Mushroom Clouds

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S1: If there’s one thing Americans know about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it’s that the Bush administration said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and it turned out that he didn’t. Weapons of mass destruction WMD, the phrase had been around for a while, but it wasn’t in common usage until 2002, that’s when it took off. The American Dialect Society named it Word of the year.

S2: Iraq is in possession of weapons of mass destruction. We know they have weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction.

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S1: In the context of Iraq, WMD mainly referred to a few things chemical weapons like mustard gas, biological weapons like anthrax or most frightening, nuclear weapons. To understand why the Bush administration thought Iraq had WMD, you have to go back to the early 90s.

S3: The United Nations wanted weapons inspectors. And I went to this meeting to suggest some weapons inspectors. And the chairman of the committee said, well, actually, we’re thinking of youth.

S1: Rod Barton was a former Australian intelligence officer. He first went to investigate Saddam’s weapons programs in 1991. Saddam was supposed to be declaring and destroying any weapons of mass destruction. It was part of an agreement he’d made with the United Nations at the end of the Gulf War so he could stay in power. Chemical and biological weapons were explicitly banned under international law. Anyone who didn’t already have nuclear weapons wasn’t supposed to be able to make them. People like Barton were there to make sure Saddam followed through on the agreement. They began by visiting Iraq’s known weapons production facilities. It was 110 degrees in the desert and the inspectors had to wear hazmat suits.

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S3: It was hell on earth. That’s what it looked like because the chemical weapons plant had been heavily bombed in the first Gulf War. So there was sort of broken concrete and, you know, broken walls. The equipment was smashed as soon as you got there. We had chemical detectors and chemical alarms went off. So there was poisonous gas in the air.

S1: The more time Barton spent on the ground, the clear it became that the Iraqis hadn’t declared all their weapons. This became the central drama of the inspectors time in Iraq.

S3: I mean, they were very gracious. They gave us lunch. Everything was very nice. But when you started looking at things and when you started asking them some questions, you knew that this is not quite right. They’re not cooperating in the way they’re required to cooperate.

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S1: The inspectors knew going in that Saddam had chemical weapons at one point because he’d use them during the Iran-Iraq war. As Martin and the other inspectors traveled the country, they found that Saddam had actually been hiding nuclear and bio weapons programs to the nuclear program was hard to spot because the regime was using old technology, building a nuke the way the Manhattan Project scientists did back in the nineteen forties. According to some experts, the Iraqis could have been just a few years away from getting a bomb. The bio weapons program was far along, too. Was run by a British educated scientist with a nickname out of a James Bond movie

S3: the press referred to as Dr Germ. We knew her as a doctor, Rihab Taha. Dr Taha.

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S1: She was quite glamorous, right?

S3: Well, OK. We often amongst ourselves and perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but we referred to her as a desert rose. So that perhaps answers part of your question,

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S1: Dr Taha, was one half of an Iraqi weapons power couple. Her husband was a former general who ran the country’s missile program.

S3: He seemed to be genuinely fond of her. If I can interpret that way, I’m not sure it was completely reciprocated.

S1: What would her motivation have been? Protection in some way or.

S3: Yeah, well, I sometimes wonder this, but I don’t really know. Could be a genuine love match and I just really don’t know that.

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S1: According to Barton, Doctor Taha initially refused to participate in weapons making, but when Saddam’s regime threatened her, she did what she was told. She didn’t have any prior experience making biological weapons, but she learned quickly

S3: they built this new plant for her out in the desert. This place we didn’t know anything about it, never been bombed. And sure enough, it was still intact, which is quite fortunate for us because we can go around and have a look.

S1: The plant was called Al-Hakeem. It’s where the Iraqis manufactured anthrax, among other deadly diseases. Dr Taha claimed that Iraq had destroyed all of its anthrax following the Gulf War, but Barton was suspicious. Throughout his time in Iraq, he’d come across burned documents and buried equipment. At one point, the Iraqis had opened fire on inspectors at a facility. And in Dr. TAAS case, the inspectors discovered Attell. When they got close to the truth, she would start to cry and have. And once when Barton explain some of their discoveries to Dr. Tahoe’s team

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S3: and during this presentation, she started to try to interrupt, I just ignored her. I finished the presentation and I heard these noises coming from her. And I looked around and she was sobbing. And of course, we didn’t quite know what why she started to cry, know in fact, it often came as a surprise to us. Partway through, she just broke down and tears. And at first we thought this was a ploy to stop the interview going any further. But I think it was quite genuine. She was quite distressed. And you have to remember, if you’d given anything away, she would be jailed, perhaps tortured, perhaps shocked. Who knows?

