Following 9/11, President Bush and seven top officials of his administration waged a carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.
On at least 532 separate occasions (in speeches, briefings, interviews, testimony, and the like), Bush and these three key officials, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan, stated unequivocally that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or was trying to produce or obtain them), links to Al Qaeda, or both. This concerted effort was the underpinning of the Bush administration's case for war.
It is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to Al Qaeda. This was the conclusion of numerous bipartisan government investigations, including those by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2004 and 2006), the 9/11 Commission, and the multinational Iraq Survey Group, whose "Duelfer Report" established that Saddam Hussein had terminated Iraq's nuclear program in 1991 and made little effort to restart it.
In short, the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003. Not surprisingly, the officials with the most opportunities to make speeches, grant media interviews, and otherwise frame the public debate also made the most false statements, according to this first-ever analysis of the entire body of prewar rhetoric.
President Bush, for example, made 232 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and another 28 false statements about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda. Secretary of State Powell had the second-highest total in the two-year period, with 244 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 10 about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld and Fleischer each made 109 false statements, followed by Wolfowitz (with 85), Rice (with 56), Cheney (with 48), and McClellan (with 14).
The massive database at the heart of this project juxtaposes what President Bush and these seven top officials were saying for public consumption against what was known, or should have been known, on a day-to-day basis. This fully searchable database includes the public statements, drawn from both primary sources (such as official transcripts) and secondary sources (chiefly major news organizations) over the two years beginning on September 11, 2001. It also interlaces relevant information from more than 25 government reports, books, articles, speeches, and interviews.
Consider, for example, these false public statements made in the run-up to war:
- On August 26, 2002, in an address to the national convention of the Veteran of Foreign Wars, Cheney flatly declared: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." In fact, former CIA Director George Tenet later recalled, Cheney's assertions went well beyond his agency's assessments at the time. Another CIA official, referring to the same speech, told journalist Ron Suskind, "Our reaction was, 'Where is he getting this stuff from?' "
- In the closing days of September 2002, with a congressional vote fast approaching on authorizing the use of military force in Iraq, Bush told the nation in his weekly radio address: "The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given. . . . This regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile material could build one within a year." A few days later, similar findings were also included in a much-hurried National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction — an analysis that hadn't been done in years, as the intelligence community had deemed it unnecessary and the White House hadn't requested it.
- In July 2002, Rumsfeld had a one-word answer for reporters who asked whether Iraq had relationships with Al Qaeda terrorists: "Sure." In fact, an assessment issued that same month by the Defense Intelligence Agency (and confirmed weeks later by CIA Director Tenet) found an absence of "compelling evidence demonstrating direct cooperation between the government of Iraq and Al Qaeda." What's more, an earlier DIA assessment said that "the nature of the regime's relationship with Al Qaeda is unclear."
- On May 29, 2003, in an interview with Polish TV, President Bush declared: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories." But as journalist Bob Woodward reported in State of Denial, days earlier a team of civilian experts dispatched to examine the two mobile labs found in Iraq had concluded in a field report that the labs were not for biological weapons. The team's final report, completed the following month, concluded that the labs had probably been used to manufacture hydrogen for weather balloons.
- On January 28, 2003, in his annual State of the Union address, Bush asserted: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production." Two weeks earlier, an analyst with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research sent an email to colleagues in the intelligence community laying out why he believed the uranium-purchase agreement "probably is a hoax."
- On February 5, 2003, in an address to the United Nations Security Council, Powell said: "What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence. I will cite some examples, and these are from human sources." As it turned out, however, two of the main human sources to which Powell referred had provided false information. One was an Iraqi con artist, code-named "Curveball," whom American intelligence officials were dubious about and in fact had never even spoken to. The other was an Al Qaeda detainee, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who had reportedly been sent to Eqypt by the CIA and tortured and who later recanted the information he had provided. Libi told the CIA in January 2004 that he had "decided he would fabricate any information interrogators wanted in order to gain better treatment and avoid being handed over to [a foreign government]."
