I took America to war in Iraq. It was all me.
OK, I had some help from a duplicitous vice president, Dick Cheney. Then there wasGeorge W. Bush, a gullible president who could barely locate Iraq on a map and who wanted to avenge his father and enrich his friends in the oil business. And don’t forget the neoconservatives in the White House and the Pentagon who fed cherry-picked intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, to reporters like me.
None of these assertions happens to be true, though all were published and continue to have believers. This is not how wars come about, and it is surely not how the war in Iraq occurred. Nor is it what I did as a reporter for the New York Times. These false narratives deserve, at last, to be retired.
There was no shortage of mistakes about Iraq, and I made my share of them. The newsworthy claims of some of my prewar WMD stories were wrong. But so is the enduring, pernicious accusation that the Bush administration fabricated WMD intelligence to take the country to war. Before the 2003 invasion, President Bush and other senior officials cited the intelligence community’s incorrect conclusions about Saddam’s WMD capabilities and, on occasion, went beyond them. But relying on the mistakes of others and errors of judgment are not the same as lying.
I have never met George W. Bush. I never discussed the war with Dick Cheney until the winter of 2012, years after he had left office and I had left the Times. I wish I could have interviewed senior officials before the war about the role that WMDs played in the decision to invade Iraq. The White House’s passion for secrecy and aversion to the media made that unlikely. Less senior officials were of help as sources, but they didn’t make the decisions.
No senior official spoon-fed me a line about WMD. That would have been so much easier than uncovering classified information that officials can be jailed for disclosing. My sources were the same counterterrorism, arms-control and Middle East analysts on whom I had relied for my stories about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s growing threat to America—a series published eight months before 9/11 for which the Times staff, including me, won a Pulitzer.
In 1996, those same sources helped me to write a book about the dangers of militant Islam long before suicide bombers made the topic fashionable. Their expertise informed articles and another book I co-wrote in 2003 with Times colleagues about the danger of biological terrorism, published right before the deadly anthrax letter attacks.
Another enduring misconception is that intelligence analysts were “pressured” into altering their estimates to suit the policy makers’ push to war. Although a few former officials complained about such pressure, several thorough, bipartisan inquiries found no evidence of it.
The 2005 commission led by former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb and conservative Republican Judge Laurence Silberman called the estimates “dead wrong,” blaming what it called a “major” failure on the intelligence community’s “inability to collect good information…serious errors in analyzing what information it could gather, and a failure to make clear just how much of its analysis was based on assumptions.” A year earlier, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence denounced such failures as the product of “group think,” rooted in a fear of underestimating grave threats to national security in the wake of 9/11.
A two-year study by Charles Duelfer, the former deputy chief of the U.N. inspectors who led America’s hunt for WMD in Iraq, concluded that Saddam Hussein was playing a double game, trying (on the one hand) to get sanctions lifted and inspectors out of Iraq and (on the other) to persuade Iran and other foes that he had retained WMD. Not even the Iraqi dictator himself knew for sure what his stockpiles contained, Mr. Duelfer argued. Often forgotten is Mr. Duelfer’s well-documented warning that Saddam intended to restore his WMD programs once sanctions were lifted.