I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast.
–President George W. Bush
EARLY ON the afternoon of May 1, 2002, George W. Bush slipped out of the Oval Office, grabbed a tennis racquet, and headed to the South Lawn. He had a few spare moments for one of his recreational pleasures: whacking tennis balls to his dogs, Spot and Barney. It was a pleasant spring day in Washington and not an especially taxing one for the president. He had no pressing political worries. Having routed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan the previous fall, Bush was standing tall in the polls, with an approval rating hovering at 70 percent. That morning, there had been his usual terrorism briefings, then meetings with congressional leaders where Bush had talked about moving forward his domestic proposals, including a measure promoting faith-based social programs. Later in the day, the president was due to meet the vice president of China. Bush also had an unusual press interview on his schedule that afternoon. As he hit the balls and watched the dogs scamper, Bush prepared for that session with two press aides by reviewing questions he would likely be asked about one of his predecessors he admired most: Ronald Reagan.
Ever since September 11, 2001, Bush had increasingly identified with Reagan: his optimism, his firm convictions, his stark, uncompromising stand against Soviet communism. Bush had come to consider Reagan’s battle against the Soviet Union a parallel of his own struggle against Islamic extremism. The Evil Empire was now the Axis of Evil–that trio of tyrannies, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, that Bush had proclaimed the nation’s foes months earlier during his first State of the Union speech.
Frank Sesno, the veteran newscaster, was due shortly at the White House to query Bush about Reagan and the parallels between his presidency and Bush’s. The interview was for a History Channel special that would air upon the death of the former president, who was ninety-one years old and suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. On a two-page “pre-brief ” memo prepared by his staff and containing questions that might be asked,Bush had written out by hand points he wanted to emphasize. The presidential scribbles, his aides thought, were revealing–perhaps a window onto Bush’s view of himself. “Optimism and strength,” Bush had scrawled on top of the memo. Also, “decisive” and “faith.” Next to a question about Reagan’s direct, blunt style, Bush had written, “moral clarity.” He had drawn an arrow next to the word “forceful.” Alongside a question about the 1983 suicide bombing attack on the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon (which killed 241 American troops) and how a president copes with such losses, Bush had written, “There will be casualties.”
On the South Lawn, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and another member of the communications staff, a burly, irrepressible former television producer named Adam Levine, reviewed these points with Bush. Then they all moved inside and headed upstairs to the Red Room so Bush could have makeup applied for the interview. Bush casually asked Fleischer how his day had been going and what the talk in the pressroom was. Fleischer mentioned Helen Thomas, the longtime correspondent then writing for Hearst News Service. She was a gadfly and constantly giving Fleischer a tough time about an issue much in the news: Iraq. Bush and other administration officials had been decrying Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, as a threat to the United States and the world. To many, it sounded like war talk. The media were filled with speculation that the White House was preparing for an invasion. But Bush had steadfastly refused to state his intentions. His aides repeatedly claimed that Bush had reached no decisions. Interviewed by a British broadcaster a few weeks earlier, Bush had resorted to a Clintonesque evasion: “I have no plans to attack on my desk.”
At that day’s daily press briefing, Thomas had peppered Fleischer with questions about Iraq. Referring to stories in the media about secret plans for military action, she asked, “What is the president’s rationale for invading Iraq?” What made Saddam different from other dictators and worth an invasion? Fleischer bantered with Thomas and pointed out that “regime change” in Iraq had been the official policy of the U.S. government since President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. Thomas shot back: Did the law mandate that the United States overthrow the Iraqi government by force? Bush, Fleischer said, “believes that the people of Iraq, as well as the region, will be more peaceful, better off without Saddam Hussein.” Thomas retorted, “That’s not a reason” to go to war. “Well, Helen,” Fleischer replied, “if you were the president, you could have vetoed the law.” The reporters chuckled, and Fleischer called on another journalist.
As Fleischer recounted this exchange for the president, Bush’s mood changed, according to Levine. He grew grim and determined–steely. Out of nowhere, he unleashed a string of expletives.
“Did you tell her I don’t like motherfuckers who gas their own people?” the president snapped.
“Did you tell her I don’t like assholes who lie to the world?”
“Did you tell her I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast?”
Fleischer paused. “I told her half of that,” he replied. Bush laughed, as did his aides. Still, Bush’s visceral reaction was telling. This wasn’t bluster; this was real. The president had meant what he said–every word of it. This was the Bush that Levine admired. “You know where we’re going here,” Levine thought.
