John Prados is a senior fellow with the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. He is author of Hoodwinked: The Documents That Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (The New Press).
Coming just days after the release of the original secret legal advice given to the British government on the lack of foundation in international law for invading Iraq, a fresh leak out of London now reveals with stunning clarity that the goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein was set at least a year in advance.
Emerging in the final days before the UK's parliamentary election, a memo leaked to the London Sunday Times reveals that Bush decided to go to war by April of 2002, and that by July of that same year it was clear that the United States would fabricate the intelligence necessary to justify the war.
The Bush administration's pious rhetoric about strengthening the United Nations was strictly for public consumption. Its talk about alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction—as Lord Goldsmith's legal opinion demonstrates—was crucial because the only avenue offering a fig leaf of legal justification for war was to claim to be enforcing U.N. disarmament resolutions. And President Bush's repeated assertions that no decision had been made about attacking Iraq were plainly false.
Decision Made: November 2001-April 2002
Military planning for Iraq actually began in November 2001, while the campaign in Afghanistan absorbed the public's attention. In his memoirs, American field commander General Tommy Franks tells us that on December 4, in his very first briefing of the existing U.S. contingency plan for Iraq, Franks told defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld that, "I am assuming the principle objective will be to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein." Rumsfeld replied that the president would make the ultimate decision but that, "That is my assumption too." After several weeks of fleshing out the preliminary concept, General Franks presented it to George W. Bush at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, on December 28. At that meeting Franks told the group that regime change and WMD removal were the working assumptions behind his concept, with "a murmur of assent" being the reaction of those at the table or watching the teleconference. At the end of the presentation, Bush expressed confidence that diplomacy and international pressure would make military action unnecessary.
Neither in his various statements to the media nor in interviews—including those with Bob Woodward—has Bush ever recounted his evolving thinking or detailed his actions. However, reports show that at the same time of Frank's planning—around the end of 2001—the president signed a directive authorizing the CIA to act against Saddam. Bush subsequently targeted Iraq as a member of his invented "Axis of Evil" in the State of the Union address in late January 2002. When asked on February 6, 2002, about the administration's desire for regime change in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell replied, "We are looking at a variety of options that would bring that about." This was the day before General Franks presented a more detailed war plan to Bush and the National Security Council at the White House. Bush specifically told the press on February 12, regarding his options on Iraq, "I'll keep them close to my vest."
The following month Vice President Richard Cheney made an extensive tour of European and Middle Eastern nations which failed to enlist much support for action against Iraq. This made the attitude of the British a vital question for Bush. Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the United States early in April and met with Bush at Crawford. The latest leak from London—in this case a briefing paper prepared for a British cabinet meeting during the summer—show that it was at that meeting that Blair told Bush he would support the objective of regime change in Iraq. Bush emerged so triumphant from his encounter with the British that he blurted out—in a comment the administration later tried to downplay—"I explained to the prime minister that the policy of my government is the removal of Saddam."
Thus, evidence now shows that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—included in the earliest planning assumptions for war with Iraq—had become a firm goal by February 2002, and would be set in concrete at Crawford in April, almost exactly a year before U.S. troops reached Baghdad.
War In The First Resort
President Bush considered only military options for the removal of Saddam. This process had begun to move quickly by then, with General Franks bringing both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his force commanders into the picture in March. Bush held the next key meeting at Camp David in May, with Tony Blair's assurances in his pocket. At that conference, General Franks notes, "I...described a series of military options to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
Secretary Powell brought up the significant diplomatic obstacles at Camp David, telling the group it would be difficult to line up international support for an invasion of Iraq. Franks clearly recalls that exchange. Domestic political support was obviously a corollary problem. This development explains the timing of the original demand for the CIA to assemble a document retailing claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that could be released to the public to encourage fears of Saddam. The Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation of the Iraq intelligence reveals that the white paper was originally requested in May 2002. Not coincidentally, it now appears, the Blair government asked British intelligence to begin work on a similar document at the same time.
According to the leaked minutes of Blair's cabinet meeting on July 23, British intelligence chief Sir Richard Dearlove, just returned from talks in Washington, told the group that "military action was now seen as inevitable," and that "Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD." Dearlove also remarked that "the intelligence facts were being fixed around the policy." Both British foreign secretary Jack Straw and attorney general Lord Goldsmith warned of the thin case for war. Tony Blair did not disagree, he countered, telling the cabinet that "if the political context were right, people would support regime change." That appears to be Bush's exact calculation as well.
Cooking The Books
Thus the cooking of the books to justify the Iraq war was known at the time, not just in Washington but in London as well. Claims that the intelligence reporting on Iraq-both CIA and British-were simple errors of interpretation should be considered settled. And as for Bush's purposefulness in attacking Iraq, a Joint Chiefs of Staff "lessons learned" study from the war shows that the president signed a national security directive to finalize plans and deploy for the invasion at the end of June. All this happened before any of the diplomatic activity that the Bush administration represented as its main course of action.
In sum, to the threadbare legal justification for an aggressive war we must add premeditation of action. If this were a homicide, the district attorney would be considering indictment for conspiracy to murder. In international affairs, we're told, Iraq is just some broken china on the road to a miraculous blossoming of democracy in the Middle East. The arrogance, audacity, and cynicism in all this is exceeded only by its illegality. Small wonder that last week the military commander in chief who led British forces into the Iraq war, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, told a correspondent of the newspaper The Observer, "If my soldiers went to jail and I did some other people go as well with me."