"F*ck Saddam. We're taking him out." -- George W. Bush
- March: A report by Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee finds no evidence that Saddam Hussein posed a significantly greater threat than in 1991, after Desert Storm. (National Security Archive)
- March: A Defense Department analysis, made public by the Wall Street Journal, concludes that the President's authority "to manage a military campaign" overrides any statutory or treaty prohibitions against torture: "Any effort by Congress to regulate the interrogation of unlawful combatants would violate the Constitution's sole vesting of the Commander-in-Chief authority in the President. The document also asserts that a defendant "could negate a showing of specific intent...by showing that he had acted in good faith that his conduct would not amount to acts prohibited by the state." Legal commentator Anthony Lewis says that this and other documents "read like the advice of a mob lawyer to a mafia don on how to skirt the law and stay out of prison. Avoiding prosecution is literally a theme. ...One remarkable suggestion is that an interrogator who harmed a prisoner could rely on the argument of 'self-defense' as a legal justification -- defense not of himself but of the nation." (Seymour Hersh)
- March: Sometime during the month the military internally announces the creation of the Total Information Awareness program, though it is not announced to the public until August 2002. Early accounts suggest its funding is much higher than the announced $10 million. (CCR)
- March: Members of the Saudi royal family pledge to donate between $1 and $20 million to the Clinton presidential library, according to columnist Robert Novak. Prince Bandar bin Sultan has already donated over $1 million to the George H.W. Bush presidential library. (Boston Herald)
- March: CIA Director Tenet bows somewhat to relentless pressure from the Bush administration to publicly declare the supposed ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Tenet tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Iraqi regime "had contacts with al-Qaeda" but declines to elaborate. He will make similar ambiguous statements during the congressional debate over war with Iraq. (The New Republic)
- March: In a meeting with three senators and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, President Bush snaps, "F*ck Saddam, we're taking him out." The meeting was to find ways to deal with Iraq either through UN intervention or through US allies in the Middle East; Bush's retort shows just how determined he is to go through with an attack on Iraq. In October 2003, Seymour Hersh will report that "it was understood by many in the White House [by March 2002] that the president, in his own mind, had decided to go to war." Apparently Bush's decision to invade Iraq was influenced in part by advice from Vice President Dick Cheney, who, according to The New Republic, "dispensed with the policy arguments [from Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives in favor of the invasion] for taking down Saddam in favor of a far more personal appeal. He said simply that he had been part of the team that created what he now saw as a flawed policy -- leaving Saddam in power at the end of the Gulf war -- and now Bush had a chance to correct it. His plea was enormously successful. 'The reason that Cheney was able to sell Bush the policy is that he was able to say, "I've changed,"' says a senior administration official. "I used to have the same position as [James] Baker, [Brent] Scowcroft, and your father -- and here's why it's wrong.' By February, observes a since-departed senior National Security Council (NSC) staffer, 'my sense was the decision was taken.'" Bush's decision results in the overall redirection of troops, material, and resources from Afghanistan towards the upcoming invasion of Iraq, in what Hersh calls "a devastating impact on the continuing struggle against terrorism." (CNN, The New Republic, New Yorker/Mother Jones)
- March: Professor Michael Klare observes of the predicted war against Iraq, "If the real motives were made clear -- that this is a grab for oil and an attempt to break the back of OPEC -- it would make our motives look more predatory than exemplary." (Current History/Buzzflash)
- March: An essay by Kenneth Pollack appears in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. Pollack, the director of Persian Gulf affairs for the NSC under Clinton, writes that a successful operation in Iraq will require the involvement of 200,000 to 300,000 US troops and support personnel, along with major air support. Iraq's neighbors such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia warn that the US risks a prolonged civil war and chaos if the Iraqi Army stands and fights. The neocon hawks in the Pentagon, led by Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, dismisses the concerns of Iraq's neighbors, insist that Pollack's estimate is far too high, and predict that any show of force will trigger an uprising against Hussein. Perle tells reporter Seymour Hersh, "Arabs are like most people. They like winners, and will go with the winners all the time." General Tommy Franks, the head of CENTCOM, has been directing the increasingly difficult offensive in Afghanistan, and will direct any invasion of Iraq; Franks follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Anthony Zinni by insisting, against criticism and revilement from civilians such as Wolfowitz and Perle, on an intense and careful buildup of American forces before any attack can take place. Though the leadership in the Army and Air Force are willing to deploy