Iraq War II, Part 3: Lying Us Into War
To mark the 20th anniversary of the "wholly unjustified and brutal invasion" of Iraq, as George W. Bush himself now characterizes it, we are serializing that chapter from my 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism over the next few weeks exclusively here at Substack.
Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven, Part Twelve, Part Thirteen, Part Fourteen.
Lying Us Into War
The administration claimed that Iraq maintained stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons of every description and active programs to make more. They said Hussein had restarted his nuclear weapons program as well, and that it was only a matter of time before the mad dictator handed these weapons to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorists to attack the United States. And that we had to stop them before it was too late. But they knew they were lying.
The CIA and White House were pretending to believe that intercepted aluminum tubes were for uranium enrichment centrifuges rather than short-range rockets. The actual nuclear experts in the Energy and State Departments, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), rocket scientists from the Defense Department and independent experts had repeatedly discounted the tale long before the war. One State Department INR analyst said the tubes were such a poor fit for centrifuges that if Iraq genuinely wanted to use them this way, “we should just give them the tubes.” IAEA inspectors had observed the same kind of tubes being used for Iraqi rockets back in 1996. The Washington Post debunked the story in September 2002 — on page A18 — four months before Colin Powell lied about it in his UN speech and six months before the war began. The government and the rest of the media just went with it anyway.
Iraq’s alleged attempt to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger was another major pillar in the story that they were developing nuclear weapons. The CIA had debunked this disinformation more than a year before the war, intervening repeatedly to prevent the hawks in the vice president’s office from including it in his speeches, until finally allowing it in President Bush’s all-important State of the Union address in 2003. The IAEA discredited the forged documents supporting the accusations with internet searches in 30 minutes. The Bush administration knew there was not a secret Manhattan Project-like attempt to build atomic weapons in Iraq. That was why they had to resort to public relations tricks such as having Bush, Rice, Powell and Cheney all invoke the phrase “we can’t wait for proof that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” simultaneously certain of the threat, but hiding behind the excuse that we could all die if we tried to make them prove that it was real.
It is the same for the mobile biological weapons laboratories. The CIA knew the source, “Curveball,” an Iraqi defector to Germany tied to the Iraqi National Congress, was a liar. They used his fake claims anyway. In his UN address, Secretary of State Powell actually showed drawings of what these mobile biological weapons trucks would look like if anyone on Earth could see them, which they could not since they did not exist. After the war, the closest thing the Iraq Survey Group could find to a mobile lab were two trailers with equipment for making hydrogen for use in weather balloons. One British member of the inspection team, a former army officer and biological weapons expert, said, “The equipment was singularly inappropriate” for making germ weapons. “We were in hysterics over this. You’d have better luck putting a couple of dust bins on the back of the truck and brewing it in there.”
Powell twisted intercepts that only proved compliance into evidence of a coverup by deliberately embellishing the transcript of the audio. Powell claimed a transcript of Iraqi soldiers read, “We sent you a message yesterday to clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there.” But the actual transcript never said, “clean out all of the areas” nor “make sure there is nothing there.” Without these elaborations, the intercepts were far less incriminating.
In the ultimate demonstration of the logical fallacy of “begging the question,” Powell, echoing the CIA, complained that Iraq’s 12,200-page dossier on the entire history of their weapons programs that they had turned over to the United Nations was “rich in volume, but poor in information and practically devoid of new evidence.” That is, the U.S. would only accept Iraq’s declarations of innocence on the charges if they would prove their honesty by admitting their guilt, which would remain a foregone conclusion.
Even the most ridiculous claims from Ahmed Chalabi’s INC defectors got spots in the speech, including the obviously preposterous lie that important files proving Iraq’s guilt, and even banned weapons themselves, were in government cars being driven around in circles somewhere out in the desert to dodge the UN inspectors. Clearly attempting to implicate Iraq in the U.S. anthrax attacks without directly accusing them, Powell mentioned the attacks along with references to Iraq’s 1980s stockpile. It was considered no important matter that Powell had been Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser when the U.S. was abetting Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons programs and his use of chemical weapons against Iran. Powell then falsely claimed that Iraq’s anthrax was all unaccounted for. This was not true. The UN had shown back in the 1990s that Iraq’s anthrax had already been destroyed.
