The Lie That Got Us In: The Bush Administration Knew There Were No WMDs in Iraq

Charles Duelfer, who led the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group in 2004, argues a stunning yet popularly held belief in Foreign Policy magazine, that the Bush administration did not lie about Iraq’s alleged WMD program; they were just wrong about it.

Powell-anthrax-vial“The intelligence wasn’t cooked or slanted to make policymakers happy,” Duelfer writes. “It was just wrong. That made Bush mistaken — but it doesn’t make him a liar.”

The first clause in that argument is one that many on the inside disagree with. The Bush administration exerted significant pressure on the intelligence community to provide justification for the Iraq War. According to John Brennan, who was Deputy Director of the CIA at the time, “we were being asked to do things and to make sure that that justification was out there.”

“At the time there were a lot of concerns that it was being politicized by certain individuals within the administration that wanted to get that intelligence base that would justify going forward with the war,” Brennan told PBS. When asked who was exerting this pressure, Brennan said “Some of the neocons” in the administration “were determined to make sure that the intelligence was going to support the ultimate decision.”

And Paul Pillar, the CIA officer who led the hurried effort to provide Congress with a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD programs – an estimate that ultimately contained falsities that the administration retroactively used to justify their incorrect assessments – said, “The atmosphere in which they were working, in which a policy decision clearly had already been made, in which intelligence was being looked to to support that decision rather to inform decisions yet to be made, was a very important part of the atmosphere.”

According to Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the lead up to the invasion Powell himself said, “I wonder what will happen when we put 500,000 troops into Iraq and comb the country from one end of the other and find nothing.”

In addition to widespread assessments like these from people on the inside, it’s clear from the historical record that the Bush administration did not base their decision to go to war in Iraq on intelligence assessing Iraq had WMDs. As CBS News reported in 2009, “barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq.”

The hodgepodge of justifications sputtering out from the administration in the lead up to the war also undercuts the argument that anyone was truly concerned about an actual WMD threat. Officials justified war on the basis of everything from an unsubstantiated connection to al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks to Saddam’s own human rights violations to spreading democracy, among others.

“Given Saddam’s history,” Duelfer writes in defense of his theory, “it wasn’t crazy for the intelligence community to believe that he would reconstitute his WMD programs.”

Indeed, it wasn’t. What would have been crazy is if Saddam never planned to reconstitute his WMD programs. The most amateur observer of international relations knows such programs provide a valuable deterrent that discourages rampaging military superpowers like the United States from attacking. Given the obvious target Saddam had become in the eyes of Washington, it would have been rather self-destructive of him to completely forswear WMDs.

This is an analysis that was included in the infamous intelligence estimate that bolstered the conclusion that Saddam had WMDs. As Paul Pillar himself explains:

Even that estimate did not support the war-making case. Among other things it contained the judgment that if Saddam did have any of those feared weapons of mass destruction he was unlikely to use them against U.S. interests or to give them to terrorists—except in the extreme case in which his country was invaded and his regime about to be overthrown. If this judgment had a policy implication it was not to launch the war. The judgment directly contradicted—but did nothing to slow down—the administration’s steady stream of scary rhetoric about how in the absence of a war Saddam could give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

So even if Duelfer is correct and the Bush administration truly believed their own assessments of Iraqi WMDs, the most authoritative intelligence concluded they were not an imminent threat to the United States. The administration went to war anyways. That makes the war a preventive war, which falls into the category of war crimes and incriminates the Bush administration regardless of what they truly believed about Iraq’s WMDs.

My argument is not just the opposite of Duelfer’s. I do believe the Bush administration lied about Iraqi WMD. But I think the truth goes far beyond that: if the Bush administration really did believe Saddam had WMDs, they never would have invaded. That is to say, it was the fact that Iraq had no WMDs that was crucial to the decision to go to war.

In his 2003 book Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky pointed to three prerequisites for preventive war. “The target of preventive war must have several characteristics,” he wrote.

  1. It must be virtually defenseless.
  2. It must be important enough to be worth the trouble
  3. There must be a way to portray it as the ultimate evil and an imminent threat to our survival.

“Iraq qualified on all counts,” Chomsky concluded.

Update: I regretfully did not include the leaked minutes of a conversation between British intelligence officials and Prime Minister at the time Tony Blair, referred to as the Downing Street memo, which proves the point I made above.

“Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD,” the secret memo reads. “But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

The head of Britain’s spy service at the time, Richard Dearlove, had met with CIA Director at the time George Tenet days before the memo was written. From that meeting, Dearlove concluded: “It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”

74 thoughts on “The Lie That Got Us In: The Bush Administration Knew There Were No WMDs in Iraq”

  1. Of course they knew! They might be fat white guys, but not stupid! Remember that lie? I do, clear as day – the Neocons mounted their full court press of Bulls**t propaganda so they could instigate state terror (pre-emptive war) on an impoverished 3rd world dictatorship, steal their oil and take out one of Israel's biggest enemies.
    No one hangs for it: Not the press liars, the politician liars, the brass liars. Which means that with a wink and a nod, it's ok, and they can get away with it and do it again!

  2. You write "if the Bush administration really did believe Saddam had WMDs, they never would have invaded." I agree.

    That's why I support the right of Iran to build nuclear weapons because it is the only deterrent to full-out invasion – which is a 'clear and present existential danger' to Iran. Israel obviously agrees with the nuclear self-defence strategy…

    Given the recent murderous criminal behaviour of the US-NATO for the West to now demand that Iran remain defence-less and supine while surrounded by NATO bases on their borders is immoral.