using the lower estimates of forces provided by the civilians in the Pentagons, the Marines hold firm with Franks's recommendation of larger forces and more careful buildup. "We've got a bunch of people involved who think it's going to be easy," says one senior military officer who drafted CENTCOM battle studies for the Marines. "We're set up for a big surprise." Former UN inspector Scott Ritter says that the Iraqi Army may respond to any invasion by simply dispersing into the countryside. He says, "What will we do [then]? Flatten the towns?" Meanwhile, Ahmad Chalabi is telling journalists that an invasion could come as early as spring, and that any concerns from allies such as Russia and France, Iraq's major oil-trading partners, will be easily assuaged. Chalabi has contacts within several American oil companies, and says that every effort will be made to get oil production resumed to pre-invasion levels: the French and Russian oil companies "would have to go as junior partners to the Americans," he says. But a senior State Department official says, "The President has a time line, but it doesn't fit what those boys will tell you. The last thing we want to do is hit Baghdad and have al-Qaeda hit Chicago. We'd look real bad. When we go to Iraq, we will do it right. There's a before and after, and we want to get the after right." Referring to Afghanistan, a high-ranking intelligence officer says, "We aren't done where we are now, and we got plenty to do where we are without biting off something else." A former intelligence officer adds, "We're a powerful boa constrictor, and we're now squeezing out those terrorists. Let's digest these rats we've already swallowed before we get another one." (Seymour Hersh)
- March: In the wake of the Enron scandal and other corporate meltdowns, and corollary inquiries into their connections to the Bush White House, Bush announces a series of administration-backed "plan[s] to improve corporate responsibility." The first plan contains ten planks, each related in some fashion to the Enron scandal, though Bush never mentions Enron by name. Bush's plans, which are more exhorations and calls for voluntary improvement than actual government initiatives, come on the heels of media revelations about his own connections to Enron and his own past of corporate fraud and illegal trading, particularly in relation to his former position with Harken Oil. David Corn writes, "The Harken deal was all very Enron-ish. An insider selling stock before the price tumbled. A politically wired executive escaping financial misfortune. A company covering up losses -- which likely inflated its stock price -- by using a shell outfit. All this made it somewhat disingenuous for Bush to be parading as a corporate reformer 11 years later -- particularly since he was decrying corporate schemes that 'used artful and intricate financial arrangements' and calling for more timely notification when corporate executives buy or sell company stock. And now that Harken was once more in the headlines, Bush, as he had done through the years, continued to issue unpersuasive explanations about his Harken actions." He will insist that everything he did at Harken was fully disclosed, a lie proven by his refusal to allow Harken's internal records to be released for scrutiny; he will also claim, falsely, that he was "fully exonerated" by the SEC's investigation of Harken. In the end, during a July 8 press conference, he will lamely state, "All I can tell you is -- is that in the corporate world, sometimes things aren't exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures. And the SEC's job is to -- is to -- is to look and is to determine whether or not -- whether or not -- whether or not the decision by the auditors was the appropriate decision. And they did look, and they decided that earnings ought to be restated, and the company did so immediately upon the SEC's findings. ...There was no malfeance [sic] involved. This was an honest disagreement about accounting procedures." David Corn writes, "That was akin to saying that when one is caught with a hand in a cookie jar and forced to return the cookie, all that had transpired was simply an honest disagreement. Bush was soft-peddling. The case actually was black and white. Harken tried to pull a fast one, was caught, and had to restate its earnings." (David Corn)
- March 1: The State Department's intelligence bureau, INR, publishes an assessment entitled "Niger: Sale of Uranium to Iraq is Unlikely." The document was produced at the request of aides to Vice President Cheney; since the conclusion is not what Cheney wants to hear, it is ignored. (Mother Jones)
- March 2: US forces launch a major ground assault, code-named Operation Anaconda, on entrenched al-Qaeda forces in the Shah-i-Kot (or Shahi Kowt) mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Weeks before, a "bruising interservice dispute over tactics" rocked the corridors of the Pentagon, according to a group of active duty and retired military and intelligence officials. The assault, which results in eight American dead and 40 wounded along with an unknown number of dead and wounded Afghani allies, is praised as a triumph by the Pentagon. The reality is quite different. (Journalist Seymour Hersh, who tells the story in his book Chain of Command, is harshly criticized by General Wesley Clark for not publishing the story immediately after it happened. If the American public understood the lack of resources in Afghanistan, Clark tells Hersh, it "might have saved some lives later.") US officials claim 700 to 1000 al-Qaeda dead, but only a few dozen bodies are recovered.
