Plan of Attack Woodward online
is the articles adapted from "Plan of Attack," a book
by Bob Woodward that is a behind-the-scenes account of how and
why President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq. (Copyright
Simon & Schuster, 2004)
By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
'We're Going to Have to Go to War,' Bush Told Rice
Shortly after New Year's Day 2003, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had a private moment with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.
Bush felt the effort to get United Nations weapons inspections inside Iraq on an aggressive track to make Saddam Hussein crack was not working. "This pressure isn't holding together," Bush told her.
The media reports of smiling Iraqis leading inspectors around, opening up buildings and saying, "See, there's nothing here," infuriated Bush, who then would read intelligence reports showing the Iraqis were moving and concealing things. It wasn't clear what was being moved, but it looked to Bush as if Hussein was about to fool the world again. It looked as if the inspections effort was not sufficiently aggressive, would take months or longer, and was likely doomed to fail.
"I was concerned people would focus on not Saddam, not the danger that he posed, not his deception, but focus on the process and thereby Saddam would be able to kind of skate through once again," Bush recalled in an interview last December.
"I felt stressed," he added. All the holiday parties at the White House had not helped. "My jaw muscle got so tight. And it was not just because I was smiling and shaking so many hands. There was a lot of tension during that last holiday season."
There was another factor at work that was not publicly known. Sensitive intelligence coverage on U.N. inspections chief Hans Blix indicated that he was not reporting everything and not doing all the things he maintained he was doing. Some in Bush's war cabinet believed Blix was a liar.
"How is this happening?" Bush asked Rice. "Saddam is going to get stronger."
Blix had told Rice, "I have never complained about your military pressure. I think it's a good thing." She relayed this to the president.
"How long does he think I can do this?" Bush asked. "A year? I can't. The United States can't stay in this position while Saddam plays games with the inspectors."
"You have to follow through on your threat," Rice said. "If you're going to carry out coercive diplomacy, you have to live with that decision."
"He's getting more confident, not less," Bush said of Hussein. "He can manipulate the international system again. We're not winning.
"Time is not on our side here," Bush told Rice. "Probably going to have to, we're going to have to go to war."
In Rice's mind, this was the moment the president decided the United States would go to war with Iraq. Military planning had been underway for more than a year even as Bush sought a diplomatic solution through the United Nations. He would continue those efforts, at least publicly, for 10 more weeks, but he had reached a point of no return.
The president also informed Karl Rove, his chief political strategist, of his decision over the holidays. Rove had gone to Crawford to brief Bush on the confidential plan for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. While Laura Bush sat reading a book, Rove gave a PowerPoint presentation on the campaign's strategy, themes and timetable.
Opening his laptop, he displayed for Bush in bold letters on a dark blue background:
Peace in World
More Compassionate America
Cares About People Like Me
Leads a Strong Team
All things being equal, the president asked, when would you like to begin the campaign and active fundraising?
Rove said he wanted the president to start that February or March and begin raising the money, probably $200 million. He had a schedule. In February, March and April 2003, there would be between 12 and 16 fundraisers.
"We got a war coming," the president told Rove flatly, "and you're just going to have to wait." He had decided. "The moment is coming." The president did not give a date, but he left the impression with Rove that it would be January or February or March at the latest.
"Remember the problem with your dad's campaign," Rove replied. "A lot of people said he got started too late."
"I understand," Bush said. "I'll tell you when I'm comfortable with you starting."
Bush Orders a War Plan
Rice was the only member of his war cabinet whom Bush directly asked for a recommendation of whether to go to war.
"What do you think?" he had asked her a few weeks before. "Should we do this?"
"Yes," she said. "Because it isn't American credibility on the line, it is the credibility of everybody that this gangster can yet again beat the international system." As important as credibility was, she said, "Credibility should never drive you to do something you shouldn't do." But this was much bigger, she advised, something that should be done. "To let this threat in this part of the world play volleyball with the international community this way will come back to haunt us someday. That is the reason to do it."
Other than Rice, Bush said he didn't need to ask the principal advisers whether they thought he should go to war. He knew what Vice President Cheney thought, and he decided not to ask Secretary of State Colin L. Powell or Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"I could tell what they thought," the president recalled. "I didn't need to ask them their opinion about Saddam Hussein. If you were sitting where I sit, you could be pretty clear. I think we've got an environment where people feel free to express themselves."
One person not around was Karen Hughes, one of his top advisers and longtime communications director. Hughes, who had resigned the previous summer to return to Texas, probably knew how Bush thought and talked as much as anyone.
"I asked Karen," the president recalled. "She said if you go to war, exhaust all opportunities to achieve [regime change] peacefully. And she was right. She actually captured my own sentiments."
More than a year before -- on Nov. 21, 2001 -- Bush had told Rumsfeld that he wanted to develop a plan for war in Iraq. Since that time the defense secretary had been working closely with Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, and other U.S. commanders, as well as Bush and other members of the war cabinet to develop a plan even as Bush pursed diplomacy through the United Nations.
At times, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. thought of Bush as a circus rider with one foot on a "diplomacy" steed and his other on the "war" steed, both reins in his hands, leading down a path to regime change. Each horse had blinders on. It was now clear that diplomacy would not get him to his goal, so Bush had let go of that horse and was standing only on the war steed.
Rumsfeld had been trying to put himself in the president's shoes, attempting to make sure that Bush didn't get so far out in words, body language or mental state that he couldn't get back from a decision to go to war as the United States built up forces around Iraq.
On the other hand, Rumsfeld felt there was a time when the president should not want to walk back, and really could not. That time would be well before Bush had to decide to put Special Operations Forces inside Iraq, the point of no return identified by Franks.
"I can remember trying to give him as early a clue as possible that that was coming down the road," Rumsfeld recalled in an interview.
"There comes a moment as all these things are happening," he added, "when we have to look a neighboring country in the eye, and they have to make a decision that puts them at risk. And at that moment, the president needs to know that."
Back in Washington in early January 2003, Bush took Rumsfeld aside.
"Look, we're going to have to do this, I'm afraid," he said. "I don't see how we're going to get him to a position where he will do something in a manner that's consistent with the U.N. requirements, and we've got to make an assumption that he will not."
It was enough of a decision for Rumsfeld. He asked to bring in some key foreign players.
The president gave his approval but pressed Rumsfeld again. When is my last decision point?
"When your people, Mr. President, look people in the eye and tell them you're going."
One of the key players that had to be notified and brought along was Saudi Arabia. U.S. forces would have to be sent through and from Saudi territory into Iraq. Rescue, communications and refueling support were not going to be enough. Of the five other countries on Iraq's border, only Kuwait and Jordan supported a military operation. The 500 miles of Saudi-Iraqi border were critical.
So on Saturday, Jan. 11, Cheney invited Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador, to his West Wing office. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were also there.
Prince Bandar had served during four American presidencies. At age 53, Bandar was almost a fifth estate in Washington, amplifying Saudi influence and wealth. He insisted on dealing directly with presidents and is almost family to Bush's father, former president George H. W. Bush. And he had maintained his special entree to the Oval Office under this President Bush.
Sitting on the edge of the table in Cheney's office, Myers took out a large map labeled TOP SECRET NOFORN. The NOFORN meant NO FOREIGN -- classified material not to be seen by any foreign nation.
Myers explained that the first part of the battle plan would be a massive aerial bombing campaign over several days against Iraq's Republican Guard divisions, the security services and command and control of Hussein's forces. A land attack would follow through Kuwait, plus a northern front through Turkey with the 4th Infantry Division if Turkey approved it. Included was massive use of Special Forces and intelligence paramilitary teams to secure every place in Iraq from which Hussein could launch a missile or airplane against Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Israel.
Special Forces and intelligence operatives would distribute $300 million to local Iraqi tribal leaders, religious leaders and the Iraqi armed forces.
The Saudi-Iraqi border would have to be covered. Special Forces, intelligence teams and other strikes would have to be launched from there. If there were alternatives, Myers said, they would not be asking the Saudis.
