Two former CIA officials spoke to Insider before the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. They gave a firsthand account of the George W. Bush administration’s attempts to misrepresent intelligence and assert a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. In fact, the evidence assembled by the CIA suggested that no such connection existed.
One of these false connections was a supposed meeting that had occurred between Mohamed Atta, the chief 9/11 hijacker, and Iraqi intelligence agents in Prague. In December 2001, then-Vice President Dick Cheney went on “Meet the Press” and falsely claimed that the meeting was “pretty well confirmed.” A 2003 CIA cable states that “not one” official within the US government had evidence that the Prague meeting actually happened. Nevertheless, it became a key part of the administration’s public case for launching the Iraq invasion on March 20, 2003, a conflict that would cost an estimated 300,000 lives.
The officials’ combined years of service at CIA totals up to more than four decades. Their identities are known to Insider, and are referred to below by pseudonyms due to the sensitivity of their positions. Their discussion has been edited for brevity.
Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, and John McLaughlin did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Alice: Nobody in Washington comes out and calls Bush a liar. Everybody is too polite. They use some other term for what he did. But he lied. I want to be clear about what I mean by that. He knew what he was saying was not true. He took judgements from the intelligence community that were very uncertain, judgements that we put out there with very clear caveats — “we believe Iraq is continuing its nuclear program, but we have a low degree of certainty, blah blah blah” — he would just come out and state those things as fact. He did this over and over again. Just like Cheney saying that Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague, as a fact. When the truth was, there was a great deal of doubt about it. It was our job at CIA to stand fast, to keep those ridiculous notions under control. And we tried. But there was only so much we could do. The White House wanted a justification for the invasion. The closest they came was this alleged, and apparently nonexistent, help that Iraq gave al-Qaeda [via Atta] in bringing about the attacks. So they tried to trace any kind of contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraq.
Bob: Meanwhile, our Iraqi analysts were saying, quite truthfully, that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime were so far apart in their ideologies — Saddam was a pure secularist, al-Qaeda was a messianic vision of a caliphate and self-consciously Islamic, at least purportedly. That is like cats and dogs, you can’t mix those. Of course, Saddam knew al-Qaeda was in his country. He knew everything that happened in his country. As a matter of simply staying in power he had to know. So it’s perfectly natural that he would know who was al-Qaeda and what they were up to and that kind of thing. But this was not a working relationship. It was about surveillance.
Alice: Today, people say that Bush was looking to justify the invasion of Iraq. He wasn’t. What he was looking for is something different — selling points. The decision to invade had already been made, and there was not any intelligence that was going to change their opinion. So this was not an effort to justify the war. It was an effort to sell the war publicly. That’s an important distinction. The Bush administration was very explicit about their Iraq obsession almost immediately when they took power.
Bob: There was a group of analysts who were looking at the hijackers. Many of us were Russia analysts — for them, the Arab field was totally new. Pretty soon it became clear that the administration was focused on this alleged meeting between Atta and Iraqi intelligence in Prague. We couldn’t substantiate it. The hope was expressed pretty clearly to us, early on, that we could find something. The White House was obsessed with finding any evidence at all.
British intelligence realized it first. They essentially said, “My god, these people are going to invade. It doesn’t matter what we write.”
Alice: A lot of that pressure on the agency comes down through the briefers. They come back from their meetings with the president and other senior officials, give feedback. On a contentious issue you might go to a meeting upstairs on the seventh floor, with the briefers, where everybody is in the room. Once, I was writing a PDB [item for the President’s Daily Brief] on what going into Iraq would likely do to our terrorism cooperation with allies. The message I got back was, the president doesn’t want to hear about this. Iraq was a done deal.
Bob: They were all saying that. I mean, the US was moving our forces over to the Middle East big-time. You’re not going to waste all that fuel and transport power and then listen to Saddam. British intelligence realized it first. They essentially said, “My god, these people are going to invade. It doesn’t matter what we write. It doesn’t matter what their own intelligence analysts tell them about the consequences. They’re going to invade.”
Alice: I remember just totally blocking this whole thing out of my mind. I was like, “No we can’t possibly go into Iraq because that would be the worst thing we could possibly do.” And then one day, I realized we were going. It was a done deal. It was a horrible thing. Because we had a real opportunity to deal a death blow to al-Qaeda, or at least get it down to a level where it would be manageable. Instead we blew it up. We created the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS.
Bob: CIA analysts wound up working on Atta for three years, because policymakers were so obsessed with him. My understanding is that it all started with one photograph of this supposed meeting he had in Prague. We got it a few weeks after the attacks. It was really grainy. Maybe it was him, maybe not. He wasn’t entirely facing the camera, and there were other grainy figures around him. The folks who gave us this photo in the first place, they finally said, “You’re looking for something that probably isn’t there.” Initially, the photo recognition team had said that there was a 60 percent chance it was him. But soon we were speculating that they’d inflated that number because of so much pressure on them. And eventually, they backed off. They said they couldn’t identify who it was.
Bob: But that didn’t stop the administration. They came to CIA and said, “We want to be able to show that Atta was in Prague.” Early on, we said, “Well, our own photo recognition people can’t substantiate it.” Later on, as information came dripping in from our sources and the FBI, we started having doubts that Atta had even left our country. There was so much evidence. Reams and reams of spreadsheets. The Prague thing unraveled early on. But the obsessive questioning about Atta and Prague went on for at least two more years. “Find the Iraqi angle. There’s got to be something somewhere. We still haven’t heard you totally disprove that Atta was there.” We were saying, you know, “we can’t.” Over and over again. Eventually I could answer it in my sleep. The question came from Cheney’s principals. Paul Wolfowitz. Scooter Libby. The questions were called “taskings” from these “principals.” The taskings came to us from either our branch chief, or the CIA briefers who went over to the White House. We got at least ten of these taskings. They would say, “We want to make sure we haven’t missed an Iraq angle, we want to make sure you people are categorical on the Atta thing.” This is like saying you want to one hundred percent prove a negative.