- The plan, devised by CENTCOM under the leadership of General Tommy Franks, had convoys of American and Afghan troops meeting Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the Shah-i-Kot valley, a plan that so disturbed the Marine leadership that the Marines refused to take part. The problem between Franks and the Marines traces back to December 2001, when Franks ordered Marines to work alongside Army units in combing through caves near Tora Bora, a plan that never bore fruit. (Defense Secretary Rumsfeld dismissed news stories about the abortive plan as "newspaper talk," but he was not being truthful.) The Marines have a tradition of working in self-contained units, a tradition Franks insisted on ignoring. The Marines' objections centered on the fact that to work in Franks's plan would go against everything they are trained to do. The Marine leadership also objected to the near-total lack of intelligence about the forces arrayed in the Shah-i-Kot. One high-ranking Marine threatened to "go public and expose the whole mess" if Franks insisted on their participation. In addition, a Navy SEAL team's recent discovery of an entirely new cave system in the Shah-i-Kot, occupied by heavily armed al-Qaeda forces, was initially ignored by CENTCOM, who tried to insist that the original plan be followed to the letter no matter what new information was presented. The SEALs insisted that the caves be bombed before the ground troops enter the valley, and eventually, Air Force general Michael Moseley agreed. "Ultimately, reason prevailed," says a former high-level intelligence official. "The very idea that there would be a debate over this is shocking to me." Other Air Force strategists were offended at the high-handed tactics of Franks and the Army commander in Afghanistan, Major General Frank Hagenback. The Air Force even accused the Army leadership of endangering troops by cutting the Air Force out of the planning. "The exclusion of the air component was deliberate and resulted in a suboptimal joint operation," said a briefing. "Airmen and soldiers were put at risk." The Army leaders, including Franks and Hagenback, wanted to dispense with preliminary air strikes "in order to retain the element of surprise." Surprise, noted the briefing, "was problematic," considering that it was already known throughout the region that the assault was coming. A senior Air Force planner says later that Franks simply didn't want to use air power.
- Key aspects of the plan were not written by military planners, but by civilians in the offices of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld once again insists that a small, light force can do the job no matter what the military says. Various Special Forces units on the ground, including SEAL and Delta Force teams, had routinely been going around the chain of command and contacting Wayne Downing, a retired general who ran Special Forces during the Gulf War and is now a presidential advisor working with Rumsfeld. The retired intelligence officer describes the system at CENTCOM as "broken. Everybody is intimidated and uncertain about how to proceed." The assault itself proves the Marines' worst fears. The first truck convoys, containing Afghan troops with only minimal training, are attacked by heavy mortar fire; at least 40 die in the initial mortar barrage. The Afghans retreat and refuse to go back up the mountain. "They knew the first wave had been blown away," says a former CIA official. "It was clear that the opposition had time to set up mortar traps and line of fire," he continues. "It was clear that they were ready for our advance, and they'd been ready for two months and were going to fight to the end. We knew they were there, but it doesn't appear that we knew about their mortar emplacements or their mortar alleys." (Franks later defends his plan by saying, "One, I think, wants to be very careful about just arbitrarily bombing. ...At the end of the day, the sure way to do work against the enemy is to put people on the ground, and that's what we've done in this case, and that's the reason we did it that way.")
- Helicopters deliver US troops at one end of the valley; the troops come under immediate mortar fire, and suffer heavy casualties. A former CIA counterterrorism official says that the situation completely broke down. "It was a disaster," he says. "The chain of command froze. Young soldiers cried and threw down their weapons. There was a total unit failure." The troops flee down the mountain, abandoning weapons and gear in their wake. Retired general Wesley Clark defends the soldiers, and blames the leadership for the rout, pointing out the lack of intelligence and training. The poor training particularly bothers Clark: "It's been a travesty for years," he says. "You've got half-a*sed units all over the place. It's a function of trying to do things on the cheap. And who suffers? The kids." It was widely known that the troops, mostly from the 10th Mountain Brigade, were low on manpower and poorly trained. Delta Force soldiers who were sent to provide last-minute training warned the Army brass, "They're dead meat if they go out there."
- Eight Americans die in the fighting; many more would have died had not a force of Australian SAS commandos, operating under cover and coordinating air strikes, intervened. "The SAS actually came out of their mission and drove off the Afghans," says a former Marine officer. "We would have lost the entire team." The Pentagon never publicly acknowledges the Australian's timely help out of sheer embarrassment. The former CIA counterterrorism official says, "A lot of people knew about this, but think it's not patriotic to blow the lid off." Instead of acknowledging that Operation Anaconda was a disaster, the Pentagon does its level best to "spin" the assault into a victory. With the cooperation of the American media, it is largely successful. The European press is not so cooperative; a story appears in the March 11 London Financial Times, which describes the scene: "In many cases, the men had to run for their lives, often blowing up their packs with shoulder-fired missiles so they could run faster. They could hear al-Qaeda troops laughing at them when they tried to hit them with machine guns and rifles. Few of the US troops ever got close enough to their adversaries to find out who they were fighting." But most American news outlets go happily along with the Pentagon spin. Clark is bitter about the Marines' refusal to take part in the assault, but the Air Force planner perhaps sums it up best: "The Army is talking about showing resolve because it sent a bunch of kids with no plan and no idea how to fight a war up a mountain and they died."
