Harper's Magazine

Creating the Inevitable

The CIA visits Iraq in April 2002

The Bush Administration continues to claim that war against Iraq was always a last resort, but an overwhelming amount of evidence—such as the Downing Street Memo of July 2002, which said military action was “inevitable”—suggests otherwise. I recently spoke with a number of current and former intelligence officials, including two who were familiar with the CIA's pre-war activities in Iraq, and their remarks certainly suggest that the decision to invade was made long before the war began in March of 2003.

One former officer described how in April of 2002, nearly a year before the invasion, the CIA sent a special unit of eight men to “set up shop” in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. The team had no support from the Pentagon and was told that if it got into trouble, team members would have to get out on their own. At the start the team had fixed communications “windows” when it made contact with Washington, but otherwise operated with little input from CIA headquarters. “[They] had an enormous amount of autonomy,” this officer said.

One of the team's chief goals was to develop a network of intelligence sources that could support the invasion and, afterwards, the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. The team started its efforts with the Kurds. “The key thing was credibility,” said this person. “We had to get them . . . fully committed by convincing them that this time we were serious, [that] we would finish it and get rid of Saddam.”

The CIA was ultimately able to recruit assets in many parts of Iraq, in part because it won support from tribal leaders. "It was extremely well funded,” said the second person involved in the effort. “They passed out . . . a lot of money to the sheikhs.” Agency operators also distributed satellite phones and other communications equipment to support intelligence gathering, and used laser technology to “paint” buildings and other infrastructure so they could be easily targeted when the war began.

The CIA's prewar activities don't, of course, constitute a smoking gun regarding the administration's determination to go to war. A former agency station chief in the Middle East said the special unit's actions could have been the opening gambit in a plan meant to force Hussein to make concessions desired by the U.S. “If the President's intention was to prepare for war in order to pressure Saddam, to make him give in,” he said, “that type of intelligence work would have been important. That's exactly what the agency would have been doing.”

While that might have been the case, the former station chief said he believed Bush “was planning to go to war all along.” His view was shared by the two sources involved with the special unit. One said that, by the summer of 2002, he was absolutely convinced that war was coming based on discussions and activities at the CIA. 

The second source reached the same conclusion by April of 2002, when the special unit went into Iraq. That same month, he said, the CIA sent people to a country neighboring Iraq for detailed discussions on how best to move troops into Iraqi territory. He described the special unit's work as “battlefield preparation”—and for a battle that was not hypothetical. “They were not there for espionage,” he said. “They were there to gather tactical intelligence. They were trying to get information on things like the location of Iraqi troops, how they were moving around, and other tactical questions related to support of an invasion.”

This person also said that the U.S. had to pull a lot of strings with the Turkish government to win their cooperation in the special unit's work. “The Turks were very worried that we would give heavy weapons to the Kurds which might end up in the hands of the Turkish Kurds. Putting those guys into Iraq involved all sorts of strategic and diplomatic risks, not top mention the physical risk to the [CIA officers] themselves. It was a major step and showed serious intent on the part of the administration.”

Several other former CIA officials I spoke with said that everything they have heard from colleagues at the agency points to an early decision to go to war. One former official had interesting observations on the administration's repeated claims that it was not only the United States but also our chief European allies who believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, hence the administration's failure on that score was understandable and not the result of cherry-picked intelligence.

“They say everyone else was wrong,” said this former official, “but we conditioned them to be wrong. We spend [tens of billions of dollars per year] on signals intelligence and when we reach a conclusion, the people who spend less than that tend to believe us. They weren't wrong, they chose to believe us. The British, Germans, and Italians don't have all those overhead assets, so they rely on us. Historically they have been well-served, so they believe us when we tell them the earth is round. The  French have their own assets—and guess what? They didn't go with us.”

The second source cited regarding the special unit agreed with this assessment. “The allies sort of believed that Iraq had WMDs, but we were feeding them a lot of information,” he said. “The only alternative source of information out there was coming from the United Nations inspectors, and they were not stupid or incompetent. But [the administration] tried to discredit them by creating the idea that they were a bunch of goofballs that couldn't shoot straight.”

The Pentagon on May 30 released its latest quarterly report on “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” and it painted a predictably upbeat assessment. It claimed, among other things, that Iraqi units were taking on more and more security responsibilities, and said the new government had met a constitutional deadline of May 20 to name and win approval for a cabinet, even though as of yesterday Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had been unable to fill the two crucial Defense and Interior Minister positions.

Each of the intelligence sources I spoke with, from the most enthusiastic advocates of the war to the most dubious detractors, was decidedly less optimistic about the current situation in Iraq. One, who has retired from the CIA, recently visited the country on private business and said he was shocked to learn of the numbers of Iraqis who have fled to Syria and Jordan (an estimated 1.2 million to the latter alone). “Entire neighborhoods of Baghdad have emptied out,” he said. “The people are exhausted because the violence in and around Baghdad is continuing unabated, and the new government and the coalition seem to be unwilling or unable to do anything about it.”

Another person—who still works for an intelligence agency—was equally grim. In his view, the insurgency shows no signs of abating, and American efforts to “stand up” Iraqi security forces were failing. Referring to the crucial effort to build the National Police (not street cops, but commando and security units), he said, “We're training young kids without a clue. There's no one to mentor them. They go through six weeks of training, we give them a badge and put them out on the street to get shot.”

He described the new Iraqi government as “a big roll of the dice,” saying, “On a scale of one to ten, there is no one who honestly believes it's above a five in terms of its chances of success. The White House is trying to keep the ball in the air though November [to get through the mid-term elections] and if it falls apart afterwards they can say ‘we did our best.’”

As the Bush Administration rattles its sword in the direction of Iran, it's important to remember how rapidly a “last resort” can become a “fait accompli.”

* * *

[More Washington Babylon]
[Contact Ken Silverstein]
[About Washington Babylon]