WASHINGTON - With demands for a full-scale investigation of the manipulation of intelligence by the administration of Pres. George W. Bush mounting steadily, it appears increasingly clear that key officials and their allies outside the administration intended to use the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a pretext for going to war against Iraq within hours of the attacks themselves.
Within the administration, the principals appear to have included Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, and his national security adviser, I. Lewis Libby, among others in key posts in the National Security Council and the State Department.
Outside the administration, key figures included close friends of both Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, including Richard Perle, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) 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 Rupert Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), among others.
PNAC, which is based on the fifth floor of American Enterprise Institute (AEI) building, in downtown 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 neo-conservatives 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 -- both in and outside the administration -- were actively preparing the ground within days, even hours, after the 9/11 attacks, for an eventual attack on Iraq, whether or not it had any role in the attacks or any connection to al Qaeda.
The challenge, in their view, was to persuade the public that such links either did indeed exist or were sufficiently likely to exist that a preventive strike against Iraq was warranted. Their success in that respect was stunning, although, in order to pull it off, they also had to distort and exaggerate the evidence being collected by U.S. intelligence agencies.
A hint of a deliberate campaign to connect Iraq with the 9/11 attacks and al Qaeda surfaced last month in a June televised interview of Gen. Wesley Clark on the popular public-affairs program, 'Meet the Press.' In answer to a question, Clark asserted, ”There was a concerted effort during the fall of 2001, starting immediately after 9/11, to pin 9/11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein”.
”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 9/11. 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 9/11 and over the following weeks.
”This could not have been done without help of one or more governments,” Perle told The Washington Post on Sep. 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. ”(I)t'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 Sep. 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. 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 previous effort to destroy the World Trade Center (in 1993)”.
While Kristol and Co. 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 Sep. 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 slammed into the Pentagon.
Martin attributed his account in part to notes that had been taken at the time by a Rumsfeld aide. They quote the defense chief 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). The administration 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 meeting Sep. 15-16 of the administration's war council at Camp David provided by the Washington Post's Bill Woodward and Dan Balz. In the ”I-was-there” style for which Woodward, whose access to powerful officials since his investigative role in the Watergate scandal almost 30 years ago is unmatched, is famous:
”Wolfowitz argued (at the meeting) 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'”?
”Powell objected”, the Woodward and Balz account continued, citing Secretary of State Colin Powell's argument that U.S. 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 9/11 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 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was invited to participate in the meeting.
After those deliberations concluded, however, Woolsey was sent -- it remains unclear under whose authority -- to London to collect evidence of any possible ties between Baghdad 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 and any other rumor, dubiously-sourced story, or allegations by INC-supplied defectors that appeared to implicate Hussein in terrorist activities in general and with al Qaeda in particular.
But even as the DPB was locked in the Pentagon, Kristol was gathering signatures on a letter to Bush, eventually published in PNAC's name in The Washington Times Sep. 20, advising him on targets in his war on terrorism, an agenda that so far has anticipated to a remarkable degree the evolution of Bush's actual policy. In addition to calling for the ouster of the Taliban and war on al Qaeda -- as well as cutting off the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Yassir Arafat and other moves -- the letter stated explicitly that Saddam Hussein must go regardless of his relationship to 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 neo-conservatives, many of whom -- especially Perle, Kristol, Gaffney, William Bennett, DPB member Eliot Cohen, AEI's Reuel Marc Gerecht and Kirkpatrick, Robert Kagan, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, Clifford May and Randy Scheunemann (who would go on to head the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq) -- 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 anyone else who tried to slow the drive to war or question the administration's assertions about Hussein's links with al Qaeda or the threat he posed to U.S. security.
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 Sep. 11 attacks”.
While that percentage has declined over time, a strong majority was found late last month to believe that Hussein supported al Qaeda, and a remarkable 52 percent believe that the U.S. has actually found ”clear evidence in Iraq” of close ties between the two. A mere seven percent in the latter poll said they believed ”there was no connection at all”, the finding which most accurately reflects the views of the U.S. intelligence community.
© 2003 IPS