Updated | The CIA officer sitting across from me at the Silver Diner in McLean, Virginia, seemed nothing like Hollywood’s portrayal of an intelligence agent. It wasn’t so much his appearance—bearded, bald, with glasses and a brown plaid shirt—that belied Ben Bonk’s occupation. Rather, it was the tears in his eyes.
“Maybe if they hadn’t deceived me, I could have done something,’’ he told me. “Maybe I could have stopped the Iraq War.”
Bonk, a former deputy director of the agency’s Counterterrorist Center and an officer responsible for intelligence on Iraq in the year leading up to the U.S. invasion in 2003, spoke with me on background in June 2010 about events leading to the disastrous war. He died eight months later. Under our agreement, everything he told me is now on the record.
And Bonk’s statements—about deceptions that prevented solid intelligence on Iraq from reaching President George W. Bush, as well as other information kept from the public during the buildup to war—are once again in the news as candidates for the Republican presidential nomination fumble with questions about whether that invasion was a mistake. This has been asked of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, each time with a qualifier: “Given what we know now...”
But with that parenthetical, reporters are perpetuating one of the greatest falsehoods in history. The real question should be: “Given what we knew then...” Bush hawks knew there was no good intelligence establishing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). And in what could easily be interpreted as near-treason, they never told the president about the weakness of the intelligence, several former high-ranking officials from the administration have told me.
Plenty of the best-informed intelligence sources were certain the WMDs were a fantasy. French intelligence knew it; so did Russia and Germany. The strongest human intelligence collected by the CIA—which secretly came from the Iraqi foreign minister, Naji Sabri, and Iraq's head of intelligence, Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti—was detailed, correct and ignored. Instead, the administration built its case on Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi (the infamous “Curveball,” a man German intelligence had warned the CIA was unreliable) and Muhammad Harith, a former Iraqi intelligence officer whose information was dismissed by British intelligence as a fabrication 10 months before the war began.
Back then, the agency’s intelligence on Iraq was feeble. Throughout the 1990s, it relied on weapons inspections conducted by the United Nations and did little to develop its own sources inside the country. Then, in 1998, the world discovered that then-President Bill Clinton had received oral sex from an intern, and the GOP, working with Independent Prosecutor and sexual sleuth Ken Starr, upended the executive branch. Starr produced his lurid report on September 11, 1998, and Republicans clamored for impeachment. Fifty days later, Iraq stopped all U.N. inspections; Bonk said he had no doubt Saddam’s decision was based on a calculation that Clinton was crippled, meaning the United States was unlikely to muster a meaningful response. And Saddam was right. When Clinton shot a couple of missiles at Iraq in response, Republicans tut-tutted that he was trying to distract from the investigation into his sex life.
By 2002, Bonk and his team knew the claim that Iraq possessed WMDs was built on the intelligence equivalent of spiderwebs. On the other hand, senior Pentagon officials—including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith—were pushing Bonk about connections between Saddam and Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda. Both men were certain the ties existed, which would have helped justify an invasion.
The assertion was ridiculous. Bin Laden despised Saddam; he had even attempted to organize an Islamic army to fight the Iraqi strongman after he invaded Kuwait in 1990. Bonk instructed his team to put together a comprehensive white paper showing the hawks were wrong about a nexus between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Throughout the summer of 2002, the CIA’s top Iraq experts worked on it, with people like Feith phoning in every week or so with new, silly leads to follow.
With the experts otherwise occupied, the hawks turned to less-qualified analysts to look into Saddam’s WMDs. No “red teams”—groups intended to challenge conclusions of the other side—were used. The analysts were told their job was to prove the extent of the production and locate where the weapons were hidden.
And for any analysts unclear on what the administration wanted to hear, Vice President Dick Cheney, whom several Bush officials told me was not as smart as the president, made sure they got the message on August 26, 2002, when he delivered a public speech that had not been vetted by the White House or cleared by Bush. “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,’’ he said. “There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.”
The clear message to the worker bees at the CIA: The White House knew Saddam had the weapons. Disagree at peril to your career.
But Cheney’s unspoken threat came too late to influence analysts at the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), who were circulating a devastating report with a simple conclusion: The idea that Saddam possessed WMDs was built on air. There was no evidence any Iraqi facilities produced, tested or stored biological weapons. No mobile production plants could be found. They found nothing showing Iraq had the processes to produce chemical devices. The analysts even doubted Saddam had long-range missiles.