The vice president’s limousine sped through downtown Washington and headed over the Potomac River on its way to Langley, Virginia. It was days after Bush’s outburst, and Dick Cheney was making another of his visits to CIA headquarters. These trips–unknown to the public at this point–had become the talk of the intelligence community. Cheney would arrive at agency headquarters and park himself in Director George Tenet’s seventhfloor conference room. Then officers and analysts would be summoned to brief him–on Iraq and other matters–and often encounter a withering interrogation. How do we know this? What more do you have on that? What have you done to follow up? Cheney was proper and respectful. His questions were delivered in his soft, low, monotone voice, his arms folded. Still, they had an intimidating impact on his briefers. “I’ve seen him people,” said John Maguire, an Iraq covert operations officer who often attended the Cheney briefings. “He would drill in on substantive details. If he asked you something that you didn’t know, you better have an answer the next time you saw him. . . . He would say, ‘I want answers on this. This is not acceptable.’ ” The worst thing to do with Cheney was to hedge or to waffle. “He’d say, ‘Make a call,’ ” Maguire recalled. He didn’t want to hear sentences that began, “We don’t know.”
During these sessions, Cheney demanded answers on Iraq. Cheney had long-standing and firm views on Saddam Hussein that went back to when he had served as secretary of defense during the first Persian Gulf War. Cheney had been convinced then that the CIA had blown it by badly underestimating how close Saddam had been to building a nuclear bomb before that war. And ever since the cataclysmic events of September 11, Cheney seemed obsessed with Iraq. He was sure that Saddam was a grave threat to the United States–and that the agency was missing the crucial intelligence that would prove it. In February 2002, Cheney had seized on a murky item presented to him during his daily morning briefing from the CIA: a report forwarded to the CIA by Italian military intelligence that Iraq had arranged to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from the impoverished African nation of Niger. If the report was accurate–if there had been such a transaction–this would be compelling evidence Iraq had revived a moribund nuclear weapons program that had been dismantled in the mid-1990s under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But there was nothing to substantiate the report, and parts of it did not make sense. Still, Cheney had jumped on it. What more can you get on this? he had asked his CIA briefer. What more can you find out? As always, the answer from the CIA was, We’ll get on this right away. And it did.
Another issue Cheney fixated on was Baghdad’s ties to terrorists, especially the allegations of a connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda. The agency would write up answers to the vice president’s repeated questions and send them to his office, often reporting that there was little to substantiate Cheney’s darkest suspicions of an operational alliance between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. But Cheney and his hard-nosed chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby (who went by the nickname of Scooter), were never satisfied and continually asked for more. “It was like they were hoping we’d find something buried in the files or come back with a different answer,” Michael Sulick, deputy chief of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, later said. There was no “obvious pressure” by Cheney and Libby to change the answers, Sulick recalled. But the barrage of questions and the frequent visits by the vice president had created an environment that was subtly, but unmistakably, influencing the agency’s work. The CIA’s analysts, Sulick believed, had become “overly eager to please.”
Libby may have been harder to please than Cheney. He was one of the most powerful officials in the Bush White House. As Cheney’s top national security adviser, he oversaw a “shadow” National Security Council, with tentacles reaching deep into the foreign policy and defense bureaucracy. One NSC staffer recalled being stunned to discover, years after he began working at the White House, that his internal memos to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had routinely been routed to Libby without his knowledge. A CIA official was surprised to discover that Libby’s staff was reading unedited transcripts of National Security Agency intercepts.
A cool, meticulous, and secretive Washington lawyer, Libby was an ideological and philosophical soul mate of his mentor, Paul Wolfowitz, the eputy secretary of defense and leading neoconservative hawk, who was even more preoccupied with Iraq than Cheney. Libby had been a student of Wolfowitz at Yale University in the 1970s; Wolfowitz had hired him as a speechwriter at the State Department in 1981 and again, as his principal deputy, nearly a decade later, when Wolfowitz was undersecretary of defense for policy and planning during the administration of George H. W. Bush. Libby and Wolfowitz shared with Cheney a congenital distrust of the CIA. They had a near-theological conviction that the agency’s analysts were wedded to an inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom that obscured the sinister plottings of America’s enemies.
That was why Libby, on Cheney’s behalf, relentlessly demanded that the agency supply the vice president’s office with raw intelligence reports. Cheney’s team believed that unanalyzed reports contained hidden nuggets that had been overlooked or ignored by the CIA because the data undercut the don’t-rock-the-boat predilections of the agency’s analysts. But the vice president’s aides were confident that if they looked at the material, they could assess the real risks to America. In one nine-month period, starting in 2002, court records would later show, Libby sent requests to the CIA that generated between three hundred and five hundred documents, including e-mails, internal memos, and reports. The agency estimated that finding and retrieving from its files all the queries it had received from Libby–and all the responses it had sent back–would take nearly a year.
Libby was not popular at the CIA. “He had a reputation of being a prick,” recalled one senior CIA official. In questioning analysts, “he was nasty and obnoxious about it.” Libby was most aggressive on intelligence related to Saddam and al-Qaeda, according to this CIA veteran: “He wouldn’t let go of the al-Qaeda—Saddam connection.” A Bush NSC official recalled Libby as being aloof but skilled–and, if need be, devious–in the ways of bureaucratic infighting. “Whenever Scooter Libby walked into the elevator,” this official said, “the temperature seemed to drop five degrees.”