Powell then pointed to a nondescript building with a guard shack and water truck next to it and then just laid on the interpretation, claiming proof of chemical weapons:
How do I know that? How can I say that? Let me give you a closer look. Look at the image on the left. On the left is a close-up of one of the four chemical bunkers. The two arrows indicate the presence of sure signs that the bunkers are storing chemical munitions. The arrow at the top that says “security” points to a facility that is the signature item for this kind of bunker. Inside that facility are special guards and special equipment to monitor any leakage that might come out of the bunker. The truck you also see is a signature item. It’s a decontamination vehicle in case something goes wrong.
This is characteristic of those four bunkers. The special security facility and the decontamination vehicle will be in the area, if not at any one of them or one of the other, it is moving around those four, and it moves as it needed to move, as people are working in the different bunkers.
Now, look at the picture on the right. You are now looking at two of those sanitized bunkers. The signature vehicles are gone, the tents are gone, it’s been cleaned up, and it was done on the 22nd of December, as the U.N. inspection team is arriving, and you can see the inspection vehicles arriving in the lower portion of the picture on the right.
The bunkers are clean when the inspectors get there. They found nothing.
Has a less convincing case for starting a war ever been presented?
All of Bush and his cabinet’s claims — hundreds of them — that Iraq had hidden warehouses full of mustard gas, VX and sarin nerve gas, anthrax (just like that used in the mysterious still-unsolved 2001 attack on the United States) and facilities ramping up production of it were all false. There were no weapons left for them to give up. As former chief UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter confirmed to the author, the United Nations inspectors knew in 1995 that all Iraqi WMDs had been destroyed by the end of 1991, and they had spent the better part of the last decade overseeing the destruction of the last of Iraq’s capacity to produce unconventional weapons. The former director of the Iraq Nuclear Verification Office, Jacques Baute, confirmed Ritter, saying that everything the Iraqis had given them after 1995 “was pretty accurate.” President Clinton had only pulled the inspectors out in 1998 before his Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign. There were no new programs, just new lies told by INC defectors and their neoconservative enablers, along with the CIA.
The WHIG, the CIA and Pentagon neocons worked overtime to drum up talking points and consensus about Iraq’s alleged unconventional weapons threat. Compliant reporters like the New York Times’s Judith Miller, Michael Gordon and David Sanger dutifully passed on their lies, seeming to “confirm” that the claims were independently verified by printing them.
On the eve of war, in February 2003, the government instructed Americans to run out and get plastic sheeting and duct tape to cover their windows and doors to protect our houses from a possible imminent biological or radiological dirty bomb attack by al Qaeda. This was just two days after President Bush threatened that Iraq had seven mobile biological weapons labs and could somehow strike the “Homeland,” possibly with their unmanned drones that somehow must have a range of 7,000 miles. In some places, especially in Washington, D.C. and its suburbs, people actually believed this stuff and did so, cleaning out their local Home Depot shelves in a panic. The reality was that Iraq’s “drones” were made of balsa wood and string and were for local aerial surveillance if they could be used at all. They were never designed to spray anyone with poison gas or germs. Those were just lies.
Many careers were made helping lie the country into war. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, under Lieutenant General James Clapper, was eager to label any old structure with a roof as a possible weapons site. The post-invasion inspectors found no such thing in any of the areas the analysts had identified as suspect locations. So Clapper pushed the completely fake story, originated by the Israelis, that Hussein had arranged for Russia to help smuggle his chemical stocks out of the country to Syria at the last minute. He would continue to be promoted and later make himself famous for committing perjury in front of Congress when he lied about the extent of the National Security Agency’s data collection on American citizens as Director of National Intelligence. He is now an analyst for CNN.
