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Cheney’s Long Path to War
The Hard Sell: He sifted intel. He brooded about threats. And he wanted Saddam gone. The inside story of how Vice President Cheney bought into shady assumptions and helped persuade a nation to invade Iraq
By Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas
Updated: 1:38 a.m. ET Nov. 19, 2003
Nov. 17, 2003 issue - Every Thursday, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have lunch together in a small dining room off the Oval Office. They eat alone; no aides are present. They have no fixed agenda, but it’s a safe assumption that they often talk about intelligence—about what the United States knows, or doesn’t know, about the terrorist threat.
IMG: Cheney
Moderate and practical in person, Cheney can sound like an extremist on terrorism

THE PRESIDENT RESPECTS Cheney’s judgment, say White House aides, and values the veep’s long experience in the intelligence community (as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee in the 1980s and as secretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration). As vice president, Cheney is free to roam about the various agencies, quizzing analysts and top spooks about terrorists and their global connections. “This is a very important area. It’s the one the president asked me to work on ... I ask a lot of hard questions,” Cheney told NBC’s Tim Russert last September. “That’s my job.”

Of all the president’s advisers, Cheney has consistently taken the most dire view of the terrorist threat. On Iraq, Bush was the decision maker. But more than any adviser, Cheney was the one to make the case to the president that war against Iraq was an urgent necessity. Beginning in the late summer of 2002, he persistently warned that Saddam was stocking up on chemical and biological weapons, and last March, on the eve of the invasion, he declared that “we believe that he [Saddam Hussein] has in fact reconstituted nuclear weapons.” (Cheney later said that he meant “program,” not “weapons.” He also said, a bit optimistically, “I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators.”) After seven months, investigators are still looking for that arsenal of WMD.

IMG: Nov. 17, 2003 cover
Cheney has repeatedly suggested that Baghdad has ties to Al Qaeda. He has pointedly refused to rule out suggestions that Iraq was somehow to blame for the 9/11 attacks and may even have played a role in the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. The CIA and FBI, as well as a congressional investigation into the 9/11 attacks, have dismissed this conspiracy theory. Still, as recently as Sept. 14, Cheney continued to leave the door open to Iraqi complicity. He brought up a report—widely discredited by U.S. intelligence officials—that 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001. And he described Iraq as “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11.” A few days later, a somewhat sheepish President Bush publicly corrected the vice president. There was no evidence, Bush admitted, to suggest that the Iraqis were behind 9/11.

Cheney has long been regarded as a Washington wise man. He has a dry, deliberate manner; a penetrating, if somewhat wintry, wit, and a historian’s long-view sensibility. He is far to the right politically, but in no way wild-eyed; in private conversation he seems moderate, thoughtful, cautious. Yet when it comes to terrorist plots, he seems to have given credence to the views of some fairly flaky ideologues and charlatans. Writing recently in The New Yorker, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh alleged that Cheney had, in effect, become the dupe of a cabal of neoconservative full-mooners, the Pentagon’s mysteriously named Office of Special Plans and the patsy of an alleged bank swindler and would-be ruler of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi.

A Cheney aide took strong exception to the notion that the vice president was at the receiving end of some kind of private pipeline for half-baked or fraudulent intelligence, or that he was somehow carrying water for the neocons or anyone else’s self-serving agendas. “That’s an urban myth,” said this aide, who declined to be identified. Cheney has cited as his “gold standard” the National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus report put out by the entire intelligence community. And, indeed, an examination of the declassified version of the NIE reveals some pretty alarming warnings. “Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program,” the October 2002 NIE states.

Nonetheless, it appears that Cheney has been susceptible to “cherry-picking,” embracing those snippets of intelligence that support his dark prognosis while discarding others that don’t. He is widely regarded in the intelligence community as an outlier, as a man who always goes for the worst-case —scenario and sometimes overlooks less alarming or at least ambiguous signs. Top intelligence officials reject the suggestion that Cheney has somehow bullied lower-level CIA or Defense Intelligence Agency analysts into telling him what he wants to hear. But they do describe the Office of the Vice President, with its large and assertive staff, as a kind of free-floating power base that at times brushes aside the normal policymaking machinery under national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice. On the road to war, Cheney in effect created a parallel government that became the real power center.

