In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell interviews journalist Robert Draper, author of To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq. Draper and Morell discuss the key players, events and decisions that led to the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq more than 15 years ago. Draper details the positions held by top policymakers and U.S intelligence agencies, and explains why he believes certain failures came to pass.
- On the path to war: “[W]hat Iraq was, was an overreliance on the imagination. After 9/11, which the policymakers of the White House at least didn’t see coming, they let their imaginations run wild.”
- His reason for writing: “I think that it’s clear now that Iraq has its own legacy, that fateful decision to go into Iraq — that I think President Trump would not be President Trump but for the endless wars and the other things that now are essential bits of Trump rhetoric. And I think as well, that a whole generation now has grown up believing that the U.S. government is not on the level. And I think that’s largely because of Iraq as well. So it is the most consequential foreign policy decision of the last half century, and I felt that with the passage of time, now would be a time to re-explore it.”
- Vice President Cheney and the road to war: “There was plenty of doubt. There was no proof that [Saddam Hussein] did have [WMD]. But Cheney wasn’t having any of that. He thought that those were small details. And I think that Cheney truly, in his bones, believed that Saddam had weapons of some sort. Then we’d discover them once we got in, and so who cared whether what bit of intel linked to what particular weapon? We would go there, we would find the weapons, and that would be all that mattered.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – ROBERT DRAPER
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Robert, let me let me start by by asking you why you decided to take this on. There’s scores of official investigations, books, articles. Why another one?
ROBERT DRAPER: Sure. I, as you likely know, Michael, had spent a great deal of time inside the Bush White House for a book that Simon and Schuster published of mine in 2007 called Dead Certain: Inside the Presidency of George W. Bush. And I spent a great deal of time with the president, but for all of my access, really was not able to crack the nut of the central mystery that would define his presidency, define his legacy – which was, of course, why, 18 months after 9/11, did he go to war with a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11? And a lot of books have been written about post-war Iraq, a lot of inside baseball that preceded the invasion itself. But I don’t really think any of them solved that mystery, either. And so that was the main reason why I undertook it. The secondary one was I think that it’s clear now that Iraq has its own legacy, that fateful decision to go into Iraq, that I think President Trump would not be President Trump but for the endless wars and the other things that now are essential bits of Trump rhetoric. And I think as well, that a whole generation now has grown up believing that the U.S. government’s not on the level. And I think that’s largely because of Iraq as well. So it is the most consequential foreign policy decision of the last half century, and I felt that with the passage of time, now would be a time to re-explore it.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Robert, in terms of researching the book, can you walk us through that process? What was the story of how you did this from the time you started your research, to the time you came to the conclusions of the story you wanted to tell?
ROBERT DRAPER: Sure. And in fact, it’s interesting to answer this question to you, Michael, because while I ended up interviewing over 300 people for this book, I think you were like the seventh or eighth person that I spoke with.
And so I was, you know, a fountain of ignorance at the point in which I first came to you, much less so later on. Where, for my book on the Bush presidency, I spent so much time in inside the West Wing, but had not interviewed one person in the intelligence community for that book, this book kind of reverses that. I would say probably 25 percent of the people that I spoke with were from the intelligence community; numerous people from the State Department as well, from the Pentagon. There were a lot of principals, you know, familiar names that I interviewed for this. So, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and others.
But frankly, I think the most important information came from people who were in the trenches, who occupied the mid- to mid-upper tiers, who saw the decisions being made, who contributed to those decisions, but do not have themselves legacies to protect or to burnish. And so I found them to be the most honest, sort of, interpreters of what took place.
MICHAEL MORELL: Were there were there people that you wanted to interview who you couldn’t get to besides President Bush?
ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah. Yeah. I really would have liked to have interviewed Vice President Cheney. I came to believe that I got as much out of the Office of the Vice President as as as one could hope to get. But I would have loved to hear Cheney’s perspective. And it was a close call. Ultimately, he decided not to cooperate.
You mentioned Bush. I of course, would have liked to talk to him. But Bush was not pleased with my first book, though I thought it was more than fair to him. And I ultimately decided that, you know, sometimes we’re not always the reliable, the most reliable narrators of our own lives. And that the president was still, from what we could see leaking out, still a bit defensive about this legacy defining moment of his. And so I made my peace with the fact that I wouldn’t be speaking with him for this venture.