Bob: Then, later on, some of the big guys tried to push the blame down the working level, where the job gets done. They’d talk about the analysts’ inability to agree on the Iraqi connection, or whether Atta was in Prague.
Alice: The only real dispute was between people who thought we should say there are absolutely no contacts between al-Qaeda and Saddam, and the people who said there are minor contacts that are absolutely not terror-related. They actually brought in a mediator. There was one guy — and he was really adamant about this — he said you should not say anything about the minor contacts, because it will be taken the wrong way. He was right. This was a minefield for us.
Alice: Cheney stripped the caveats off of everything, things that we told him we’re not sure about, or we’re pretty sure aren’t true. He just came out and said that this is true, and he also implied that he knew these things because he had the intelligence. He implied that he had stuff that nobody else could see, which was why he believed it, so he was in this position to talk about this threat that nobody else had the right information on. That was a lie.
Bob: My understanding is that John McLaughlin, the CIA’s deputy director, eventually put his foot down and said he’d had enough. He told the White House to stop asking.
Bob: We had this entire vault, as big as a whole room. You had to punch a code to get in. As one of my branch chiefs said, that’s just something to keep honest people honest. You can’t have folks wandering the halls, going from room to room. Inside the vault, floor to ceiling, were these paper printouts. All caps, you know how those cables are. Two or three guys from my branch and I were going through them and highlighting every Arab name. They’d take a stack back and the boss would say, “Oh, you did that fast. Here’s another stack.” This was a real assembly-line operation. We kept being asked to reinvestigate. We kept hearing highly placed officials including the vice president saying on television that it was pretty well confirmed the Prague meeting had occurred. Wrong. That’s a lie.
You can fight to get intelligence up to the seventh floor and out of the building. But if the president himself has essentially made it known that he doesn’t want to hear this, because we’re going into Iraq anyway, well, good luck.
Alice: One of the problems that we had during this whole era [under Director George Tenet] was that CIA had such a close relationship with the president. So when the president is bad, the agency is bad. I mean it’s just not effective. There’s no firewall. And I think that analytical judgments like the National Intelligence Estimate — they should come out in unclassified versions with press conferences. Because intelligence belongs to the nation. That’s been happening a bit more recently, with the declassified assessments in Russian interference and the origins of the coronavirus and so on. But it’s not enough. Now, I’m not going to go and tell you anything about sources we had, or how we got intelligence. But the judgments, analytical judgments based on all of this information that came out. I believe those belong to the people. Releasing as much as you can protects us. Because when you have a president like Bush or Trump, everybody should have the information. When only the president has it, we can get into a situation where we can’t stop a war.
Bob: Part of what’s motivating us is how tired we got, getting blamed for faulty intelligence after we went into Iraq and found no weapons of mass destruction. That really grates. And the public has a very dim idea of all of this. Of our internal workings. So this is the view from the trenches. You can fight to get intelligence up to the seventh floor and out of the building. But if the president himself has essentially made it known that he doesn’t want to hear this, because we’re going into Iraq anyway, well, good luck. This is hard on the agency. People will resign or move somewhere else. And those are the people you want in the analytic positions, the people who can speak truth to power.
Eventually you have to hold somebody responsible for what they did.
Alice: When nobody knows what the president or vice president knew, or when they knew it, you get a situation where Bush can stand up and say, “Well, there were no WMDs, but we were given false information.” OK, no you weren’t. The trench view is no you weren’t. You demanded faulty intelligence, because you wanted only intelligence that was going to support this big extravaganza of invasion of Iraq, and you got it.
Bob: We both still feel kind of a loyalty to CIA. We still have to explain ourselves to people in the street, to our friends. So we’ve got this grudge against bad history as written by people in high places that made the decisions. Cheney in particular. It’s flagrant. Misusing intelligence, demanding intelligence that has nothing to do with reality. Bush and Cheney had a National Intelligence Estimate, which they ignored. It said results of the invasion could be insurgency, civil war, in other words, unless there’s another strongman to step in just as bad as Saddam is, this place is going to fall apart. You’re going to create a monster in Iran, which is going to have — with its Shiite population — is going move in to Iraq.
Alice: I think it comes down to what you think Cheney believed. Do you think he really believed that that meeting happened?
Bob: Not from anything we told him. But I don’t know if I can call him a liar.
Alice: I will call him a liar. I think he was deliberately leaving himself room to fudge. He knew he was not conveying a truthful version of the intelligence on this and other issues, all of the WMD issues, and he was looking for a specific impact, which was selling a war. He knew he was misrepresenting things. All these books stop short of calling him a liar. They bend over backward to be fair to Cheney. Nobody wants to give an unvarnished opinion. Well, I’m out of varnish. I ran out of it in 2003. Eventually you have to hold somebody responsible for what they did. Cheney took this huge tragedy of 9/11, which is just almost so vast that you can’t express it, and without a pause, cynically turned that into a way to sell another war. That was to the detriment of efforts to stop any further attacks. It is, I think, criminal cynicism. I blame him. And I am not going to give him wiggle room. My message was so controlled for so long. I don’t feel like mincing words anymore.
Mattathias Schwartz is a senior correspondent at Insider and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.