- Anaconda officially ends on March 18; after the disastrous initial ground assault, the Army forces regroup and, assisted by heavy air assaults, eventually dislodges the Afghan forces from their redoubts. By the time the Americans are able to enter the cave complexes, most of the enemy forces had simply crossed over the mountains into Pakistan and to safety, just as they had months before in Kunduz. While Army leaders claim a great victory and say over 700 Taliban and al-Qaeda troops were killed, only a few dozen or so bodies are found. Anaconda was envisioned as the last hurrah of American assaults in Afghanistan, the last strike in an offensive that had proven far more costly and far more bloody than the Pentagon or the White House was willing to admit. The former CIA counterterrorism official says that he was "overwhelmed at how ignorant people at the top are. ...They're basing everything on briefings that convey a gist of a gist of a gist. The guys at the top are as ignorant as they can be, but at the top loyalty is more important than effectiveness. ...My concern is that the president and even Cheney are not getting all the right advice. What's going on is difficult to deal with, and we [the CIA agents in the field] are having to deal with decisions that are made before anybody checks out all the facts. There's no endgame in terms of where they expect to get and what's supposed to be there. ...It's far beyond being scary. There is a total failure of the war against terrorism -- in spades." The Pentagon consultant adds, "In Bush One, Powell and Cheney formed a coherent unit and worked as a team." Not so in this administration: "too much infighting." This administration has "lost focus, and military activity is becoming disconnected from political mandates. This is the blind leading the blind." (Seymour Hersh, Michael Scheuer)
- March 2: A senior White House official tells the press that "there's no plan [to invade Iraq] on the president's desk," a "Clintonesque" evasion of the truth in journalist Paul Waldman's words; it is later revealed that, while written plans for invading Iraq may not actually literally "be on Bush's desk" in the Oval Office, that plans for such an invasion are being developed in the Pentagon under the direction of Bush and other White House officials. The misstatement will later be repeated by press secretary Ari Fleischer, who tells the press, "There's no plans on the president's desk to take any type of military action" against Iraq, and by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who says, "There is no war plan on the president's desk this morning." (Boston Globe/AP/Paul Waldman)
- March 3-5: The secretive, highly influential Religious Right organization called the Council for National Policy meets in Washington. The 500 members, led by evangelist Tim LaHaye, hear speeches by, among others, headliner Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court Justice, and White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez. Timothy Goeglein, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, also speaks. Other speakers may include (it is unconfirmed because of the secrecy preferred by the organization) conservative gadfly Pat Buchanan, former CIA director and prominent neoconservative James Woolsey, and former Reagan defense official Frank Gaffney. The members are the elite of the Religious Right, is best described by a half-joking remark by executive director Steve Baldwin: "We control everything in the world." Baldwin is not far off. In 1999, George W. Bush was summoned to a CNP meeting, where he convinced LaHaye that he was right-wing enough and Christian enough to merit the support of the country's evangelical right. It continues to hold a powerful influence over Bush's decisions on both foreign and domestic issues, with Bush checking with group members before he goes public with just about every decision he makes. Skipp Porteous, the former head of a secular watchdog group, once told Clinton officials "that this is a group that has the ideology, the money and the political backing to cause social change in the United States" Porteous' group, the Institute for First Amendment Studies, posted the CNP's roster on its Web site and managed to slip past security at several CNP meetings throughout the 1990s and soon published details notes of the proceedings. Porteous says, "There's nothing wrong with what they are doing. It's just that they're ultraconservative and a lot of people don't agree with that." (ABC)
- March 6: House Democrat Richard Neal introduces the Corporate Patriot Enforcement Act, designed to make it more difficult for US corporations to avoid federal taxes by incorporating in overseas locations. 149 Democrats and 3 Republicans co-sponsor the bill. House Republicans come together to defeat the bill, led by Speaker Dennis Hastert, who calls on recalcitrant members to vote against the bill so as not to embarrass Bush, who opposes any such restrictions, in a time of war. Neal reintroduces the bill in September 2005; it currently languishes in committee. (GovTrack, Frances Fox Piven)