MICHAEL MORELL; So, Robert, one more question on process. And you’ve already sort of hinted at it. The first is this is Washington, right? The people involved in this are still alive and they want to look good in a book like this, right. They want to look like the hero. They want to look – they want to come across as the as if ‘They only listened to me’ person. So as a journalist, how do you sort through that and find the truth?
ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah. I mean, of course, in answering this question, Michael, we come upon the realization that your former profession and my current one are very much alike in this regard, that you always have to consider the source. And by considering the source, it’s not as simple as ‘Are they always truth or are they always lying?’ But ‘What are their motives? What is their perspective? Were they in a position to see the truth that clearly? Is it possible that they have come to believe a truth and sincerely believe it, when in fact that’s not what the truth is?’ You have to weigh all of this stuff and as a younger journalist, I think I was much more prone to going with the jazzy quote that somebody gave because it was too good to factcheck.
I’ve learned over the years that that’s not what you can or should do. And 30 years into this business, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of being able to ferret out the facts. It’s a real human endeavor, for sure. And oftentimes you have to go not only back to the original source, but continually consider the source and recognize that, say, a Michael Morell might really be the perfect guy to talk to about matters A-B-C. But on matters, D-E-F., less so. And that’s not just because Michael Morell wasn’t privy to those, but that Michael Morell may have his own interests, his own jaundiced perspective or whatever. So it’s a methodology that is a distinctly human endeavor and you simply do the best you can.
So, Robert, the substance of the book itself. What’s the theme? Where did you come out in terms of what happened, and why? Can you walk us through kind of the the big picture arc of the story?
Sure. I think, you know, Michael, the the big looming question is why did Bush do it? And as you know, it’s widely believed by certain people that Bush came into office wanting to go to war with Saddam. I don’t believe that’s so. I think he hated Saddam truly for having tried to kill his father. He said to you, after all, when you were briefing him, that it’s not a question of if, but when, that someday Saddam’s going to have to be taken out. But I don’t really think that Bush wanted to spend his presidency hugging war widows and overtaking a domestic agenda with a wartime one. I also don’t think there’s any evidence that Bush went into this for oil or because Cheney talked him into it or because it was to favor Israel.
I do believe this decision was his and his alone. But the interesting paradox is that I think he made this decision because he felt like he had no choice in the matter. And he felt he had no choice in the matter first, because the only apparatus that was prepared for him was a wartime apparatus prepared by his closest subordinates who believed that Bush had already made up his mind, when, in fact he had not. Over and over, publicly as well as privately, the president said, ‘My mind is not made up on this.’ And yet so persuaded were people like Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and others that Bush had made up his mind that they already started building a war machine, as it were, an interagency process that would discuss what disasters to avoid for post-war Iraq. An elaborate military invasion plan spearheaded by CENTCOM Commander Tommy Franks. George Tenet and the CIA essentially helping to make a case for war, a public case for war, when, in fact there was a choice in the matter.
And there were doubters. But those doubters’ voices weren’t heard or they were left at the margins. And and so I think that’s one big chunk of it. Another way to think about why we went into Iraq was, of course, the context of 9/11 – which you have heard ad nauseum, we all had – was a failure of the imagination. I happen to think that’s an oversimplification. But even leaving that aside, what Iraq was, was an overreliance on the imagination. After 9/11, which the policymakers of the White House at least didn’t see coming, they let their imaginations run wild. And so while it was true that there were gross intelligence failures, particularly as it pertains to Saddam’s supposed weapons program, it was at least as true that in the end President Bush didn’t rely on this with that bit of intelligence. You would see in his speeches him saying things like, ‘Saddam would love nothing better than to turn over his weapons to evil doers like al-Qaeda who seek to destroy us and our freedoms.’ Literally, every bit of that sentence is factually inaccurate. But that was the kind of flight of fancy that overtook the Bush White House in a very understandable, post-9/11 climate of high anxiety and paranoia. But a failure to follow the facts, even as threadbare as the facts were, was at least as responsible for the disastrous decisions leading up to going into Iraq as the actual flaws in the intelligence were.