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S1: Not long after this crying episode, the inspectors met with Dr. Tahoe’s team again,

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S3: and that’s when they really confessed that they really had to confess to having a biological weapons program.

S1: How did it feel when you got that confession?

S3: We felt elated afterwards, but we knew it wasn’t the whole truth.

S1: The inspectors uncovered even more about Iraq’s weapons program in 1995. That’s when Saddam’s son in law, Hussein Kamel, defected to Jordan. He was deeply involved in the weapons program and told the U.N. what he knew, how big the programs had been before the war, how much had been destroyed and what was still being made.

S3: So after the defection, we had a lot of documentation on the programs that documentation help fill in the missing gaps, you could say.

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S1: But more important than Kamal’s confession was the Saddam regime’s reaction to it. They panicked. Iraqi government released a trove of documentation about their weapons information. They claimed the son in law had been hiding from them. But even then, the information didn’t match up with what the inspectors were finding on the ground. The regime was still covering stuff up, all while pretending to come clean. Seven months later, Hussein Kamel returned to Iraq. He thought being married to Saddam’s daughter would protect him. It didn’t. He was killed. The son in law’s revelations confirmed what the inspectors believed the Iraqis had been running an active weapons program, but Barton still wasn’t sure how much of a threat it amounted to. After all, Iraq’s infrastructure had been badly damaged during the Gulf War and the country was struggling under U.N. sanctions imposed in 1990. The condition for lifting the sanctions that Iraq show it had destroyed all of its WMD. The UN sanctions were devastating. Iraqis couldn’t get the most basic of resources, and instead of weakening Saddam’s grip on power, the embargo ended up strengthening it. The only people in Iraq who could reliably get food and other necessities were members of his Baath Party. Barton believe that the sanctions had crippled Saddam’s weapons program to. But he couldn’t be absolutely sure that’s because his work was cut short in 1997. Saddam accused the inspectors of spying for the Americans and he began to make life difficult for them. The U.S. and Britain retaliated the following year.

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S2: Explosions lit the sky around Baghdad tonight as President Clinton announced that he has ordered a, quote, strong, sustained series of air strikes against Iraq. The goal is to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s capacity for weapons of mass destruction. The president said it was the

S1: Baaden and his colleagues had to leave with almost no notice, but he believed their work dismantling Saddam’s weapons arsenal was mostly done.

S3: In fact, I remember giving testimony to an Australian inquiry where I said, well, we’ve destroyed at least 95 percent of everything. And if they’ve got anything left, a lot of it won’t be of much use because of its aged. Maybe the anthrax, if they’ve still got some of that might be of use that we believe most of it’s gone. Iraq is not a threat.

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S1: Barton thought the questions around Iraq’s WMD had been resolved. He was wrong. Just a few years later, Baaden watched George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.

S2: The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections, then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.

S3: And I was quite shocked that Bush had identified Iraq as a grave and growing danger because of WMD. Hey, I got some news to me.

S1: This is a slow burn. I’m your host, Noreen Malone. There were lots of reasons why people in the Bush administration felt it made sense to invade Iraq. Strategic ones, humanitarian ones, too. But the case the administration chose to make was based on something else. The idea that Saddam presented an imminent threat to the United States. In the Bush administration’s view, the Iraqis had shown they couldn’t be trusted, which meant it didn’t matter if there was no proof that Saddam had a huge arsenal of weapons. A Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, like to say the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. The Iraqis history of lying was the key to the administration’s casus belli, its case for war. So how did the Bush administration justify a war of choice? Why did the intelligence community end up going on and how did the invasion come to hang on weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist? This is episode three, Mushroom Clouds. After 9/11, something we now call the Bush doctrine began to show up in the president’s speeches, its principals want more or less like this don’t wait to be attacked. Take preemptive 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.

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S2: Everybody ought to 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, that you’re either with us or you’re against us in the fight against terror.

S1: The last time the US 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 UN’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 and Congress and 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, one serious enough to bring all those groups on board. They’d eventually settle on WMD. But first, the administration tried a different approach.

S4: Mostly our reaction was and I don’t know that you can broadcast this term, but. Oh, shit.

S1: Jane Green was the chief of the CIA’s Iraq group. Green says the people at the CIA, including Director George Tenet, had gathered that Iraq would be a priority for the administration even before 9/11.

S4: There was a wide feeling among us that 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.

S1: 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. Jane Green remembers Cheney coming to Langley to hear the CIA’s assessment.

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S4: Cheney hated the briefing and he hated the briefing because the bottom line was we didn’t think that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. And he believed the opposite.