Bandar knew that his country could create a cover for the arrival of U.S. forces by closing a civilian airport at Al Jawf in the northern desert, flying Saudi helicopters day and night as a routine border patrol for a week, and then withdrawing. The U.S. Special Forces could set up a base there that might not attract much attention.
Staring intently at the 2-by-3-foot Top Secret map, Bandar, a former fighter pilot, asked a few questions about air operations. Could he have a copy of the large map so he could brief Crown Prince Abdullah? he asked, referring to the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia.
"Above my pay grade," Myers said.
"We'll give you all the information you want," Rumsfeld said. As for the map, he added, "I would rather not give it to you, but you can take notes if you want."
"No, no, it's not important. Just let me look at it," Bandar said. He tried to take it all in -- the large ground thrusts, the location of Special Forces or intelligence teams all designated on the map.
"You can count on this," Rumsfeld said, pointing to the map. "You can take that to the bank. This is going to happen."
"What is the chance of Saddam surviving this?" Bandar asked. He believed Hussein was intent on killing everyone involved at a high level with the 1991 Persian Gulf War, including himself.
Rumsfeld and Myers didn't answer.
"Saddam, this time, will be out, period?" Bandar asked skeptically. "What will happen to him?"
Cheney, who had been quiet as usual, replied, "Prince Bandar, once we start, Saddam is toast."
"I am convinced now that this is something I can take to my Prince Abdullah," Bandar said, "and think I can convince him. But I cannot go and tell him that Myers and Rumsfeld and you told me. I have to carry a message from the president."
"I'll get back to you," the vice president replied. After Bandar had left, Rumsfeld voiced some concern about the vice president's "toast" remark. "Jesus Christ, what was that all about, Dick?"
"I didn't want to leave any doubt in his mind what we're planning to do," Cheney said.
In his car, Bandar scribbled out details from what he had seen on the map. When he got home, he took a large blank map of the region that had been supplied by the CIA and began reconstructing the plan piece by piece.
The next day, Sunday, Rice called Bandar to invite him to meet with the president the following day, Monday, Jan. 13. At the meeting, the president told Bandar that he was receiving advice and reports from some in his administration that in the event of war he would have to contend with a massive Arab and Islamic reaction that would put American interests at risk.
"Mr. President, you're assuming you're attacking Saudi Arabia and trying to capture King Fahd," Bandar said. "This is Saddam Hussein. People are not going to shed tears over Saddam Hussein, but if he's attacked one more time by America and he survives and stays in power after you've finished this, whatever it is, yes, everybody will follow his word. If they say attack the American Embassy, they will go and attack it."
Before the Gulf War in 1991, Bandar recalled for the president, "Go back to look at what was said to your father -- the Arab world will rise from the Atlantic to the Gulf!" Well, that didn't happen then, and it would not happen this time, he said. The problem would be if Hussein survived. The Saudis needed assurance that Hussein was going to be toast.
"You got the briefing from Dick, Rummy and General Myers?" the president asked.
"Any questions for me?"
No, Mr. President.
"That is the message I want you to carry for me to the crown prince," Bush said. "The message you're taking is mine, Bandar."
"That's fine, Mr. President."
Bandar believed it was exactly what Cheney had told Bush to say.
"Anything else for me?"
No, Mr. President.
Bandar Told Ahead of Powell
One of Rice's jobs was, as she called it, "to read the secretaries": Powell and Rumsfeld. Since the president had told Rumsfeld about his decision to go to war, he had better tell Powell, and fast. Powell was close to Prince Bandar, who now was informed of the decision.
"Mr. President," Rice said, "if you're getting to a place that you really think this might happen, you need to call Colin in and talk to him." Powell had the most difficult job, keeping the diplomatic track alive.
So that Monday, Jan. 13, Powell and Bush met in the Oval Office. The president was sitting in his regular chair in front of the fireplace, and the secretary was in the chair reserved for the visiting leader or most senior U.S. official. For once, neither Cheney nor Rice was hovering.
Bush complimented Powell for his hard work on the diplomatic front. "The inspections are not getting us there," the president said, getting down to business. The U.N. inspectors were just sort of stumbling around, and Hussein was showing no intention of real compliance. "I really think I'm going to have to do this." The president said he had made up his mind on war. The United States should go to war.
"You're sure?" Powell asked.
Yes, said Bush.
"You understand the consequences," Powell said in a half question. For nearly six months, he had been hammering on this theme -- that the United States would be taking down a regime, would have to govern Iraq, and the ripple effect in the Middle East and the world could not be predicted. The run-up to war had sucked nearly all the oxygen from every other issue in foreign relations. War would surely get all the air and attention.
Yeah, I do, the president answered.
"You know that you're going to be owning this place?" Powell said, reminding Bush of what he had told him at a dinner the previous August in which Powell had made the case against military action in Iraq. An invasion would mean assuming the hopes, aspirations and all the troubles of Iraq. Powell wasn't sure whether Bush had fully understood the meaning and consequences of total ownership.
But I think I have to do this, the president said.
Right, Powell said.
I just want to let you know that, Bush said, making it clear this was not a discussion, but the president informing one of his Cabinet members of his decision. The fork in the road had been reached and Bush had chosen war.
As the only person in Bush's inner circle who was seriously and actively pressing the diplomatic track, Powell figured the president wanted to make sure he would support the war. It was in some way a gut check, but Powell didn't feel the president was making a loyalty check. No way on God's earth could he walk away at that point. It would have been an unthinkable act of disloyalty to the president, to Powell's own soldier's code, to the United States military, and mostly to the several hundred thousand who would be going to war.
"Are you with me on this?" the president asked him now. "I think I have to do this. I want you with me."
"I'll do the best I can," Powell answered. "Yes, sir, I will support you. I'm with you, Mr. President."
"Time to put your war uniform on," the president said to the retired general.
In all the discussions, meetings, chats and back-and-forth, in Powell's grueling duels with Rumsfeld and Defense, the president had never once asked Powell, Would you do this? What's your overall advice? The bottom line?
Perhaps the president feared the answer. Perhaps Powell feared giving it. It would, after all, have been an opportunity to say he disagreed. But they had not reached that core question, and Powell would not push. He would not intrude on that most private of presidential space -- where a president made decisions of war and peace -- unless he was invited. He had not been invited.
Bush's meeting with Powell lasted 12 minutes. "It was a very cordial conversation," the president recalled. "It wasn't a long conversation," he noted. "There wasn't much debate: It looks like we're headed to war."
The president stated emphatically that though he had asked Powell to be with him and support him in a war, "I didn't need his permission."
Poland Signs On to the War
Before a meeting with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski the next day, Jan. 14, Bush's frustration again flared in public as he shifted position on the time remaining to Hussein. While eight days earlier he had said publicly that the Iraqi president has "got time," he told reporters that morning, "Time is running out on Saddam Hussein."
Bush knew he had no better friend on the European continent than the popular, second-term Polish president who had agreed to send troops to the war. The Bushes had hosted Kwasniewski and his wife for a rare State Dinner the previous July.
"The level of anti-Americanism is extremely high," Kwasniewski said at their private meeting. He had a serious political problem because of his support for Bush.
"Success helps change public opinion," Bush said. "Should we commit troops, we'll feed the people of Iraq." He said it as if that humanitarian gesture might have an impact on public opinion in Poland. He said there was a protocol a country could follow to show the world that it was ridding itself of unconventional weapons -- one that South Africa had followed, visibly and aggressively opening up records and facilities for inspections. Hussein had not.
"In my judgment it's time to move soon, but we won't act precipitously," Bush said, adding, "but time is running out. It's sooner rather than later."
"We will win," the Polish president said, but sounding like Colin Powell, he added plaintively, "but what are the consequences?" After a pause, he continued, "You need wide, broad international support. We are with you, don't worry about it. The risk is the U.N. will collapse. What will replace it?"
These were hard questions that Bush sidestepped, saying only, "We believe that Islam like Christianity can grow in a free and democratic manner."
For Bush, the important things were that Poland would be with him and would supply troops.