MICHAEL MORELL: Were there some folks — some folks you said, like Condi and George, saw the writing on the wall or thought they saw the writing on the wall, right. But were there other people like the Vice President’s office, like the Department of Defense at the deputy level and the Undersecretary level who were trying to take the president in a certain direction?
ROBERT DRAPER: Absolutely. Yes. I mean, before 9/11, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, had been obsessed – and I think with the best of intentions – by the belief that Saddam was a menace to his people, a menace to the Middle East, and stood in the way of the democratization of that region and thus should be should be taken out.
Wolfowitz had tried to get the administration’s attention on this all the way up to 9/11 and really had very few takers. But as my book discloses on the very evening, the late, late evening of 9/11, Wolfowitz sent out a tasking to the Defense Intelligence Agency – not related to the 9/11 hijackers, but instead, ‘Hey, go find out what Iraq’s involvement in the past has been with terrorism.’ He had Iraq on his mind and he very much forced it onto the agenda. He didn’t force Bush to go to war, but he forced what seemed to be a changing of the subject to be conflated with the actual subject at hand. Wolfowitz, I think, is the principal actor of that, though, Dick Cheney, as you mentioned, the Vice President and for that matter, his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, were very much in lockstep with Wolfowitz on this.
MICHAEL MORELL: So maybe what would be fun here – and I hadn’t planned to do this, but let me go through a kind of a list of names of the key players and just get you to react to them. So you just did Wolfowitz. Doug Feith, who was then the number three at the Department of Defense? What would you say about Doug?
ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah. He was the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. I think it’s fair to say not a widely liked figure within the administration. He did have an interesting relationship with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. At times it seemed like an abusive relationship, but at times Rumsfeld very much listened to and depended on Feith. Feith was what – I don’t use the term because I in my book, because I find to be kind of intellectually lazy – but what you would call a neoconservative in that he really believed in military force for the good of regions beyond America, and of course, America itself. And was very much pushing this notion that Saddam was hooked up with al-Qaeda. Now today, Doug says that’s not so, that the idea was that Saddam himself was a state sponsor of terrorism and it really didn’t matter if you if he was operationally linked up with al-Qaeda or not. But that, in fact, is not what the history shows. And Feith very much pushed that link and, I think, to almost comical ends if the results weren’t as tragic as they were.
MICHAEL MORELL: Secretary Defense Rumsfeld.
ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah. Rumsfeld. Kind of a maddening figure because clearly a brilliant man. And by the way, Michael, it bears reminding your listeners that whether or not anybody at the time or later agreed with the ideologies present in the Bush administration, this was as experienced a national security team as any presidency had amassed since maybe JFK. And Rumsfeld, having already been Secretary of Defense, not to mention Chief of Staff of the White House was very much about as experienced as they come.
Nonetheless he’d been out of government for a very long time and it showed. He had no experience thinking about terrorism, and that showed as well. He had a native skepticism of anybody’s intelligence that was different from his. He believed himself to be intellectually superior to almost everyone, and that certainly includes the intelligence analysts at the CIA. But he didn’t have answers himself. He would only answer questions with questions.
And he kind of played a game of rope-a-dope with everybody else and certainly with the president. I mean, Rumsfeld was not an Iraq hawk, as far as I can tell. He was not promoting the idea of going to war with Iraq, but he was promoting the idea of thinking about it and he was promoting the idea of shouting down anybody who wouldn’t think about it. So in this sort of maddening way, he kind of is a key player in the Kabuki theater that ultimately led, I think, the president to go to war.
MICHAEL MORELL: I was struck when reading your book – he’s an odd character, right? He’s sitting on the fence with his finger in the air, almost. Maybe that’s not a completely fair description, but he is an odd character in that he doesn’t take a position.
ROBERT DRAPER: He didn’t take a position in part because he, you know, he wants to preserve – if he takes a position, then he’s on side. He believed in a way that not to take a position early on whether or not to invade Iraq would assist his ability to guide the president’s thinking as a supposedly neutral character. But the other reason he wouldn’t take a position is that he didn’t have a position. I mean, and this was a, you know, really – I use the word continually now, maddening characteristic of Rumsfeld – that he was great at criticizing other people. But then when he was asked, ‘Well, what do you have?’ often had nothing to offer. There’s a, to me, one of the really critical moments in the book is a moment that took place in September 200, when Rumsfeld – and this is classic Donald Rumsfeld, very, very skeptical of the intelligence – you know, on what the WMD, it says.