- March 8: The Blair government produces a document called the "Iraq: Options Paper," later bundled together in the group of papers referred to as the "Downing Street Memos." The paper presents different military options for the Blair government to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The paper hedges on the idea of Iraq actually having weapons of mass destruction, noting that "intelligence is poor" and that "there is no greater threat now than in recent years that Saddam will use WMD," but notes that the US is determined to overthrow Hussein even with "a much smaller coalition than we think desirable." It concludes, "Regime change has no basis in international law." (Mother Jones)
- March 9: CIA officials inform the White House that an agency source who had traveled to Niger could not confirm European intelligence reports that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium from the West African country. Ten months later, Bush will use the fraudulent claim as a source of information during his State of the Union address to make his case that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons. The claim later turned out to be based on crude forgeries that an African diplomat had sold to Italian intelligence officials, according to the CIA, but some speculate that the forged documents may have been produced by one or another element of American intelligence. During the same month, the CIA cables the White House, notifying them that Niger denies providing Iraq with uranium oxide or any other radioactive material. It fails to mention the conclusion of the former US ambassador (later identified as Joseph Wilson) confirming that the claim was false. It is later proven that the documents were forgeries produced by an Italian "document seller," and sold to Italian intelligence, who provided them to US intelligence officials (see other items throughout these pages for more information). (Knight Ridder/Contra Costa Times, Washington Post, Michael Isikoff and David Corn)
- March 11: A White House correspondant tells journalist Nicholas Confessore about the White House policy of retribution against reporters who ask the "wrong" questions or write negative articles about the administration: "There seems to be a system within the White House of retribution. Basically, if you write something [negative], it's like at the communication with [Bush senior advisor] Karen Hughes the message goes out that so-and-so's on the blacklist -- in some cases for that day, in some cases for that week." (American Prospect/Paul Waldman)
- March 11: The Bush administration announces its opposition to a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators John McCain and John Kerry that would raise the overall fuel efficiency standards for US-made automobiles to 36 miles per gallon by 2015. In 2003, the EPA finds that fuel efficiency averages actually dropped to 20.4 miles per gallon, its lowest point since 1971, even though brake, engine, and safety technology saw dramatic improvements. A study commissioned by, and then ignored by, the Bush administration finds that the technology exists today to improve sport-utility vehicle (SUV) fuel usage to between 25 and 30 mpg, and to raise standard automobile fuel effiency to 40 mpg. The Sierra Club's Daniel Becker notes that if cars' fuel efficiency were raised to 40 mpg, that would save the country 3 million barrels of oil per day, more than the US currently imports from the Persian Gulf. Becker says, "The degree of duplicity this administration has shown -- in wanting to pillage the Alaskan wildlife for six months of oil but turning its back on programs that would save ten times as much oil by requiring our vehicles to go further on a gallon of gas -- is unprecedented." (Detroit News/Eric Alterman and Mark Green)
Homeland Security's color-coded terror advisory system
- March 12: Homeland Security director Tom Ridge announces the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System. Ridge says that the country will permanently remain in an elevated, or yellow, state of alert, with the alert status being raised to orange or red as circumstances warrant. Most of the orange-level terror alerts that are issued between now and the 2004 elections have little basis in reality; Ridge will later admit that most are politically motivated, to distract the country from unfavorable news stories or to frighten the electorate into supporting Bush and the Republicans. (Mother Jones)
- March 13: Bush displays his grasp of the intricacies of Middle East relations: "I understand that the unrest in the Middle East creates unrest throughout the region." (AllHatNoCattle)
Bush "truly not that concerned about" bin Laden
- March 13: During a press conference, when asked about the progress being made in the US's hunt for Osama bin Laden, Bush says that bin Laden, the architect and guiding mind behind the 9/11 attacks, is not a matter of concern: "Deep in my heart I know the man is on the run, if he's alive at all. Who knows if he's hiding in some cave or not; we haven't heard from him in a long time. And the idea of focusing on one person is -- really indicates to me people don't understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person. And he's just -- he's a person who's now been marginalized. His network, his host government has been destroyed. He's the ultimate parasite who found weakness, exploited it, and met his match. He is -- as I mentioned in my speech, I do mention the fact that this is a fellow who is willing to commit youngsters to their death and he, himself, tries to hide -- if, in fact, he's hiding at all. So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you. ...And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."
