WASHINGTON: With demands for a full-scale investigation of the manipulation of intelligence by the administration of President George W. Bush mounting, it appears increasingly clear that key officials and their allies outside the administration intended to use the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a pretext for going to war against Iraq within hours of the attacks themselves.
Inside the administration, the principals appear to have included Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney, and his national security adviser, I. Lewis Libby, among others in key posts at the National Security Council and the State Department.
On the outside, key figures included close friends of both Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, including Richard Perle, former Central Intelligence Agency chief James Woolsey both members of Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board (DPB); Frank Gaffney, head of the arms-industry-funded Center for Security Policy; and William Kristol, editor of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), among others.
PNAC, in the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) building in Washington, was founded in 1997 with the signing of a statement of principles calling for “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity” signed by 25 prominent neoconservatives and right-wingers, including, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney and Libby, as well as several other senior Bush administration officials.
A close examination of the public record indicates that all of these individuals were actively preparing the ground within days, even hours, of the Sept. 11 attacks, for an eventual attack on Iraq, regardless of any connection to Al-Qaeda.
The challenge, in their view, was to persuade the public that such links either did or were likely to exist and therefore warranted a preventive strike against Iraq. Their success in this respect was stunning, although they also had to distort and exaggerate the intelligence evidence in order to pull it off.
Hints of a deliberate campaign surfaced last month in a June televised interview of General Wesley Clark on NBC Television’s Meet the Press.
“There was a concerted effort during the fall of 2001, starting immediately after Sept. 11, to pin Sept. 11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein,” Clark asserted. “It came from the White House, it came from other people around the White House. It came from all over. I got a call on Sept. 11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying: ‘You got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein.’”
While Clark has not yet identified who called him, Perle, Woolsey, Gaffney, and Kristol were using the same language in their media appearances on Sept. 11 and the following weeks.
“This could not have been done without help of one or more governments,” Perle told The Washington Post on Sept. 11. “Someone taught these suicide bombers how to fly large airplanes. I don’t think that can be done without the assistance of large governments.”
Woolsey was more direct. “It’s not impossible that terrorist groups could work together with the government … The Iraqi government has been quite closely involved with a number of Sunni terrorist groups and on some matters has had direct contact with (Osama) bin Laden,” he told one anchorman in a series of at least half-a-dozen national television appearances on Sept. 11 and 12.
That same evening, Kristol echoed Woolsey on National Public Radio. “I think Iraq is, actually, the big, unspoken sort of elephant in the room today,” he said. “There’s a fair amount of evidence that Iraq has had very close associations with Osama bin Laden in the past, a lot of evidence that it had associations with the (1993) effort to destroy the World Trade Center.”
While Kristol and company were trying to implicate Hussein in the public debate, their friends in the administration were pushing hard in the same direction. Cheney, according to published accounts, had already confided to friends even before Sept. 11 that he hoped the Bush administration would remove Hussein from power.
But the evidence about Rumsfeld is even more dramatic. According to an account by veteran CBS newsman David Martin last September, Rumsfeld was “telling his aides to start thinking about striking Iraq, even though there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks” five hours after an American Airlines jet crashed into the Pentagon.
Martin attributed his account in part to notes taken at the time by a Rumsfeld aide. They quote the defense chief as asking for the “best info fast” to “judge whether good enough to hit SH (Saddam Hussein) at the same time, not only UBL (‘Usama’ bin Laden).” Washington should “go massive … Sweep it all up, things related and not,” the notes quote Rumsfeld as saying.
Wolfowitz shared those views, according to an account of the Sept. 15-16 meeting of the administration’s “war council” at Camp David provided by The Washington Post’s Bill Woodward and Dan Balz.
“Wolfowitz argued … that the real source of all the trouble and terrorism was probably Hussein. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 created an opportunity to strike. Now, Rumsfeld asked again: ‘Is this the time to attack Iraq?’” Woodward and Balz said. “Powell objected,” they added, citing Secretary of State Colin Powell’s argument that US allies would not support a strike on Iraq. “If you get something pinning Sept. 11 on Iraq, great,” Powell is quoted as saying. “But let’s get Afghanistan now. If we do that, we will have increased our ability to go after Iraq if we can prove Iraq had a role.”
Upon their return to Washington, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz convened a secret two-day meeting of the DPB chaired by Perle. Instead of focusing on the first steps in carrying out a “war on terrorism,” however, the discussions centered on how Washington could use Sept. 11 to strike at Iraq, according to an account in the Wall Street Journal. Unlike Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC), neither the State Department nor the CIA was invited to participate in the meeting. After those deliberations concluded, Woolsey was sent it remains unclear under whose authority to London to collect evidence of any possible ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda.
Although he returned empty-handed, that did not prevent him and his close associates on the DPB from writing and speaking out in the press about Hussein’s alleged and completely unconfirmed role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, or any other rumor, dubiously sourced story, or allegations by INC-supplied defectors that appeared to implicate Hussein in terrorist activities in general and Al-Qaeda in particular.
But even as the DPB was locked in the Pentagon, Kristol was gathering signatures on a letter to Bush advising him on targets in his war on terrorism, eventually published in PNAC’s name in The Washington Times Sept. 20. This agenda anticipated to a remarkable degree the evolution of Bush’s actual policy. In addition to calling for the ouster of the Taleban and war on Al-Qaeda as well as cutting off Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and other moves the letter stated explicitly that Saddam Hussein must go regardless of his involvement in the attacks or Al-Qaeda.
“It may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States,” it said. “But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”
The letter was signed by 38 prominent neoconservatives, many of whom especially Perle, Kristol and Gaffney, DPB member Eliot Cohen and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer would emerge, along with Woolsey, as the most ubiquitous champions of war with Iraq outside the administration. It was the same people who, on behalf of their friends in the Pentagon, also mounted an almost constant campaign against the CIA, the State Department, and others who tried to slow the drive to war.
Their success is beyond question. By last October, just before the House of Representatives was to vote on giving Bush authority to go to war, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of adult respondents believed that “Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks.”
Another poll released in late June found a strong majority believed Saddam supported Al-Qaeda, with a remarkable 52 percent believing the US has actually found “clear evidence in Iraq” of close ties between the two. A mere 7 percent said they believed “there was no connection at all,” which is the finding that most accurately reflects the views of the US intelligence community.