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The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War

Hubris by Michael Isikoff
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The real story behind the investigation of Iraq, and the basis for the MSNBC documentary of the same name hosted by Rachel Maddow

Filled with news-making revelations that made it a New York Times bestseller, Hubris takes us behind the scenes at the White House, CIA, Pentagon, State Department, and Congress to show how George W. Bush came to invade Iraq--and how his administration struggled with the devastating fallout.

Hubris connects the dots between Bush's expletive-laden outbursts at Saddam Hussein, the bitter battles between the CIA and the White House, the fights within the intelligence community over Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction, the outing of an undercover CIA officer, and the Bush administration's misleading sales campaign for war. Written by veteran reporters Michael Isikoff and David Corn, this is an inside look at how a president took the nation to war using faulty and fraudulent intelligence. It's a dramatic page-turner and an intriguing account of conspiracy, backstabbing, bureaucratic ineptitude, journalistic malfeasance, and arrogance.
Crown/Archetype; September 2006
ISBN 9780307381934
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Hubris
Author: Michael Isikoff; David Corn

I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast.
–President George W. Bush
EARLY ON the afternoon of May 1, 2002, George W. Bush slipped out of the Oval Office, grabbed a tennis racquet, and headed to the South Lawn. He had a few spare moments for one of his recreational pleasures: whacking tennis balls to his dogs, Spot and Barney. It was a pleasant spring day in Washington and not an especially taxing one for the president. He had no pressing political worries. Having routed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan the previous fall, Bush was standing tall in the polls, with an approval rating hovering at 70 percent. That morning, there had been his usual terrorism briefings, then meetings with congressional leaders where Bush had talked about moving forward his domestic proposals, including a measure promoting faith-based social programs. Later in the day, the president was due to meet the vice president of China. Bush also had an unusual press interview on his schedule that afternoon. As he hit the balls and watched the dogs scamper, Bush prepared for that session with two press aides by reviewing questions he would likely be asked about one of his predecessors he admired most: Ronald Reagan.
Ever since September 11, 2001, Bush had increasingly identified with Reagan: his optimism, his firm convictions, his stark, uncompromising stand against Soviet communism. Bush had come to consider Reagan’s battle against the Soviet Union a parallel of his own struggle against Islamic extremism. The Evil Empire was now the Axis of Evil–that trio of tyrannies, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, that Bush had proclaimed the nation’s foes months earlier during his first State of the Union speech.
Frank Sesno, the veteran newscaster, was due shortly at the White House to query Bush about Reagan and the parallels between his presidency and Bush’s. The interview was for a History Channel special that would air upon the death of the former president, who was ninety-one years old and suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. On a two-page “pre-brief ” memo prepared by his staff and containing questions that might be asked,Bush had written out by hand points he wanted to emphasize. The presidential scribbles, his aides thought, were revealing–perhaps a window onto Bush’s view of himself. “Optimism and strength,” Bush had scrawled on top of the memo. Also, “decisive” and “faith.” Next to a question about Reagan’s direct, blunt style, Bush had written, “moral clarity.” He had drawn an arrow next to the word “forceful.” Alongside a question about the 1983 suicide bombing attack on the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon (which killed 241 American troops) and how a president copes with such losses, Bush had written, “There will be casualties.”
On the South Lawn, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and another member of the communications staff, a burly, irrepressible former television producer named Adam Levine, reviewed these points with Bush. Then they all moved inside and headed upstairs to the Red Room so Bush could have makeup applied for the interview. Bush casually asked Fleischer how his day had been going and what the talk in the pressroom was. Fleischer mentioned Helen Thomas, the longtime correspondent then writing for Hearst News Service. She was a gadfly and constantly giving Fleischer a tough time about an issue much in the news: Iraq. Bush and other administration officials had been decrying Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, as a threat to the United States and the world. To many, it sounded like war talk. The media were filled with speculation that the White House was preparing for an invasion. But Bush had steadfastly refused to state his intentions. His aides repeatedly claimed that Bush had reached no decisions. Interviewed by a British broadcaster a few weeks earlier, Bush had resorted to a Clintonesque evasion: “I have no plans to attack on my desk.”
