Special Report: The Rush to Invade Iraq: The Ultimate Inside Account
by Bryan Burrough, Evgenia Peretz, David Rose, and David Wise
Vanity Fair, May 2004
Three days later, on Saturday, September 15, President Bush gathered his closest advisers at Camp David to discuss the shape of the coming war. Much of their discussion dealt with Afghanistan. But during a session that morning, according to Bob Woodward’s 2002 book, Bush at War, Wolfowitz advocated an attack on Iraq, perhaps even before an attack on Afghanistan. There was a 10 to 50 percent chance that Iraq had been involved in 9/11, he argued, concluding that Saddam’s “brittle, oppressive regime” might succumb easily to an American attack-in contrast to the difficulties involved in prosecuting war in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Sitting across the table, Colin Powell was appalled. To attack Iraq without clear evidence of Saddam’s involvement in September 11 would drive America’s allies away, he argued. Much better to go after bin Laden’s obvious state sponsor, the Taliban. If that went well, it would only enhance America’s ability to oust Saddam later. In front of his advisers at Camp David, and in later interviews, Bush indicated that he supported Powell’s argument. During the lunch break, the president sent a message to Wolfowitz and the other neocons, indicating that he did not wish to hear any more about Iraq that day. But, according to Richard Perle, Wolfowitz had planted a seed. Bush told Perle at Camp David that once Afghanistan had been dealt with, it would be Iraq’s turn.
By that Monday, Wolfowitz and his neocon colleagues were already busy studying ways to justify an eventual attack on Iraq. The next day, Tuesday, September 18, Perle convened a two-day meeting of the Defense Policy Board, a group that advises the Pentagon. (Perle has since resigned, first as chairman, amid charges of conflicts of interest because he was representing a company seeking Defense Department approval of a sale to two foreign companies, and then from the group altogether.) The board’s meetings amount to a form of “organized brainstorming” with the defense secretary, his key lieutenants, and a group of well-informed outsiders, all of whom are cleared to have access to classified intelligence. The 30 members, appointed by the secretary of defense, have traditionally represented a broad spectrum of political beliefs. Under Rumsfeld, however, the board has taken a hard turn to the right, with several Democrats being ousted.
That morning the group gathered in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Washington. From there, one participant recalls, “we got into mini-buses and took off at about a zillion miles an hour. We had a full-blown police escort, motorcycle outriders, the works, and at the peak of the morning rush hour they had cleared the entire interstate across the 14th Street Bridge. It took almost no time at all to get to the Pentagon… When we got there, it was like a war zone. You could still smell the smoke.”
They met in Rumsfeld’s conference room. After a C.I.A. briefing on the 9/11 attacks, Perle introduced two guest speakers. The first was Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton, a longtime associate of Cheney’s and Wolfowitz’s. Lewis told the meeting that America must respond to 9/11 with a show of strength: to do otherwise would be taken in the Islamic world as a sign of weakness-one it would be bound to exploit. At the same time, he said, America should support democratic reformers in the Middle East. “Such as,” he said, turning to the second of Perle’s guest speakers, “my friend here, Dr. Chalabi.”
At the meeting Chalabi said that, although there was as yet no evidence linking Iraq to 9/11, failed states such as Saddam’s were a breeding ground for terrorists, and Iraq, he told those at the meeting, possessed W.M.D.