Rove Revels in Democrat
By early February 2004, White House political adviser Karl Rove could see that Iraq was turning into a potential negative. The violence on the ground continued. The U.S. military had more than 100,000 troops there and would require that many or more for some time. American soldiers were being killed at too high a rate, and the administration hadn't reached a political settlement. Turning the government over to the Iraqis looked shaky. The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, and President Bush's and CIA Director George J. Tenet's public acknowledgments that the intelligence might have been wrong, were potentially big setbacks.
Previously, Rove had claimed he was salivating that the Democrats would nominate former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race. But Dean had imploded and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, had won 12 of the first 14 Democratic primary contests and appeared to be headed for the nomination. Politics is a game of recovery, adaptability and optimism. So Rove had a new line.
"The good news for us is that Dean is not the nominee," Rove now argued to an associate in his second-floor West Wing office. Dean's unconditional opposition to the Iraq war could have been potent in a face-off with Bush. "One of Dean's strengths, though, was he could say, I'm not part of that crowd down there." But Kerry was very much a part of the Washington crowd, and he had voted in favor of the resolution for war. Rove got out his two-inch-thick, loose-leaf binder titled "Bring It On." It consisted of research into Kerry's 19-year record in the Senate. Most relevant were pages 9 to 20 of the section on Iraq.
The record was that Kerry had been all over the map. Sounding like a method actor who believes his lines, Rove offered some readings from the Kerry record.
"Iraq has developed a chemical weapons capability," Rove quoted Kerry saying in October 1990, according to the Congressional Record. Saddam Hussein has been "working toward" development of weapons of mass destruction or "had all those abilities," Kerry had said in January 1991. (Of course, this turned out to be true, as the U.N. weapons inspectors discovered after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.) In 1998, as a member of the intelligence committee, Kerry said that Hussein was "pursuing a program to build weapons of mass destruction," and in October 2002, he said, "I am prepared to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and destroy his weapons of mass destruction." And, "The threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real. . . . He has continued to build those weapons."
Rove's eyebrows were jumping up and down as he read. "My personal favorite," he said, quoting Kerry on March 19, 2003, the day the war started: "I think Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction are a threat, and that's why I voted to hold him accountable and to make certain that we disarm him."
"Oh, yeah!" Rove shouted. And that had been on National Public Radio! He had it all on tape. So here is a member of the Senate intelligence committee saying that Hussein had the stuff. And the Bush campaign argument would be as follows: "You're looking at the same intelligence the president is and arriving at the same conclusion, and if you accuse him of misleading the American people, what were you doing? Are you saying, I was duped?"
Of course, when the aftermath of the war turned sour, Rove noted, Kerry started backing away, arguing that he had voted not for war but only to give the president the power to threaten war. More starkly, Kerry had said on "Meet the Press" in August 2003 that the congressional resolution "we passed did not empower the president to do regime change; we empowered him only with respect to the relevant resolutions of the United Nations."
Well, Rove and the rest of the country knew that the resolution clearly gave the president approval to use the military in Iraq.
Rove was gleeful. "It's on tape!" he said, "and we've done testing on it, and you put out there, literally you take the footage of him saying some of this stuff and then have him in the exchange with Chris Matthews saying I'm antiwar and people say, 'What a hypocrite!' "
Kerry would have, and did have, answers. His main response was that Bush did not press hard enough or long enough with the United Nations, that he did not build a legitimate global coalition, that he did not plan for the aftermath, and was too eager to go to war when Hussein was isolated and weak.
But Rove believed they had Kerry pretty cold on voting to give the president a green light for war and then backing off when he didn't like the aftermath or saw a political opportunity.
Whatever the case, Rove sounded as if he believed they could inoculate the president on the Iraq war in a campaign against Kerry. It remained to be seen, but Rove was certainly going to try.
Push, Movement to War Accelerated
Agency's Estimate of Saddam Hussein's Arsenal Became the White House's Rationale for Invasion
On Jan. 2, 2002, CIA Director George J. Tenet met with Vice President Cheney -- at Cheney's request -- to brief him on what the agency could do in Iraq.
In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Iraq was much less of a priority than terrorism for Tenet, but not for one of the agency officials who accompanied him to the meeting, the chief of the Iraqi Operations Group, a former covert operations officer who can be identified only by his nickname, Saul.
Within the CIA's Near East Division, which handled some of the hardest, most violent countries, the Iraqi Operations Group was referred to as "The House of Broken Toys." It was largely populated with new, green officers and problem officers, or old boys waiting for retirement. After taking it over in August 2001, Saul had begun a full review of where the CIA stood with Iraq.
At 43, Saul had worked for years in sensitive undercover posts as a case officer and senior operator in CIA stations around the world. Saul was born in a small town in Cuba; his father had been involved in one of the most spectacular CIA failures -- the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in which 1,200 Cuban exiles had been abandoned on the beach by their CIA sponsors. As Saul told associates, "I am here as the result of a failed CIA covert operation."
Now Saul had a blunt message for Cheney about covert operations and Saddam Hussein. He told Cheney that covert action would not remove Hussein. The CIA would not be the solution.
The one thing the dictator's regime was organized for was to stop a coup, he said. Hussein had taken power in a coup. He has put down coups. The son of a bitch knows what a coup is, Saul said. If you are an Iraqi military unit and you have the bullets to launch a coup, you don't have the gas to move your tanks. If you have gas, you don't have bullets. Nobody stays in power long enough to launch a coup.
Only a U.S. military operation and invasion that the CIA could support had a chance of ousting Hussein, Saul told Cheney. The agency had done a lessons-learned study of past Iraq covert operations, he said, and frankly the CIA was tainted.
"We've got a serious credibility problem," he said. The Kurds, the Shiites, former Iraqi military officers and probably most attuned people in Iraq knew the history of the CIA's cutting and running. To reestablish credibility, potential anti-Hussein forces would have to see a determined seriousness on the part of the United States. Preparations for a massive military invasion might send that signal, nothing else.
Saul laid out for Cheney the problems with standing up at the United Nations, talking negotiations and containment, while secretly telling the Saudis and Jordanians the United States was going to remove the regime covertly. They needed a single national policy that everyone supported and explained in the same way.
Another lesson was that the CIA couldn't sustain a covert action program for a lengthy period of time. The regime would find some of the human sources that the agency might recruit and roll them up. So they had to move fast.
Cheney was used to briefers coming to his office with ambitious declarations and promises that their department or agency would deliver. The CIA message, which Saul later delivered to President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was the opposite, sobering, highly unusual in its judgment that it really could not do the job.
Saul was discovering that the CIA reporting sources inside Iraq were pretty thin.
What was thin?
"I can count
them on one hand," Saul said, pausing for effect, "and
I can still pick my nose."
In effectively casting a vote for military action as the only feasible way of removing Hussein, the CIA contributed to the gathering momentum that carried the United States to war in Iraq. It would make other contributions as well -- by successfully establishing a network of informants inside Iraq whose lives were in jeopardy as long as Hussein was in power; and by providing the evidence for what became the Bush administration's main rationale for the war: that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Agents on the Ground in Iraq
With Tenet's approval, Saul, Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin and James L. Pavitt, the deputy director for operations, worked on a new Top Secret intelligence order for regime change in Iraq that Bush signed on Feb. 16, 2002. It directed the CIA to support the U.S. military in overthrowing Hussein and granted authority to support opposition groups and conduct sabotage operations inside Iraq.
The cost was set at $200 million a year for two years. The leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees were informed secretly. After some disputes in Congress, the budget was cut to $189 million for the first year.
Saul would be able to run what he called "offensive counterintelligence" operations to prevent Hussein's security apparatus from identifying CIA sources. But most important, the CIA could then work actively with anti-Hussein opposition forces inside Iraq and conduct paramilitary operations inside the country.
In March, Tenet met secretly with two individuals who would be critical to covert action inside Iraq: Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leaders of the two main Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. The two controlled separate areas of a Kurdish region roughly the size of Maine. The areas were effectively autonomous from Hussein's Baghdad regime, but Iraqi military units were stationed just miles from the Kurdish strongholds and Hussein could easily send them to fight and slaughter the Kurds as he had done after the 1991 Persian Gulf War when they had risen up expecting U.S. protection, which was not provided.