Cheney, say those who know him, is in no way cynically manipulative. By all accounts, he is genuinely convinced that the threat is imminent and menacing. Professional intelligence analysts can offer measured, nuanced opinions, but policymakers, Cheney likes to say, have to decide. As he put it last July in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, “How could any responsible leader have ignored the Iraqi threat?” And yet Cheney seems to have rung the warning bell a little too loudly and urgently. If nothing else, his apparently exaggerated alarms over Iraq, WMD and the terror connection may make Americans slow to respond the next time he sees a wolf at the door.

What is it about Cheney's character and background that makes him such a Cassandra? And did his powerful dirge drown out more-modulated voices in the councils of power in Washington and in effect launch America on the path to war? Cheney declined an interview request from NEWSWEEK, but interviews with his aides and a wide variety of sources in the intelligence and national-security community paint the portrait of a vice president who may be too powerful for his own good.

Cheney, say those who know him, has always had a Hobbesian view of life. The world is a dangerous place; war is the natural state of mankind; enemies lurk. The national-security state must be strong, vigilant and wary. Cheney believes that America's military and intelligence establishments were weakened by defeat in Vietnam and the wave of scandals that followed in Watergate in the '70s and Iran-contra in the '80s. He did not regard as progress the rise of congressional investigating committees, special prosecutors and an increasingly adversarial, aggressive press. Cheney is a strong believer in the necessity of government secrecy as well as more broadly the need to preserve and protect the power of the executive branch.

He never delivers these views in a rant. Rather, Cheney talks in a low, arid voice, if at all. He usually waits until the end of a meeting to speak up, and then speaks so softly and cryptically, out of one side of his mouth, so that people have to lean forward to hear. (In a babble of attention-seekers, this can be a powerful way of getting heard.) Cheney rarely shows anger or alarm, but on occasion his exasperation emerges.

One such moment came at the end of the first gulf war in 1991. Cheney was secretary of Defense, and arms inspectors visiting defeated Iraq had discovered that Saddam Hussein was much closer to building a nuclear weapon than anyone had realized. Why, Cheney wondered aloud to his aides, had a steady stream of U.S. intelligence experts beaten a path to his door before the war to say that the Iraqis were at least five to 10 years away from building a bomb? Years later, in meetings of the second President Bush's war cabinet, Cheney would return again and again to the question of how Saddam could create an entire hidden nuclear program without the CIA's knowing much, if anything, about it.

Cheney's suspicions "about both the strength of Iraq and the weakness of U.S. intelligence agencies" were fed after he left government. Cheney spent a considerable amount of time with the scholars and backers of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that has served as a conservative government-in-waiting. Cheney was on the board of directors and his wife, Lynne, a conservative activist on social issues, still keeps an office there as a resident "fellow". At various lunches and dinners around Washington, sponsored by AEI and other conservative organizations, Cheney came in contact with other foreign-policy hard-liners or "neoconservatives" like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith. It was an article of faith in the AEI crowd that the United States had missed a chance to knock off Saddam in 1991; that Saddam was rebuilding his stockpile of WMD, and that sooner or later the Iraqi strongman would have to go. When some dissidents in northern Iraq tried to mount an insurrection with CIA backing in the mid-?90s and failed, the conservatives blamed the Clinton administration for showing weakness. Clinton's national-security adviser, Tony Lake, had, it was alleged, "pulled the plug".

In the late '90s, Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of one of the resistance groups, the Iraqi National Congress, began cultivating and lobbying intellectuals, journalists and political leaders in Washington. Chalabi had a shadowy past; his family, exiled from Iraq in the late '50s, had set up a banking empire through the Middle East that collapsed in charges of fraud in 1989. (Chalabi, who has always denied wrongdoing, has been convicted and sentenced, in absentia, by a Jordanian military court to 22 years of hard labor.) But operating out of London, the smoothly persuasive Chalabi presented himself as a democratic answer to Saddam Hussein. With a little American backing, he promised, he could rally the Iraqi people to overthrow the Butcher of Baghdad.

Chalabi was hailed in some circles, especially among the neocons at AEI, as the "George Washington of Iraq". But the professionals at the State Department and at the CIA took a more skeptical view. In 1999, after Congress had passed and President Bill Clinton had signed the Iraqi Liberation Act, providing funds to support Iraqi exile groups, the U.S. government convened a conference with the INC and other opposition groups in London to discuss "regime change". The American officials proposed bringing INC activists to America for training. Chalabi's aides objected. Most of the likely candidates were Iraqi refugees living in various European countries. By coming to the United States, they could lose their refugee status. Some Pentagon officials shook their heads in disbelief. "You had to wonder", said one who attended the conference, "how serious were these people. They kept telling us they wanted to risk their lives for their country. But they were afraid to risk their refugee status in Sweden?"

