Judth Miller : The Iraq War and Stubborn Myths

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"There was no shortage of mistakes about Iraq, and I made my share of them. The newsworthy claims of some of my prewar WMD stories were wrong. But so is the enduring, pernicious accusation that the Bush administration fabricated WMD intelligence to take the country to war".


by Judith Miller

I took America to war in Iraq. It was all me.

OK, I had some help from a duplicitous vice president, Dick Cheney. Then there was George W. Bush, a gullible president who could barely locate Iraq on a map and who wanted to avenge his father and enrich his friends in the oil business. And don’t forget the neoconservatives in the White House and the Pentagon who fed cherry-picked intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, to reporters like me.

None of these assertions happens to be true, though all were published and continue to have believers. This is not how wars come about, and it is surely not how the war in Iraq occurred. Nor is it what I did as a reporter for the New York Times. These false narratives deserve, at last, to be retired.

There was no shortage of mistakes about Iraq, and I made my share of them. The newsworthy claims of some of my prewar WMD stories were wrong. But so is the enduring, pernicious accusation that the Bush administration fabricated WMD intelligence to take the country to war. Before the 2003 invasion, President Bush and other senior officials cited the intelligence community’s incorrect conclusions about Saddam’s WMD capabilities and, on occasion, went beyond them. But relying on the mistakes of others and errors of judgment are not the same as lying.

I have never met George W. Bush. I never discussed the war with Dick Cheney until the winter of 2012, years after he had left office and I had left the Times. I wish I could have interviewed senior officials before the war about the role that WMDs played in the decision to invade Iraq. The White House’s passion for secrecy and aversion to the media made that unlikely. Less senior officials were of help as sources, but they didn’t make the decisions.

No senior official spoon-fed me a line about WMD. That would have been so much easier than uncovering classified information that officials can be jailed for disclosing. My sources were the same counterterrorism, arms-control and Middle East analysts on whom I had relied for my stories about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s growing threat to America—a series published eight months before 9/11 for which the Times staff, including me, won a Pulitzer.

In 1996, those same sources helped me to write a book about the dangers of militant Islam long before suicide bombers made the topic fashionable. Their expertise informed articles and another book I co-wrote in 2003 with Times colleagues about the danger of biological terrorism, published right before the deadly anthrax letter attacks.

Another enduring misconception is that intelligence analysts were “pressured” into altering their estimates to suit the policy makers’ push to war. Although a few former officials complained about such pressure, several thorough, bipartisan inquiries found no evidence of it.

The 2005 commission led by former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb and conservative Republican Judge Laurence Silberman called the estimates “dead wrong,” blaming what it called a “major” failure on the intelligence community’s “inability to collect good information…serious errors in analyzing what information it could gather, and a failure to make clear just how much of its analysis was based on assumptions.” A year earlier, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence denounced such failures as the product of “group think,” rooted in a fear of underestimating grave threats to national security in the wake of 9/11.

A two-year study by Charles Duelfer, the former deputy chief of the U.N. inspectors who led America’s hunt for WMD in Iraq, concluded that Saddam Hussein was playing a double game, trying (on the one hand) to get sanctions lifted and inspectors out of Iraq and (on the other) to persuade Iran and other foes that he had retained WMD. Not even the Iraqi dictator himself knew for sure what his stockpiles contained, Mr. Duelfer argued. Often forgotten is Mr. Duelfer’s well-documented warning that Saddam intended to restore his WMD programs once sanctions were lifted.

Will Tobey, a former deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (which oversees America’s nuclear arsenal), still fumes about the failure to see problems in the CIA’s intelligence supporting Secretary of State Colin Powell’s now largely discredited prewar speech at the U.N. about Iraq’s WMD. Based partly on the CIA’s assurances of strong evidence for each claim, Mr. Tobey told me, Mr. Powell was persuaded that the case against Saddam was “rock solid.”

Mr. Powell declined my requests for an interview, but in his 2012 book on leadership, he acknowledges having been annoyed years later when former CIA officials bemoaned his speech’s “unsupported claims.” “Where were they,” he wrote, “when the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] was being prepared months earlier?”

The CIA repeatedly assured President Bush that Saddam Hussein still had WMD. Foreign intelligence agencies, even those whose nations opposed war, shared this view. And so did Congress. Over the previous 15 years, noted Stuart Cohen, the former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, none of the congressional committees routinely briefed on Iraqi WMD assessments expressed concern about bias or error.

Though few legislators apparently read the classified version of the 2002 WMD estimate—which contained more caveats than the sanitized “key findings” disclosed in October of that year—almost none disputed the analysts’ conclusion, with “high confidence,” that Saddam retained both chemical and germ weapons, or their view, with “moderate confidence,” that Iraq did not yet have nuclear weapons. Speeches denouncing Saddam’s cheating were given not just by Republican hawks but by prewar GOP skeptic Sen. Chuck Hagel and by senior Democrats Al Gore,Hillary Clinton and Jay Rockefeller, among others.

Another widespread fallacy is that such neoconservatives as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz strong-armed an inexperienced president into taking the country to war. President Bush, as he himself famously asserted, was the “decider.” One could argue, however, that Hans Blix, the former chief of the international weapons inspectors, bears some responsibility. Though he personally opposed an invasion, Mr. Blix told the U.N. in January 2003 that despite America’s ultimatum, Saddam was still not complying fully with his U.N. pledges. In February, he said “many proscribed weapons and items,” including 1,000 tons of chemical agent, were still “not accounted for.”

Years would pass before U.S. soldiers found remnants of some 5,000 inoperable chemical munitions made before the first Gulf War that Saddam claimed to have destroyed. Not until 2014 would the U.S. learn that some of Iraq’s degraded sarin nerve agent was purer than Americans had expected and was sickening Iraqi and American soldiers who had stumbled upon it.

By then, however, most Americans had concluded that no such weapons existed. These were not new chemical arms, to be sure, but Saddam Hussein’s refusal to account for their destruction was among the reasons the White House cited as justification for war.

— Ms. Miller’s new book, “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey,” will be published on April 7 by Simon & Schuster. She was a staff writer and editor at the New York Times from 1977 to 2005.
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