- This is an astonishing statement for a number of reasons. First, contrast Bush's statement with his statement from six months before, on September 13, 2001: "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him." It is difficult to decide what, if anything, has changed in six months to take bin Laden from America's "number one priority" to not being a matter of concern for Bush. Secondly, as Bush and his top officials well know, bin Laden is anything but "marginalized." Al-Qaeda is still a powerful and efficient terrorist organization, and US and colation forces, while having some success in capturing or killing al-Qaeda fighters and even some of its leadership, has done nothing to curb its efficacy or destroy its infrastructure. For Bush to make this statement is beyond belief and beyond explanation. (On October 13, 2004, during the third presidential debate between Bush and John Kerry, Bush will deny ever making the statement, even attempting to infer that Kerry supporters spread falsehoods about his statement: "Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations.") (White House, Democratic Underground, C-SPAN/Democratic Underground)
- March 14: Tony Blair's foreign policy advisor David Manning writes a memo, later bundled in as one of the so-called "Downing Street Memos," that documents his meeting with US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. Manning writes that "Condi's enthusiasm for regime change [in Iraq] is undimmed." Manning also observes that the Bush administration hasn't successfully addressed the following problems: "how to persuade international opinion that military action against Iraq is necessary and justified; what value to put on the exiled Iraqi opposition; how to coordinate a US/allied military campaign with internal opposition (assuming there is any); [and] what happens on the morning after?" Manning writes, "I think there is a real risk that the [Bush] administration underestimates the difficulties. They may agree that failure isn't an option, but this does not mean that they will avoid it. Will the Sunni majority really respond to an uprising led by Kurds and Shias? Will Americans really put in enough ground troops to do the job if the Kurdish/Shi'ite stratagem fails? Even if they do will they be willing to take the sort of casualties that the Republican Guard may inflict on them if it turns out to be an urban war, and Iraqi troops don't conveniently collapse in a heap as Richard Perle and others confidently predict? They need to answer there and other tough questions, in a more convincing way than they have so far before concluding that they can do the business." (Downing Street Memos [text of the Manning memo], Mother Jones)
- March 14: White House communications director Dan Bartlett tells the press, "I don't know if finding bin Laden is one of our objectives." (Boston Globe/Paul Waldman)
- March 15: British intelligence confirms that it has only "sporadic and patchy" evidence of any Iraqi WMDs. The Joint Intelligence Committee concludes, "Intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy. ...From the evidence available to us, we believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of CW [chemical warfare] agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons. ...There is no intelligence on any BW [biological warfare] agent production facilities...." The JIC will revise its estimates about Iraq's WMDs in a more alarming, politically useful fashion as the date for the Iraq invasion approaches, but the intelligence they use is either unreliable or fabricated. (Sunday Herald, Mother Jones)
- March 15: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld defends the administration's decision not to send any troops to augment the UN-backed peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, in spite of a personal request from UN secretary Kofi Annan. "[T]here is not a serious security problem" in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld insists. Four days later, CIA director George Tenet and Vice-Admiral Thomas Wilson, head of the DIA, will tell the Senate Armed Services Commission that tremendous economic, social, and security problems plague Afghanistan. Wilson notes that there is a high probability of "insurgency-type warfare" breaking out in Afghanistan, and that resurgent al-Qaeda and Taliban forces will prove a "long-term" problem. Wilson acknowledges that a report by the International Crisis Group predicts that, without a stronger peacekeeping force, Afghanistan will "again slide towards factional fighting." The Bush administration deals with the situation by putting a happy face on it for the American press, and doing little or nothing to deal with the actual problems. On March 20, Bush will boast, "We've prevented mass starvation [in Afghanistan] because we've moved a lot of food into the area." Yet the president of Refugees International, Kenneth Bacon, says that security is so bad throughout much of the country that aid workers cannot get food to thousands of starving civilians. By the time the US drops its resistance to contributing peacekeeping troops to the tiny, beleagured UN force, the other 17 nations have dropped out. "The absence of US leadership has doomed any serious international peacekeeping role outside of Kabul," writes Larry Goodson of the US Army War College. As the months go by, the situation in Afghanistan will steadily deteriorate. (David Corn)
Huge US military buildup in preparation for Iraq invasion
- Mid-March: Cheney takes an extended trip to the Middle East, in part to inspect the huge, and secret, US military buildup in the region. Officially, only 5000 US troops are in Kuwait, but a senior administration consultant confirms that the real number is far, far higher, along with a strong Navy presence. Intelligence officials explain that the military buildup is to protect Kuwait and other Gulf states in case Hussein launches a first strike.
- Bush's "axis of evil" speech made European and Middle Eastern allies nervous, and another point of Cheney's trip is to explain the US position in the Middle East to these allies and to try to build a coalition for another invasion of Iraq -- a daunting task. The only likely ally at this point is Britain's Tony Blair. Many allies, along with Washington insiders, believe that Bush's plan for a quick overthrow, with few allied casualties and a smooth transition to a US-friendly democracy, is highly unlikely. "We've got a great way to get it started," says a former intelligence official, "but how do we finish it?" Unfortunately, says the official, the invasion of Iraq is inevitable: "It's a snowball rolling downhill, gaining momentum on its own. It's getting bigger and bigger, but nobody knows what they're going to do." (Seymour Hersh)
- March 17: During a dinner with Britain's ambassador to the US, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz tries to convince the ambassador that Iraq was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, a centerpiece of crackpot neoconservative Laurie Mylroie's theory that Saddam Hussein is the mastermind behind all of the terrorist attacks on the US in the last nine years. The ambassador is unconvinced. (Michael Isikoff and David Corn)
- March 19: CIA Director George Tenet tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iraq has had contact with al-Qaeda and may be working with the organization. "Baghdad has a long history of supporting terrorism," says Tenet, who says that tactical co-operation between Iraq and al-Qaeda is possible. Iraq "has also had contacts with al-Qaeda." Tenet does not present any evidence for his assertions, and says that there is still doubt about Iraq's involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
- In the same session, DIA chief Thomas Wilson paints a graphically different picture of Iraq. His listing of the five most pressing "near-term concerns" to US interests does not list Iraq at all. Wilson says that years of UN and US sanctions against Iraq, combined with the US military presence, had succeeded in "restraining Saddam's ambitions," and his military has been "seriously degraded." Hussein's army is much "smaller and weaker" than during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and suffers critical manpower and equipment shortages and "fragile" morale.