After the Republicans regained the White House in 2001, many of the neocons took top national-security jobs. Perle, the man closest to Chalabi, chose to stay on the outside (where he kept a lucrative lobbying practice). But Wolfowitz and Feith became, respectively, the No. 2 and No. 3 man at the Defense Department, and a former Wolfowitz aide, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, became the vice president's chief of staff. Once the newcomers took over, the word went out that any disparaging observations about Chalabi or the INC were no longer appreciated. "The view was, "If you weren't a total INC guy, then you're on the wrong side","' said a Pentagon official. "It was, "We're not going to trash the INC anymore and Ahmad Chalabi is an Iraqi patriot who risked his life for his country"."

Some neocons began agitating inside the Bush administration to support some kind of insurrection, led by Chalabi, that would overthrow Saddam. In the summer of 2001, the neocons circulated a plan to support an INC-backed invasion. A senior Pentagon analyst questioned whether Iraqis would rise up to back it. "You're thinking like the Clinton people," a Feith aide shot back. "They planned for failure. We plan for success." It is important to note that at this early stage, the neocons did not have the enthusiastic backing of Vice President Cheney. Just because Cheney had spent a lot of time around the "Get Saddam neocons" does not mean that he had become one, says an administration aide. "It's a mistake to add up two and two and get 18," he says. Cheney's cautious side kept him from leaping into any potential Bay of Pigs covert actions.

What changed Cheney was not Chalabi or his friends from AEI, but the 9/11 attacks. For years Cheney had feared and warned against a terrorist attack on an American city. The hijacked planes that plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon confirmed his suspicions of American vulnerability "though by no means his worst fears" that the terrorists would use a biological or nuclear weapon. '"/11 changed everything," Cheney began saying to anyone who would listen. It was no longer enough to treat terrorism as a law-enforcement matter, Cheney believed. The United States had to find ways to act against the terrorists before they struck.

Cheney began collecting intelligence on the threat anywhere he could find it. Along with Libby, his chief of staff, the vice president began showing up at the CIA and DIA for briefings. Cheney would ask probing questions from different analysts in various agencies and then, later with his staff, connect the dots. Such an aggressive national-security role by a vice president was unusual. So was the sheer size of Cheney's staff about 60 people, much larger than the size of Al Gore's. The threat from germ warfare was a particular concern of Cheney's. After 9/11, Libby kept calling over to the Defense Department, asking what the military was doing to guard against a bio attack from crop-dusters. In July 2002, Cheney made a surprise, unpublicized visit to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. He wanted to question directly the public-health experts about their efforts to combat bioterrorism. If not for the traffic snarls caused by his motorcade, his visit might have remained a secret.

There was, within the administration, another office parsing through intelligence on the Iraqi and terror threat. The Office of Special Plans was so secretive at first that the director, William Luti, did not even want to mention its existence. "Don't ever talk about this," Luti told his staff, according to a source who attended early meetings. "If anybody asks, just say no comment." (Luti does not recall this, but he does regret choosing such a spooky name for the office.) The Office of Special Plans has sometimes been described as an intelligence cell, along the lines of "Team B," set up by the Ford administration in the 1970s to second-guess the CIA when conservatives believed that the intelligence community was underestimating the Soviet threat. But OSP is more properly described as a planning group planning for war in Iraq. Some of the OSP staffers were true believers. Abe Shulsky, a defense intellectual who ran the office under Luti, was a Straussian, a student of a philosopher named Leo Strauss, who believed that ancient texts had hidden meanings that only an elite could divine. Strauss taught that philosophers needed to tell 'noble lies' to the politicians and the people.

The OSP gathered up bits and pieces of intelligence that pointed to Saddam's WMD programs and his ties to terror groups. The OSP would prepare briefing papers for administration officials to use. The OSP also drew on reports of defectors who alleged that Saddam was hiding bio and chem weapons under hospitals and schools. Some of these defectors were provided to the intelligence community by Chalabi, who also fed them to large news organizations, like The New York Times. Vanity Fair published a few of the more lurid reports, deemed to be bogus by U.S. intelligence agencies (like one alleging that Saddam was running a terrorist-training camp, complete with a plane fuselage in which to practice hijackings). The CIA was skeptical about the motivation and credibility of these defectors, but their stories gained wide circulation.