This report, administration officials told me, was never shown to the president. On the other hand, a National Intelligence Estimate based on the work of the less-than-qualified CIA analysts was reviewed by Bush. Coming a few weeks after the DIA report, and four months after a different CIA analysis downplayed the “Iraq has WMDs” meme, this new document roared with certitude that Saddam not only possessed chemical and biological weapons but could make a nuclear bomb in a matter of months.
Bonk told me that as soon as he read this intelligence estimate, he knew he had been played, chasing absurd claims of a bin Laden connection. He knew the intelligence didn’t back up the robust certainty of the estimate. He had just read the assessment of the Pentagon intelligence team—that, he knew, was the truth. The intelligence was weak; the new CIA estimate was a lie. After reading the document, he walked down the hall to confront one of the people involved in compiling the report.
“How did we get to this point?” Bonk told me he asked. “What are we saying here? This isn’t even what we said four months ago.”
Even the British knew Bush had been isolated from strategic and intelligence information by members of his own administration. Based on records from a meeting during the buildup to the invasion, Britain’s Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the chief of the defense staff, told then-Prime Minister Tony Blair that certain members of the American administration were compartmentalizing information on Iraq, at times keeping Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice out of the loop.
“Only [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and a few others know what’s being planned,” Boyce said to Blair, the records show. “You may speak to Bush or Rice, but do they really know what’s going on?”
Documents from inside Blair’s government show that while the prime minister believed Saddam possessed WMDs—a conclusion based in part on that bogus American intelligence—he and his staff thought that an invasion could prove to be a monumental disaster and that the U.S. strategy was based on wishful thinking and driven by incompetence. However, Blair decided to side with the Americans, both to provide a counterbalance of reason and caution to Cheney’s empty-headed warmongering and because he was unwilling to turn against the United States in what he told aides would be “the biggest shift in foreign policy in 50 years.”
In the fall of 2002, the United States finally gained the chance to obtain solid on-the-ground intelligence. With the U.S. threatening war unless Iraq turned over weapons that didn’t exist, Saddam allowed U.N. weapons inspectors to return. A Swedish diplomat, Hans Blix, was placed in charge and visited with Cheney on October 30, 2002. According to Blix, Cheney delivered a stern message: If inspectors failed to discover WMDs, the administration would discredit them.
By February 2003, Blix believed the Iraqis were largely cooperating. He met with senior American officials, including Rice, telling them that the intelligence he had obtained from the Americans was poor and that none of the suspected weapons sites identified by the CIA held WMDs. American intelligence wasn’t on trial, Rice replied. Blix was supposed to find the weapons, not question the quality of the CIA’s work.
When Blix’s inspectors came up empty, the Bush administration demanded that they portray the equivalent of popguns as major threats. For example, officials told Blix that two items found by inspectors—a balsa wood drone with a motorcycle engine and a rusted, decades-old bomb that amounted to little more than a massive paperweight—should be declared violations of the WMD restrictions. When Blix scoffed at this, administration officials anonymously leaked lies that misrepresented what the two items were, falsely declared that the inspection team thought they constituted violations of the U.N. weapons restrictions on Iraq, and attacked Blix for hiding the truth to prevent war. Ultimately, Blix found nothing. And, just as Cheney promised, the administration dismissed this strong intelligence as meaningless.
Which brings us back to the 2016 presidential candidates. Perhaps Jeb Bush and Rubio—and Hillary Clinton, too, who supported the invasion—have no knowledge of what happened in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Perhaps they don’t know the “intelligence failure” was, as Bonk believed, intentionally manufactured by pushing aside experts, ignoring good information and pumping up bad info. Or perhaps they refuse to acknowledge the lessons of history.
Whatever the reason, for you other candidates, here is the correct answer to the question: Members of the Bush administration were dead set on invading Iraq, regardless of the facts. Their arrogance, their incompetence and their lies to the public and the president—all of it led to the greatest strategic disaster in American history, one that will damage this country for decades to come.
Say those words and prove yourself worthy of the Oval Office. Otherwise, drop out of the race.
This article has been updated to include a reference to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's support for the Iraq War.