And so he commissions his own study, basically: ‘OK, go take a look it and find out what it is we really know versus what we think we know.’ And the Joint Chiefs of Staff comes back with this assessment that, you know, ‘Actually we don’t know hardly anything about Saddam’s supposed WMD program. We’re just kind of guessing at this.’ And Rumsfeld says, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ And sends a note to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: ‘This is really, really big.’ Does he send it to the press of the United States? No, he does not.
MICHAEL MORELL: So Scooter Libby, Robert, talk to us about Scooter, who was Vice President Cheney’s National Security Adviser and Chief of Staff.
ROBERT DRAPER: Which, by the way, is an unusual dual-hatted role to be playing. Libby was the backseat to what Cheney was, the backseat. I mean, he was always a bit furtive. An extremely intelligent man, very well-liked, charming fellow, had lots of relations in the journalistic community, for example. Really a player, but also knew never to get out in front of himself. But he was to Dick Cheney when Cheney was to Bush – the indispensable adviser. And on all of the issues that mattered. And of course, once 9/11 occurred, then Libby’s portfolio grew by leaps and bounds.
He confederated, I think, with Paul Wolfowitz more than almost anyone to push the case, a fallacious case, I think the evidence shows, that Saddam and al-Qaeda were hooked up with each other, and in particular that in the months before the 9/11 attacks, that one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, went to Prague to meet with an Iraqi intelligence agent. Libby and Wolfowitz hammered this over and over, and the poor analysts at the CIA were continually facing the same question, these same tasks. And, being the brilliant lawyer that he was, he would always find whenever there was an inconsistency. It became a gruesome exercise. And it’s unclear exactly what point it all served.
MICHAEL MORELL: The Vice President himself.
ROBERT DRAPER: Cheney, I think, was in a lot of ways one of the most intellectually honest people in the administration. He had supported as Secretary of Defense during the first Bush administration, routing Saddam out of Kuwait, but then not moving our troops into Baghdad. He believed at the time that that was the right thing to do. He began to question himself by around the time that he became George W’s running mate. But he also recognized that he was the Vice President, that Bush wanted a domestic agenda of education reform, tax cuts, etc., and so he really left that agenda to the side. But he nonetheless believed what he believed.
And then when 9/11 occurred, it also occurred to the Vice President that we had failed time after time to project force in the world. We were never good on our threats. And people were beginning to call us on this, whether it was the terrorist bombings in the embassies in Africa or 9/11 or Mogadishu. And so Cheney made very, very clear very early on that he believed that we should go after Saddam, that only military force would do.
Now, where he was intellectually less than honest was, I think, in promoting intelligence or hyperbolizing intelligence that did not say what he claimed it said. You won’t forget, of course, his famous speech to the Veterans of Foreign War in Nashville in August of 2002, in which he says, simply stated, ‘There can be no doubt that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction.’ There was plenty of doubt. There was no proof that he did have it. But Cheney wasn’t having any of that. He thought that those were small details. And I think that Cheney truly, in his bones, believed that Saddam had weapons of some sort. Then we’d discover them once we got in, and so who cared whether what bit of intel linked to what particular weapon? We would go there, we would find the weapons, and that would be all that mattered.
MICHAEL MORELL: George Tenet, who was director of Central Intelligence. My boss.
ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah. In many ways, I find Director Tenet to be one of the most sympathetic characters in all of this. He was a Clinton holdover, after all. He almost didn’t get the job; Donald Rumsfeld was going to be CIA director. But then when Bush’s first pick for Secretary of Defense didn’t work out, Rumsfeld slid over to that position. Tenet kept his job. Then 9/11 happened. And, of course, the CIA was a very easy target, the easy scapegoat for this. But Tenet had developed a great rapport with Bush, who, as you’ll recall, was the son of a CIA director himself. And it’s also the case that before Bush took office, the 90’s, the Clinton years had been kind of fallow years for the agency. Clinton wasn’t all that attentive to the agency, all that interested in intelligence briefings, and access to the president meant a lot to Tenet – not personally, but for the institution, for what he called ‘The Building.’