One of the most blatant lies was one that Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in his August 2002 speech. He claimed that Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel al-Majid, who had defected to Jordan in 1995 and spilled his guts to the CIA, MI-6, UN inspectors, IAEA and even CNN, had admitted that Saddam’s regime had cheated and continued to possess banned weapons. This was simply not true. What Kamel had said was that Hussein had kept some mustard gas after the ceasefire in 1991, but that after being caught, they destroyed every last bit of it by the end of the year. “All chemical weapons were destroyed. I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons — biological, chemical, missile, nuclear — were destroyed.” He brought with him documents to prove it. After Kamel’s defection, Hussein had panicked and ordered his government to turn over every last scrap of documents they had on his unconventional weapons — 12 trunks full — to make sure the U.S. and UN could not claim that he was holding out on anything. The UN inspectors were satisfied that Kamel and the dictator were both telling the truth by the end of 1995. In 1996, Kamel returned to Iraq and was executed by Saddam Hussein.
Not only did the Bush administration know that Hussein’s old unconventional weapons stocks had all been destroyed, but everyone else who was paying attention did too. Iraq allowed the UN inspectors back into the country in the fall of 2002. They spent months searching suspicious sites and came up empty everywhere the U.S. sent them to look. In early December, still four months before the invasion, UN inspectors went to the sites where the U.S. claimed Iraq was reconstituting their old nuclear program and found nothing of the kind. The inspectors determined right away that the aluminum tubes really were for rockets, as the Iraqis had claimed, and that the warehouses full of chemical weapons were no such thing at all.
José Bustani, a Brazilian who headed the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tried in 2001–2002 to negotiate Iraq’s adoption of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which would have mandated inspections of Iraq’s suspected unconventional weapons infrastructure. Once the Iraqis agreed, the Bush administration intervened to stop it. Cheney’s agent at the State Department, John Bolton, demanded Bustani resign and threatened the man’s children when he refused. Bolton confirms demanding the resignation but denies threatening Bustani’s family. However, since John Bolton has proudly explained on Fox News that lying is an essential part of his job, the tie will have to go to Bustani, the otherwise-seemingly honest man who was trying to stop a war through negotiations and increased transparency into Iraq’s military capabilities. Weeks later, a year before the war, Bustani was removed in a special session of the OPCW at the insistence of the United States, which threatened to cut off funding for the organization if they did not comply. There was no mystery about the reason for his ouster. New inspections would have undermined the case for war.
In the fall of 2002, Iraq turned over a 12,000-page dossier to the UN. Since the conclusion was already presumed, the fact that they did not confess to having revamped programs was taken only as proof that they were still lying. For years since the war, its supporters have attempted to rationalize that Hussein’s government was pretending to still have weapons to intimidate Iran, and that somehow the U.S. was accidentally fooled as well. To tell themselves and us this story, they only have to ignore Iraq’s multiple protestations of innocence, virtually carte blanche permission to UN inspectors to search for them, and this massive dossier which included the entire history of Iraq’s unconventional weapons programs, none of which survived past the year 1991. The U.S. Iraq Survey Group, tasked with finding the weapons and examining Iraq’s papers after the invasion, determined that since the Iraqis were so confident nothing would be found, they thought that by allowing inspectors in after UN Security Council Resolution 1441, not only would they stave off the attack, but finally prove the negative and get the sanctions lifted altogether.
The U.S. also had at least two high-level spies inside the Iraqi government, the Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, who was the head of intelligence and one of Hussein’s top diplomats. Both men assured the U.S. that all of Iraq’s WMD really had all been destroyed long before the invasion. This was kept secret from the American people before and for years after the war.
