In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on the pretext of preventing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from proliferating and distributing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, no evidence of a WMD program was ever found, resulting in national controversy. To quell negative public opinion, the Republican Bush Administration commissioned Judge Lawrence Silberman and Senator Charles Robb, who were also Republicans, to form the Silberman-Robb Commission (SRC) to investigate why an Iraqi WMD program was purported to exist. The SRC, along with the Republican-majority “Phase I” Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) investigation, placed the blame squarely on the intelligence community.
However, with the release of additional archival documents such as the SSCI’s “Phase II” investigative report, a declassified Department of Defense (DoD) memorandum and drafts of a CIA White Paper, there is now empirical evidence that the Bush Administration manipulated intelligence ex-post-facto to justify an invasion of Iraq, and that it may have gone even one step further by attempting to influence postwar investigations in order to obfuscate its complicity.
Prior to the SRC, as a result of the United Nations’ (UN) efforts to monitor Iraqi disarmament post-Gulf War, Americans already possessed a keen awareness of Saddam’s penchant for WMD. The UN defines WMD as nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. This article is concerned with the latter two. During its investigations, the UN discovered that Saddam had fired rockets “containing botulinum toxin, anthrax simulant, and aflatoxin,” and had utilized chemical nerve agents against the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War. Furthermore, as illustrated by a 1997 New York Times article that discussed Saddam’s lack of cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, it was widely rumored that Iraqi factories which supposedly produced household goods were being used to proliferate WMD in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions. In 2003, these suspicions came to fruition when Secretary of State Colin Powell proclaimed to the UN that he had ‘credible’ evidence sourced from CURVEBALL, an Iraqi scientist turned informant, that Saddam had resumed WMD production. Powell’s costly signal, and the decade-long schema buildup that preceded it, hoodwinked many American citizens into believing that the threat of Iraqi WMD was credible.
Made publicly available by the Bush Administration, the SRC had concluded that the purported existence of Iraqi WMD proliferation was a major intelligence failure. According to their report, not only was the intelligence community unable to collect ‘good’ intelligence but it “failed to convey to policymakers … information casting serious doubt” regarding CURVEBALL’s reliability before Secretary Powell crossed the Rubicon and placed American credibility on the line.
According to the SRC, the intelligence community’s failure to do so was because of their tendency to promote intelligence in line with pre-existing theories and, consequently, discredit intelligence that contained contradictory information. Interestingly, the SRC also reported that they found no evidence that the intelligence community had attempted to politicize, or in other words, change its analytical judgments on intelligence in response to political pressure. Working off of this explanation, the SRC reasoned that the intelligence community’s failure to notify Secretary Powell, if not politically motivated, was perhaps an attempt to maintain cognitive consistency. Nevertheless, it is essential to realize that while the SRC was commissioned to uncover the ‘truth’ as to why an Iraqi WMD threat was purported, its investigation was not comprehensive, because it was “not authorized [by the Bush Administration] to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence assessments they received.”
The “Phase I” SSCI report, which was compiled during a Senate Republican majority, largely corroborated the SRC’s findings through oral records and internal emails to and from a CIA whistleblower who was the only American intelligence official ever to have physical contact with CURVEBALL. According to the whistleblower, he had serious concerns about CURVEBALL’s reliability, and as a result, had significant reservations with the Bush Administration using his intelligence as the backbone for an American claim regarding Iraqi WMD. However, when he attempted to bring his concerns to policymakers, his supervisors in the intelligence community were dismissive, replying in an email: “Let’s keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what [CURVEBALL] said or didn’t say. The Powers That Be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether [he] knows what he’s talking about.” While many Democrats took this as evidence of politicization, the Republican-majority SSCI concluded the contrary, and claimed that “customization of [intelligence] analysis is the essence of the professional practice, not a defilement of it (i.e., politicization).” As a result, while the “Phase One” SSCI report did vaguely allude to external influences on prewar intelligence assessments, it still attributes fault solely to the intelligence community, thereby perpetuating the facade of intelligence community negligence and policymaker innocence.
On the other hand, the 2008 “Phase II” SSCI report, compiled during the Obama Administration, and a Senate Democrat majority, challenged the findings of both the SRC and “Phase I” SSCI report, by illustrating how the Bush Administration made claims regarding Iraqi WMD that were not substantiated by intelligence. Up to this point, even though the findings of the SRC had been questioned extensively by independent journalists such as Thomas Ricks in his book Fiasco, such claims were based largely on un-cited oral reports, instead of official documentation. The 2008 SSCI Report concluded that Bush Administration claims of Iraqi WMD “portrayed the intelligence as more certain than it was, and did not convey [in its public statements] the substantial disagreements that existed in the intelligence community.” Therefore, the Bush Administration was guilty of manipulating intelligence to fit its Munich Script narrative of Saddam as an unappeasable warmonger who was hell-bent on unleashing WMD on the West.
