of Saddam’s sons and she asked [him] ‘who is that tall man?’ And he said, ‘well, that’s Osama bin Laden.’ It was totally made up,” she says. “And it was very hard for us to convince people who wanted to believe that reporting that it was just flat out untrue.”
Another piece of information that Gary Greco traces back to Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress is the idea that one of the 9/11 hijackers, a man named Mohammed Atta, had met with an Iraqi intelligence official.
On Meet the Press in December 2001, Cheney said, “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 Czechoslovakia last April.”
This was the kind of evidence Cheney needed to make the case he wanted to make. The trouble is, it didn’t seem to be true.
Facial comparisons showed that the person photographed meeting with the Iraqi official wasn’t Atta. Flight records indicated that Atta wasn’t in Prague at the time of the meeting. The CIA and the Czech intelligence service agreed: The meeting never happened. Cheney was undeterred. He kept talking about Atta in Prague publicly.
Regardless of what Cheney believed, the mainstream view at the CIA was that there just wasn’t much of a link between Iraq and Osama bin Laden. Saddam had given some aid to anti-Israel groups, but none to al-Qaida. There was no evidence that high-level operators from Iraq and al-Qaida had any real relationship with each other.
More to the point, the idea that Saddam was in league with Osama bin Laden just … didn’t make any sense. Saddam saw al-Qaida as a potential threat.
“Saddam was consistently a secular guy that was in it for himself,” Jane Green says, “and he knew that the rise of al-Qaida and the extremist elements of Sunni Islam was designed to undercut people like him.”
But again, the administration wouldn’t let it go. The Saddam–al-Qaida link was like Groundhog Day. The CIA would debunk the idea, and the next day, senior officials like Paul Wolfowitz would start asking all over again.
Within the CIA, there were analysts who were willing to be more … forward-leaning on the Saddam–al-Qaeda links. Green: “I was told, come on, Jane, it’s Iraq. Meaning, you know, ‘if he didn’t do this and then he did something else. So, you know, why not we just say this.’ ”
Cheney and Wolfowitz liked these analysts’ findings better than the ones coming from Jane Green’s group. There were internal battles over whose analysis would win the day. George Tenet, the CIA director, seemed like he was doing his best to give the White House what it wanted.
But even the more aggressive CIA analysts wouldn’t go far enough for the Bush administration’s Iraq hawks.
When the CIA wouldn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, Wolfowitz and Cheney did their information shopping elsewhere. The Department of Defense set up its own intelligence project, staffed by people who were willing to get creative. It was called the Policy Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group.
“Basically, its job was to look at all of the intelligence that was out there and try to decide what terror groups were up to and how they might confederate, what the worst-case scenarios were. But in practical terms, what [it] really was, was let’s figure out every single way we can to tie Saddam Hussein to these terror groups,” Robert Draper, a New York Times Magazine reporter and the author of To Start a War, says.
The Defense Department group became infamous for making something that was nicknamed the “Beautiful Mind” scroll, a reference to the Russell Crowe movie about a schizophrenic mathematician. The main character spends a lot of time writing complex equations on chalkboards and windows.
The Pentagon group’s version was a literal piece of parchment paper, with Saddam Hussein’s name at one end and Osama bin Laden’s on the other. In between was where the Beautiful Mind happened.
“There would be all of these squiggly lines that would be connected to this or that occasion, this or that meeting. This was the rumor,” Draper says. “It goes to show you the kind of effort that was made to establish these links conclusively. It was truly an obsession.”
It’s a little ironic: Conspiracy theorists love to talk about the Bush administration, and what really happened on 9/11. But the Bush administration had its own conspiracy theorists, with their own crazy charts. And they, too, wanted to talk about what really happened on 9/11.
All this Iraq–Al Qaida talk, even if it was baseless, made an impact. Especially on one very important decision-maker.
“President Bush himself somehow became convinced that there was some kind of association, some kind of ties between Saddam and terror groups. It’s hard to know how and why he came to this conclusion,” Draper says. “It seems instead that just the daily accretion of discussion about Saddam and terrorism, combined with Bush’s gut instincts that Saddam was an evildoer, somehow swayed him.”
All the dog-whistling in the media from the administration had an effect, too. By the first anniversary of 9/11, a majority of Americans thought that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attacks.
Even CIA Director George Tenet eventually wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee that there were links between al-Qaida and Iraq. When he wrote that, he was going against the consensus within his own organization.
But in the end, without the CIA’s full backing, the administration wasn’t willing to put 9/11 at the center of its case for war with Iraq. Which meant it needed to rest on something else.