The false statements dramatically increased in August 2002, with congressional consideration of a war resolution, then escalated through the mid-term elections and spiked even higher from January 2003 to the eve of the invasion.
It was during those critical weeks in early 2003 that the president delivered his State of the Union address and Powell delivered his memorable U.N. presentation. For all 935 false statements, including when and where they occurred, go to the search page for this project; the methodology used for this analysis is explained here.
In addition to their patently false pronouncements, Bush and these seven top officials also made hundreds of other statements in the two years after 9/11 in which they implied that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or links to Al Qaeda. Other administration higher-ups, joined by Pentagon officials and Republican leaders in Congress, also routinely sounded false war alarms in the Washington echo chamber.
The cumulative effect of these false statements — amplified by thousands of news stories and broadcasts — was massive, with the media coverage creating an almost impenetrable din for several critical months in the run-up to war. Some journalists — indeed, even some entire news organizations — have since acknowledged that their coverage during those prewar months was far too deferential and uncritical. These mea culpas notwithstanding, much of the wall-to-wall media coverage provided additional, "independent" validation of the Bush administration's false statements about Iraq.
The "ground truth" of the Iraq war itself eventually forced the president to backpedal, albeit grudgingly. In a 2004 appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, for example, Bush acknowledged that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. And on December 18, 2005, with his approval ratings on the decline, Bush told the nation in a Sunday-night address from the Oval Office: "It is true that Saddam Hussein had a history of pursuing and using weapons of mass destruction. It is true that he systematically concealed those programs, and blocked the work of U.N. weapons inspectors. It is true that many nations believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. As your president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq. Yet it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
Bush stopped short, however, of admitting error or poor judgment; instead, his administration repeatedly attributed the stark disparity between its prewar public statements and the actual "ground truth" regarding the threat posed by Iraq to poor intelligence from a Who's Who of domestic agencies.
On the other hand, a growing number of critics, including a parade of former government officials, have publicly — and in some cases vociferously — accused the president and his inner circle of ignoring or distorting the available intelligence. In the end, these critics say, it was the calculated drumbeat of false information and public pronouncements that ultimately misled the American people and this nation's allies on their way to war.
Bush and the top officials of his administration have so far largely avoided the harsh, sustained glare of formal scrutiny about their personal responsibility for the litany of repeated, false statements in the run-up to the war in Iraq. There has been no congressional investigation, for example, into what exactly was going on inside the Bush White House in that period. Congressional oversight has focused almost entirely on the quality of the U.S. government's pre-war intelligence — not the judgment, public statements, or public accountability of its highest officials. And, of course, only four of the officials — Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz — have testified before Congress about Iraq.
Short of such review, this project provides a heretofore unavailable framework for examining how the U.S. war in Iraq came to pass. Clearly, it calls into question the repeated assertions of Bush administration officials that they were the unwitting victims of bad intelligence.
Above all, the 935 false statements painstakingly presented here finally help to answer two all-too-familiar questions as they apply to Bush and his top advisers: What did they know, and when did they know it?
The Top Officials
George W. Bush is the 43rd president of the United States.
Richard "Dick" Cheney is the vice president of the United States. As the secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush, he directed the U.S. military effort in the 1991 Gulf War. After leaving the government Cheney became the chairman and chief executive officer of Halliburton Company. He was President Gerald Ford's chief of staff from 1975 to 1977. From 1979 to 1989, he served as a U.S. Representative from Wyoming.
Ari Fleischer was the White House press secretary from January 20, 2001, to July 14, 2003, serving as President Bush's principal spokesperson and conducting daily news briefings. Prior to his White House appointment, he served as the senior communications adviser and spokesman for the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign.
Scott McClellan was the White House press secretary from July 15, 2003, when he succeeded Ari Fleischer, to May 10, 2006; before that he was the principal deputy White House press secretary. During the 2000 presidential campaign he was George W. Bush's traveling press secretary.
Colin Powell was the secretary of state from January 20, 2001, to January 26, 2005. His 35-year army career included assignments as national security adviser to Ronald Reagan from 1987 to 1989 and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 until 1993, when he retired as a four-star general.