Cheney's staffers were in more than occasional contact with the OSP. Luti, an intense and brilliant former naval aviator who flew combat missions in the gulf war, worked in Cheney's office before he took over OSP, and was well liked by Cheney's staff. Luti's office had absorbed a small, secretive intelligence-analysis shop in the Pentagon known as Team B (after the original Team B) whose research linked 9/11 to both Al Qaeda and the Iranian terror group Hizbullah. The team was particularly fascinated by the allegation that 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. One of Team B's "creators" David Wurmser now works on Cheney's staff. Libby went to at least one briefing with Team B staffers at which they discussed Saddam's terror connections. It would be a mistake, however, to overstate the influence of OSP on Cheney or his staff. Cheney collected information from many sources, but principally from the main intelligence agencies, the CIA and DIA. Likewise, Cheney's aides say that they talked to Chalabi and his people about "opposition politics" not about WMD or terrorism. ("The whole idea that we were mainlining dubious INC reports into the intelligence community is simply nonsense," Paul Wolfowitz told NEWSWEEK.)

There has been much speculation in the press and in the intelligence community about the impact of the conspiracy theories of Laurie Mylroie on the Bush administration. A somewhat eccentric Harvard-trained political scientist, Mylroie argued (from guesswork and sketchy evidence) that the 1993 World Trade Center attack was an Iraqi intelligence operation. When AEI published an updated version of her book "Study of Revenge" two years ago, her acknowledgments cited the help of, among others, Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of State John Bolton and Libby. But Cheney aides say that the vice president has never even discussed Mylroie's book. ("I take satisfaction in the fact that we went to war with Iraq and got rid of Saddam Hussein," said Mylroie. "The rest is details.")

Cheney is hardly the only intelligence adviser to the president. CIA Director George Tenet briefs the president every morning. But Tenet was often caught up defending his agency. Cheney feels free to criticize, and he does. "Cheney was very distrustful and remains very distrustful of the traditional intelligence establishment," says a former White House official. "He thinks they are too cautious or too invested in their own policy concerns." Cheney is not as "passionate" in his dissents as Wolfowitz, the leading intellectual neocon in the administration. But he carries more clout.

Cheney often teams up with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to roll over national-security adviser Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell. "OVP [Cheney's office] and OSD [Rumsfeld's office] turned into their own axis of evil," grouses a former White House official, who added that Cheney and Rumsfeld shared the same strategic vision: pessimistic and dark. Some observers see a basic breakdown in the government. Rice has chosen to play more of an advisory role to the president and failed to coordinate the often warring agencies like State and Defense. "Cheney was acting as national-security adviser because of Rice's failure to do so," says Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

State Department staffers say that Cheney's office pushed hard to include dubious evidence of Iraq's terror ties in Powell's speech to the United Nations last February. Libby fought for an inclusion of the alleged meeting between Atta and Iraqi intelligence in Prague. Powell resisted, but Powell's aides were impressed with Libby's persistence. In the end, the reference to Atta was dropped, but Powell did include other examples linking Baghdad to Al Qaeda. When the State Department wanted to cut off funds to Chalabi for alleged accounting failures, Cheney backed shifting the money from the State Department to the Defense Department. It is significant, however, that Cheney ultimately did not support setting up Chalabi as a government in exile, a ploy that the State Department and CIA strongly opposed. They feared that Chalabi would proclaim himself ruler-by-fiat after an American invasion. Though Chalabi's people often talked to Cheney's staff, the vice president has no particular brief for the INC chief over any other democratically elected leader, says an administration official.

Accused of overstating the Iraqi threat by politicians and pundits, Cheney is publicly and privately unrepentant. He believes that Al Qaeda is determined to obtain weapons of mass destruction and use them against American civilians in their cities and homes. To ignore those warnings would be "irresponsible in the extreme," he says in his speeches. His staffers are not unmindful of the risk of crying wolf, however, and acknowledge that if weapons of mass destruction are never found in Iraq, the public will be much less likely to back pre-emptive wars in the future. Cheney still believes the WMD will turn up somewhere in Iraq "if they aren't first used against us by terrorists."



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