Selling the Iraq war: Experts knew the intel was faulty. Why didn’t they blow the whistle?

Updated
 

As the country marks the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a nagging question lingers: Why didn’t those in the U.S government—who knew the truth—speak out about the phony intelligence being used by the Bush White House to justify the invasion of Iraq? Yellowcake uranium from Africa? Aluminum tubes for a nuclear weapons program? Connections between al Qaeda and Saddam? Throughout the U.S. intelligence community, some officials knew that these–and other assertions used to make the case for war–were based on the sketchiest of intelligence, wrong-headed assumptions and fraudulent claims. Yet those officials didn’t go public, their doubts recorded only in dissents buried deep inside a classified National Intelligence Estimate that never saw the light of day. In these excerpts from interviews conducted for “Hubris,” some of the principals explain why so many remained silent about issues that were so important.

Mark Rossini was a former FBI counter-terrorism agent assigned to the unit that specialized in al Qaeda. In 2001, he was detailed to the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center where he was tasked with analyzing a Czech intelligence report that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an  Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague–a meeting that Vice President Dick Cheney said on Meet the Press was “pretty well confirmed.” Rossini quickly helped debunk the report and, he says in Hubris, was aghast that Cheney was giving it credence. “In hindsight, I do wish that me or somebody else did say, ‘wait a second, this is totally wrong.’”

Lawrence Wilkerson was the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell who oversaw the writing of the secretary’s speech to the U.N. Security Council.  In Hubris, he says he now considers the speech “a hoax.” Here he explains the risks of White House reprisals that intelligence professionals feared if they went public with their doubts. Had somebody stepped forward and challenged the official line, the administration would have “buried him or her,” he says.

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni was the commander of the U.S. Central Command between 1997 and 2000, responsible for all U.S. military planning and operations in the Middle East.  While there, he had access to all U.S. intelligence about Iraq, leading him to conclude that the Iraqi weapons program had been seriously degraded since the Persian Gulf war and the threat from Saddam Hussein was diminished. Here he explains why he thought–wrongly, as it turned out–that others within the U.S. government would set the Bush White House straight. “Well, when I heard the rhetoric that was pumping up Saddam as this major threat, I just could not believe it…and I though for sure I’d hear George Tenet put the intelligence in perspective.”

Valerie Plame Wilson was a former covert CIA operations officer who became a household name when, in July, 2003, she was outed by administration officials as part of an effort to discredit her husband, former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, who had publicly criticized the handling of intelligence about a supposed effort by the Iraqis to purchase uranium from Niger. Here she talks about the pressure that CIA analysts came under to toe the White House line. “Speak to the people that felt the direct pressure,” she says. In these excerpts, Wilson talks about the visits by Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff Scooter Libby to CIA headquarters during the run-up to the war. “When you have a vice president and his chief of staff digesting raw intelligence and coming to their own conclusions–they are not intelligence professionals–the whole system is bound to be skewed.”

Michael Isikoff spoke about the Bush administration’s determination to declare war in Iraq with Alex Witt.  The documentary Hubris, about the selling of the war, will air Friday March 22nd on msnbc at 9 p.m.

Read more: Where are the architects of the Iraq War now, a decade later? And what is life like for Iraqis today after the devastation of the war?

Selling the Iraq war: Experts knew the intel was faulty. Why didn't they blow the whistle?

Updated