At that day’s daily press briefing, Thomas had peppered Fleischer with questions about Iraq. Referring to stories in the media about secret plans for military action, she asked, “What is the president’s rationale for invading Iraq?” What made Saddam different from other dictators and worth an invasion? Fleischer bantered with Thomas and pointed out that “regime change” in Iraq had been the official policy of the U.S. government since President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. Thomas shot back: Did the law mandate that the United States overthrow the Iraqi government by force? Bush, Fleischer said, “believes that the people of Iraq, as well as the region, will be more peaceful, better off without Saddam Hussein.” Thomas retorted, “That’s not a reason” to go to war. “Well, Helen,” Fleischer replied, “if you were the president, you could have vetoed the law.” The reporters chuckled, and Fleischer called on another journalist.
As Fleischer recounted this exchange for the president, Bush’s mood changed, according to Levine. He grew grim and determined–steely. Out of nowhere, he unleashed a string of expletives.
“Did you tell her I don’t like motherfuckers who gas their own people?” the president snapped.
“Did you tell her I don’t like assholes who lie to the world?”
“Did you tell her I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast?”
Fleischer paused. “I told her half of that,” he replied. Bush laughed, as did his aides. Still, Bush’s visceral reaction was telling. This wasn’t bluster; this was real. The president had meant what he said–every word of it. This was the Bush that Levine admired. “You know where we’re going here,” Levine thought.

The vice president’s limousine sped through downtown Washington and headed over the Potomac River on its way to Langley, Virginia. It was days after Bush’s outburst, and Dick Cheney was making another of his visits to CIA headquarters. These trips–unknown to the public at this point–had become the talk of the intelligence community. Cheney would arrive at agency headquarters and park himself in Director George Tenet’s seventhfloor conference room. Then officers and analysts would be summoned to brief him–on Iraq and other matters–and often encounter a withering interrogation. How do we know this? What more do you have on that? What have you done to follow up? Cheney was proper and respectful. His questions were delivered in his soft, low, monotone voice, his arms folded. Still, they had an intimidating impact on his briefers. “I’ve seen him people,” said John Maguire, an Iraq covert operations officer who often attended the Cheney briefings. “He would drill in on substantive details. If he asked you something that you didn’t know, you better have an answer the next time you saw him. . . . He would say, ‘I want answers on this. This is not acceptable.’ ” The worst thing to do with Cheney was to hedge or to waffle. “He’d say, ‘Make a call,’ ” Maguire recalled. He didn’t want to hear sentences that began, “We don’t know.”
During these sessions, Cheney demanded answers on Iraq. Cheney had long-standing and firm views on Saddam Hussein that went back to when he had served as secretary of defense during the first Persian Gulf War. Cheney had been convinced then that the CIA had blown it by badly underestimating how close Saddam had been to building a nuclear bomb before that war. And ever since the cataclysmic events of September 11, Cheney seemed obsessed with Iraq. He was sure that Saddam was a grave threat to the United States–and that the agency was missing the crucial intelligence that would prove it. In February 2002, Cheney had seized on a murky item presented to him during his daily morning briefing from the CIA: a report forwarded to the CIA by Italian military intelligence that Iraq had arranged to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from the impoverished African nation of Niger. If the report was accurate–if there had been such a transaction–this would be compelling evidence Iraq had revived a moribund nuclear weapons program that had been dismantled in the mid-1990s under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But there was nothing to substantiate the report, and parts of it did not make sense. Still, Cheney had jumped on it. What more can you get on this? he had asked his CIA briefer. What more can you find out? As always, the answer from the CIA was, We’ll get on this right away. And it did.
Another issue Cheney fixated on was Baghdad’s ties to terrorists, especially the allegations of a connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda. The agency would write up answers to the vice president’s repeated questions and send them to his office, often reporting that there was little to substantiate Cheney’s darkest suspicions of an operational alliance between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. But Cheney and his hard-nosed chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby (who went by the nickname of Scooter), were never satisfied and continually asked for more. “It was like they were hoping we’d find something buried in the files or come back with a different answer,” Michael Sulick, deputy chief of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, later said. There was no “obvious pressure” by Cheney and Libby to change the answers, Sulick recalled. But the barrage of questions and the frequent visits by the vice president had created an environment that was subtly, but unmistakably, influencing the agency’s work. The CIA’s analysts, Sulick believed, had become “overly eager to please.”