When the Iraq Survey Group later did its study of Iraq’s former programs, they insisted that Saddam Hussein must have planned to be able to try again one day to manufacture these weapons. They said this was because he would have wanted to deter Iran next door, and to a lesser extent, Israel. That Hussein would pass off unconventional weapons to Osama bin Laden to use against the people of the United States of America? The idea was apparently so laughable that the inspectors were too embarrassed even to bring it up to debunk it in their report.
After Bush reportedly scoffed at the weakness of CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin’s Oval Office presentation of their best evidence of Iraq’s illegal weapons, CIA Director George Tenet told President Bush not to worry, the case is a “slam dunk.” Tenet later denied saying that he meant Iraq definitely had the weapons. He just meant he thought Bush had a convincing enough story to make the American people believe it, that was all.
For years, a viral email went around which claimed that soldiers found the weapons of mass destruction after all, and it was just too bad that George W. Bush was too honorable to take credit for being right. But that is not true. All you need to do is read the actual article the emails’ authors cherry-picked from. It is a New York Times piece from 2014 called “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons.” It tells the story of how the military covered up the fact that soldiers deployed in Iraq were finding mustard and sarin gas shells, as well as being attacked by Iraqi insurgents with them. Even though the chemicals were way past their shelf life for effective weapons, they were still somewhat toxic, so men were getting sick. But the Army clamped down on their stories, which meant that these soldiers were denied proper medical treatment for their exposure. It was an important story in its own right, beyond being the basis for an otherwise tall tale about Bush’s vindication.
Why would the Bush government clamp down on this truth that supposedly proved they were right all along? The answer is that none of these recently discovered shells had been manufactured after the first Iraq war in 1991. So none of this story supported Bush’s claim that there were active chemical weapons programs of any kind in Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion, nor had there been in more than ten years. These munitions were all left over from when President Ronald Reagan and the president’s father, George Bush Sr., helped Hussein purchase and use chemical weapons against Iran and the Iraqi Kurds back when he was a loyal client of the U.S. in the 1980s. All the article said was that soldiers and insurgents had found old duds out in the desert, virtually all of which had already been declared to the United Nations, even if the local GIs out on patrol had not been warned in advance that old mustard gas shells were buried out there. Back in the 1990s, the UN had simply decided it would be more dangerous to try to move them than to just leave them out there in the desert to decay. The Times reported:
The United States had gone to war declaring it must destroy an active weapons of mass destruction program. Instead, American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West. …
The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale. …
[D]uring the long occupation, American troops began encountering old chemical munitions in hidden caches and roadside bombs. Typically 155-millimeter artillery shells or 122-millimeter rockets, they were remnants of an arms program Iraq had rushed into production in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. All had been manufactured before 1991, participants said. …
Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the United States suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong. “They needed something to say that after Sept. 11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Mr. Lampier said. “And all of this was from the pre-1991 era.”
Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.
The same thing happened with an Associated Press story from July 2008, “Secret U.S. Mission Hauls Uranium from Iraq.” The hawks were right, after all, they claimed. This was false. First of all, it was “yellowcake” uranium, meaning half-refined ore that is useless as any kind of weapon until converted into a gas, enriched up to weapons-grade purity and then machined into a warhead, which Iraq had no capability of doing whatsoever in 2003. This uranium, left over from Iraq’s pre-1991 nuclear program, had all been officially declared to inspectors and had been sitting in a storage facility under IAEA lock and seal. It in no way justified the claim that Hussein had a nuclear program of any kind at the time of the invasion. This also meant that if Hussein had wanted any yellowcake uranium, he would not have needed to buy it from Niger. He could have simply broken open the warehouse door where he already had some in his country. Instead, it was still sealed and unused. But it made for a great headline for those who wished to take the story out of context to rationalize their belief in things that were not true.