But that was a dangerous game to play, when you get really close to the policymaker. One CIA analyst said to me, ‘That’s the sort of tightrope walk, to get in bed with a policymaker without losing your virtue.’ And I think the evidence becomes clear that eventually Director Tenet had difficulty sort of drawing that red line in the sand between access and compromising his institution, and perhaps crossed over that line.
MICHAEL MORELL: Condoleezza Rice, who was the National Security Adviser and whose job was to run a process, right, to bring information and options and the upsides and downsides of those options to the president.
ROBERT DRAPER: A job that, as you’ve described it, sounds pretty straightforward, but in this particular case proved nearly impossible for Condoleezza Rice – and not because of her many, many capabilities. Perhaps the one certifiable genius in the Bush administration, but also the least experienced of Bush’s war council and the youngest of them. And they often let her know that. In particular, Donald Rumsfeld held her up with disdain and she decided, you know, she never lost her cool. But she also wanted to keep all the interagency squabbles – of which there were many, particularly between Colin Powell and Rumsfeld – away from the president. She didn’t want him to see any of that mess. And in fact, she wanted to find a way to present a consensus opinion from his national security principals to the president.
And that just was impossible. I mean, these guys didn’t think alike. And so it would be like, you know, making the world’s worst smoothie and putting all of these disparate opinions into a blender. And so the one thing that she had that those others did not have was access to the boss. She and the president had an extraordinary bond. So much so that it would cause people in the West Wing to whisper about it.
And I do think that it was important for later Secretary of State Rice to preserve that access. But unfortunately, there were moments where she could have tested that access by telling him some uncomfortable truths – like, for example, when, in, I think December of 2002, she came to realize that the WMD intelligence was wafer thin and had said to intelligence analysts, ‘You are putting the president way on the ledge.’ But herself did not go and warn the president, ‘Listen, we are going to war on a pretext of WMD. We do not have the intelligence to back it up.’
MICHAEL MORELL: You’ve talked about George Bush already. I’m wondering if there’s anything you want to add.
ROBERT DRAPER: Only that – something that you know quite well and something that I think you and I discussed, which is that there is a caricature out there of Bush as this intellectually lazy cowboy. And it’s a caricature that Bush in his own way has promulgated over the years. It’s kind of served him well to be, as he puts it, ‘misunderestimated.’ But Bush, in fact, could be a very, very intellectually rigorous guy. And I think that for all of his kind of peevishness when people would tell him things that he didn’t want to hear, he would invariably reward people for doing so.
The problem, though, was that the president did cut corners intellectually. He did tend to see things in black and white terms. When pressed to do otherwise, I think that he would rise to the occasion. But he had to be pressed.
And as you, his former briefer, knew better than just about anyone, in the months up to 9/11, he was not as engaged, nor were his people around him, with the clear and present threat that al-Qaeda constituted. This was kind of a you know, it was sort of a Clinton thing, this notion of al-Qaeda terrorists. And these Cold Warriors that Bush surrounded himself with just didn’t think in those terms. And I think that that was that was a failure of his.
Just as it was a failure, some 18 months later, when he really came to believe all these Iraqi exiles who told him what he wanted to hear, which was that ‘They’re going to – when the U.S. troops come into Iraq, man, they’re going to be throwing flowers and candy at the feet of those soldiers. They cannot wait to coalesce around democracy.’
The president always believed that that’s what Americans want – freedom more than anything else. People do want that, but they want a lot of other things, too, including security. And it was a failure, I think, of his intellect and his energy to grasp at those untidy truths.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Robert, I want to ask you about a couple of things in the book that either I did not know, that came as news to me, or that did not resonate with me. And the first is your conclusion that there were analysts in the IC, including at CIA, who had views that were at odds with what was in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. That came as a surprise to me. I did not know that now, and I did not know that back then. Can you talk to us about that?
ROBERT DRAPER: Sure. Yeah. We’re talking now about two or three different things relating to biological weapons, chemical weapons and nuclear capability on the part of the Iraqi regime. And you are aware that there were, or I think you may be aware, that there were, in fact, analysts who strongly disagreed with the notion that these aluminum tubes that had been seized, that had been purchased by the Iraqis were likely going to be used for rocket launchers and were not really suitable for for a nuclear centrifuge.