Libby was not with Cheney this particular May morning when the vice president arrived at the CIA. But as Cheney’s top national security adviser, he would soon get a full report. Cheney had come to Langley to be updated on the latest intelligence on Iraq, including what was known about Saddam’s unconventional weapons. But another subject was on the agenda, a matter of the utmost sensitivity. It was one of the most closely held secrets in the U.S. government: the Anabasis project.
DB/Anabasis was the code name for an extensive covert operations plan that had been drawn up by the CIA to destabilize and ultimately topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. (DB was the agency cryptonym for Iraq.) At the direction of the White House, Tenet had commissioned the scheme, not too long after the U.S. military had defeated the Taliban. About this time, Bush asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to order up a fresh war plan for Iraq. It was clear to top intelligence officials that Iraq was next on Bush’s agenda, and the task of developing the CIA’s secret plan was handed to two seasoned officers in the Iraq Operations Group within the agency’s Directorate of Operations, or DO.
One of the officers was a stocky, balding Cuban American whose first name was Luis. He had previously been a special assistant to CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin. Before that he had spent years as a case officer in CIA stations throughout the world. His father had participated in the CIA’s Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961, when an agency-directed invasion of Cuba failed miserably. The other officer in charge of Anabasis was the forty-nine-year-old John Maguire, a strapping former Baltimore city cop who had specialized in busting down doors as a member of the city’s SWAT team. Both were veterans of the CIA’s covert wars of the 1980s, when CIA director William Casey, acting on orders from Ronald Reagan, was mounting secret paramilitary operations around the globe. Maguire had run guns to the Nicaraguan contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government, and he had participated in one of the more notorious episodes of that clandestine war: the mining of the ports of Nicaragua. In the middle of the night, he had directed local commandoes who would dump mines off the sides of speedboats. For cover, Maguire posed as an employee of the Johnson Outboard Motor Repair shop in La Union, El Salvador.
When the operation was exposed by the news media in April 1984, there was an uproar on Capitol Hill. “I am pissed off!” Senator Barry Goldwater, then the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, wrote Casey. “[M]ine the harbors in Nicaragua? This is an act violating international law. It is an act of war.” The mining program was shut down. Months later, Congress cut off money for the CIA’s contra operations. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and the National Security Council covertly took over the program, and their clandestine scheming led to the Iran-contra scandal. Many CIA operatives whom Maguire had worked with became ensnared in the subsequent investigations. But Maguire escaped unscathed. He did learn a lesson about covert ops: they can get messy and not always go as planned.
Later, Maguire was dispatched to Afghanistan, where he provided explosives and weapons training for Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance. Subsequently, he made his first foray into Iraq, where he helped plan a disastrous 1995 coup attempt–a debacle that he blamed in large part on the unreliability of Ahmad Chalabi, the self-promoting Iraqi exile the agency had been supporting. Maguire was bitter. Agents he had worked with and their family members had been murdered by Saddam. By the mid-1990s, he was also frustrated. The CIA, shuddering from the investigations and prosecutions triggered by Iran-contra and serving the more cautious Bill Clinton, had backed away from paramilitary operations and covert ops. Maguire left CIA headquarters to be an instructor at the Farm, the agency’s training facility in rural Virginia.
On September 12, 2001, he returned to headquarters and, with Luis, jumped at the chance to put his experience in clandestine ops to new uses. Over an intense forty-five-day period beginning in late 2001, the two men cooked up an audacious plan, unlike anything Langley had seen in years. James Pavitt, the DO chief, had given Luis and Maguire a blunt directive when he assigned this project: “Give me a plan that scares me.” As Maguire later put it, “And so we did. We scared the crap out of him.”
Anabasis was no-holds-barred covert action. It called for installing a small army of paramilitary CIA officers on the ground inside Iraq; for elaborate schemes to penetrate Saddam’s regime, recruiting disgruntled military officers with buckets of cash; for feeding the regime disinformation about internal dissent in ways that would cause Saddam to lash out (most likely through mass executions); for disrupting the regime’s finances and supply networks; for sabotage that included blowing up railroad lines and communications towers; and for targeting the lives of key regime officials. It also envisioned staging a phony incident that could be used to start a war. A small group of Iraqi exiles would be flown into Iraq by helicopter to seize an isolated military base near the Saudi border. They then would take to the airwaves and announce a coup was under way. If Saddam responded by flying troops south, his aircraft could be shot down by U.S. fighter planes patrolling the no-fly zones established by UN edict after the first Persian Gulf War. A clash of this sort could be used to initiate a full-scale war. “We were doing things in this program that we hadn’t done since Casey,” said Maguire.