Tenet had one message for Barzani and Talabani: The United States was serious, the military and the CIA were coming. It was different this time. The CIA was not going to be alone. The military would attack. Bush meant what he said. It was a new era. Hussein was going down. Of course, Tenet did not know if what he was saying was true, whether war was going to happen. But he had to raise the expectation of the Kurds to win cooperation and engagement. He was about to send some of his paramilitary and case officers into a very dangerous environment.
Tenet had a giant lever: money. He could pay millions, tens of millions of dollars in $100 bills. If Defense Department civilians or officers, or State Department diplomats, paid money to get anyone to act or change policy, it could be illegal bribery. The CIA was the one part of the U.S. government that was authorized to pay off people.
Tenet had told Bush that some money was going to be paid on speculation in order to establish relationships and demonstrate seriousness. And that not all of it might look as if it had been well spent. It was like chum, small pieces of fish scattered on the water to attract the big ones. In intelligence, you often had to chum far and wide. It was one more thing the president and Tenet bonded over. Bush, one of the biggest political fundraisers of all time, and Tenet, the U.S. government covert moneyman, knew the restorative power of cash.
Saul knew solid on-the-ground intelligence and effective lethal operations could not be done from the sidelines. Though the CIA had a massive effort going on all of Iraq's borders, the agency needed to be inside. Saul sent out messages seeking volunteers. At least one entire CIA station from the chief on down volunteered. Saul drafted Tim, a former Navy SEAL fluent in Arabic who was a covert operations officer at a CIA station in the region, to lead one of two paramilitary teams he was sending into northern Iraq.
Saul issued Tim oral instructions: I want Hussein's military penetrated. I want the intel service penetrated. I want the security apparatus penetrated. I want tribal networks inside Iraq who will do things for us -- paramilitary, sabotage, ground intelligence. Work the relationship with the Kurds. See if it is feasible to train and arm them so they can tie down Hussein's forces in the north.
In July, Tim and a team of CIA operatives made the 10-hour overland drive from Turkey into Iraq in a convoy of Land Cruisers, Jeeps and a truck to set up base in Sulaymaniyah in the mountainous Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq. In October, they returned to the same area carrying tens of millions of dollars in $100 bills stored in heavy cardboard boxes. They set up base in a lime-green building that they christened "Pistachio."
Find the weak points in the regime and push, Saul instructed. War was coming.
It was not long before they began to recruit some key sources. One was an officer in Hussein's Special Security Organization (SSO), who produced a CD-ROM with 6,000 SSO personnel files -- names, backgrounds, assignments and many personnel photos.
So rare, so
mind-blowing were the informants that Tim recruited that the CIA
gave them the crypt or secret designation DB/ROCKSTARS. (DB was
the designator for Iraq.) Tim bought about 100 hand-held
satellite telephones at $700 each and handed out phones to 87
ROCKSTAR agents from Umm Qasr in the south to Mosul in the north.
The ROCKSTARS could then call in real-time intelligence to a
phone bank that Tim's case officers manned.
For Tenet, the new factor was the absence of doubt at the top. Bush displayed no hesitation or uncertainty. It might be prudent to overrule an earlier decision, step back and debate the merits, but Bush was not that way. Tenet was finding that you paid the greatest price by doubting. There were often a hundred reasons not to act. Some people got overwhelmed by problems and did 50 permutations about why it was insoluble, ending up nowhere. But if you were not afraid of what you had to do, then you would work your way through the problems.
When he took problems to Bush, the president asked, Well, what's a solution? How do you fix it? How do you take the next step? How do you get around this? It was a new ethos for the intelligence business. Suddenly there seemed to be no penalty for taking risks and making mistakes.
Unequivocal Judgments Needed
The CIA had never declared categorically that it believed Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The formal December 2000 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Hussein "retained a small stockpile" of chemical warfare agents -- not actual warheads -- perhaps up to 100 metric tons, and "might" have precursors for 200 metric tons more. This conclusion was drawn largely from accounting discrepancies between what Iraq had previously told U.N. weapons inspectors it possessed, and what records showed had been destroyed.
The classified NIE on biological weapons concluded that Iraq "continued" to work on development and was poised to have them.
Significantly, in public testimony before the Senate intelligence committee on Feb. 6, 2002, on worldwide threats, Tenet had not mentioned Iraq until page 10 of his 18-page statement, devoting only three paragraphs to Iraq.
Senate Democrats pressed the administration to provide a new comprehensive intelligence report or estimate on Iraq, and Tenet agreed reluctantly to do a rushed NIE on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability in the fall of 2002. The National Intelligence Council, a group of representatives from the key agencies, began sifting, sorting and assessing the raw intelligence. The council included the CIA; the National Security Agency, which does communications intercepts; the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency; the State Department's intelligence bureau; the Energy Department's intelligence arm; and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which performs satellite and other overhead reconnaissance.
The group had a massive amount of material, much of it old and not very reliable. Iraq was still one of the hardest intelligence targets. Hussein had improved his methods of deception and hiding his weapons programs -- whatever they might be -- underground. CIA human intelligence inside Iraq was still weak, and paramilitary teams such as those headed by Tim in northern Iraq had found nothing.
A National Intelligence Estimate is just that: an estimate. During the Cold War it became the document of choice because it was designed to give the president and his national security team an overall assessment of the capability and intentions of real threats, such as the Soviet Union and China. The format is designed for busy policymakers. So a long NIE of 50 or 100 pages has a kind of executive summary at the front called "Key Judgments" in which the intelligence analysts would try to give a bottom-line answer. Would Castro be overthrown? Would Syria attack Israel? Would the Communists win in Nicaragua? Over the decades there had been much criticism of NIEs by policymakers -- and presidents -- because the authors hedge and the "on-this-hand, on-the-other-hand" reports are littered with maddening qualifications. No matter what happened, someone could find a sentence or phrase in the NIE that had covered such a possibility.
Stuart A. Cohen, an intelligence professional for 30 years, was acting chairman of the National Intelligence Council when the Iraq assessment of WMD was being prepared. He confided to a colleague that he wanted to avoid equivocation, if possible. If the Key Judgments used words such as "maybe" or "probably" or "likely," the NIE would be "pablum," he said. Ironclad evidence in the intelligence business is scarce and analysts need to be able to make judgments beyond the ironclad, Cohen felt. The evidence was substantial but nonetheless circumstantial; no one had proof of a vial of biological agents or weapons, or a smoking vat of chemical warfare agents. Yet coupled with the incontrovertible proof that Saddam Hussein had had WMD in the past -- U.N. weapons inspectors in the 1990s had found them, tested them and destroyed them -- the conclusion seemed obvious.
The alternative view was that Hussein no longer had such weapons. No one wanted to say that because so much intelligence would have to be discounted. The real and best answer was that he probably had WMD, but that there was no proof and the case was circumstantial. Given the leeway to make a "judgment," which in the dictionary definition is merely an "opinion," the council was heading toward a strong declaration. No pablum.
Analysts at the CIA had long discussed the issue of avoiding equivocation. At times, many, including John McLaughlin, felt that they had to dare to be wrong to be clearer in their judgments. That summer McLaughlin had told the National Security Council principals that the CIA thought it had a pretty good case that Hussein had WMD, but that others would demand more direct proof. The CIA did not have an anthrax sample, and didn't have a chemical weapons sample in hand.
Intelligence analysts and officials worked on the estimate for three weeks. On Oct. 1, 2002, Tenet chaired the National Foreign Intelligence Board, the heads of all the intelligence agencies that released and certified the NIEs. No one disputed the central conclusions. Tenet felt he had a group of smart people at the table and that they knew how to craft the estimate properly.