S1: Cheney’s displeasure was a bigger deal than it should have been because of an unhealthy dynamic between the administration and the CIA.

S4: At that point in time, the agency was very focused on what was called the first customer, which meant the president 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.

S1: To maintain its relevance, the CIA began to adjust those changes, started out small, but they quickly added up to something bigger.

S4: A new branch chief came in and what had been a very careful analytic element turned into something that was much more aggressive in terms of showing a connection between Saddam and al-Qaida, Iraq and al-Qaida.

S1: Here’s how the human intelligence process usually works. CIA field officers collect information from primary sources. Those sources could be anyone from a trustworthy, long time asset to a guy more or less off the street. Every source has his own agendas and biases. Analysts like the group Jane Greene lead then decide if the sources intelligence is credible and if it’s relevant. Based on that determination, they deliver a run down 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. Here’s Robert Draper, a New York Times magazine reporter and the author of To Start a War.

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S5: The thing about intelligence is you can find almost anything you want on a spectrum. There was raw intelligence and raw intelligence. Is somebody saying something often for motives of their own and it is unverified and it is unanalyzed. This raw intel exists just stacks and stacks of it. And indeed, the office of the vice presidency kept these many vaults of raw intelligence like actual vaults, actual vaults. I think they had like a half a dozen of them.

S1: 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 Grecco, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, has a name for these sources.

S6: Entrepeneurs, the information entrepreneurs. And you get all kinds of people whispering in the years of senior decision makers on their views on things.

S1: One notorious information entrepreneur, Ahmed Chalabi, Jane Greene, still can’t get over a piece of information. She says Chalabi was pushing

S4: a woman who came over to the US 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 and she was standing with one of Saddam’s sons and she asked, who is that tall man? And he said, well, that’s Osama bin Laden was totally made up. And it was very hard for us to convince people who wanted to believe that reporting that it was just flat out untrue. You know, none of that mattered because she was saying what certain people wanted to hear.

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S1: Another piece of information that Gary Greco traces back to Chalabi, the 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. Here’s Dick Cheney on Meet the Press in December 2001.

S7: Then pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April.

S1: 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 Dick 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. Jane Green,

S4: Saddam was consistently a secular guy that was in it for himself. And he knew that the rise of al-Qaida and the extremist elements of Sunni Islam was designed to undercut people like him.

S1: But again, the administration wouldn’t let it go, the Saddam al Qaeda link was like Groundhog Day. The CIA would debunk the idea and the next day senior officials would start asking all over again. Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, did this constantly.

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S4: We gave Wolfowitz generally the same answer each time with virtually no daylight between. But but still, he would come back with a slightly different wording of the same question in order to win hopes that we would come back with an answer that was more useful to him.

S1: Within the CIA, there were analysts who are willing to be more forward leaning on the Saddam al Qaeda links.

S4: I was told, come on, Jane, it’s Iraq, meaning, you know, if this if we didn’t do this and he did something else. So, you know, why not? We just say this.

S1: Cheney and Wolfowitz like 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 are willing to get creative. It was called the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group. Robert Draper.

S5: 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.

S1: 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 of this 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,

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S5: and there would be all of these squiggly lines that would connect it to this or that occasion, this or that meeting, this or that rumor. It goes to show you the kind of effort that was made to establish these links conclusively. It was truly an obsession.

S1: 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.

S5: President Bush himself somehow became convinced that there were some kind of associations, some kind of ties between Saddam and terror groups. It’s hard to know how and why he came to this conclusion, because none of the specific intelligence appeared to have swung the president towards this opinion. It seems, instead of just the daily accretion of discussion about Saddam and terrorism, combined with Bush’s gut instincts, that Saddam was an evildoer somehow swayed him.

S1: All the dog whistling in the media from the administration had in effect 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 Qaeda 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.

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S5: They had warned the entire intelligence community down with their relentless arguing. And so finally, when the question was asked, well, what about Saddam’s weapons program, there was almost this collective sigh of relief. Yes, yes. Yeah, OK, he’s got WMD. We can agree on this.

S1: Why was the intelligence community willing to agree that Saddam had WMD? There were some small pieces of evidence that had surfaced, a defector who had a story about mobile bio weapons labs, the attempted purchase of aluminum tubes that seemed like they could be used to make nuclear bombs. You’ll hear more about all that in the later episode. But the thing to know now is that there was almost no hard evidence for WMD. Still, when the administration was pushing the connection between Iraq and 9/11, they were asking the intelligence community to sign onto something highly implausible when they moved on to WMD. They were now asking the intelligence community to sign on to something that seemed at least kind of plausible

S5: once the inspectors left between that point and 9/11. We had really no visibility at all. Our intelligence sources on the ground in Iraq consisted of two individuals who had very, very spotty intel at best. And what we largely based our assessments on were the past and then the regime’s behavior, which seemed to us to suggest that they were hiding something, though precisely what they were hiding was unclear to us.