For Maguire, it was also personal–a chance to settle an old score and avenge fallen comrades. “We wanted that fucker dead,” he recalled. “We were willing to do anything to get Saddam.”
The name Luis and Maguire had chosen for the program, Anabasis, had come from the title of a book by the ancient historian Xenophon that recounted the march of 10,000 Greek mercenaries to Babylon in the year 400 b.c. to capture the Persian throne for Cyrus the Younger from his brother. Wolfowitz, according to Maguire, was not keen on this particular name, though Maguire never understood why. But other CIA officials also thought the Anabasis program was inaptly titled–and wondered whether Luis and Maguire had misread history. The Greek army had been victorious at the critical battle of Cunaxa, but Cyrus had been killed, rendering the entire mission moot. The 10,000 Greeks then had to fight their way back to the Black Sea. Anabasis was the story of an unsuccessful operation that ended in retreat.
The estimated cost of Luis and Maguire’s Anabasis was $400 million over two years. But it wasn’t the price tag that frightened Pavitt and other senior agency officials. It was the lethality. In drawing up the plan, Luis Maguire had carefully avoided using the A-word: assassination. The agency had a long and troubled history of assassination plots. Most had failed and had cast a dark stain on the CIA’s reputation. An executive order banning assassinations had been in place since 1976 (but occasionally circumvented during wartime). So Luis and Maguire referred instead to “direct action operations,” a bland euphemism. But there was no doubt that, under Anabasis, people were going to die–and that innocent Iraqi civilians, not just government leaders and military officers, would likely be among the victims. When Pavitt and other senior officials in the DO reviewed the Anabasis plans, they were uncomfortable. Blowing up railroad lines? “You’re
going to kill people if you do this,” Tyler Drumheller, chief of the DO’s European Division, recalled saying when he first looked at Anabasis. He was stating the obvious.
But this was the post-9/11 era, when U.S. intelligence agencies, with the encouragement of the White House and fiercely conservative lawyers in the Justice Department, were pushing the envelope. The CIA was snatching terror suspects off the streets in Gambia, in Bosnia, in Sweden, and “rendering” them to friendly foreign intelligence services–where extreme interrogation practices would be used on them. The CIA set up its own network of secret prisons, where suspected al-Qaeda leaders were subjected to aggressive interrogation, including “water boarding,” a technique in which the suspect was strapped to a board and dunked below water long enough to approximate (but not cause) drowning. In a rousing speech to CIA officers soon after the September 11 attacks, Cofer Black, then director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, had proclaimed, “The gloves are off.” The line was widely quoted within the agency, and Black also used it during congressional testimony. But Black had said something to his CIA colleagues that did not attract public notice. There was some dispute as to his precise words. Drumheller recalled that Black had remarked that “someday we can all expect to be prosecuted for what we’re going to do.” Another counterterrorism official said that Black had simply commented that “someday we may all get called before a congressional committee for what we’re going to do.” Whatever the exact words, the message was clear: in the future, the missions the CIA was about to undertake might look different than they did right now.
On February 16, 2002, President Bush signed covert findings authorizing the various elements of Anabasis. The leaders of the congressional intelligence committees–including Representative Porter Goss, a Republican, and Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat–were briefed. Maguire and a team of his officers made their initial entry into Iraq in April 2002, crossing the Turkish border in Jeep Cherokees and driving into Kurdish areas in the north, a region outside the control of Saddam’s regime. They met with the two rival Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, and briefed them on the details of the Anabasis plan. The Kurdish leaders were skeptical. They had heard talk from Americans like this in the past. Anabasis called for Kurdish irregulars to take risks–large risks–to recruit sources for the CIA and begin sabotage operations, even “direct action.” People could die. “Is this real? Is the president serious?” Barzani and Talabani wanted to know. Maguire’s response was one that he, and other CIA officials, would repeat: “We’re really serious. This is not going to be some half-baked effort.” Ultimately, the success of the plan rested on the credibility and the determination of George W. Bush–and about that, Maguire had no doubt. “This president is a man of his word,” Maguire told the Kurds. “When we’re finished, Saddam is not going to be there. When we’re finished, we’re going to be in Baghdad.”
On this trip, Maguire himself headed south into Saddam-controlled territory, a white-mustachioed spy behind enemy lines. He drove in the backseat of a Toyota Super Salon dressed in the uniform of an Iraqi Army colonel with a red stripe on his shoulders. Maguire was waved through border crossings and checkpoints and drove right up to the perimeter of an Iraqi Army base. The unit was in disarray. There were soldiers milling about in flip-flops and shorts–with no guns or ammunition. “They looked like refugees,” said Maguire. The Iraqi V Corps was supposedly the front line against an American invasion, but it seemed a shambles. On another occasion, a CIA officer working with Maguire inspected the line separating Kurdish-controlled territory from Saddam-controlled Iraq. On the other side were the deteriorating Iraqi military forces Maguire had seen. And one of those units, having spotted the CIA man, sent a runner across the line with a message: “Are you the Americans? We don’t want to fight.” When Maguire heard about this, he was pleased. It seemed that these Iraqi troops were eagerly awaiting an invasion–so they could surrender. He wrote it all up in a report that went directly to the president and the vice president. An invading American army, it appeared, could roll right through to Baghdad. Perhaps they would even be greeted as liberators.