The Top Secret 92-page document that was released said under the Key Judgments, without qualification, "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons." From that attention-getting assertion, the NIE takes a slow march back down the hill, with muted but clear equivocations. One hint of uncertainty was the second paragraph in the Key Judgments. "We judge that we are seeing only a portion of Iraq's WMD efforts." It is the kind of statement that might be included in any intelligence report -- only a portion of anything is ever seen. In the end, the hedging and backing off telegraphed immense doubt.
Department intelligence bureau filed an 11-page annex outlining
its objections and disagreements with the NIE, particularly on
nuclear weapons, saying the evidence did not add up to "a
compelling case" that Iraq has "an integrated and
comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons."
Failing to Persuade the 'Jury'
On Dec. 19, 2002, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice asked Tenet and McLaughlin how strong the case was on weapons of mass destruction and what could be said publicly. The agency's October national estimate that had concluded that Saddam Hussein has chemical and biological weapons had been out for more than two months; the congressional resolutions supporting war had passed by nearly 3 to 1; and the U.N. Security Council, where a weapons inspection resolution had passed 15 to 0, was actively engaged in inspections inside Iraq. Still something was missing. Even Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz had commented recently on the inconclusive nature of judgments about Hussein's WMD.
Two days later, Tenet and McLaughlin went to the Oval Office. The meeting was for presenting "The Case" on WMD as it might be presented to a jury with Top Secret security clearances. There was great expectation. In addition to the president, Cheney, Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. attended.
With some fanfare, McLaughlin stepped up to brief with a series of flip charts. This was the rough cut, he indicated, still highly classified and not cleared for public release. The CIA wanted to reserve on what would be revealed to protect sources and detection methods if there was no military conflict.
When McLaughlin concluded, there was a look on the president's face of, What's this? And then a brief moment of silence.
"Nice try," Bush said. "I don't think this is quite -- it's not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from."
Card was also underwhelmed. The presentation was a flop. In terms of marketing, the examples didn't work, the charts didn't work, the photos were not gripping, the intercepts were less than compelling.
Bush turned to Tenet. "I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we've got?"
From the end of one of the couches in the Oval Office, Tenet rose up, threw him arms in the air. "It's a slam-dunk case!" the director of central intelligence said.
Bush pressed. "George, how confident are you?"
Tenet, a basketball fan who attended as many home games of his alma mater Georgetown University as possible, leaned forward and threw his arms up again. "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk!"
It was unusual for Tenet to be so certain. From McLaughlin's presentation, Card was worried that there might be no "there there," but Tenet's double reassurance on the slam dunk was memorable and comforting. Cheney could think of no reason to question Tenet's assertion. He was, after all, the head of the CIA and would know the most. The president later recalled that McLaughlin's presentation "wouldn't have stood the test of time." But, said Bush, Tenet's reassurance -- "That was very important."
"Needs a lot more work," Bush told Card and Rice. "Let's get some people who've actually put together a case for a jury." He wanted some lawyers, prosecutors if need be. They were going to have to go public with something.
The president told Tenet several times, "Make sure no one stretches to make our case."
Libby Outlines the U.S. Case
Tenet and McLaughlin made it clear they did not want to write a speech for a political appointee or an elected official. That would be crossing the line. They cleared speeches for facts. They also did not want to write a document that had any sales or marketing element. So the result was the driest, most clinical account, with footnotes specifying the sourcing. The text, 40 pages, was sent to the White House on Jan. 22, 2003, specifying that it was still highly classified.
The president was determined to hand the evidence over to experienced lawyers who could use it to make the best possible case. The document was given to Rice's deputy, Stephen J. Hadley (Yale Law '72) and Cheney's chief aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (Columbia Law '75). They visited the CIA and posed a series of questions that the agency answered in writing.
As far as Libby was concerned, the CIA had made the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and significant terrorist ties. The CIA had been collecting intelligence on Iraqi WMD for decades. There was no doubt where the agency stood: The October NIE had said Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, and Tenet had declared the case a slam dunk. Libby believed that the agency, which had the hard job of sifting and evaluating so much information, at times missed or overlooked potentially important material, intelligence that might not be definitive, but could add to the mosaic.
On Saturday, Jan. 25, Libby gave a lengthy presentation in the Situation Room to Rice, Hadley, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, Wolfowitz, White House communications director Dan Bartlett and speechwriter Michael Gerson. Though she had formally left the White House staff, Karen Hughes was there. White House political director Karl Rove was in and out of the meeting.
Holding a thick sheaf of paper, Libby outlined the latest version of the case against Hussein. He began with a long section on satellite, intercept and human intelligence showing the efforts at concealment and deception. Things were being dug up, moved and buried. No one knew for sure what it was precisely, but the locations and stealth fit the pattern of WMD concealment. He began each section with blunt conclusions -- Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, was producing and concealing them; his ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network were numerous and strong.
Libby said that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 attacks, was believed to have met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer and cited intelligence of as many as four meetings. The others knew the CIA had evidence of two meetings perhaps, and that there was no certainty about what Atta had been doing in Prague or whether he had met with the Iraqi official. Libby talked for about an hour.
Armitage was appalled at what he considered overreaching and hyperbole. Libby was drawing only the worst conclusions from fragments and silky threads.
On the other hand, Wolfowitz, who had been convinced years ago of Iraq's complicity in anti-American terrorism, thought Libby presented a strong case. He subscribed to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's notion that lack of evidence did not mean something did not exist.
The most important response came from Karen Hughes. As a communications exercise, she said, it didn't work. The sweeping conclusions at the head of each section were too much. The president, she said, wanted it to be like the old television series "Dragnet": "Just the facts." Let people draw their own conclusions.
So who then should present the public case? Rice and Hadley pondered that. The case would have to be made to the United Nations, so the chief diplomat, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, was the logical choice. Hadley believed there were additional reasons to choose Powell. First, to have maximum credibility, it would be best to go counter to type and everyone knew that Powell was soft on Iraq, that he was the one who didn't want to go. Second, Powell was conscious of his credibility, and his reputation. He would examine the intelligence carefully. Third, when Powell was prepared, he was very persuasive.
"I want you to do it," Bush told the secretary of state. "You have the credibility to do it." Powell was flattered to be asked to do what no one else could.
Was Unwavering in Desire to Go to War
Tension Between Vice President and Powell Grew Deeper as Both Tried to Guide Bush's Decision
On April 10, 2003, Ken Adelman, a Reagan administration official and supporter of the Iraq war, published an op-ed article in The Washington Post headlined, " 'Cakewalk' Revisited," more or less gloating over what appeared to be the quick victory there, and reminding readers that 14 months earlier he had written that war would be a "cakewalk." He chastised those who had predicted disaster. "Taking first prize among the many frightful forecasters" was Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser in the first Bush administration. Adelman wrote that his own confidence came from having worked for Donald H. Rumsfeld three times and "from knowing Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz for so many years."
Vice President Cheney phoned Adelman, who was in Paris with his wife, Carol. What a clever column, the vice president said. You really demolished them. He said he and his wife, Lynne, were having a small private dinner Sunday night, April 13, to talk and celebrate. The only other guests would be his chief adviser, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of defense. Adelman realized it was Cheney's way of saying thank you, and he and his wife came back from Paris a day early to attend the dinner.
When Adelman walked into the vice president's residence that Sunday night, he was so happy he broke into tears. He hugged Cheney for the first time in the 30 years he had known him. There had been reports in recent days of mass graves and abundant, graphic evidence of torture by Saddam Hussein's government, so there was a feeling that they had been part of a greater good, liberating 25 million people.
"We're all together. There should be no protocol let's just talk," Cheney said when they sat down to dinner.
Wolfowitz embarked on a long review of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and what a mistake it had been to allow the Iraqis to fly helicopters after the armistice. Hussein had used them to put down uprisings.
Cheney said he had not realized then what a trauma that time had been for the Iraqis, particularly the Shiites, who felt the United States had abandoned them. He said that experience had made the Iraqis worry that war this time would not end Hussein's rule.