Libby may have been harder to please than Cheney. He was one of the most powerful officials in the Bush White House. As Cheney’s top national security adviser, he oversaw a “shadow” National Security Council, with tentacles reaching deep into the foreign policy and defense bureaucracy. One NSC staffer recalled being stunned to discover, years after he began working at the White House, that his internal memos to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had routinely been routed to Libby without his knowledge. A CIA official was surprised to discover that Libby’s staff was reading unedited transcripts of National Security Agency intercepts.
A cool, meticulous, and secretive Washington lawyer, Libby was an ideological and philosophical soul mate of his mentor, Paul Wolfowitz, the eputy secretary of defense and leading neoconservative hawk, who was even more preoccupied with Iraq than Cheney. Libby had been a student of Wolfowitz at Yale University in the 1970s; Wolfowitz had hired him as a speechwriter at the State Department in 1981 and again, as his principal deputy, nearly a decade later, when Wolfowitz was undersecretary of defense for policy and planning during the administration of George H. W. Bush. Libby and Wolfowitz shared with Cheney a congenital distrust of the CIA. They had a near-theological conviction that the agency’s analysts were wedded to an inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom that obscured the sinister plottings of America’s enemies.
That was why Libby, on Cheney’s behalf, relentlessly demanded that the agency supply the vice president’s office with raw intelligence reports. Cheney’s team believed that unanalyzed reports contained hidden nuggets that had been overlooked or ignored by the CIA because the data undercut the don’t-rock-the-boat predilections of the agency’s analysts. But the vice president’s aides were confident that if they looked at the material, they could assess the real risks to America. In one nine-month period, starting in 2002, court records would later show, Libby sent requests to the CIA that generated between three hundred and five hundred documents, including e-mails, internal memos, and reports. The agency estimated that finding and retrieving from its files all the queries it had received from Libby–and all the responses it had sent back–would take nearly a year.
Libby was not popular at the CIA. “He had a reputation of being a prick,” recalled one senior CIA official. In questioning analysts, “he was nasty and obnoxious about it.” Libby was most aggressive on intelligence related to Saddam and al-Qaeda, according to this CIA veteran: “He wouldn’t let go of the al-Qaeda—Saddam connection.” A Bush NSC official recalled Libby as being aloof but skilled–and, if need be, devious–in the ways of bureaucratic infighting. “Whenever Scooter Libby walked into the elevator,” this official said, “the temperature seemed to drop five degrees.”
Libby was not with Cheney this particular May morning when the vice president arrived at the CIA. But as Cheney’s top national security adviser, he would soon get a full report. Cheney had come to Langley to be updated on the latest intelligence on Iraq, including what was known about Saddam’s unconventional weapons. But another subject was on the agenda, a matter of the utmost sensitivity. It was one of the most closely held secrets in the U.S. government: the Anabasis project.

DB/Anabasis was the code name for an extensive covert operations plan that had been drawn up by the CIA to destabilize and ultimately topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. (DB was the agency cryptonym for Iraq.) At the direction of the White House, Tenet had commissioned the scheme, not too long after the U.S. military had defeated the Taliban. About this time, Bush asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to order up a fresh war plan for Iraq. It was clear to top intelligence officials that Iraq was next on Bush’s agenda, and the task of developing the CIA’s secret plan was handed to two seasoned officers in the Iraq Operations Group within the agency’s Directorate of Operations, or DO.
One of the officers was a stocky, balding Cuban American whose first name was Luis. He had previously been a special assistant to CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin. Before that he had spent years as a case officer in CIA stations throughout the world. His father had participated in the CIA’s Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961, when an agency-directed invasion of Cuba failed miserably. The other officer in charge of Anabasis was the forty-nine-year-old John Maguire, a strapping former Baltimore city cop who had specialized in busting down doors as a member of the city’s SWAT team. Both were veterans of the CIA’s covert wars of the 1980s, when CIA director William Casey, acting on orders from Ronald Reagan, was mounting secret paramilitary operations around the globe. Maguire had run guns to the Nicaraguan contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government, and he had participated in one of the more notorious episodes of that clandestine war: the mining of the ports of Nicaragua. In the middle of the night, he had directed local commandoes who would dump mines off the sides of speedboats. For cover, Maguire posed as an employee of the Johnson Outboard Motor Repair shop in La Union, El Salvador.
