Sunday, August 3, 2014

There was no good reason for the US to invade Iraq in 2003

Saddam Hussein did not plan the Sept. 11 attacks, did not associate with Al Qaeda, and did not have hidden WMD. After the US-led war, Iraq today is a more violent place.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Sept. 3, 2007. Updated on Jan. 26, 2014.

There has always been a pervasive misunderstanding that the US invaded Iraq because of the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. One public opinion poll in January 2003 asked Americans: "To the best of your knowledge, how many of the September 11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens?" In January 2003, 50 percent of respondents guessed — incorrectly — that one or more of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. The correct answer is "none."

This false belief cannot easily be tied to any false claims made by the Bush administration. Indeed, the Bush administration never explicitly asserted the claim that Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader at the time, had any connections to the Sept. 11 attacks. (Curiously, nowhere in Bush's 2010 hefty presidential memoir "Decision Points" does he acknowledge the popular misunderstanding to the contrary, let alone take responsibility for intentionally or inadvertently perpetuating it.) Saddam did release a statement four days after the attacks, gloating that "Americans should feel the pain they have inflicted on other peoples of the world," but this is not evidence that he helped organize the attacks.

The reason provided by the Bush administration for invading Iraq — less well comprehended by the American public — was, instead, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that it had not declared to U.N. weapons inspectors. After invading Iraq, government officials — including Bush himself — revised their positions and admitted that the weapons probably never existed. One might reasonably conclude, then, that in hindsight there was no good reason to invade Iraq.

Saddam Hussein did not plan the Sept. 11 attacks

Clarification about Iraq's non-involvement was often publicized. Only a month before the poll mentioned above, the U.S. government released a report titled "Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001." The report cited the CIA's dismissal of a claim that "Iraq had formed a suicide pilot unit that it planned to use against British and U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf" as "highly unlikely and probably disinformation." It also quoted Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet saying that "we are still working to corroborate" whether the would-be Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta left the U.S. to meet an Iraqi intelligence officer in 2001.

On Sept. 16, 2003, months after the invasion of Iraq,in response to a new public opinion poll showing that 70 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commented: "I've not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that [Saddam was involved]." The next day, Bush admitted:
"We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the 11 September attacks. What the vice-president said was is that he [Saddam] has been involved with al-Qaeda...There's no question that Saddam Hussein had al-Qaeda ties."

The lengthy report from the 9/11 Commission, released July 22, 2004, was devoted to an official, bipartisan, comprehensive investigation of the attacks. Only three pages (pp. 334-336) even mention Iraq, and only then to clarify that Bush never tied Saddam Hussein to the September 11 attacks. The report says:
"Responding to a presidential tasking, Clarke's office sent a memo to Rice on September 18, titled 'Survey of Intelligence Information on Any Iraq Involvement in the September 11 Attacks.' Rice's chief staffer on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalizad, concurred in its conclusion that only some anecdotal evidence linked Iraq to al Qaeda. The memo found no 'compelling case' that Iraq had either planned or perpetrated the attacks."

Later in the same passage:
"Secretary [of State Colin] Powell recalled that [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz - not [Donald] Rumsfeld - argued that Iraq was ultimately the source of the terrorist problem and should therefore be attacked. Powell said that Wolfowitz was not able to justify his belief that Iraq was behind 9/11. 'Paul was always of the view that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with,' Powell told us. 'And he saw this as one way of using this event as a way to deal with the Iraq problem.'"

(Powell resigned in 2004, Wolfowitz left in 2005 to work for the World Bank, and Rumsfeld resigned in 2006.)

Saddam Hussein was not associated with al-Qaeda

In 2002, amidst the run-up to war, William Rivers Pitt and former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter published War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You To Know. They argued:

The case for war against Iraq has not been made. This is a fact. It is doubtful in the extreme that Saddam Hussein has retained any functional aspect of the chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons programs so thoroughly dismantled by the United Nations weapons inspectors who worked tirelessly in Iraq for seven years. This is also a fact. The idea that Hussein has connections to fundamentalist Islamic terrorists is laughable — he is a secular leader who has worked for years to crush fundamentalist Islam within Iraq, and if he were to give weapons of any kind of Qaeda, they would use those weapons on him first. * * * The UNSCOM inspectors destroyed, right to the ground, any and all capabilities he possessed to create weapons of mass destruction. He has no connections whatsoever to the terrorists who struck America on September 11th. Saddam Hussein is not capable of acting upon any of the desires, real or imagined. He does not have the horses."
In October 2004, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and the Democratic staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee claimed that Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith — whose office shaped intelligence assessments used to justify war — framed Iraq for 9/11. The report was titled "Report of an Inquiry into the Alternative Analysis of the Issue of an Iraq-al Qaeda Relationship." In an underlined sentence, Levin cast doubt on the Bush administration's suggestion of a tenuous connection between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda organization. He complained that
"Vice President Cheney was still suggesting the possibility of the alleged Atta meeting [with an Iraqi officer] as late as June 2004, even though the IC (Intelligence Community) was already skeptical in late spring of 2002 that the meeting had taken place."