"Hold it! Hold it!" Adelman interjected. "Let's talk about this Gulf war. It's so wonderful to celebrate." He said he was just an outside adviser, someone who turned up the pressure in the public forum. "It's so easy for me to write an article saying, 'Do this.' It's much tougher for Paul to advocate it. Paul and Scooter, you give advice inside and the president listens. Dick, your advice is the most important, the Cadillac. It's much more serious for you to advocate it. But in the end, all of what we said was still only advice. The president is the one who had to decide. I have been blown away by how determined he is." The war has been awesome, Adelman said. "So I just want to make a toast, without getting too cheesy. To the president of the United States."
They all raised their glasses. Hear! Hear!
Adelman said he had worried to death that there would be no war as time went on and support seemed to wane.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Cheney said, the president understood what had to be done. He had to do Afghanistan first, sequence the attacks, but after Afghanistan -- "soon thereafter" -- the president knew he had to do Iraq. Cheney said he was confident after Sept. 11 that it would come out okay.
Adelman said it was still a gutsy move. When John F. Kennedy was elected by the narrowest of margins, Adelman said, he told everyone in his administration that the big agenda items such as civil rights would have to wait for a second term. Certainly it was the opposite for Bush.
Yes, Cheney said. And it began the first minutes of the presidency, when Bush said they were going to go full steam ahead. There is such a tendency, Cheney said, to hold back when there is a close election, to do what the New York Times and other pundits suggest and predict. "This guy was just totally different," Cheney said. "He just decided here's what I want to do, and I'm going to do it. He's very directed. He's very focused."
"I want you three guys to shut up," Lynne Cheney said, pointing at Cheney, Wolfowitz and Adelman. "Let's hear what Scooter thinks."
Libby, smiling, just said he thought what had happened was "wonderful."
It was a pretty amazing accomplishment, they all agreed, particularly given the opposition to war. Here was Scowcroft, the pillar of establishment foreign policy, vocally on the other side, widely seen as a surrogate for the president's father. There had been James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, insisting on a larger coalition of nations. And Lawrence Eagleburger, Baker's successor in the last half year of the first Bush administration, on television all the time saying war was justified only if there was evidence that Hussein was about to attack us. Eagleburger had accused Cheney of "chest thumping."
They turned to the current secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, and there were chuckles around the table.
Cheney and Wolfowitz remarked that Powell was someone who followed his poll ratings and bragged about his popularity. Several weeks earlier in a National Public Radio interview, Powell had said, "If you would consult any recent Gallup poll, the American people seem to be quite satisfied with the job I'm doing as secretary of state."
He sure likes to be popular, Cheney said.
Wolfowitz said that Powell did bring credibility and that his presentation to the United Nations on weapons of mass destruction intelligence had been important. As soon as Powell had understood what the president wanted, Wolfowitz said, he became a good, loyal member of the team.
Cheney shook his head, no. Powell was a problem. "Colin always had major reservations about what we were trying to do."
Cheney said he had just had lunch with the president. "Democracy in the Middle East is just a big deal for him. It's what's driving him."
ask," Adelman inquired, "before this turns into a love
fest. I was just stunned that we have not found weapons of mass
destruction." There were several hundred thousand troops and
others combing the country.
"We'll find them," Wolfowitz said.
"It's only been four days, really," Cheney said. "We'll find them."
Immediate Focus on Iraq
In early January 2001, before Bush was inaugurated, Cheney passed a message to the outgoing secretary of defense, William S. Cohen, a moderate Republican who served in the Democratic Clinton administration.
"We really need to get the president-elect briefed up on some things," Cheney said, adding that he wanted a serious "discussion about Iraq and different options." The president-elect should not be given the routine, canned, round-the-world tour normally given incoming presidents. Topic A should be Iraq.
Cheney had been secretary of defense during George H.W. Bush's presidency, which included the Gulf War, and he harbored a deep sense of unfinished business about Iraq. In addition, Iraq was the only country the United States regularly, if intermittently, bombed these days.
The U.S. military had been engaged in a frustrating low-grade, undeclared war with Iraq since the Gulf War when Bush's father and a United Nations-backed coalition had ousted Hussein and his army from Kuwait after they had invaded that country. The United States enforced two designated no-fly zones, which meant the Iraqis could fly neither planes nor helicopters in these areas, which made up about 60 percent of the country. Cheney wanted to make sure Bush understood the military and other issues in this potential tinderbox.
On Jan. 10, a Wednesday morning 10 days before the inauguration, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Powell went to the Pentagon to meet with Cohen. Afterward, Bush and his team went downstairs to the Tank, the secure domain and meeting room for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Two generals briefed them on the state of the no-fly zone enforcement. No-fly zone enforcement was dangerous and expensive. Multimillion-dollar jets were put at risk bombing 57mm antiaircraft guns. Hussein had warehouses of them. As a matter of policy, was the Bush administration going to keep poking Hussein in the chest? Was there a national strategy behind this, or was it just a static tit for tat?
Lots of acronyms and program names were thrown around -- most of them familiar to Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell, who had spent 35 years in the Army and been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. President-elect Bush asked some practical questions about how things worked, but he did not offer or hint at his desires.
The Joint Chiefs' staff had placed a peppermint at each place. Bush unwrapped his and popped it into his mouth. Later he eyed Cohen's mint and flashed a pantomime query, Do you want that? Cohen signaled no, so Bush reached over and took it. Near the end of the hour-and-a-quarter briefing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, noticed Bush eyeing his mint, so he passed it over.
Cheney listened, but he was tired and closed his eyes, conspicuously nodding off several times. Rumsfeld, who was sitting at a far end of the table, paid close attention, though he kept asking the briefers to please speak up or please speak louder. "We're off to a great start," one of the chiefs commented privately to a colleague after the session. "The vice president fell asleep, and the secretary of defense can't hear."
Given Cheney's background in national security going back to the Ford administration, his time on the House intelligence committee and as secretary of defense, the new president said that at the top of his list of things he wanted Cheney to do was intelligence.
In the first months of the new administration, Cheney made the rounds of the intelligence agencies -- the CIA; the National Security Agency, which intercepts communications; and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. He was determined to get up to speed on what had transpired in the eight years since he had left government. Bush also asked Cheney to study the nation's vulnerability to terrorism, primarily from biological and chemical threats. By the summer of 2001, Cheney had hired a retired admiral, Steve Abbott, to oversee a program for taking homeland defense more seriously.
With the president's full knowledge and encouragement, Cheney became the self-appointed examiner of worst-case scenarios. He would look at the darker side, the truly bad and terrifying scenarios. Because of his experience and temperament, it was the ideal assignment for Cheney. He felt the administration had to be prepared to think about the unthinkable. It was one way to be an effective second-in-command -- carve out a few matters, become the expert in them and then press the first-in-command to adopt your solutions.
Cheney thought that the Clinton administration had failed in its response to terrorist acts, going back to the World Trade Center bombing, in 1993, and that there had been a pattern of weak responses: no effective response to the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, the U.S. military installation in Saudi Arabia; not enough to the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa; none to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.
After Sept. 11, it was clear to Cheney that the threat from terrorism had changed and grown enormously. So two matters would have to change. First, the standard of proof would have to be lowered -- irrefutable smoking-gun evidence would not have to be required for the United States to defend itself. Second, defense alone wasn't enough. They needed an offense.
The most serious threat now facing the United States was a nuclear weapon or a biological or chemical agent in the hands of a terrorist inside the country's borders. And everything, in his view, had to be done to stop it.
"The vice president, after 9/11, clearly saw Saddam Hussein as a threat to peace," Bush said in an interview last December. "And was unwavering in his view that Saddam was a real danger."
Gets Bush's Ear
Colin Powell had always been just one level beneath Cheney in the pecking order. Over three decades he had worked his way up to become the top uniformed military man, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had wound up reporting to Cheney, who had been an improbable pick as defense secretary for Bush's father when the nomination of Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) was rejected by his Senate colleagues. Then as secretary of state, the senior Cabinet post, Powell was again outranked by Cheney, this time the unexpected pick as vice president. At National Security Council meetings, Cheney sat at Bush's right hand, Powell at his left.