When the operation was exposed by the news media in April 1984, there was an uproar on Capitol Hill. “I am pissed off!” Senator Barry Goldwater, then the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, wrote Casey. “[M]ine the harbors in Nicaragua? This is an act violating international law. It is an act of war.” The mining program was shut down. Months later, Congress cut off money for the CIA’s contra operations. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and the National Security Council covertly took over the program, and their clandestine scheming led to the Iran-contra scandal. Many CIA operatives whom Maguire had worked with became ensnared in the subsequent investigations. But Maguire escaped unscathed. He did learn a lesson about covert ops: they can get messy and not always go as planned.
Later, Maguire was dispatched to Afghanistan, where he provided explosives and weapons training for Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance. Subsequently, he made his first foray into Iraq, where he helped plan a disastrous 1995 coup attempt–a debacle that he blamed in large part on the unreliability of Ahmad Chalabi, the self-promoting Iraqi exile the agency had been supporting. Maguire was bitter. Agents he had worked with and their family members had been murdered by Saddam. By the mid-1990s, he was also frustrated. The CIA, shuddering from the investigations and prosecutions triggered by Iran-contra and serving the more cautious Bill Clinton, had backed away from paramilitary operations and covert ops. Maguire left CIA headquarters to be an instructor at the Farm, the agency’s training facility in rural Virginia.
On September 12, 2001, he returned to headquarters and, with Luis, jumped at the chance to put his experience in clandestine ops to new uses. Over an intense forty-five-day period beginning in late 2001, the two men cooked up an audacious plan, unlike anything Langley had seen in years. James Pavitt, the DO chief, had given Luis and Maguire a blunt directive when he assigned this project: “Give me a plan that scares me.” As Maguire later put it, “And so we did. We scared the crap out of him.”
Anabasis was no-holds-barred covert action. It called for installing a small army of paramilitary CIA officers on the ground inside Iraq; for elaborate schemes to penetrate Saddam’s regime, recruiting disgruntled military officers with buckets of cash; for feeding the regime disinformation about internal dissent in ways that would cause Saddam to lash out (most likely through mass executions); for disrupting the regime’s finances and supply networks; for sabotage that included blowing up railroad lines and communications towers; and for targeting the lives of key regime officials. It also envisioned staging a phony incident that could be used to start a war. A small group of Iraqi exiles would be flown into Iraq by helicopter to seize an isolated military base near the Saudi border. They then would take to the airwaves and announce a coup was under way. If Saddam responded by flying troops south, his aircraft could be shot down by U.S. fighter planes patrolling the no-fly zones established by UN edict after the first Persian Gulf War. A clash of this sort could be used to initiate a full-scale war. “We were doing things in this program that we hadn’t done since Casey,” said Maguire.
For Maguire, it was also personal–a chance to settle an old score and avenge fallen comrades. “We wanted that fucker dead,” he recalled. “We were willing to do anything to get Saddam.”
The name Luis and Maguire had chosen for the program, Anabasis, had come from the title of a book by the ancient historian Xenophon that recounted the march of 10,000 Greek mercenaries to Babylon in the year 400 b.c. to capture the Persian throne for Cyrus the Younger from his brother. Wolfowitz, according to Maguire, was not keen on this particular name, though Maguire never understood why. But other CIA officials also thought the Anabasis program was inaptly titled–and wondered whether Luis and Maguire had misread history. The Greek army had been victorious at the critical battle of Cunaxa, but Cyrus had been killed, rendering the entire mission moot. The 10,000 Greeks then had to fight their way back to the Black Sea. Anabasis was the story of an unsuccessful operation that ended in retreat.
The estimated cost of Luis and Maguire’s Anabasis was $400 million over two years. But it wasn’t the price tag that frightened Pavitt and other senior agency officials. It was the lethality. In drawing up the plan, Luis Maguire had carefully avoided using the A-word: assassination. The agency had a long and troubled history of assassination plots. Most had failed and had cast a dark stain on the CIA’s reputation. An executive order banning assassinations had been in place since 1976 (but occasionally circumvented during wartime). So Luis and Maguire referred instead to “direct action operations,” a bland euphemism. But there was no doubt that, under Anabasis, people were going to die–and that innocent Iraqi civilians, not just government leaders and military officers, would likely be among the victims. When Pavitt and other senior officials in the DO reviewed the Anabasis plans, they were uncomfortable. Blowing up railroad lines? “You’re
going to kill people if you do this,” Tyler Drumheller, chief of the DO’s European Division, recalled saying when he first looked at Anabasis. He was stating the obvious.
