The Calm Before the Iraqi Storm: 15th Anniversary

How George W. Bush Got the Power to Invade Iraq

George W. Bush
President George W. Bush addressing a joint session of Congress on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, September 20, 2001. Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives / Flickr

President Donald Trump rattled Americans (and people everywhere) with his recent deliberately enigmatic pronouncement that “This could be the calm before the storm.” More so because he issued the statement as he stood surrounded by an imposing wall of senior military officers.

Soon, the media were abuzz with speculation. Was Trump intimating in not-so-subtle terms that the US was once again on the brink of war? Asked what he meant, Trump, the master of self-created suspense, replied, “You’ll find out.”

As CNN pointed out, the president is treating the situation like a reality show.

The thing is: The stakes of a reality TV show are roughly zero. The stakes of diplomacy with rogue nations pursuing nuclear weapons are incredibly high. What’s not clear at the moment is whether Trump understands that difference.

Add to this the growing fear that Trump — with his finger on the doomsday button — may indeed be a “moron,” as he reportedly was characterized by his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, in private. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), in a much publicized spat, said that Trump is setting the country “on the path to World War III.”

Fifteen years ago, there was calm before another storm, when another US president, George W. Bush — also called a “moron” — received the go-ahead from the House, on a 296-133 vote, to invade Iraq.

Bush and his team worked hard to paint Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat. However, they knew, or at least had reason to suspect, that he was not. They had an agenda: Get rid of this guy.

The premeditation became public with the May, 2005 leak of the secret so-called Downing Street Memo dated July 23, 2002. It revealed how British officials had privately determined that “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.”

Most importantly, and famously, the memo proved that the whole thing had been cooked up, i.e., “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Another secret British memo came to light almost a year later. It described a January 31, 2003 meeting in the Oval Office between Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Texan admitted that he was determined to invade Iraq, with or without a UN resolution condemning the country. He said he would do so even if international arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons in Iraq.

The bombing was to begin March 10. Bush and Blair anticipated a quick victory.

The men agreed that it was “unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups.” This bungled forecast of public reaction within Iraq was passed along without skepticism by the media.

But a few journalists already knew that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” They warned of just that likelihood, but their words fell on deaf ears.

WhoWhatWhy founder Russ Baker was among the few who did not need to be told. We see this in a story he wrote one month before war began.

Baker felt disgust with the mainstream media’s acquiescence in the march to unjustified war and its lack of healthy skepticism. This led him to found the news organization whose site you are now visiting.

Here is that 2003 article. It is as relevant as ever.

WhoWhatWhy Introduction by Milicent Cranor


The Proof Is in the Padding

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The country has been put on high alert, and I too have heightened my alertness — for balderdash masquerading as bald facts. I’d urge everyone to adopt the same attitude. We can start by going back for a more careful look at Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Security Council address on February 5, which pundits and politicians — and, according to a new poll, a majority of the American public — are calling a powerful argument for an assault on Iraq.

Colin Powell

Secretary of State Colin Powell talking about Iraq’s failures to comply with several UN Security Council resolutions on weapons inspection. February 5, 2003.
Photo credit: Watch the video on C-SPAN

Among other things, Powell praised a British intelligence report on Iraq that was later revealed to be based on plagiarized material from magazine articles and someone’s old doctoral thesis.

Even more telling was the section of Powell’s presentation that came closest to revealing the long-sought “smoking gun.” A summary of newspaper reports, published in the influential online magazine Slate, put it this way:

[Powell] released audio tapes of Iraqis playing hide-’n-seek: In one conversation recorded a few weeks ago, an officer tells a subordinate, “Remove ‘nerve agents’ wherever it comes up in the wireless instructions.” Double-checking, the underling repeats the instructions. His boss’s response: “Stop talking about it. They are listening to us. Don’t give any evidence that we have these horrible agents.”

Note the quotation marks. Like most Americans who read the brief summaries in the following day’s papers, I was amazed that an Iraqi officer had warned someone to “stop talking about it … they are listening,” since that in itself would be an admission of guilt to those very listeners. And, even more so, that he would say, “Don’t give any evidence that we have these horrible agents.” He sounds disgusted — and practically begging for an invasion to save the world and his own skin.

I was about ready to suit up for battle myself, when I paused to double-check the transcripts of Powell’s talk for the exact language of the audio tapes.