Back at headquarters, Luis and Maguire were eager to tell Cheney about Anabasis. The Kurdish leaders were fully on board; operations were beginning. The vice president, as always, asked tough questions: What kind of support are you receiving from the Kurds? Who are the people you’re working with? Where are they placed? He was, Maguire recalled, “way in the weeds.”
The answers Cheney received that day were reassuring. Luis and Maguire were can-do operatives firm in their conviction they were serving a righteous cause. After Cheney finished with them, he turned toward several analysts. He had a different set of questions for them: What was Saddam’s force structure? How could the intelligence they have be used to support U.S. ground forces during an invasion? What Iraqi units were positioned where? Which ones might have chemical and biological weapons? Cheney was not posing the sort of questions a policy maker would need answered in order to determine whether Iraq posed a threat to the United States. He was not seeking information on whether Saddam was dangerous because he possessed weapons of mass destruction. He was not soliciting material that would help him decide if an invasion of Iraq was absolutely necessary. His queries were all pegged to the assumption that Iraq would be invaded. And he was not happy with what he was hearing, for the analysts were unable to provide concrete answers to his queries about the invasion to come.
Cheney’s line of questioning was a logical follow-up to the briefing he had received on Anabasis, for from the start Luis and Maguire had made it clear that their top secret plan by itself should not be expected to eliminate Saddam. The various actions they had envisioned–the sabotage, the assassinations, the disinformation–could destabilize and weaken Saddam’s tyrannical regime. They could create chaos and sow distrust. But truly ending the Iraqi dictator’s grip on power would require the intervention of the U.S. military. Bush and Cheney, they believed, understood this. In response to a Bush directive, General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was already drawing up invasion plans. And Cheney was asking questions at the CIA that indicated he expected the United States to invade Iraq. Anabasis, from its inception, was a precursor and a complement to war–not a substitute.
There was even a timetable. When Maguire and Luis were instructed to devise a paramilitary plan, according to Maguire, the message they received from the agency leadership on the seventh floor was explicit: “Be ready to turn this thing on by January 2003. Be ready to go in a year. You got a year.” That meant, as far as Maguire was concerned, there was going to be an invasion– and the clock was ticking.
While Luis and Maguire were briefing Cheney on the top floor of CIA headquarters that day, another group of CIA operatives was toiling away on a related mission in the basement. In a space the size of a football field and divided into cubicles by partial walls, three hundred or so employees of the Counterproliferation Division (CPD) of the Directorate of Operations were mounting espionage operations aimed at obtaining intelligence on weapons of mass destruction programs around the globe. They also were plotting covert actions that might thwart these programs. A particularly busy unit in the CPD at this time was the Joint Task Force on Iraq, charged with digging up information on the top priority: Iraq’s WMD programs. Its chief of operations was a career officer named Valerie Wilson.
Valerie Wilson, who had entered the CIA in 1985 as Valerie Plame, had been at the CPD for several years. Previously, she had served overseas in Europe, first as a case officer posing as a State Department employee and then as a supersecret NOC–an officer under “nonofficial cover.” NOCs were the most clandestine of the agency’s frontline officers. They did not pretend to work for the U.S. government–and did not have the protection of diplomatic immunity should anything go awry. They had to be independent, resourceful, confident–and careful. Valerie Wilson told people she worked for an energy firm. After returning from Europe and joining the CPD, she had maintained her NOC status. And now she was running ops aimed at uncovering intelligence on Iraq’s unconventional weapons. Her job was to find the evidence of Saddam’s clandestine efforts that Bush, Cheney, Libby, and other administration officials desired.
A year earlier–about the time Valerie Wilson joined it–the CPD’s Iraq unit had been small, employing only a few operations officers. Not much was going on within it. In the years since 1998, when UN weapons inspectors had left Iraq, the CIA had not had a single source on Iraq’s weapons programs. Prior to 1998, the CIA had used the UN inspection team to gather intelligence. With the inspectors gone, the CPD had utterly failed “to gain direct access to Iraq’s WMD programs,” as its deputy chief later told Senate investigators. Most of the Iraq action at the CIA–such as it was–had been occurring within the operations directorate’s Near East Division, which had not done much better than the CPD. By 2001, the NE Division had developed only four sources in Iraq–and none was reporting on WMDs. But in the summer before 9/11, the word came down from the top brass: we’re ramping up on Iraq. The CPD’s Iraq unit was changed into the Joint Task Force on Iraq. And in the months after September 11, the JTFI grew to include about fifty employees; Valerie Wilson was placed in charge of its operations group.