- Wilson says that Iraq possesses only "residual" amounts of WMD, not a growing arsenal. He does not reference any intelligence about any nuclear program, nor does he speak to any connections about al-Qaeda. "I didn't really think they had a nuclear program" Wilson says later. "I didn't think they were an immediate threat on WMD." Wilson's dismissal of any Iraqi ties to terrorism (outside of Hussein's support for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a militant group of Iranian exiles seeking to overthrow the Iranian government) is bolstered by the State Department's 2001 report on global terrorism. And British intelligence sees the same lack of connections between Iraq and Islamist terrorist groups, and the lack of Iraqi WMDs. On March 22, Peter Ricketts, political director of the British Foreign Office, sends a memo to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that reads, "[E]ven the best survey of Iraq's WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile, or CW/BW [chemical and biological weapons] fronts: the programmes are extremely worrying byt have not, as far as we know, been stepped up." Ricketts also reports that the US's attempts to link Iraq and al-Qaeda are "frankly unconvincing."
- But Blair's own aides are playing a similar game as Bush's officials: Blair's people are working to sell the invasion's inevitability to their citizens, and want to orchestrate a scenario where Hussein will refuse new WMD inspectors and thusly provide a "powerful argument" for war.
- In the summer of 2002, former Secretary of State James Baker, a close friend of the elder Bush, publicly advocates working with the UN to force Hussein to accept the return of the UN weapons inspectors, a position Colin Powell has been unsuccessfully pushing within the White House. And in August, the elder Bush's former national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, publishes a powerful editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Don't Attack Saddam," where he warns that "An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorism campaign we have undertaken." CENTCOM commander General Anthony Zinni, currently Bush's special envoy to the Middle East, says bluntly, "I can give you many more priorities" than Iraq. A war with Iraq would be prohibitively costly in both lives and US funds, stretch the military, unnecessarily antagonize America's allies, and require the US to keep troops in Iraq "forever." Zinni adds dryly, "It's pretty interesting that all the generals see it the same way, and all the others who have never fired a shot and are hot to go see it another way." (BBC, Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Wall Street Journal/Forum for International Policy)
Clampdown on government secrets
Low-level al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah captured; he is presented as a high-level al-Qaeda leader, and is tortured into providing false information about imminent al-Qaeda attacks
- March 28: Al-Qaeda official Abu Zubaydah is captured in Pakistan. The NSC obtained communications intercepts that indicated Zubaydah, considered a key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, is hiding in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad. Like most of his al-Qaeda comrades, Zubaydah had fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and is being sheltered by local Islamic extremists. (Bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other top al-Qaeda leaders holed up in the wilds of the mountainous tribal regions of Pakistan, near the Afghan border, but Zubaydah and a few others found refuge in Pakistan's urban centers, making it easier for US intelligence to locate them.) During the raid by US and Pakistani forces, Zubaydah is severely wounded by gunfire, and is not immediately recognized until a senior FBI agent shines a light in his face and realizes that Zubaydah, the primary target of the raid, is bleeding to death at their feet. He is rushed to a Pakistani hospital, but after his condition stabilizes, the US secretly ships him to Thailand and into CIA custody. The Thai government, involved in its own battles with Muslim extremists and having a long history of cooperation with the US, had no objection to Zubaydah being brought into Thailand, and thusly becomes perhaps the first country to provide a secret location for the CIA to imprison, interrogate, and torture important terrorist prisoners. Zubaydah's capture is greeted with elation and a public marketing campaign by the Bush administration, who trumpets his capture as the first of many such high-profile imprisonments. Until Zubaydah's capture, only one senior al-Qaeda leader, Mohammed Atef, had been located by US terrorist hunters; Atef had been killed in Afghanistan in November 2001.