Those people included analysts inside the agency’s counterproliferation division. And you’re correct, Michael, that has not been reported before. And that was something I learned rather late, too. But the senior managers at CPD basically didn’t want that out. The reason they didn’t want that out was they thought war was inevitable anyway. And they felt that basically stating ‘We don’t agree with all of this,’ put them on the bad side, bureaucratically, of what would have been a losing argument as it as it was. That was on the nuclear side.
On the biological side, as you’re aware, there were individuals who disagreed or were leery of the source known as Curveball, who was a German source who the agency themselves had never interviewed, but many of whom had been briefed on. And some of whom I interviewed at the time had expressed skepticism. But the DIA in particular was very, very enamored of this German source. Those analysts were not the voices that were primarily heard, and there were a couple of biological analysts in particular who were very wedded to the Curveball intel. And those were the voices that carried the day.
Chemical weapons is a little bit more complicated. But the basic view among a couple people, a couple of the senior analysts on chemical weapons was that Saddam probably had some, but they weren’t so sure that some of the evidence was, quote, ‘signature evidence.’ These trucks that were moving in and out of these suspected chemical factories could just as easily have been water trucks as supposed decontamination trucks.
It was really, really unclear whether any of these constituted signs that Saddam was ramping up his supply in the year that the National Intelligence Estimate was produced in 2002, but sort of on orders of one of the senior managers of the NIE, a kind of elaborately high estimate of the CW output was made.
So these are these seem small, but they’re really not. You’re right, Michael, that I don’t think there were a whole lot of people running around in the intelligence community saying ‘Saddam’s got nothing.’ Everybody figured by his behavior that he probably had something. But what they did not figure was A) that the evidence was conclusive, B) the program was necessarily active in a way that was really alarming. And C) most importantly, and John McLaughlin testified – the Deputy Director of the CIA testified to this on the Hill – that it meant that Saddam would use them against the United States. Those are pretty important things.
MICHAEL MORELL: So this is kind of an important distinction. So you’re not saying that there were analysts who, deep inside CIA, who didn’t believe he had chemical weapons or didn’t believe he had a biological weapons capability or who didn’t believe he was reconstituting his nuclear weapons – it was more the pieces of the arguments and the kind of level of confidence is what you’re talking about.
ROBERT DRAPER: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. I mean, I’ll say that the weapons inspectors who would spend all this time on the ground, those people, a number of them, did not believe that Saddam had weapons. Some did, but many did not. And they were never listened to, despite the fact that they were the guys interviewing people on the ground – is, you know, elemental fact. But you’re right. I mean, you, as an analyst, know that many of the analysts, both who helped write the NIE and helped just provide intelligence analysis support for that and other documents were very, very uncomfortable with the thinness of the evidence. With how old the evidence was, with how inconclusive it was. So the very notion of going to war on this was quite alarming to them.
And that was particularly the case by February 5th, 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his big speech to the U.N., basically saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to hear not rumors, not intimations. These are hard, cold facts.’ And the people who supplied that intelligence analysis did not view these as hard, cold facts.
MICHAEL MORELL: The second thing that jumped out at me was your view that the agency lost its integrity here. You know, you mentioned it earlier when you said George stepped over the line. The agency, as you know, has long admitted that we got Iraq WMD wrong. But the idea that the agency knew the truth and shaded it to some degree in its narrative is something I have not seen before. Can you talk about that?
ROBERT DRAPER: Sure. And to be clear, Michael, these distinctions really do have meaning, do have a difference.
I’m not suggesting that, say, George Tenet, for example, knew that there was real reason to doubt all of the intelligence and looked at that in the face and said, ‘I don’t care – Go bury it in the sand somewhere.’ It was more that Tenet A) had a belief that war was inevitable anyway, had said so by the summer of 2002 to a number of people; B) was very concerned that the agency would be shut out as the run up to war accelerated and that the Bush White House would come to depend on much more unsavory sourcing than what the agency supplied, and C) did basically believe that, look, kind of like Cheney did: There’ll be an invasion. Weapons of mass destruction will be found somewhere. And no one’s going to like, do the spreadsheet, about did this come from Curveball or whatever else.