By the spring of 2002, the JFTI, including Wilson, was under intense pressure to get more solid intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs. With Bush and his Cabinet members obviously focused on (or perhaps obsessed with) Saddam and Iraq, everyone in the intelligence community, from Tenet on down, realized it was crucial to do whatever they could–probe every corner, chase any lead–to penetrate Saddam’s Iraq. The JTFI was frantic to do so.
Slowly, the JTFI began to develop sources within Iraq. Yet the group was coming up with nothing.
The JTFI’s primary target was Iraqi scientists. The goal was to make indirect and surreptitious contact with these experts and find out what they knew about unconventional weapons in Iraq. JTFI operations officers tracked down relatives and associates of Iraqi scientists living in America. “It would be, ‘Knock, knock, we’re here from the U.S. government, we know you’re a loyal citizen and we want to talk to you about your brother back in Iraq,’ ” a CIA officer recalled. “They would say, ‘My brother is a good man.’ We’d say, ‘We know that.’ They’d say, ‘My brother knows nothing.’ We’d say, ‘I’m sure. But can we find a way to have him tell us that?’ ” JTFI officers occasionally persuaded an Iraqi émigré to pay a visit to a relative in Iraq and–when no one else was near–pose certain questions to the relative. Valerie Wilson and the operations officers of JTFI sought out Iraqi graduate students studying abroad who had previously studied under Iraqi scientists of interest to the CIA. What can you tell us about your mentor’s work? Would you be willing to report secretly to us after returning to Iraq? What if we paid you? What if we could help you stay in this nice Western city? In some instances, JTFI attempted to persuade a defector to go back to Iraq. “It was ‘So glad you’ve risked your life getting out,’ ” one CIA official said. “ ‘Now, will you go back for us?’ Yeah, right, that was an easy sell.”
By that spring, JTFI was sending out dozens of reports based on its new sources. But none of these sources had anything definitive to report about unconventional weapons activity within Iraq. At the same time, Valerie Wilson’s operations unit was overwhelmed with walk-ins. As the anti-Saddam rhetoric coming from Bush administration officials had intensified, would be informants were increasingly approaching U.S. embassies and offering–or peddling–information on Iraq’s weapons programs. JTFI operations officers were traveling throughout the world to debrief these possible sources to determine if they were legitimate. Often it would take only minutes to conclude that someone was pulling a con. But the JTFI had to treat each case as potentially the breakthrough for which its officers yearned. “We knew nothing about what was going on in Iraq,” a CIA official recalled. “We were way behind the eight ball. We had to look under every rock.”
In one episode, an Iraqi showed up in Damascus claiming he had been taken blindfolded to a facility outside Baghdad where political prisoners or Iranian prisoners from the Iran-Iraq War (which ended in 1988) were being held. He was to repair equipment at this site. But, he claimed, he had witnessed the most gruesome experiment: Twenty or so subjects were strapped down and injected with a poison. Within hours, blood was pouring out of their noses and ears. And they died. JTFI officers flew to Syria to meet with this Iraqi. His story made them wonder if Iraq was testing a botulinumbased weapon. He told them how long he had sat blindfolded in the car that had ferried him to this site. He described the facility and the surrounding environs. Back in the CIA’s basement, JTFI staffers pored over satellite photos and tried to determine where this facility was. They couldn’t find anything. Then this fellow failed a lie detector test. Another nothing. Later, CIA officers would come to suspect that this informant, as well as other defectors bearing dramatic WMD allegations, had been sent their way by Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, the exile group that had been lobbying Washington for years to overthrow Saddam.
A walk-in in India claimed he had been involved with a biological weapons program based at an Iraqi university. He had to be checked out. The Joint Task Force on Iraq dispatched one of the intelligence community’s best BW experts to the subcontinent, a doctor named Les. (His last name remains a secret.) The shrewd doctor concluded the Indian was a fabricator. “We were trying to find something,” a CIA official recalled. “We were motivated. We knew this was important. But it was our job to be skeptical.”
As the cases piled up, Valerie Wilson traveled overseas under assumed names to monitor walk-in operations and other activities. Members of the unit were putting in long hours. But the results were frustrating. None of the JTFI’s operations was generating evidence that Saddam had biological or chemical weapons or a revived nuclear weapons program. Did the task force’s lack of results mean it was not doing its job well enough–or rather, might Saddam not have the arsenal of unconventional weapons most CIA people (and White House officials) assumed he was hiding? Valerie Wilson and other JTFI officers were almost too overwhelmed to consider the possibility that the small number of operations they were conducting was, in a way, coming up with the right answer: that there was no intelligence to find on Saddam’s current chemical and biological stockpiles and nuclear weapons programs because they did not exist. Instead, Valerie Wilson pushed on, doing all she could to uncover information–any information–on Saddam’s weapons.