Condoleeza Rice has been the secretary of state since January 26, 2005, succeeding General Colin Powell. During the 2000 presidential campaign she was George W. Bush's chief foreign policy adviser, and in 2001 she became President Bush's national security adviser — the first woman to hold the post. Rice was provost of Standford University from 1993 to 1999.
Donald Rumsfeld was the secretary of defense from January 20, 2001, to December 18, 2006. In that role he directed the U.S. military effort in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Rumsfeld, a former U.S. Representative from Illinois, also served under President Gerald Ford as White House chief of staff from 1974 to 1975 and as defense secretary from 1975 to 1977.
Paul Wolfowitz was the deputy secretary of defense from March 2, 2001, until May 13, 2005. He became the president of the World Bank in June that year. He resigned that position effective June 30, 2007, in the wake of the disclosure that he had played a direct role in giving a promotion to a World Bank employee with whom he had a longstanding personal relationship. From 1973 to 1993, Wolfowitz served in several different positions in the State Department, Defense Department, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Key False Statements
On September 8, 2002, Bush administration officials hit the national airwaves to advance the argument that Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes designed to enrich uranium. In an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney flatly stated that Saddam Hussein "now is trying through his illicit procurement network to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium."
Condoleezza Rice, who was then Bush's national security adviser, followed Cheney that night on CNN's Late Edition. In answer to a question from Wolf Blitzer on how close Saddam Hussein's government was to developing a nuclear capability, Rice said: "We do know that he is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. We do know there have been shipments going into . . . Iraq, for instance, of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to—high-quality aluminum tools that only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs."
In April 2001, however, the Energy Department had concluded that, "while the gas centrifuge application cannot be ruled out, we assess that the procurement activity more likely supports a different application, such as conventional ordnance production." During the preparation of the September 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the Energy Department and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research stated their belief that Iraq intended to use the tubes in a conventional rocket program, but the Central Intelligence Agency's contrary view prevailed.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence subsequently concluded that postwar findings supported the assessments of the Energy Department and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
There was dissent within the intelligence community in the first 48 hours after 9/11 over the connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Richard Clarke, President Bush's chief counterterrorism adviser, has written that President Bush asked him on September 12 to "see if Saddam did this. See if he is linked in any way. . ." Clarke said that he responded by saying, "Absolutely, we will look . . . again," and then adding, "But you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of al Qaeda and not found any real linkages to Iraq."
Beginning apparently in late November 2001, a team in the office of Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith, working independently of the formal intelligence community, reviewed intelligence data related to Al Qaeda. In August and September 2002, this team provided three separate briefings to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet, and finally to high-level White House officials. The briefings, titled "Assessing the Relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda," included the assessment that "Intelligence indicates cooperation [with Al Qaeda] in all categories: mature, symbiotic relationship."
Bush administration officials were soon publicly linking the two. For example, on September 25, 2002, in response to a reporter's question, President Bush said: "They're both risks, they're both dangerous. The difference, of course, is that Al Qaeda likes to hijack governments. Saddam Hussein is a dictator of a government. Al Qaeda hides, Saddam doesn't, but the danger is, is that they work in concert. The danger is, is that Al Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world."
Such statements were not supported by the intelligence community's findings. In July 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency had concluded that "compelling evidence demonstrating direct cooperation between the government of Iraq and Al Qaeda has not been established, despite a large body of anecdotal information."
In September, the CIA circulated a draft report titled Iraqi Support for Terrorism, which found "no credible information that Baghdad had foreknowledge of the 11 September attacks or any other al-Qaeda strike." On September 17, CIA Director George Tenet reiterated this point in testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "The intelligence indicates that the two sides at various points have discussed safe-haven, training, and reciprocal non-aggression," he said. "There are several reported suggestions by AlQaeda to Iraq about joint terrorist ventures, but in no case can we establish that Iraq accepted or followed up on these suggestions."