S1: So based on a little information and a lot of inference, the intelligence community believe that Saddam likely had weapons of mass destruction. Jane Green was focused on another question. Was he going to use them?

S4: Our analysis was that he would not use it against the United States, that he realized that that was a, you know, a ticket to obliteration and that he had it mostly as a deterrent against especially Iran, but to some degree, Israel. But we we didn’t see him as being a proactive user of WMD. We thought that he would just it was basically a security blanket for him.

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S1: But for some people in the Bush administration, that analysis didn’t carry weight.

S4: It was OK. If if he’s got it, then he’s got to go. It was just the fact that he had WMD at all was a reason to go to war.

S1: Ken Adelman was a close longtime friend of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. He was on the Defense Policy Board. It’s a group that advises the secretary of defense. At their meetings, they were briefed by generals who gave him the same kind of intel that Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush got.

S8: They were telling us on the intelligence side, it was pretty clear that Saddam Hussein was making big progress on weapons of mass destruction. And this was convincing because you had to go back to the Gulf War. And what did we find out? We found out that the intelligence estimates before the Gulf War were underplaying the threat of Saddam Hussein with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. They were under estimating things. OK, then you come to the Iraq war. What does the intelligence community really want to avoid doing? Like any institution, they want to avoid their mistakes from before. So what did they do? They highball things, to use a new phrase. They vastly overestimated what Saddam Hussein had in terms of programs and capabilities and the weapons of mass destruction.

S1: So there was consensus on what the case for war would be. Now it was time for the roll out enter something called the White House Iraq Group. They met weekly in The Situation Room in the summer of 2002. The group included National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby. There were also a lot of communications people, strategists like Karen Hughes and Karl Rove and a White House speechwriter who crafted the language administration officials would use by September. It was time to take the case to the public. Why, then? White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card explained the thinking to The New York Times, quote, From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August. Dick Cheney had jumped the gun, though the vice president did introduce the new product in August in a speech at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville.

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S7: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us. And there is no doubt that his aggressive regional ambitions will lead him into future confrontations with his neighbors, confrontations that will involve both the weapons he has today and the ones he will continue to develop with his oil wealth.

S1: Cheney wasn’t supposed to be the guy leading the charge. He was a polarizing figure. And the administration wanted to get the whole country behind the war effort. But Cheney ended up being one of the most visible advocates for the war. There are two reasons for that. First, he was one of the loudest voices pushing for it within the administration. And second, Cheney was strangely compelling on television.

S9: Dick Cheney was somebody who is in sun show history, one of the best Sunday show guests and one of the most interesting guests, because he had the confidence and freedom to talk without that discipline, which sometimes makes for more interesting television.

S1: Michelle Jaconi was a producer on NBC’s Meet the Press during the Tim Russert era. The show was a favorite spot for the Bush administration to make its case.

S9: I remember one interview we did with him. We I looked up at the clock and we had gone 45 minutes without taking a commercial. And that is absolutely unheard of in television.

S7: He does not have a nuclear weapon. Now, I can’t say that. I can say that. I know for sure that he’s trying to acquire the capability. But the point to be made here is we have to assume there’s more there than we know what we know.

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S1: The White House was also talking to print reporters on September 8th. Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, reporters at The New York Times with high level sources, wrote a splashy story. It suggested that Saddam Hussein was close to getting nuclear weapons if he didn’t have them already. US says Hussein intensified quest for a bomb. Parts read the headline. Frank Rich was writing an opinion column for The New York Times in the lead up to the war.

S6: This is the brilliance of the propagandists of the Bush White House. Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell all fanned out onto the Sunday morning shows and pointed to what would turn out to be an erroneous New York Times piece as evidence of what was brewing in Iraq and how afraid we should all be. And they and they could very disingenuously say, well, don’t believe us, believe The New York Times.

S7: There’s a story in The New York Times this morning. This is and I want to attribute to the Times. I don’t want to talk about obviously specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. And the centrifuge is required.

S6: In those appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows, Condi Rice speaking on CNN, actually used a quote that was in the Times piece.