In over a year, she would become a household name–but not for anything she did to find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
There was a profound disconnect between Valerie Wilson’s endeavors and those of her colleagues upstairs who were briefing Cheney on Anabasis. The operating premise of the officers of the Counterproliferation Division–and of the CIA as a whole–was that accurate intelligence mattered. It was the duty of the CIA and the other intelligence agencies to obtain truthful information, however they could, and to get it into the hands of policy makers. Spies, eavesdroppers, and analysts collected and processed intelligence so senior government officials, especially the commander in chief, could render the best decisions possible. But Bush, Cheney, and a handful of other senior officials already believed they had enough information to know what to do about Iraq. They still were seeking information about unconventional weapons in Iraq, but it was for reasons other than for evaluating whether Iraq was an immediate threat that would have to be neutralized by an invasion. They were drop-dead sure of their presumptions: Iraq was a danger, Saddam had to go, and war was the only option that would achieve this policy goal. They did not need intelligence to reach these conclusions–or to test them.
Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs–and Saddam’s ties to terrorists, including al-Qaeda–certainly had its uses for Bush and his aides. It could, as Cheney, a former secretary of defense, knew, help battlefield commanders prepare for the invasion. And just as important–if not more–it could help the Bush White House build a case for war and whip up congressional and public support for the course chosen. Bush and his aides were looking for intelligence not to guide their policy on Iraq but to market it. The intelligence would be the basis not for launching a war but for selling it.
So much of the coming debate over the intelligence on Iraq–did it indicate Iraq was a clear and present threat or not?–would be moot. The work of the thousands of intelligence professionals and the contentious tussles over the issue on Capitol Hill and within the media–all this was predicated on a false assumption: that the intelligence was a crucial element in whether war would happen. Much of what the CIA produced turned out to be embarrassingly flawed. But it was only window dressing for decision makers who did not need intelligence to know that they knew the truth.
The reasons why Bush invaded Iraq–and the precise moment he resolved to do so–will be debated by historians for years to come. Part of it, as Bush’s outburst to Fleischer and Levine indicated, may well have been the president’s gut instincts and a powerful–if not personal–antipathy toward Saddam Hussein, a dictator whom George Bush’s father had defeated but left in place, a tyrant who had been accused of plotting to kill Bush’s father, and a brute who, in the days after 9/11, provided an easy-to-hit target for a president who felt driven to take tough measures to safeguard America.
But for many others in his administration, the invasion of Iraq would be a faith-based war–predicated on certain ideological and geopolitical views. Cheney had his hardened Hobbesian views of power politics. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a haughty, self-styled transformer, convinced that he could see what needed to be done better than his generals could. Beside them was a fraternity of neoconservative academics, polemicists, and former government officials who had been advocating war with Iraq for years, long before September 11. Many of the most important of these neoconservatives had been influenced by an eccentric academic who claimed that Saddam was the hidden hand behind al-Qaeda. Now leading members of this group held senior positions in the Bush administration. Richard Perle was the chairman of the Defense Policy Board and an influential adviser to Rumsfeld. Wolfowitz was deputy secretary of defense. Libby was Cheney’s chief of staff. Douglas Feith was undersecretary of defense for policy and running a secret unit that combed through raw intelligence reports seeking any information that linked Saddam to Osama bin Laden. In conferences at the American Enterprise Institute, in newspaper op-eds, and in articles in The Weekly Standard magazine, these hawks and their allies had been marshaling the case: Saddam was at the epicenter of world terrorism; he had assembled a massive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons; he was about to go nuclear; he was a threat to Israel, the Middle East, and the United States. Moreover, some of them argued, eliminating Saddam would serve larger policy goals: it would extend the United States’ influence in the region and upend the toxic status quo in the Middle East. It would advance the cause of freedom, ushering in a new era of democracy. Imagine a pro-West, pro-Israel bastion of democracy in the middle of this uneasy part of the planet.
There was a case to be made. Saddam was a brutal ruler and a force for trouble, at least in the region. He had possessed chemical and biological weapons in the past and had sought nuclear weapons years earlier. He had gassed his enemies in the 1980s. He had not complied with UN Security Council resolutions demanding full disarmament. And after September 11, the United States had to be more vigilant about a prospective threat. He might still have biological and chemical weapons; he might be secretly developing nuclear weapons. He might one day hook up with anti-American terrorists. The continuing international sanctions imposed against his regime might be faltering and not thwart Saddam forever–especially if he used the billions of dollars he was skimming off the UN-supervised oil-for-food program to purchase WMD-related materials on the black market.