It remains unclear why the CIA did not just make up lies about Saddam Hussein’s supposed ties to al Qaeda. Instead, they tortured Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, not even a true member of al Qaeda but associated with them, as well as Abu Zubaydah, another man they falsely believed to be a high-level al Qaeda operative, into making claims about that group’s relationship with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Iraqis had an airplane fuselage at a police training facility used to train officers in anti-hijacking operations in a town called Salman Pak. The CIA and Egyptian secret police tortured al-Libi into claiming that it was for training hijackers how to take over planes instead. Al-Libi also said under torture that the Iraqi regime had trained al Qaeda on chemical weapons production. Documents later showed CIA analysts did not believe the claims the agency’s operators had tortured out of al-Libi, nor did the DIA. This did not stop them from making sure they were featured prominently in the public case for war, including in Colin Powell’s infamous January 2003 United Nations address. Zubaydah, under torture, also claimed that Hussein’s government had a relationship with the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
This was another major lie about Iraq and al Qaeda that Secretary Powell invoked in his UN presentation. He claimed that Zarqawi was a member of al Qaeda and that he was supported by Saddam Hussein, representing a significant tie between the two. In fact, Zarqawi had declined to join bin Laden’s group, as the DIA had said in July 2002. The DIA had also concluded that if Hussein had infiltrated Zarqawi’s group Ansar al Islam (a.k.a. Jama’at al Tawhid w’al Jihad), it was for protection or for intelligence efforts against the Kurds. After all, Hussein had a warrant out for the terrorist’s arrest.
The neoconservatives and the Iraqi National Congress were claiming that Zarqawi had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan and that Saddam Hussein’s government had given him treatment in a Baghdad hospital, including giving him a fake wooden leg. This, of course, turned out to be a lie. Further, Zarqawi was hiding safely in the American-protected, autonomous region of northern Iraqi Kurdistan, far outside of Baghdad’s reach. But Colin Powell told the American people and the world he was in “Iraq,” which proved al Qaeda’s connection to the Iraqi government. It was a blatant deception. Worse, the military had repeatedly requested permission from the Bush administration to target and kill Zarqawi and his group hiding in Kurdistan before the war began and were repeatedly denied. The administration needed their talking point. As soon as the war started, Zarqawi and his group moved south to join the insurgency. More than a year and a half after the war began, at the end of 2004, Zarqawi finally named his group al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (or Iraq) (AQI) and declared his loyalty to Osama bin Laden. His group became a menace to U.S. forces there. Just as he had planned, with a little more help from their enemies, it later grew to become the “Islamic State.” [See Chapters 10–11.]
The most famous lie about Iraq’s connection to al Qaeda began with a claim by Czech intelligence that a source recognized September 11th hijack ringleader Mohammed Atta as having met with an Iraqi diplomat, Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir Ani, in Prague shortly before the attack. The Israelis quickly put a story in the German Bild newspaper that their intelligence agents had coincidentally been there and, in fact, witnessed the Iraqi agent hand over a flask of anthrax to Atta. This was a ridiculous hoax. The FBI and CIA quickly debunked the story. Yet it was repeatedly raised by Vice President Cheney, the Pentagon neocons, William Safire at the New York Times and Stephen Hayes and his associates at the Weekly Standard and Fox News in the run-up to the war. Douglas Feith even briefed President Bush on the story in the Oval Office.
Iraqi intelligence had met with bin Laden’s men a few times over the years. But nothing had ever come of it, as the CIA had previously determined and repeatedly told the White House — when they were not passing on the lies they had tortured out of Zubaydah and al-Libi. The CIA’s spies inside the Hussein regime, Sabri and Habbush, had also confirmed this. CIA officer John Kiriakou later wrote that, “At the agency, the alleged partnership between this odious pair was widely known as the Big Lie.”
Journalist Charles Lewis later counted 935 false statements concerning accusations of Iraq’s possession of banned weapons and support for al Qaeda terrorists made by the top seven officials of the Bush administration on at least 532 separate occasions in the year before the war.