For instance, it was determined by the “Phase II” SSCI, that statements made by the Bush Administration in 2003 regarding Saddam’s intent to give WMD to al-Qaeda, contradicted the intelligence that had been conveyed to them. The SSCI did so by comparing the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) with several Bush Administration public statements regarding Iraqi WMD. Prepared for the Bush Administration by the intelligence community, the NIE had asserted that Saddam did not have nuclear weapons and was unwilling to conduct terrorist attacks on the US in the fear that “doing so would give the US a stronger case for war.” Therefore, Bush Administration claims to the contrary, were unsubstantiated. In addition, regarding Secretary Powell’s speech to the UN, while Powell had asserted to the international community that “most US experts” believed that the aluminum tubes reported by CURVEBALL were for nuclear weapons, intelligence experts within the Department of State and Department of Energy were found to have repeatedly emphasized to the Bush Administration that they were “not clearly linked to a nuclear” use. Therefore, the “Phase II” SSCI was able to officially establish that the Bush Administration did have the necessary intelligence required not to go to war with Iraq over WMD, but deliberately went beyond that intelligence in public statements.
Furthermore, by comparing a recently declassified Office of the Undersecretary of the DoD for Policy (OUSDP) memorandum, to a draft of a CIA White Paper on Iraqi WMD that was a predecessor to the 2002 NIE, there is now evidence that not only did the Bush Administration ‘go beyond’ the available intelligence, but it actually politicized it. Comments made in the OUSDP memorandum match up with alterations on the White Paper drafts, suggesting that intelligence assessments were rewritten to favor a case for Iraqi WMD.
Bureaucratic politics, and the OUSDP’s status as an Executive Branch department, suggest that the White Paper was rewritten to avoid antagonizing the Bush Administration, which was inundated by the Munich Script view of Saddam. For example, the first draft of the White Paper, released in July 2002, does not include any mention of the aluminum tubes purported to be nuclear in nature, perhaps because the CIA determined CURVEBALL, who had provided the intelligence, to be unreliable. However, the OUSDP memorandum dated September 2002, does include the assessment that aluminum tubes were “to be used for the construction of high-speed centrifuges for uranium gas enrichment.” Subsequently, the final draft of the White Paper, released in October 2002, also makes a note of said aluminum tubes, commenting that “Iraq’s aggressive attempts to obtain [them were] of significant concern.” Therefore, while the 2008 SSCI determined that Bush Administration WMD claims were ‘somewhat’ substantiated by the final drafts of intelligence products, the recent discovery of the OUSDP memorandum and CIA White Papers begets the question:
How much of the intelligence was manipulated a priori and ex-post-facto to conform with Bush Administration narratives?
Finally, a more in-depth analysis of the addendums to the “Phase I” SSCI Report, when combined with the evidence above, suggests Bush Administration efforts to manipulate and obfuscate the postwar investigation by exerting political pressure. After the “Phase I” SSCI corroborated the SRC’s findings, SSCI Democrats and intelligence officials accused the SSCI Republican majority of prevaricating the investigation to help obfuscate Bush Administration culpability. In her statement, Senator Diane Feinstein asserted that the SSCI did not “acknowledge that the intelligence estimates were shaped by the Administration.” Subsequently, in her opinion, the issue of Bush Administration involvement would require additional investigation; sentiments which resulted in the 2008 “Phase II” SSCI. Similarly, Senator Richard Durbin considered both the SRC and “Phase I” SSCI report to be incomplete, citing that the “responsibility for problems related to prewar intelligence … should not be confined to … the intelligence community, but to … the White House.”
Given his dissatisfaction with the “Phase I” SSCI investigation, Durbin emphasized that “nor should the intelligence oversight committees of the Congress, which are supposed to scrutinize intelligence analysis as part of their oversight mandate, be excluded from criticism.” To strengthen his argument, Durbin enlisted the opinion of former CIA Deputy Director Richard Kerr, who questioned: “what did [Senate Republicans] do to systematically look and see if … the subjects [of their investigation] were appropriate?” Therefore, according to Senate Democrats, by failing to investigate the Bush Administration, the SSCI failed to fulfill its duty to the American people. Because the President is not only the head of the nation, but the head of his political party, it is not unreasonable to strongly suspect that a concerted effort by his political party to obfuscate investigations that could implicate him of wrongdoing, were done at his request, or the very least, acquiescence.
In conclusion, while the recent release of select archival evidence has confirmed that the Bush Administration politicized intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq, the available evidence only strongly alludes that it interfered with postwar investigations, because much of the empirical evidence, if it even exists, remains classified. While this means that such suspicions cannot yet be confirmed, they remain a salient issue because if true, they call into question the efficacy of checks and balances. With the ever-expanding war powers of the executive, a Presidency that wages war on false premises and then is not held accountable, has the potential to erode the fabric of our democracy.
Furthermore, while this article focused on the negative actions of a Republican administration, this does not mean that Democrats are free of blame either – as debates over presidential war powers and interventionism cross party lines and have been abused by both parties alike, as evidenced by airstrikes in Syria during the Obama Administration under the auspices of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). As a result, with the eventual declassification of additional documents, supplementary investigations will be of the utmost importance.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official policy or position of the US Government, the Department of Defense or the US Army.