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 Al Qaeda 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."