By CARLA ANNE ROBBINS and JEANNE CUMMINGS
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, June 14, 2002
WASHINGTON — In the chaotic days after Sept. 11, as several of his top advisers argued over whether to launch a strike on Iraq, President Bush sided with those urging restraint.
There was, after all, no real evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime had anything to do with the terror attacks. And President Bush wanted to keep the focus on al Qaeda, the Afghanistan-based terrorist group that engineered the deadly hijackings.
But now, a showdown with Iraq appears nearly inevitable. What happened?
“It’s not because you have some chain of evidence saying Iraq may have given a weapon to al Qaeda,” Ms. Rice says, as she recounts the evolution of Mr. Bush’s thinking.
This focus on Iraq was far from preordained. In his first nine months in office, in fact, Mr. Bush hadn’t made Iraq a top priority, and an interagency review on the country was languishing on Sept. 11. Immediately after the terror strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Mr. Bush had actually overruled advisers who wanted to take on Iraq along with Afghanistan in the first wave of the new war on terrorism.
The picture is quite different from the common assumption that Mr. Bush’s prime motivation is to settle an old score for his father, who drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait but failed to do away with Saddam Hussein. That bit of family business appears to have little to do with Mr. Bush’s current attitude.
Even in the first weeks after Sept. 11, Iraq didn’t figure prominently in Mr. Bush’s thinking, particularly after Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet reported there was “no evidence” Iraq was involved. On Sept. 20, when the president made a now-famous speech to a joint session of Congress calling for a global war on terrorism, he pointedly made no mention of Iraq.
By the last few days of October, the White House was so persuaded about the danger that officials quietly informed local police in Washington and the Congressional intelligence committees of the dirty-bomb threat.
Mr. Tenet, the CIA director, testified in 1999 that Mr. bin Laden had declared it his religious duty to acquire weapons of mass destruction. … As part of his late October briefings, Mr. Tenet discussed which other countries had the capability and the malice to help al Qaeda acquire weapons of mass destruction. And for that, Iraq topped the list.
Visitors to the White House at the time reported privately that Mr. Bush seemed haunted by a nuclear threat. At one of his morning intelligence briefings he told his advisers, “We have to be thankful that on Sept. 11 they didn’t have a weapon of mass destruction instead of an airplane,” recalls one participant. And every day for at least two weeks he ended those meetings exhorting the group, “We have to make sure that this doesn’t happen.”
In early November, in a speech broadcast to a European antiterrorism summit, Mr. Bush made his first public mention of the danger, warning that al Qaeda is seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
All told, the environment was becoming more welcoming for key officials at the Pentagon, as well as members of Vice President Cheney’s staff, who already were eager to target Iraq. With the Taliban suddenly crumbling in Afghanistan, the idea of waging a similar small war in Iraq “stopped looking unthinkable,” says an official who is still skeptical.
Shortly after Sept. 11, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld hosted a meeting of his Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel that includes former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Speakers of the House Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley, and former CIA Director James Woolsey. [But not Colin Powell.]
For two days, the group debated an attack against Iraq. Ahmed Chalabi, who leads the Iraqi National Congress, the exile group with the most sway in Washington, was invited to speak and, when asked to leave the room during the private discussions, he toured the clean-up efforts in the burned-out wing of the Pentagon. At the end of the meeting, several members of the advisory committee were convinced an attack was warranted, according to three members of the group.
Perhaps more important, Mr. Cheney [a founding member of PNAC] became more convinced of the need to act on Iraq. The vice president, who was secretary of defense during the Gulf War, always seemed more concerned about the Iraq legacy than Mr. Bush. At a celebration dinner after the 2000 presidential campaign, he privately told a group of friends that the new White House team may have a rare historic opportunity to right a wrong committed during a previous term — the mistake of leaving Saddam Hussein in place atop the Iraqi government. He also hired a staff filled with Iraq hawks.
Meanwhile, Iraqi opposition groups themselves began pressing harder to turn the administration. Mr. Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, brought defectors to Washington with reports of new Iraqi weapons programs and terrorist training camps. [All of which turned out to be fabrications. —zFacts WMD Report to Pres. The hawks at the Pentagon were particularly troubled by the presentation offered by Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haidari, a concrete contractor, who told U.S. authorities in December that he had helped build dozens of Mr. Hussein’s latest weapons labs, and that they were scattered throughout Baghdad underneath homes and mosques. Mr. Saeed came out of Iraq with work orders to back up his claims. Other officials, however, said they found the defectors’ presentations so well-rehearsed that they suspected they may have been embroidering the facts. Still, the stream of stories added to the gathering momentum.
‘Axis of Evil’
Finally, soon after Christmas, Mr. Bush and his advisers started discussing ideas for the president’s late-January State of the Union address. The president made clear early on that he wanted the speech to highlight the dangers of terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction, as well as list the countries that might help them. The most memorable line from that speech was Mr. Bush’s depiction of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an “axis of evil.” Not only are these states seeking weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Bush warned, “they could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.”
Looking back, U.S. officials now say they may well have overestimated al Qaeda’s access to weapons of mass destruction and the extent of the help provided by the Pakistani scientists. By late fall, American troops were on the ground in Afghanistan and sorting through al Qaeda labs, offices, houses and caves. What they found was less than originally feared, though still frightening. Designs for nuclear weapons were “rudimentary, the sort of thing you’d draw on a cocktail napkin,” says one intelligence official. U.S. troops found no sign that al Qaeda had managed to acquire chemical or biological weapons or any nuclear material.
And, crucially, U.S. officials recently concluded, after an exhaustive review, that they have no hard evidence to confirm the report that Mr. Atta, the Sept. 11 hijacker, actually met an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague last year.
While Mr. Bush is adamant about a regime change in Iraq, aides say the administration is still far from deciding how to make that happen. “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go. That’s about all I’m willing to share with you,” Mr. Bush said in an interview with British journalists in April.