But the advocates for war went beyond depicting Saddam as a prospective threat. He was, they claimed, the number one danger to the United States and an American military defeat of this murderous thug would not only enhance the security of Americans but spark a historic and positive transformation in the Middle East. Many argued that a war against Iraq would not be difficult, the aftermath not a problem. The Iraqis would be grateful, and so would Arabs everywhere. Their case–before and after 9/11–was based on unproven, dubious assumptions and sketchy and, in many respects phony, intelligence. But it ultimately rested on a strong core belief: we know what we’re doing.
There was no doubt. Information from intelligence analysts or other experts in or out of government that contradicted or undermined the operating assumptions of the get-Saddam crowd was ignored or belittled.
After the invasion, a bitter national debate would arise over how Bush had presented the case for war to the public. It was a damning question: had he–as well as Cheney, Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and other administration figures–hyped the threat to rally popular support for an elective war against a nation with no known connection to 9/11? Had Bush, Cheney, and their aides shared with the public what the U.S. government really did–and did not– know about Saddam, his weapons programs, and his alleged ties to al-Qaeda? Certainly, the intelligence services had failed miserably by issuing all-toodefinitive statements about Saddam’s WMDs. But had Bush compounded this failure by overselling the limited and flawed intelligence because war was his preferred option?
The manner in which Bush would sell the war–promoting questionable intelligence–would hit Valerie Wilson directly. Months after the invasion, her maiden name (Valerie Plame) and her classified employment status at the CIA would be disclosed by conservative columnist Robert Novak, who had received information on her from two Bush administration officials. One of them, who much later insisted he had only confirmed what Novak already knew, was Karl Rove, the president’s master strategist. Her career would be ruined, her operations and contacts possibly jeopardized. And all this would happen because her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, had challenged Bush’s use of a particularly lousy and misleading piece of intelligence to persuade (some might say, scare) Americans. Joseph Wilson was an imperfect critic. At points, he garbled some facts and overstated his case, even as he soundly raised questions about the administration’s handling of the prewar intelligence.
The Plame affair would be full of ironies and twists. The investigation of the leak would entangle major media institutions, raise questions about the relationships between high-powered reporters and high-level sources, and land in jail one prominent journalist, whose prewar reporting on Iraq’s WMDs would come to symbolize the media’s complicity in the Bush White House’s sales campaign. The episode would become another battlefront in the fierce partisan wars of Washington. The leak would be assailed as a vengeful act of treason engineered to discredit an administration critic, and it would be dismissed by administration allies as relatively routine political hardball. But while the White House–especially Cheney’s office–would indeed train its sights on Wilson as a troublemaker, the original source of the leak was not a political hit man but a highly respected State Department official, who harbored deep doubts about Bush’s march to war. He mentioned Valerie Wilson to Novak not as part of a White House smear campaign targeting Joseph Wilson. It was, according to the official’s colleagues, a slip-up by an inveterate gossip–but one that occurred alongside a concerted White House effort to undermine a critic of the war.
Still, the Plame affair, fueled by White House deceptions, was a window into a much bigger scandal: the Bush administration’s use of faulty intelligence and its fervent desire (after the invasion) to defend its prewar sales pitch. The Plame matter would lead to an investigation of the White House, the appointment of a special counsel, and the indictment of a senior White House official. But its real significance was larger than the sum of its parts. It would come to represent the disturbing and intrigue-ridden story of how the Bush administration–full of we-know-best, gung ho officials keen for a war that they assumed would go well–presented a case for war that turned out to be, in virtually every aspect, fraudulent.
It’s a tragic tale partly because the inside account of the intelligence mess is replete with episodes in which intelligence analysts and government officials actually made the correct calls about Iraq’s weapons, Baghdad’s supposed ties to al-Qaeda, and the difficulties that a war would bring. But they either did not prevail in internal bureaucratic scuffles or were disregarded by a White House committed to (or hell-bent on) war against Saddam. What happened to Valerie Wilson was part of this larger story: how flawed intelligence was misused by the president and his top aides to take the nation to war.
When Bush sat down for his History Channel interview on that spring day in 2002, ten months before he would send more than 150,000 American troops into Iraq, he did not seem to be thinking about nuances, conflicting intelligence reports, or the unknown consequences of bold action. The man in charge–the president who seemed to have resolved in his own mind that he would guide the nation to war–was thinking about moral clarity, about strong and decisive leadership, about standing tall against an evil tyrant. Reagan “didn’t say, ‘Well, Mr. Gorbachev, would you take the top three bricks off the wall?’ ” Bush told Frank Sesno. “He said, tear it all down. . . . And the truth of the matter is, I spoke about the Axis of Evil, and I did it for a reason. I wanted the world to know exactly where the United States stood.” Reagan’s hard line had been a success, Bush said to Sesno. Not only the top three bricks but the whole damn Berlin Wall had come tumbling down.
Now Bush had the chance to do something similar. He would get rid of Saddam Hussein. As he had told his press aides, he would “kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast.” But first he would have to convince Congress and the American public.