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How the Bush administration sold the Iraq war

Hubris: The Selling of the Iraq War, a documentary special hosted by Rachel Maddow, re-airs Friday, March 22, 9 p.m. on msnbc.
File Photo: (VIDEO CAPTURE) In this image from video, U.S. President George W. Bush announces that the U.S. military struck at \"targets of opportunity\" in Iraq March 19, 2003 in Washington, DC. Air defense sirens and anti-aircraft fire was reported...
File Photo: (VIDEO CAPTURE) In this image from video, U.S. President George W. Bush announces that the U.S. military struck at \"targets of opportunity\" in...

ANALYSIS: As the Obama White House vigorously defends its policy of using drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists—including in some cases American citizens—it invokes the findings of secret intelligence showing that the targets pose an “imminent” threat to the U.S.

But there's a powerful reason to be perennially skeptical of such claims--and perhaps never more so than now, as the country approaches a sobering historic moment: the tenth anniversary of President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.

The war that began March 19, 2003, was justified to the country by alarming claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and connections to al-Qaida terrorists—almost all of which turned out to be false. Some of the most senior officials in the U.S. government, including President Bush himself, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, asserted these claims in public with absolute confidence, even while privately, ranking U.S. military officers and intelligence professionals were voicing their doubts. Hubris: The Selling of the Iraq War, a documentary special hosted by Rachel Maddow (and based on a book I co-authored with David Corn), provides new evidence that the dissent within the administration and military was even more profound and widespread than anybody has known until now.

“It was a shock, it was a total shock--I couldn’t believe the vice president was saying this,” Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, told me in an interview for the documentary. Zinni, who had access to the most sensitive U.S. intelligence on Iraq, was on a stage in Nashville, Tennessee, receiving an award from the Veteran of Foreign Wars on August 26, 2002, when he heard the vice president launch the opening salvo in the Bush administration’s campaign to generate public support for an invasion. “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Cheney said. “There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.” Zinni, sitting right next to Cheney’s lectern, says he “literally bolted” when he heard the vice president’s comments. “In doing work with the CIA on Iraq WMD [weapons of mass destruction], through all the briefings I heard at Langley, I never saw one piece of credible evidence that there was an ongoing program.” He recounts going to one of those CIA briefings and being struck by how thin the agency’s actual knowledge of Iraqi weapons programs was. “What I was hearing [from Bush administration officials] and what I knew did not jive,” Zinni says.

In the documentary, many of those who were sources for the book "Hubris" appear on camera for the first time. One of them, Mark Rossini, was then an FBI counter-terrorism agent detailed to the CIA. He was assigned the task of evaluating a Czech intelligence report that Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague before the attack on the World Trade Towers. Cheney repeatedly invoked the report as evidence of Iraqi involvement in 9/11. “It’s been pretty well confirmed that he [Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with  a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia  last April,” Cheney said on Meet the Press on Dec. 9, 2001. But the evidence used to support the claim--a supposed photograph of Atta in Prague the day of the alleged meeting—had already been debunked by Rossini. He analyzed the photo and immediately saw it was bogus: the picture of the Czech “Atta” looked nothing like the real terrorist. It was a conclusion he relayed up the chain, assuming he had put the matter to rest. Then he heard Cheney endorsing the discredited report on national television. “I remember looking at the TV screen and saying, ‘What did I just hear?’ And I--first time in my life, I actually threw something at the television because I couldn’t believe what I just heard,” Rossini says.

Cheney, like most other senior Bush administration officials, declined to be interviewed for Hubris. One who did talk to the filmmakers was Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of the defense for policy under Donald Rumsfeld and an ardent defender of the war. Feith explains the strategic thinking that drove the administration decision to invade. “The idea was to take actions after 9/11 that would so shock state supporters of terrorism around the world that we might be able to get them to change their policies regarding support for terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,” he says in the film.

But documents that have been declassified in recent years show that Bush administration officials weren't interested in changing Saddam’s policies: they wanted him gone and were determined to launch a war to achieve that. The chronology also reveals that Saddam was in their crosshairs even before 9/11. The very afternoon of September 11, 2001, Rumsfeld met in the Pentagon with top aides. As his handwritten notes written by one of his aides at the meeting show, Rumsfeld asked for the “best info fast..judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time—not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]." Rumsfeld also tasked "Jim Haynes [the Pentagon's top lawyer] to talk w/ PW [Paul Wolfowitz] for additional support [for the] connection w/ UBL."  Before being presented with any evidence linking Saddam to al-Qaida, Rumsfeld was already looking for ways to use the World Trade Center attacks to justify taking out the Iraqi leader.

By late November, Rumsfeld was meeting with Gen. Tommy Franks, who succeeded Zinni as commander of the Centcom, to plot the “decapitation” of the Iraqi government, according to the now declassified talking points from the session (shown on television for the first time in the documentary). The talking points suggest Rumsfeld and his team were grappling with a tricky issue: “How [to] start?” the war. In other words, what would the pretext be? Various scenarios were outlined:  “US discovers Saddam connection to Sept. 11 attack or to anthrax attacks?” reads one of them. “Dispute over WMD inspections?” reads another. “Start now thinking about inspection demands.”

These talking points make it clearer than ever that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others were determined--probably from the moment they came into office--to invade Iraq. Paul Pillar--then one of the CIA’s top terrorism analysts—says in the documentary that the 9/11 attacks “made it politically possible for the first time to persuade the American people to break a tradition of not launching offensive wars.” But to achieve the goal, secret intelligence was twisted, massaged, and wildly exaggerated. “It wasn’t a matter of lying about this or lying about that,” Pillar says. “But rather—through the artistry of speechwriters and case-presenters—conveying an impression to the American people that certain things were true.” But those things were not true. It's worth watching to see how it was done.