- While what happens to Zubaydah in the days and weeks that follow his capture is unclear, due to the intense secrecy surrounding his internment, a high-level administration source considered extremely reliable by New York Times reporter James Risen gives Risen some disturbing information. Bush, who has become personally involved in the "management" of Zubaydah, asks CIA director George Tenet what information they are getting from the captive. Tenet replies that they were getting nothing yet, because Zubaydah was so badly wounded that he was on high levels of pain medication and unable to talk coherently. According to Risen's source, Bush asks Tenet, "Who authorized putting him on pain medication?" Risen believes that Bush is implicitly ordering Tenet to use extreme, illegal measures to extricate information from captives such as Zubaydah. Of course this kind of indirect "order" avoids any direct authorization and the potential embarrassment of a paper trail. While some former Tenet lieutenants deny any knowledge of Bush's intervention in the Zubaydah matter, and some former CIA officials insist that Zubaydah received "excellent" medical care after his wounding and capture, author Gerald Posner, in his 2003 book Why America Slept, writes that after Zubaydah was stabilized, he was given short-term pain medication that could, and is, withheld in order to cause him pain and make him more willing to talk. Such treatment is consistent with Bush and Donald Rumsfeld's orders after 9/11 to "take the gloves off" in handling terror suspects, a set of implicit orders that led to, among other things, the Abu Ghraib scandal.
- Zubaydah, a Palestinian, informs his captors that bin Laden personally rejected the idea of any alliance with Saddam Hussein, an assertion later corroborated by high-level al-Qaeda agents captured in the following weeks, including one of the planners of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. In the following weeks, Zubaydah is found not only to be mentally unstable, but to have had little to do with operational planning; instead, he spent his time with al-Qaeda performing logistical tasks such as arranging travel for wives and children. In his June 2006 book The One-Percent Doctrine, author Ron Suskind reveals, as quoted by the Washington Post, that "CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries 'in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3' -- a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail 'what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said.' Dan Coleman, then the FBI's top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, 'This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.'" Suskind reveals that "Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics -- travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was 'echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President,' Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as 'one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.' And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques."
- When Bush is informed of Zubaydah's low-level status, he informs CIA director George Tenet that he intends to ensure that Zubaydah will continue to be presented as a high-level al-Qaeda leader. "I said he was important," Bush tells Tenet. "You're not going to let me lose face on this one, are you?" Tenet's reply: "No sir, Mr. President." The CIA has Zubaydah taken to Pakistan for medical care to treat the wounds he received during his capture. "We got him in very good health, so we could start to torture him," one CIA official later says. Bush becomes increasingly frustrated with the lack of solid intelligence gained from Zubaydah, and CIA officials in turn become increasingly resentful with the pressure being brought on them to massage Zubaydah's intelligence into something meaningful. "Bush and Cheney knew what we knew about Zubaydah," says one official. "Why the hell did the president have to put us in a box like this?" The Post's Barton Gellman answers the official's question, writing, "Suskind sees a deliberate management choice: Bush ensnared his director of central intelligence at the time, George J. Tenet, and many others in a new kind of war in which action and evidence were consciously divorced." Eventually, the systematic torture of Zubaydah results in his spewing unsupported claims about planned attacks on shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, and apartment buildings, all of which will be used to alarm Americans and raise public support for the invasion of Iraq. Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."
- One interesting aspect of the Zubaydah capture is the two ATM cards found in his possession. One is for a bank in Kuwait, and the other a Saudi Arabian bank, meaning that Zubaydah, and presumably other al-Qaeda operatives, have access to Western-style bank accounts with major financial institutions in the Persian Gulf. It was believed that al-Qaeda operatives controlled their finances through less formal Muslim financial institutions, halawas, which have extremely loose record-keeping practices. The cards could have been used to trace the murky money trail of al-Qaeda's 9/11 and other terrorist operations, a difficult and often fruitless task, but little investigation of the accounts was ever done.
- Too often, US and European intelligence analysts have misread and misunderstood the nature of terrorist organizations' finances. They believed, for example, that Osama bin Laden was using a vast personal fortune to finance his terror operations; they didn't understand for years the importance of the donations flooding in from other wealthy Arabs, particularly from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Eventually the CIA comes to realize that bin Laden is nowhere near as wealthy as once believed; instead of being worth around $300 million, as CIA analysts once thought, bin Laden had received a mere $1 million per year from the bin Laden family between 1970 and 1994. Bin Laden was not nearly rich enough to fund a jihad by himself. It takes around $30 million a year to run al-Qaeda, the CIA believes, and almost all of that money comes from donors. The ATM cards held by Zubaydah could have shed critical light on al-Qaeda's finances, so the question remains: why were they never investigated? Risen believes that the inquiries were stopped before they started, either because the trail might lead back to Saudi Arabia, or because of rank incompetence.
- Much later, intelligence reports from a Muslim financier reveals that around the same time that Zubaydah was captured, Saudi officials seized all of the records relating to the ATM account from the Saudi bank, making it impossible for US officials to trace the money from that account. (Mother Jones, Washington Post, Eric Alterman and Mark Green, Michael Scheuer, James Risen)
- Late March: Dick Cheney lunches with a number of Senate Republicans, and, after warning them not to repeat what he's going to say, tells them that "The question is no longer if the US would attack Iraq. The only question was when." (Mother Jones, David Corn)