S4: There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire a nuclear weapon, but we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

S1: The mushroom cloud line was cooked up by a Bush speechwriter in the White House Iraq group, it was originally meant to be deployed in a speech by the president, but the group liked it so much that they started using it earlier. You can see where they found it useful, it was a throwback to Cold War fears of nuclear destruction and the more recent image of the Twin Towers falling in a plume of smoke. It was a vivid response to those who wanted to hold off on declaring war until there was hard evidence for then we might all be dead. The mushroom cloud line wasn’t falsifiable because it didn’t make a factual claim. What it did was suggest that Saddam’s WMD, if they existed, might be the most terrifying weapons imaginable. President Bush also made a public push on Iraq and WMD. The day after the first anniversary of 9/11, Bush gave a speech at the U.N.

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S2: Should Iraq acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year. And Iraq’s state controlled media has reported numerous meetings between Saddam Hussein and his nuclear scientists, leaving little doubt about his continued appetite for these weapons.

S1: By mid fall, the WMD rollout was in full swing, but support for an Iraq invasion had still declined nearly 20 percent since the year before. The economy wasn’t doing great. People wanted the Bush administration to focus on problems closer to home. President Bush decided it was time for him personally to make the strongest possible case. He made it in a speech in Cincinnati in October. In that speech, he hinted at a connection between Iraq and 9/11 in spite of the CIA’s findings.

S2: We know that Iraq and al-Qaida have had high level contacts that go back a decade. Some al-Qaida leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al-Qaida leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks.

S1: He threw out some bits of disputed intelligence, one after another.

S2: We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases.

S1: Bush talked a lot about things that could happen.

S2: Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.

S1: And he made the threat of a nuclear attack sound imminent in the context of a very big if.

S2: If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.

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S1: And he brought out the administration’s favorite sound bite.

S2: Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

S1: When Robert Draper interviewed President Bush for a book, the president told him that he believed the Cincinnati speech had been unfairly overlooked.

S5: My conclusion, actually, is that Bush was right. The speech had not gotten the attention that it deserved because both at the time and, you know, in history, that speech deserved to be condemned as really the most irresponsible and fact free presidential address. Up to that point since, say, President Johnson falsely claimed the submarines had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. This was a scenario that I think Bush truly believed. I do not think that he was inventing it just for the audience’s sake, but it was irresponsible. It it was based on intuition. It was based on his gut, and it was based on his determination that no other attack on American soil take place during his presidency. But it was not based on any intelligence that connected those various dots.

S1: So why did Bush feel so much pressure to ratchet up his own rhetoric because the administration was on a schedule, you don’t launch a new product in the summer and you don’t launch a war in the desert on either. March 2003, it was set as the target date, the last point at which the military could come in and execute a ground operation before the weather got too hot. Meanwhile, there had actually been troops lined up in Kuwait since September. Officially, they were conducting military exercises, but that kind of movement signal to close watchers that war was definitely already in motion. The administration had laid the groundwork, had even begun the logistics, but they still needed to get a lot of stakeholders on board, like, yes, the American public and Congress and the United Nations and a set of potential allies. And they needed to get them on board in less than five months. Next time on Sobhan, liberal hawks, neo conservatives and all the intellectual justifications for going to war,

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S4: even

S3: if there was a less than five percent chance of success, I would be morally bound to fight for it and to argue for it.

S5: Christopher saying, I’ve been signaling you, you know, Wolfowitz turning cheap back thought so. I wondered.

S9: I wondered. I did not want to fly the flag. Once I start flying the flag, they’re going to go to war.

S1: Slow Burn is a production of Slate plus Slate’s membership program, Slate plus members get bonus episodes of Slow Burn every week, where we’ll go behind the scenes into making the show and air clips in interviews that we couldn’t fit in here on this week’s bonus episode. You’ll be hearing from Michelle Jaconi, who’s a producer over at Meet the Press during the run up to the war. Head over to say Dotcom’s a slow burn to sign up and listen. Now it’s only a dollar for your first month. We couldn’t make slow burn without the support of Slate plus. So please sign up if you can head over to, say, dotcom slow burn. And one more note of business. Gary Grecco, who heard from earlier in this episode, wants it to be clear that he was speaking to us in his personal capacity, not on behalf of the DIY. Slow burn is produced by me, Jason de Leon and Sophie Summer, grad with Editorial Direction by Josh Levine and Gabriel Roth, our mix engineer is married. Jacob Brendan Angelides composed our theme song. The artwork for Slow Burn is by Jim Cook. Some of the audio you heard in this episode comes from C-SPAN special thanks to Jared Holt Lo and Lou June Thomas, Megan Karlstrom, Rachel Strahm, Seth Brown, Chout to Usher Solutia, Katie Raeford and all these gentlemen, thanks for listening.