    There is little threat of 'rogue state' offensive nuclear attacks simply because the US has 5000 nuclear weapons and could incinerate any attacker. This is not too hard to understand. [Of course once you do have nukes the US goes to savage proxy warfare attacks – like Vietnam for China or Afghanistan for Russia – but preventing flat-out invasion is still the first step]

    The problem with US foreign policy debate is that it cannot say these obvious truths and so it is INSANE. I literally feel sick every time I listen to the 'policy experts' (earning 100k+ a year) debate something because they operate from premises that have to connection to objective reality.

    The world watched Saddam disarm and then watched Iraqis killed by the tens of thousands by American invaders. Saddam was hung by the invaders while the invaders got medals and book deals.

    Lesson learnt.

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  3. Invading Iraq was pre-planned right after invading Afghanistan, which of course would not have succeeded if it was not by the help of Iranian regime which provided air passage for the Americans. In return, the US government invaded Iraq and handed it out to the Iranians on silver plate. Saddam was the only barrier against the Iranians and their plan to control the whole Middle East. Now the Iranians are spreading terror in Syria, Iraq, North Yemen, Lebanon and They are supplying arms to their loyalist Arab Shiats in Bahrain to destabilize the gulf country. Pls read about confederate general Albert Pike and his plan to bring choas to the Middle East.

    1. What you are saying is what Saudis and UAE in general are saying.., to justify their un democratic, brutal regimes blaming it on Iranians or even Russians or China or Hugo Chavez or democrats around the world who don't want to have anything to do with your kind.., by any chance.., are you one of the employee of which embassy.., Saudis or..,. you are working for Israeli Mossad inc…, Just be honest about it.., which rebel fraction you sending money too…., the ones that are supported by your bosses from Saudi or the one supported by the sunny puppet regime in Turkey.

      1. are real idiot who never been outside your small town. I am Sunni Muslim who served 5 years at the Federal prison for dropped terrorism charges. You can accuse of of your stupid charges and I wont care. back in 2009 the foreign ministers of Iran and Israel were wining and dining with king Abdullah of Jordan. the way there are 200 Israeli companies doing business in Iran..oops..who put Khumini in power..oops..the CIA.. fuk the Saudi Royal family, the Mosad, the whole Arab regimes and fuk you too.

        1. Thank you for all that fuking.., now that we know who you are I just want to say that you are wrong.., to prove it.., read Paul Wolfowitz and hiss ideas about middle east and US hegemony approved by the US senators to start the Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon invasion.

          What is happening in Syria is the followup by Obama regime, yet Saudis and UAE in general have made it to a sectarian-proxy wars dividing more of nations in middle east.

          1. You poor ignorant ass. You are trying to prove a point through the writings of Paul Wolfowitz ????? Paul Wolfowitz, as Rumsfeld's side-kick was as responsible for the lies leading up to the invasion of Iraq as was Cheney and Bush. READ A BOOK ! ! ! !

  4. People who were and are involved in Iraq illegal war knew everything.., knew that there is no WMD, they new that if there were any the Saddam regime wouldn't hesitate to use it.., so cut the crap in blaming games on this writer or others.., look: John and others.., Saddam invasion of Kuwait was a trap made possible by the west.., he thought and got insurances from USA ambassador that is ok for him to invade Kuwait.., he thought that Kuwait will be his.., which in reality Kuwait is part of Iraq, divided from iraq by the English in 1920s given to the Kuwaiti rulers., yet Bush family business connection in what was called Gulf Oil.., made USA regime so furious to lose their business so as their military advantage in Persian gulf that they had to com up with something, 9/11, the WMD and everything in between was created by USA,EU and Saudis to invade Iraq.., the created terrorism in Afghanistan was a given foot solders by Wahhabis, Bin Laden family from Saudis.., those who attacked wtc 99% of them were from Saudi arabia yet they cooked up everything to invade Iraq.., the entire idea of invasion is about the entire Middle East and it will not end in Iraq.., they have their man, the father of all Zionism, Paul Wolfowitz.., the thief of Baghdad and generals lined up long before their lies. The main idea in militarizing the entire middle east and central asia is from Paul Wolfowitz.., which is A very dear friend of bush family.., so is Bin Laden family so is Israel regime.

    The very same illegal notion is adopted by Obama regime yet they all have a different name doing the same harm in Syria wanting the same thing.., they all understand that it is Paul Wolfowitz, the Saudis and Israel dictating their policies in Middle East.., so this new writer can go back to liberrary and start from beginning. Yankee go home leave the people of Middle East alone and take your bull dogs with you.

  5. wesley clark has reported in his book that the pentagon had plans to invade seven countries after 9/11 — iraq being one of them.

    former weapons inspectors like scott ritter should also be cited.

    plus more on the illegality of the war.

    plus the fact that saddam hussein was being honest in his massive release of iraqi documents before the war.

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    1. That's because 99 percent of the sheeple of America believe the conventional bullsh*t that Iran has risen to be, presently, the greatest threat to world peace. All that's missing is a fart in the wrong direction and the green light to start printing another trillion (two?) warbucks.

  6. And yet no ICC for the idiots. They are untouchable. Only African leaders get hurled before the court when their western counterparts can murder with such impunity. Such are the harsh and painful realities of life. Welcome to mother earth.

  7. As soon as Bush was in office he said "I want to unseat Saddam, find me a way".

    1. bush lied and fed false information to powell to take to united nations ,some democrats belived the president of the u.s.a. would not iie to get us in a war,but they were wrong.bush should have been impeached and put in jail.

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