The 9/11 Commission Report found that while there may have been meetings in 1999 between Iraqi officials and Osama Bin Ladin or his aides, it had seen no evidence that the contacts "ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship." It added: "Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with Al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."
In a speech on August 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney flatly asserted that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."
Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet later wrote that Cheney's statement "went well beyond what our own analysis could support." Tenet was not alone within the CIA. As one of his top deputies later told journalist Ron Suskind: "Our reaction was, 'Where is he getting this stuff from? Does he have a source of information that we don't know about?'"
In a national radio address on September 28, 2002, President Bush flatly asserted: "The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given. The regime has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist groups, and there are al Qaeda terrorists inside Iraq. This regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile material could build one within a year."
What the American people did not know at the time was that, just three weeks before Bush's radio address, in early September, Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that there was no National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Such an assessment had not been done in years because nobody within the intelligence community had deemed it necessary, and, remarkably, nobody at the White House had requested that it be done.
The CIA put the NIE together in less than three weeks. It proved to be false. As the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence later concluded, "Postwar findings do not support the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.
In his State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, President Bush said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
But as early as March 2002, there was uncertainty within the intelligence community regarding the sale of uranium to Iraq. That month, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research published an intelligence assessment titled, "Niger: Sale of Uranium to Iraq Is Unlikely." In July 2002, the Energy Department concluded that there was "no information indicating that any of the uranium shipments arrived in Iraq" and suggested that the "amount of uranium specified far exceeds what Iraq would need even for a robust nuclear weapons program." In August 2002, the Central Intelligence Agency made no mention of the Iraq-Niger connection in a paper on Iraq's WMD capabilities.
Just two weeks before the president's speech, an analyst with the Bureau of Intelligence and Research had sent an e-mail to several other analysts describing why he believed "the uranium purchase agreement probably is a hoax." And in 2006 the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded: "Postwar findings do not support the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessment that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake' from Africa. Postwar findings support the assessment in the NIE of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) that claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are 'highly dubious.'"
In his dramatic presentation to the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said: "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence. I will cite some examples, and these are from human sources." In preparation for his presentation, Powell had spent a week at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters sifting through intelligence.
One of the "human sources" that Powell referenced turned out to be "Curveball," whom U.S. intelligence officials had never even spoken to. "My mouth hung open when I saw Colin Powell use information from Curveball," Tyler Drumheller, the CIA's chief of covert operations in Europe, later recalled. "It was like cognitive dissonance. Maybe, I thought, my government has something more. But it scared me deeply."
In his presentation to the U.N. Security Council, Powell described another of the human sources as "a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons [of mass destruction] to Al Qaeda." Six days earlier, however, the CIA itself had come to the conclusion that this source, a detainee, "was not in a position to know if any training had taken place."
In a report completed in 2004, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded: "Much of the information provided or cleared by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for inclusion in Secretary Powell's speech was overstated, misleading, or incorrect."
In an interview with Polish television on May 29, 2003, President Bush stated: "We found the weapons of mass destruction." Bush was referencing two trailers or "mobile labs" discovered in Iraq.
Just days earlier, the Defense Intelligence Agency had concluded that the trailers "could not be used as a transportable biological production system as the system is presently configured." It was ultimately acknowledged that the trailers had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and were probably used to manufacture hydrogen employed in weather balloons.
On July 30, 2003, in an interview with Gwen Ifill of PBS's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, Condoleezza Rice said: "What we knew going into the war was that this man was a threat. He had weapons of mass destruction. He had used them before. He was continuing to try to improve his weapons programs. He was sitting astride one of the most volatile regions in the world, a region out of which the ideologies of hatred had come that led people to slam airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington. Something had to be done about that threat and the president to simply allow this brutal dictator, with dangerous weapons, to continue to destabilize the Middle East."
Just two days earlier, David Kay, the Bush administration's top weapons inspector in Iraq, had briefed administration officials. "We have not found large stockpiles," he told them. "You can't rule them out. We haven't come to the conclusion that they're not there, but they're sure not any place obvious. We've got a lot more to search for and to look at."