Powell was often confounded by Cheney. Years earlier, writing his best-selling memoir, Powell kept trying to pin down the remoteness of the man and had drafted and redrafted the sections on Cheney, sending them off to his best friend, Richard L. Armitage, now deputy secretary of state. Not quite right, Armitage kept replying. Powell finally told Armitage he had found a way to be "relatively truthful but not harmful."
In the final version of "My American Journey," published in 1995, Powell wrote of Cheney, "He and I had never, in nearly four years, spent a single purely social hour together." He told of Cheney's last day as defense secretary, when he had gone to Cheney's suite of offices at the Pentagon and asked, "Where's the secretary?" Informed that Cheney had left hours ago, Powell wrote, "I was disappointed, even hurt, but not surprised. The lone cowboy had gone off into the sunset without even a last, 'So long.' "
Powell had different issues with Bush. They were uncomfortable with each other. A sense of competition hovered in the background of their relationship, a low-voltage pulse nearly always present. Powell had considered running for president in 1996. He had had stratospheric poll ratings as the country's most admired man. For personal reasons and after making a calculation that there were no guarantees in American politics, he had decided not to run. But he had been the man in the wings, the former general and war hero, a moderate voice who would not run in 2000 when George W. Bush did.
For the first 16 months of the administration, Powell had been "in the refrigerator," or worse, as he and Armitage called his frequent isolation. It gnawed at him when stories appeared in the media suggesting that he was going to resign, what he privately called the "Powell's-on-his-way-out-again mode." As planning for a war with Iraq became the focus of the war cabinet, Powell became more and more frustrated. Armitage had been pushing hard for Powell to request private time with the president to build a personal relationship -- and present his case.
He achieved a breakthrough of sorts on Aug. 5, 2002, when Bush invited Powell and Condoleezza Rice to the residence. The meeting expanded to include dinner in the family dining room and then continued in the president's office.
Powell's notes filled three or four pages. War could destabilize friendly governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, he said. It could divert energy from almost everything else, not just the war on terrorism, and dramatically affect the supply and price of oil. What of the image of an American general running an Arab country, a Gen. MacArthur in Baghdad? Powell asked. How long would it be? No one could know. How would success be defined? War would take down Hussein, and "you will become the government until you get a new government."
By the time they were in Bush's office, Powell was on a roll.
"You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people," he told the president. "You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You'll own it all." Privately, Powell and Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.
"It's going to suck the oxygen out of everything," the secretary continued. So as not to sidestep the politics of it, he added, "This will become the first term." The clear implication was: Did the president want to be defined this way? Did he want to run for reelection on an Iraq war?
Powell thought he was scoring. Iraq has a history that is quite complex, he said. The Iraqis have never had a democracy. "So you need to understand that this is not going to be a walk in the woods."
The president listened and asked some questions but did not push back that much. Finally he looked at Powell. "What should I do? What else can I do?"
Powell realized he needed to offer a solution. "You can still make a pitch for a coalition or U.N. action to do what needs to be done," he said. The United Nations was only one way, but some way had to be found to recruit allies, to internationalize the problem.
Though the conversation was tense several times, Powell felt that he had left nothing unsaid. There were no histrionics. The president thanked him after two hours, an extraordinary amount of time for Powell without static from Cheney and Rumsfeld.
A Strong Assertion From Cheney
Cheney saw he was rapidly losing ground. Talk of the United Nations, diplomacy and now patience was wrong in his view. Nothing could more effectively slow down the march to war -- a war he deemed necessary. It was the only way. His former colleagues from the Ford and the first Bush administrations were weighing in with a blizzard of commentary -- Scowcroft with his cautionary antiwar message, former secretary of state Baker, who urged that unilateral action be avoided. Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, dean of realpolitik foreign policy, had on Aug. 12, 2002, published a long, somewhat convoluted piece in The Washington Post supporting Bush for forcing the issue of Hussein to a head, but warning about the importance of building support from the public and the world.
The New York Times had made the Scowcroft and Kissinger positions the lead article on its front page on Aug. 16: "Top Republicans Break with Bush on Iraq Strategy." It was a misinterpretation of Kissinger's remarks, which more or less backed Bush. The Times eventually ran a correction, but Cheney and his deputy, Scooter Libby, found the article extremely aggravating. The correction would never catch up with the front-page headline, and Scowcroft's dissent was indisputable and more potent. It looked as if the march to war was put off.
Cheney decided that everyone was offering an opinion except the administration. There was no stated administration position and he wanted to put one out, make a big speech if necessary. It was highly unusual for the vice president to speak on such a major issue before the president, who was going to address the United Nations on Iraq on Sept. 12. But Cheney couldn't wait. Nature and Washington policy debates abhor a vacuum. He was not going to cede the field to Scowcroft, Baker, a misinterpreted Kissinger -- or Powell. He spoke privately with the president, who gave his approval without reviewing the details of what Cheney might say.
At an NSC meeting, Cheney said to the president, "Well, I'm going to give that speech."
"Don't get me in trouble," Bush half joked.
Trouble is what Cheney had in mind.
Peril of a Nuclear Iraq Justifies Attack," read the headline
in the New York Times on Aug. 27. Powell was dumbfounded. The
vice president had delivered a hard-line address to the Veterans
of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville and basically called
weapons inspections futile. "A return of inspectors would
provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N.
resolutions," Cheney had said of Hussein. "On the
contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false
comfort that Saddam was somehow 'back in the box.' "
The vice president also issued his own personal National Intelligence Estimate of Hussein: "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us." Ten days earlier, the president himself had said only that Hussein "desires" these weapons. Neither Bush nor the CIA had made any assertion comparable to Cheney's.
Cheney also said that these weapons in the hands of a "murderous dictator" are "as great a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action."
These remarks, just short of a declaration of war, were widely interpreted as administration policy. Powell was astonished. It was a preemptive attack on what the president had agreed to 10 days earlier. Cheney's speech blew it all up. Now Powell felt boxed in. To add to his problem, the BBC started releasing excerpts of an interview Powell had given before Cheney's speech, asserting, "The president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return."
Stories began appearing saying that Powell was contradicting Cheney. He was accused of disloyalty, and he counted seven editorials calling for his resignation or implying he should quit. How can I be disloyal, he wondered, when I'm giving the president's stated position?
Adelman thought Bush was really delaying too long in deposing Hussein. Two days after Cheney's speech, he weighed in with a blistering op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Hussein was a bigger threat than al Qaeda, he wrote, because he had a country, billions in oil revenue, an army and "scores of scientific laboratories and myriad manufacturing plants cranking out weapons of mass destruction."
The problem could not be solved with new U.N. inspections, Adelman wrote. "Every day Mr. Bush holds off liberating Iraq is another day endangering America. Posing as a 'patient man,' he risks a catastrophic attack. Should that attack occur and be traced back to an Iraqi WMD facility, this president would be relegated to the ash heap of history."
It was strong stuff. Cheney did not communicate directly with Adelman on such matters, but he passed word to a mutual friend, who called Adelman right after his article appeared to report the vice president's reaction. "Ken has been extremely helpful in all this," the friend quoted Cheney as saying, "and I really appreciate what he has done and it's been great."
A day later, Aug. 29, Cheney spoke to the Veterans of the Korean War in San Antonio. It was the same speech with significant differences. He dropped his assertion that weapons inspections might provide "false comfort" and watered down his criticism, saying that "inspections are not an end in themselves."
Instead of asserting as he had in the first version of the speech that, "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," he said simply that Hussein was pursuing "an aggressive nuclear weapons program." Some other language was moderated, by eliminating a "very," for example, and about eight paragraphs were removed from the speech.
Cheney and Powell at Odds
On the evening of Sept. 6, the national security principals met at Camp David without Bush to go over the U.N. issues before Saturday morning's scheduled NSC meeting with the president and afternoon summit with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Cheney continued to argue that to ask for a new resolution would put them back in the hopeless soup of U.N. process. All Bush needed to say in his speech was that Hussein was bad -- a willful, serial violator of U.N. resolutions -- and that the president reserved the right to act unilaterally.