But this was the post-9/11 era, when U.S. intelligence agencies, with the encouragement of the White House and fiercely conservative lawyers in the Justice Department, were pushing the envelope. The CIA was snatching terror suspects off the streets in Gambia, in Bosnia, in Sweden, and “rendering” them to friendly foreign intelligence services–where extreme interrogation practices would be used on them. The CIA set up its own network of secret prisons, where suspected al-Qaeda leaders were subjected to aggressive interrogation, including “water boarding,” a technique in which the suspect was strapped to a board and dunked below water long enough to approximate (but not cause) drowning. In a rousing speech to CIA officers soon after the September 11 attacks, Cofer Black, then director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, had proclaimed, “The gloves are off.” The line was widely quoted within the agency, and Black also used it during congressional testimony. But Black had said something to his CIA colleagues that did not attract public notice. There was some dispute as to his precise words. Drumheller recalled that Black had remarked that “someday we can all expect to be prosecuted for what we’re going to do.” Another counterterrorism official said that Black had simply commented that “someday we may all get called before a congressional committee for what we’re going to do.” Whatever the exact words, the message was clear: in the future, the missions the CIA was about to undertake might look different than they did right now.
On February 16, 2002, President Bush signed covert findings authorizing the various elements of Anabasis. The leaders of the congressional intelligence committees–including Representative Porter Goss, a Republican, and Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat–were briefed. Maguire and a team of his officers made their initial entry into Iraq in April 2002, crossing the Turkish border in Jeep Cherokees and driving into Kurdish areas in the north, a region outside the control of Saddam’s regime. They met with the two rival Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, and briefed them on the details of the Anabasis plan. The Kurdish leaders were skeptical. They had heard talk from Americans like this in the past. Anabasis called for Kurdish irregulars to take risks–large risks–to recruit sources for the CIA and begin sabotage operations, even “direct action.” People could die. “Is this real? Is the president serious?” Barzani and Talabani wanted to know. Maguire’s response was one that he, and other CIA officials, would repeat: “We’re really serious. This is not going to be some half-baked effort.” Ultimately, the success of the plan rested on the credibility and the determination of George W. Bush–and about that, Maguire had no doubt. “This president is a man of his word,” Maguire told the Kurds. “When we’re finished, Saddam is not going to be there. When we’re finished, we’re going to be in Baghdad.”
On this trip, Maguire himself headed south into Saddam-controlled territory, a white-mustachioed spy behind enemy lines. He drove in the backseat of a Toyota Super Salon dressed in the uniform of an Iraqi Army colonel with a red stripe on his shoulders. Maguire was waved through border crossings and checkpoints and drove right up to the perimeter of an Iraqi Army base. The unit was in disarray. There were soldiers milling about in flip-flops and shorts–with no guns or ammunition. “They looked like refugees,” said Maguire. The Iraqi V Corps was supposedly the front line against an American invasion, but it seemed a shambles. On another occasion, a CIA officer working with Maguire inspected the line separating Kurdish-controlled territory from Saddam-controlled Iraq. On the other side were the deteriorating Iraqi military forces Maguire had seen. And one of those units, having spotted the CIA man, sent a runner across the line with a message: “Are you the Americans? We don’t want to fight.” When Maguire heard about this, he was pleased. It seemed that these Iraqi troops were eagerly awaiting an invasion–so they could surrender. He wrote it all up in a report that went directly to the president and the vice president. An invading American army, it appeared, could roll right through to Baghdad. Perhaps they would even be greeted as liberators.

Back at headquarters, Luis and Maguire were eager to tell Cheney about Anabasis. The Kurdish leaders were fully on board; operations were beginning. The vice president, as always, asked tough questions: What kind of support are you receiving from the Kurds? Who are the people you’re working with? Where are they placed? He was, Maguire recalled, “way in the weeds.”
The answers Cheney received that day were reassuring. Luis and Maguire were can-do operatives firm in their conviction they were serving a righteous cause. After Cheney finished with them, he turned toward several analysts. He had a different set of questions for them: What was Saddam’s force structure? How could the intelligence they have be used to support U.S. ground forces during an invasion? What Iraqi units were positioned where? Which ones might have chemical and biological weapons? Cheney was not posing the sort of questions a policy maker would need answered in order to determine whether Iraq posed a threat to the United States. He was not seeking information on whether Saddam was dangerous because he possessed weapons of mass destruction. He was not soliciting material that would help him decide if an invasion of Iraq was absolutely necessary. His queries were all pegged to the assumption that Iraq would be invaded. And he was not happy with what he was hearing, for the analysts were unable to provide concrete answers to his queries about the invasion to come.