More specifically, as Todd Gitlin wrote in The Intellectuals and the Flag (2006), citing a Washington Post article by Dana Milbank from June 18, 2004:

"On June 17, 2004, Bush said: ‘The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda: because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.’ (He went on to cite the charge that Iraqi intelligence officers met with Osama bin Laden in Sudan in the 1990s, as if such contacts were ipso facto proof of collusion.)"
Feith's name was cleared in February 2007 by Acting Defense Dept. Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble's report on pre-war intelligence. The intelligence assessments pointing to a "mature symbiotic relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaeda were, in Gimble's words, "inconsistent" with the consensus view among intelligence agencies. Feith commented in interviews on Feb. 9, 2007 that his office did not produce "alternative" answers but rather a "criticism" of existing intelligence thought to be inadequate. Gimble deemed the department's work "inappropriate," but noted that it was authorized by then-defense secretaries Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and said there was no evidence it was illegal.

Al-Qaeda did not even exist as a significant force within Iraq until Jordanian-born insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden on Oct. 17, 2004. An article published by the Council on Foreign Relations therefore describes the group now known as al-Qaeda in Iraq as having "emerged in the ashes of the U.S.-led invasion."

So why did the US invade Iraq?

The far better substantiated argument against Saddam was that he was a fearsome dictator. As George W. Bush explains in "Decision Points," Saddam attempted to have Bush's father, former president George H. W. Bush, assassinated. Saddam invaded Iran in the 1980s, invaded Kuwait in the 1990s, violated 16 UN resolutions, ripped out the tongues of dissidents, buried tens of thousands of his own people in mass graves, slaughtered Kurds, and used nerve agents against Iranians.

The actual argument in favor of invading Iraq in 2003 was that Saddam was believed to be hiding weapons of mass destruction from U.N. weapons inspectors. However, the weapons were never found, and it is now believed that they never existed.

A renewed inspection by David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group, found evidence of two decades of WMD programs but not the weapons stockpiles themselves. Kay testified in January 2004 before the Senate Armed Services Committee that it "turns out we were all wrong." Two months later, Kay — who had by then resigned — said the president "should say we were mistaken." That September, his successor, Charles Duelfer, said Iraq didn't have WMD before the invasion. In March 2005, The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction reported that "the intelligence professionals...were simply wrong." In February 2006, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review Report included a chapter on worldwide WMD that did not mention Iraq.

Echoing Kay's words, Bush states flatly in "Decision Points": "Nobody was lying. We were all wrong." He adds: "I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false."

Did anyone see this ahead of time?


There remains no evidence connecting the deposed and executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda's attack on Sept. 11, 2001, nor does any U.S. leader claim that Saddam had any connection to that event. The relatively minor accusation that he may have spoken with al-Qaeda leaders was scuttled. Saddam did not have the weapons of mass destruction that the weapons inspectors were looking for, either.

There are manifold ways to interpret the legacy of the American campaign called "Operation Iraqi Freedom." There have been some gains. For example, since 2004, Iraq is a sovereign state that holds elections.

However, this metric of freedom has come at a high cost. The number of Iraqis who have died violently since the 2003 invasion is hard to estimate - especially as the invasion triggered intra-Iraqi sectarian violence and roadside bombings that are ongoing to this day - but credible estimates range anywhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqi deaths attributable to the war and its aftermath. The dictator Saddam Hussein and his two sons are dead, but today the al-Qaeda flag flies over the city of Fallujah instead. The number of American soldiers who died in Iraq was 4,486. Nearly eleven years on, history is already beginning to judge the merit of the war.


In early 2015, the 93-page October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate was finally declassified. The NIE had described uncertainties, but government had treated them as if they were certainties.

The CIA released a copy of the NIE in 2004 in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but redacted virtually all of it, citing a threat to national security. Then last year, John Greenewald, who operates The Black Vault, a clearinghouse for declassified government documents, asked the CIA to take another look at the October 2002 NIE to determine whether any additional portions of it could be declassified.

The agency responded to Greenewald this past January and provided him with a new version of the NIE, which he shared exclusively with VICE News, that restores the majority of the prewar Iraq intelligence that has eluded historians, journalists, and war critics for more than a decade. (Some previously redacted portions of the NIE had previously been disclosed in congressional reports.)

In December 2021, The New York Times published hundreds of Pentagon assessments of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria which the Times obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

You may also be interested...

Laura Jedeed deployed twice to Afghanistan in 2008–2010 when, she reflects in 2021, "it was already obvious that the Taliban would sweep through the very instant we left. And here we are today." Thus: "finally you have to face the thing Afghanistan has always been. You can’t keep lying to yourself about what you sent us into. ... No more pretending it meant anything. It didn’t. It didn’t mean a goddamn thing." More challenging still: "I am Team Get The Fuck Out Of Afghanistan which, as a friend pointed out to me today, has always been Team Taliban. It’s Team Taliban or Team Stay Forever. There is no third team."

And this podcast episode by Chris Hayes about 2022 Russian propaganda alleging U.S. bioweapons in Ukraine:

(A Washington post article, too, on the same topic.)

Image: A Civil Affairs Officer gives candy to children
Location: Kubaysah, Iraq, for Operation Moon River, Dec. 31, 2005
Image by: United States Marine Corps, ID 051231-M-4657S-010
© public domain Wikimedia Commons

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