But that would not be asking for U.N. support, Powell replied. The United Nations would not just roll over, declare Hussein evil and authorize war. That approach was not salable. The president had decided to give the United Nations a chance, and the only practical way to do that was to seek a new resolution.
Powell detected a kind of fever in Cheney. He was not the steady, unemotional rock that he had witnessed a dozen years earlier during the run-up to the Gulf War. The vice president was beyond hell-bent for action against Hussein. It was as if nothing else existed. Powell attempted to summarize the consequences of unilateral action, an argument he felt he had down pretty well. He added a new dimension, saying that the international reaction would be so negative that he would have to close U.S. embassies around the world if we went to war alone.
That is not the issue, Cheney said. Hussein and the clear threat are the issue.
Maybe it would not turn out as the vice president thinks, Powell said. War could trigger all kinds of unanticipated and unintended consequences -- some that none of them, he included, had imagined.
Not the issue, Cheney said.
The conversation exploded into a tough debate between the two men, who danced on the edge of civility but did not depart from the formal deference they generally showed each other. It was sharp and biting, however, and they both knew how to score debating points as they pulled apart the last fraying threads of what had connected them for so many years. Powell appeared to harbor a deep-seated anger even though he was getting his way this time.
On Saturday morning, Sept. 7, Bush met with the NSC and the argument was joined again. Powell said that if for no other reason than U.S. credibility, they needed to offer a plan to begin inspections again as part of any reengagement with the United Nations on Iraq. Procedurally, the only way to do this was to seek new resolutions.
listed all the reasons inspections could mire them in a tar pit.
First, the inspectors would not be Americans, but lawyers and
experts from around the world who were less concerned about, and
less skeptical of, Hussein. Second, these inspectors, like those
in the past, would be more inclined to accept what they were told
by Iraqi authorities, less likely to challenge, more likely to be
fooled. The end result, Cheney said, would be deliberations or
reports that would be inconclusive. So inspections would make
getting to a decision to actually take out Hussein much more
Swayed by Blair's plea later that day that for his political viability he had to be able to show he had tried the United Nations, Bush decided this time in Powell's favor.
Cheney Stands His Ground
On Jan. 31, 2003, Blair again prevailed on Bush to go to the United Nations, again over Cheney's objections. This time the president asked Powell to make the case against Hussein. As Powell was preparing his speech, he received a call from Cheney.
Colin, the vice president said, look carefully at the terrorism case that Scooter prepared. Give it a good look.
Sure, Dick, Powell said. He generally used the vice president's first name when they were alone. Cheney was not ordering him or trying to direct him. It was just a request to take a serious look.
Powell looked at it. Four meetings between Sept. 11 pilot Mohamed Atta with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague -- meetings that had been alleged but never proved to have taken place. That was worse than ridiculous. Powell pitched it.
Powell thought that Cheney had the fever. The vice president and Wolfowitz kept looking for the connection between Hussein and Sept. 11. It was a separate little government that was out there -- Wolfowitz, Libby, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith and Feith's "Gestapo office," as Powell privately called it. He saw in Cheney a sad transformation. The cool operator from the first Gulf War just would not let go. Cheney now had an unhealthy fixation. Nearly every conversation or reference came back to al Qaeda and trying to nail the connection with Iraq. He would often have an obscure piece of intelligence. Powell thought that Cheney took intelligence and converted uncertainty and ambiguity into fact.
It was about the worst charge that Powell could make about the vice president. But there it was. Cheney would take an intercept and say it shows something was happening. No, no, no, Powell or another would say, it shows that somebody talked to somebody else who said something might be happening. A conversation would suggest something might be happening, and Cheney would convert that into a "We know." Well, Powell concluded, we didn't know. No one knew.
After major combat operations ended in Iraq in May 2003, Powell spent the next months more often than not on the defensive. To those who thought he should have been a more forceful advocate against war, he replied that he had taken his best shot. He had not misled anyone, he told associates. He had argued successfully in August and September 2002 that the president should adopt two tracks -- plan for war and conduct diplomacy through the United Nations. The president could travel those two tracks only so long before he would reach a fork in the road, and one fork was war.
"He's the president," Powell told associates, "and he decided and, therefore, it was my obligation to go down the other fork with him."
As the war planning had progressed over the nearly 16 months, Powell had felt that the easier the war looked, the less Rumsfeld, the Pentagon and Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks had worried about the aftermath. They seemed to think that Iraq was a crystal goblet and that all they had to do was tap it and it would crack. It had turned out to be a beer mug instead. Now they owned the beer mug.
Visiting Iraq in the fall of 2003, Powell saw the mass graves and heard the testimony of witnesses to the torture and oppression. He was delighted that Hussein and his whole rotten government were gone. It was the saving grace. Certainly the decision to go to war was not 100 percent wrong. History, after all, had not yet determined whether it was right or wrong.
Cheney continued to be Powell's bete noire. At meetings of the principals, in Powell's view, Cheney improved on his technique of not betraying his position by insisting he either didn't have one, or could change his mind in 30 minutes. Powell finally decoded the technique. He concluded that he had to listen carefully because Cheney's disavowals generally turned out to be positions about which Cheney was not going to change his mind.
Relations became so strained that Powell and Cheney could not, and did not, have a sit-down lunch or any discussion about their differences. Never.
Powell thought that now that Bush and the administration had to live with the consequences of their Iraq decisions, they were becoming dangerously protective of those decisions. There was no one in the White House who could break through to insist on a realistic reassessment. There was no Karen Hughes who could go to Bush and say, "Pay attention, you're in trouble." Powell believed it was the hardest of all tasks to go back to fundamentals and question one's own judgment, and there was no sign it was going to happen. So he soldiered on once again against the current.
Cheney in Charge?
At the beginning of 2004, Cheney was confident that the Iraq war would be seen as a history-shaping event. He was unrepentant about his analysis of terrorism and his assertions about Hussein. The great threat to the nation was al Qaeda armed -- not just with box cutters and airline tickets, but with a nuke in the middle of an American city. The administration had been accused of not having connected the dots before Sept. 11. How could it afford to ignore the dots after Sept. 11? It was just that simple.
Cheney believed that given the intelligence reporting about Iraq-al Qaeda links over so many years and the intelligence evidence on weapons of mass destruction, no one in his right mind sitting in Bush's position as president could have ignored it.
There was so much focus on the aftermath and criticism of the postwar planning. Cheney thought it wouldn't matter in the end. It would be noise to history as long as they were successful in what they were trying to do. Outcomes mattered. He thought history would treat Bush very well, though he acknowledged that the jury was still out.
Nearly all presidents have had to deal with vice presidents with real or imagined political futures. Even Bush senior, the super-loyal vice president, broke publicly with President Ronald Reagan several times when he deemed it politically necessary, such as when the Reagan administration was negotiating with Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and Bush had distanced himself from dealings with the unsavory strongman. But Cheney had made it clear he did not aspire to the presidency.
On a few occasions, political adviser Karl Rove and the president had discussed the news stories that Cheney was the one pulling the strings and running things behind the scenes. Some of the White House communications people worried about this. Bush laughed. Both of them had seen how deferential Cheney was. "Yes, Mr. President," or "No, Mr. President." It was no different when the president and Cheney were alone.
When the president wasn't around, Cheney often referred to him as "The Man," saying, "The Man wants this." Or, "The Man thinks this." Cheney was a forceful, persistent advocate, but the president decided. The clearest evidence of that was Cheney's strenuous objection to going to the United Nations to seek new weapons inspection resolutions. The president had gone against his advice. Cheney had saluted.
Rove argued that the politics of the Cheney-is-in-charge thesis worked in their favor. First, anyone who believed that was long lost to them anyway. Second, Rove wanted them to keep talking about it, throw the campaign into that briar patch. He believed the ordinary person wouldn't buy it. Here 67 percent were saying Bush was a strong leader and that included a third of the people who disapproved of his performance in office. A strong leader would not kowtow to his vice president, and Bush did not look meek in public.