Cheney’s line of questioning was a logical follow-up to the briefing he had received on Anabasis, for from the start Luis and Maguire had made it clear that their top secret plan by itself should not be expected to eliminate Saddam. The various actions they had envisioned–the sabotage, the assassinations, the disinformation–could destabilize and weaken Saddam’s tyrannical regime. They could create chaos and sow distrust. But truly ending the Iraqi dictator’s grip on power would require the intervention of the U.S. military. Bush and Cheney, they believed, understood this. In response to a Bush directive, General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was already drawing up invasion plans. And Cheney was asking questions at the CIA that indicated he expected the United States to invade Iraq. Anabasis, from its inception, was a precursor and a complement to war–not a substitute.
There was even a timetable. When Maguire and Luis were instructed to devise a paramilitary plan, according to Maguire, the message they received from the agency leadership on the seventh floor was explicit: “Be ready to turn this thing on by January 2003. Be ready to go in a year. You got a year.” That meant, as far as Maguire was concerned, there was going to be an invasion– and the clock was ticking.

While Luis and Maguire were briefing Cheney on the top floor of CIA headquarters that day, another group of CIA operatives was toiling away on a related mission in the basement. In a space the size of a football field and divided into cubicles by partial walls, three hundred or so employees of the Counterproliferation Division (CPD) of the Directorate of Operations were mounting espionage operations aimed at obtaining intelligence on weapons of mass destruction programs around the globe. They also were plotting covert actions that might thwart these programs. A particularly busy unit in the CPD at this time was the Joint Task Force on Iraq, charged with digging up information on the top priority: Iraq’s WMD programs. Its chief of operations was a career officer named Valerie Wilson.
Valerie Wilson, who had entered the CIA in 1985 as Valerie Plame, had been at the CPD for several years. Previously, she had served overseas in Europe, first as a case officer posing as a State Department employee and then as a supersecret NOC–an officer under “nonofficial cover.” NOCs were the most clandestine of the agency’s frontline officers. They did not pretend to work for the U.S. government–and did not have the protection of diplomatic immunity should anything go awry. They had to be independent, resourceful, confident–and careful. Valerie Wilson told people she worked for an energy firm. After returning from Europe and joining the CPD, she had maintained her NOC status. And now she was running ops aimed at uncovering intelligence on Iraq’s unconventional weapons. Her job was to find the evidence of Saddam’s clandestine efforts that Bush, Cheney, Libby, and other administration officials desired.
A year earlier–about the time Valerie Wilson joined it–the CPD’s Iraq unit had been small, employing only a few operations officers. Not much was going on within it. In the years since 1998, when UN weapons inspectors had left Iraq, the CIA had not had a single source on Iraq’s weapons programs. Prior to 1998, the CIA had used the UN inspection team to gather intelligence. With the inspectors gone, the CPD had utterly failed “to gain direct access to Iraq’s WMD programs,” as its deputy chief later told Senate investigators. Most of the Iraq action at the CIA–such as it was–had been occurring within the operations directorate’s Near East Division, which had not done much better than the CPD. By 2001, the NE Division had developed only four sources in Iraq–and none was reporting on WMDs. But in the summer before 9/11, the word came down from the top brass: we’re ramping up on Iraq. The CPD’s Iraq unit was changed into the Joint Task Force on Iraq. And in the months after September 11, the JTFI grew to include about fifty employees; Valerie Wilson was placed in charge of its operations group.
By the spring of 2002, the JFTI, including Wilson, was under intense pressure to get more solid intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs. With Bush and his Cabinet members obviously focused on (or perhaps obsessed with) Saddam and Iraq, everyone in the intelligence community, from Tenet on down, realized it was crucial to do whatever they could–probe every corner, chase any lead–to penetrate Saddam’s Iraq. The JTFI was frantic to do so.
Slowly, the JTFI began to develop sources within Iraq. Yet the group was coming up with nothing.
The JTFI’s primary target was Iraqi scientists. The goal was to make indirect and surreptitious contact with these experts and find out what they knew about unconventional weapons in Iraq. JTFI operations officers tracked down relatives and associates of Iraqi scientists living in America. “It would be, ‘Knock, kno
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