Where I do think that the agency lost its integrity was helping to sell the case for war. And I do describe in I think pretty unsparing detail how, in a period from roughly November 2002 to the time that Powell gave his speech in February 2003, there was ample reason to believe that there ought to be caveats, that there ought to be mention that we really don’t know this stuff very well.
But when Deputy Director John McLaughlin on December the 21st, 2002, gave his presentation to President Bush and others in what came to be known as the infamous ‘Slam Dunk’ presentation – basically, he was chided by this. ‘Nice try,’ the president said, ‘It’s not good enough.’ And the president was not saying – as Bob Woodward’s book, ‘Plan of Attack,’ I think, led a lot of people to believe, whether Bob intended this or not – President Bush was not saying, ‘Hey, wow, maybe Saddam doesn’t have WMD after all, because I’m not very convinced by what you’re saying.’
No, no. The president absolutely believed that Saddam had it. He did not believe, however, that the agency was making an effective case, and he was going to turn that case-making over to somebody else.
Director Tenet wanted to show him that he could make a better case, even though, really, McLaughlin had at that point said to his own analysts, ‘Wow, is this all we’ve got?’ He knew how thin things were. But then they pressed the analysts after George said, ‘No, no, it’s a slam dunk, Mr. President, we can get you a better marketing case for sure,’ they pressed their analysts to find suggestions that, absolutely, Iraq had WMD.
And I think in the effort to make this case – and there are moments detailed in the lead-up to Powell’s speech where Tenet himself is not made to know that there are serious doubters about, for example, Curveball – that the emphasis on trying to sell this case, I think does amount to a loss of integrity.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, boy, that’s a charge. So I didn’t see that. I got to be honest with you, I did not see that. You know, you talk in the book, for example, about who were the analysts who were in the room with Powell. And I think you mentioned that George brought in the people who would say the right things and kept out the naysayers. And, you know, George had no role, for example, in who was in the room and who wasn’t. So we can probably talk about this more. But I just have two questions for you, Robert. Two more questions. One is, when do you think President Bush made the decision to go to war?
ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah, that’s a great question. And no one can nail the date because the president himself in his own memoir won’t state the date.
I mean, he claims, and I think not dishonestly, that all the way up until the end, he was hoping to avoid war. But I think that by January, roughly in the window of January 3rd or 4th to 15th, he’s telling all of his principals, ‘I think I’ve got to do this.’ And as far as I can tell, it’s not because he has just seen some damning bit of intelligence, but he’s getting tired of waiting for the weapons inspectors to come up with something and they haven’t come up with anything, he’s convinced his weapons out there. Hans Blix hasn’t found anything. He thinks Blix is conflicted and maybe incompetent. He’s worried that if he drags this out for too long, that summer will be upon the troops.
And he’s an impatient guy. I mean, the president had been, by and large, very patient in all of this. But it’s not his nature – I mean, you know this from attending meetings. He wants people to get to the point early. He likes to end meetings early. And it was driving him nuts, all of this waiting. Around that window, then, was, I think, the time that he decided to do it, but still felt like he needed to make the public case so that before he sent men and women off to war, their loved ones would understand it was for a worthy cause. Hence the Powell speech.
MICHAEL MORELL: Robert, last question. Are there any heroes in this book?
ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah. I mean, that’s something I struggled with. And I do think that there are some. I think that the weapons inspectors are absolutely heroic. The problem is that, I mean, they basically, by around the time of Colin Powell’s speech, it’s all too clear that they have not found anything, that they have learned an alternative narrative from Iraqi scientists and that nobody wants to hear it. So I think that they are heroic and they’re shut out.
I think that Powell himself is as close to a hero as we have among the principals, because, after all, he is the one person who, on August the 5th, 2002, at his dinner at the residence with President Bush, said, ‘If you break it, you own it.’ You know, he was the one person who warned President Bush of all these unintended consequences.
Now, having said that about Powell, he also had an opportunity when Bush asked, ‘What should I do?’ to him to say, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t go to war.’ And when on January 20th, 2003, he said, ‘Colin, are you with me? I think I’ve got to do this. Are you with me?’ He could have said, ‘Nope, I’m not with you.’ But he was.
MICHAEL MORELL: The book is, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq. The author is Robert Draper. Robert, thanks for joining us.
ROBERT DRAPER: My pleasure, Michael.