Michael Isikoff: I really think the facts speak for themselves at this point. It is unquestionably true that the Bush administration took the country to war on what has turned out to be thoroughly false, and in some cases, fraudulent intelligence. What we do in Hubris is show precisely how that happened and demonstrate, rather conclusively I think, that there were ample grounds to doubt many of the most dramatic claims—that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear program, for example, or had ties to Al Qaeda. In civil cases, somebody can be successfully sued not just for knowing they sell you a false bill of goods; but if they “should have known.” That’s, at a minimum, what happened here—negligence in the commission of a fraud.
KZ: Your book also leads to the conclusion that people in the chain of intelligence were afraid of telling the truth and the administration pressured those analysts whose findings were inconsistent with the conclusion that was desired by the administration, e.g. the aluminum tubes supposedly for nuclear weapons. And, in other cases they seemed to miss obvious indications that intelligence was wrong, e.g. the Niger documents. And in still other cases when key claims were doubted by senior intelligence officials they were suppressed and ignored, e.g. Wilson on Iraqi nuclear program and on Saddam being an immediate threat. It seems like the administration manipulated and cowered the intelligence community. Is this an accurate reading? How did they do this? And, how do we prevent this in the future?
MI: There were far more doubts and dissents expressed within the CIA, the State Department, the Energy Department, even the Pentagon about many elements of the administration’s case than has been publicly understood. We interview many of those dissenters who spoke to us for the first time and expressed their own anguish about what happened. Listening to some of them was quite poignant. Paul Pillar, for example, the senior CIA officer who participated in the drafting of a misleading CIA “white paper” about Iraqi WMD, is anguished to this day about his role, telling us how he wishes he had mustered up the courage to tell administration officials, “Hell no! I’m not going to do that.” But policymakers didn’t want to hear what he and others had to say anyway—indeed they actively suppressed the dissents—because it was clear very early on what the president and vice president wanted to hear.
KZ: How often did Cheney visit the CIA and what was the purpose of those visits?
MI: He visited on multiple occasions and, as we write in the book, when we reconstruct one of these visits, [he] thoroughly intimidated agency analysts, making it quite clear what he believed the intelligence really showed—even though he was flat wrong.
KZ: How did the media fail to get it right during the build-up to war?
MI: That is a complex question, but we spend some time showing exactly how some news organizations, particularly the New York Times and its then-star reporter Judy Miller, recycled the claims of fabricators and con men in order to build the case for war. Some news organizations, on the other hand, did question elements of the administration’s case. In April, 2002, I wrote a story in Newsweek debunking the false claim that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. I showed that both the FBI and the CIA had by then concluded that the visit probably never took place. Yet Cheney continued to repeat the allegation anyway for more than a year after that. Stories that challenged the administration’s arguments never got the traction they should have.
KZ: Further, congressional leaders from the president's own party doubted the case for war and questioned top secret briefings. Indeed, the House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, a loyal, conservative Republican, directly doubted Vice President Dick Cheney and warned of a quagmire. How widespread were these concerns? How did the administration ignore these allies?
MI: The Armey story is one of the most amazing ones we tell in the book. Here you have the House Majority Leader, the number-two Republican in the House, a strong and loyal conservative, who was convinced the war was a giant mistake. He even warns Bush that he will get stuck in a “quagmire” that will derail his domestic agenda for the rest of his presidency. When he gets briefed by Cheney, he thinks the intelligence is flimsy; had he been shown the same intel by Clinton or Gore, he tells us, he would have told them it was “bullshit.” But because he was pressured by Cheney to keep quiet, he went along—much to his later regret. Sadly, there were quite a few other members of Congress who went along despite their own doubts. We show how Bush consciously used the upcoming 2002 congressional elections to whipsaw the Democrats into backing his war resolution. (That, by the way, does not absolve leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, from going along, by the way.)
KZ: Your book chronicles how we got into the Iraq quagmire, but it does not explain why. You describe the hatred Bush seems to have for Saddam—but that does not seem to be a reason to go to war. Is the Iraq War an outgrowth of Jimmy Carter's doctrine that the U.S. will use military force to ensure access to Middle East oil? Or, a continuation (on sterioids) of Clinton's doctrine of regime change in Iraq? Author Antonia Juhasz* describes the invasion and occupation as a corporate takeover of Iraq. Of course, the U.S. could buy oil on the open market, but invading assures U.S. oil companies' reaping the profit of oil sales and ensures access as oil availability shrinks. Why do you think we went to war with Iraq?
MI: There is no easy answer to the question of why we went to war. As we show, Bush really did have this personal and very visceral antipathy to Saddam. It was startling to hear, as our sources related to us, how the president would explode with expletive-ridden tirades when the issue of Saddam came up. I still find pretty eye-popping the scene where the president flips his middle finger just a few inches from Tom Daschle’s face when the subject of Saddam was raised. But that is only part of the story. You have the machinations of the neoconservatives like Wolfowitz and Perle who had been promoting the idea of overthrowing Saddam for years. You had Cheney and Rumsfeld, who wanted to reassert American strategic power. You had the whole post-9/11 emotional mood of the country. I personally don’t find the oil argument terribly persuasive—other than on the most basic level: we care a lot more about that part of the world because it sits on a huge chunk of the world’s oil supplies.
KZ: Now that the Democrats have control of the House and the Senate and all the investigatory powers that go with majority control, where do you suggest the Democrats investigate in relation to Iraq, Iran and contracts relating to Iraq?
Hubris can be purchased in stores throughout the country or on-line here.
*Antonia Juhasz is author of The Bush Agenda (click here).
This story was published on November 21, 2006.