And that’s when double-check led to double-take. Because no Iraqi officer talked about “horrible agents.” Those were Colin Powell’s words. The secretary of state had simply taken the liberty to paraphrase what he believed the officers were implying in their conversation. He was putting words in their mouths. But the Slate summary, mailed to influential people all over the country, mixed up what the Iraqis had actually been heard saying with Powell’s tendentious paraphrase.

See — or listen — for yourself. A conversation in Arabic was played for the Security Council. The transcript, as translated by the State Department, goes as follows:

COLONEL: Captain Ibrahim?

CAPTAIN: I am with you, sir.

COLONEL: Remove.

CAPTAIN: Remove.

COLONEL: The expression.

CAPTAIN: The expression.

COLONEL: Nerve agents.

CAPTAIN: Nerve agents.

COLONEL: Wherever it comes up.

CAPTAIN: Wherever it comes up.

COLONEL: In the wireless instructions.

CAPTAIN: In the instructions.

COLONEL: Wireless.

CAPTAIN: Wireless.

Then Powell begins talking:

Let’s review a few selected items of this conversation. Two officers talking to each other on the radio want to make sure that nothing is misunderstood. … Why does he repeat it that way? Why is he so forceful, making sure this is understood, and why did he focus on wireless instructions? Because the senior officer is concerned that somebody might be listening. Well, somebody was. Nerve agents. Stop talking about it. They are listening to us. Don’t give any evidence that we have these horrible agents.

Naturally, the Iraqis denied Powell’s assertions. The intercepted telephone conversations were “simply not true and not genuine,” said an Iraqi general. “Any third-rate intelligence outfit could produce such a recording.”

After years of duplicity, Iraqi officials don’t have any credibility. The problem is, the arguments put forth by any party with a predetermined agenda must be viewed with skepticism. Powell’s totally fictional line about “horrible agents” may reflect the gist of the Iraqi’s actual words. Or there may be another explanation.

We’re told that, in a translation of a conversation from a scratchy recording, some person whose identity we cannot know, referred to “nerve agents.” Assuming the tape is clear enough, and the translation correct, all we have is someone telling someone to remove a reference to nerve agents. And what kind of reference? We have no idea. Anything is possible. It could be an old reference, in an old manual, to nerve agents Iraq used to have. It could be instructions on what to do if confronted with nerve agents launched by enemy troops. It could be anything at all.

It’s not that Saddam isn’t horrible, or that he doesn’t have some dangerous weapons. He probably does. It’s that the United States, despite all its high-tech intelligence-gathering, does not really know very much about Saddam’s capabilities and intentions. Instead of admitting that, which would undermine its case for a pre-emptive strike on oil-rich Iraq, the Bush administration is willing to twist the truth and pretend to know what it doesn’t know.

History provides a chilling precedent. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson strong-armed Congress into giving him a blank check for conducting the Vietnam War in the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This resolution was based on a supposedly unprovoked attack on U.S. ships by North Vietnamese naval forces — an attack which almost certainly did not take place as Johnson described, and may not have happened at all.

Nearly 40 years later, heightened alertness looks like a wise idea.


Russ Baker is doing his own “monitoring” of events from his current perch in the Balkans. [2/14/2003]

Related Stories from WhoWhatWhy

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A Republican Regrets: How the Iraq War Brought Chaos to the West, 3/31/2016

Secret Email Leaked from Hillary’s Server: The Real Story of Bush, Blair and Big Oil’s Iraq Agenda, 10/28/2015

Who Caused Europe’s Refugee Mess? Why, We Did, 9/15/2015

Manufacturing War: A Primer, 12/15/2014

Not So Fast: Not All media Screwed Up the Iraq Story (Just Almost All), 3/13/2013

WhoWhatWhy Exclusive: Gen.Wesley Clark on War, Oil and Activism, 9/24/2012

The Cradle of Conflagration: The End (and Beginning) of the War for Iraq, 1/5/2012

Iraq Invasion revelations: Fueled Again UK Style, 4/21/2011

Iraq Invasion Revelations: The Payoff, 3/2/2011

Bush,Rumsfeld and Iraq: Is the Real Reason for the Invasion Finally Emerging? 2/6/2011

Stories-You-Didn’t-Read Department, 12/12/2010


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from President George Bush (The White House / Wikimedia).

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