In 2002, Joe Biden was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He and his aide Antony Blinken, later to become President Biden’s secretary of state, called just two days of sham hearings on the question of invading Iraq. Only hawks were permitted to testify and serious experts who could have cast doubt on the cause for war were excluded. Biden’s colleagues, Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry — all three heavyweight Democratic politicians who would end up being nominated for the presidency — along with the majority of Senate Democrats (not to mention the virtually unanimous Senate Republicans) also made the obviously political decision to support Bush’s war. Nancy Pelosi and the majority of Democrats in the House, to their credit, along with a handful of antiwar Republicans like Reps. Ron Paul and Jimmy Duncan, opposed it.
Biden did not just support the war. He served as Bush and Cheney’s Senate gatekeeper and whip, guaranteeing a majority vote for the war in the upper chamber while controlled by the opposition party. If Biden had any moral courage at all, he could have stopped that war. All he would have had to do was bring in real experts like former UN weapons inspection chief Scott Ritter and former CENTCOM commander General Anthony Zinni to debunk the case that Iraq was stockpiling banned weapons or had programs that necessitated war. The senator could have asked Gen. Scowcroft to testify. He could have held up the authorization vote and refused to support an aggressive war. Instead, Biden conspired with the White House to force the authorization through. He also continued to endorse the war publicly for years after that, though he has since spent the better part of a decade denying he ever did, lying that he only wanted the inspectors back in the country and that he had denounced the war immediately after it started.
President Bush’s refrain that the U.S. had to attack Iraq “because of September 11th,” and the endless claims of certainty about an alliance between Iraq and al Qaeda by the government, its spokesmen such as Ari Fleischer, the leaders of the opposition party and all the neoconservative media myna birds were more than enough to convince the majority of Americans to support the war.
Polls showed that all the propaganda about Iraq’s alleged alliance with al Qaeda succeeded in convincing as much as two-thirds of the American people that Iraq had helped carry out the September 11th attack against our country by the time of the invasion in March 2003.
It was not just the weapons and terrorist ties. The George W. Bush-era war party spent an extraordinary amount of effort pushing the narrative that “the Islamic world” was a single, cohesive, “radical” civilization that was beginning a new era of massive expansion at our expense. In fact, the U.S. had been attacked by people whose countries were under total American dominance. Stateless bandits, al Qaeda had to hijack our jets to even have a weapon to use against us.
But what a death toll. Comparable to Pearl Harbor in casualties, the shock of September 11th was severe enough to allow the government to persuade the American people that there was some force comparable to Imperial Japan out there behind the effort. To anyone experienced enough to know better, this was all a transparent attempt to exploit our families’ and neighbors’ fears. It worked. That time was truly terrifying for many Americans. Though they were in no real danger, their fear was cultivated by the government and its interested parties located in the think tanks and media. Combined with the average citizens’ disbelief that the government could possibly be so cynical as to manipulate their fear in such a fashion and their consequent deferral to the Bush administration’s leadership, it was enough to start a war. Numerous times Americans were heard to reason that self-defense simply must be the purpose of the invasion: Of course Iraq did 9/11, or else why would we be attacking them?
“Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans — this time armed by Saddam Hussein,” Bush threatened. What patriot could deny their leader the right to protect them?
This became a terrible mark of division in the country, mostly along partisan lines. There were those who were indignant with rage that the other half of the population were so weak and unpatriotic that they would refuse to support their country defending itself against merciless terrorists who had shed so much innocent American blood, while the other side could only marvel at and insult the former’s ignorant credulity. As the writers of the TV show South Park observed, the division was hardly about Iraq at all, but the right-left divide, country versus rock ’n roll. Whose side are you on? Americans have had the hardest time hearing each other speak ever since that time, even long after most who supported the war changed their mind.
Stay tuned to this space for the rest of Enough Already, Chapter 3 Iraq War II. They will be published every few days until the anniversary of the invasion in mid-March.
Looking to read ahead? Get a copy of my 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism on Amazon.
Ready to support? Become a paid subscriber and you’ll get access to every episode of The Scott Horton Show a day early and ad-free.