For those still puzzling over the whys and wherefores of Washington’s invasion of Iraq 11 months ago, major new, but curiously unnoticed, clues were offered this week by two central players in the events leading up to the war.
Both clues tend to confirm growing suspicions that the Bush administration’s drive to war in Iraq had very little, if anything, to do with the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or his alleged ties to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda the two main reasons the U.S. Congress and public were given for the invasion.
Separate statements by Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), and US retired Gen. Jay Garner, who was in charge of planning and administering postwar reconstruction from January through May 2002, suggest that other, less public motives were behind the war, none of which concerned self-defense, preemptive or otherwise.
The statement by Chalabi, on whom the neo-conservative and right-wing hawks in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office are still resting their hopes for a transition that will protect Washington’s many interests in Iraq, will certainly interest congressional committees investigating why the intelligence on WMD before the war was so far off the mark.
In a remarkably frank interview with the London Daily Telegraph, Chalabi said he was willing to take full responsibility for the INC’s role in providing misleading intelligence and defectors to President George W. Bush, Congress and the US public to persuade them that Hussein posed a serious threat to the United States that had to be dealt with urgently.
The Telegraph reported that Chalabi merely shrugged off accusations his group had deliberately misled the administration. "We are heroes in error," he said.
"As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been entirely successful," he told the newspaper. "That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We’re ready to fall on our swords if he wants."
It was an amazing admission, and certain to fuel growing suspicions on Capitol Hill that Chalabi, whose INC received millions of dollars in taxpayer money over the past decade, effectively conspired with his supporters in and around the administration to take the United States to war on pretenses they knew, or had reason to know, were false.
Indeed, it now appears increasingly that defectors handled by the INC were sources for the most spectacular and detailed if completely unfounded information about Hussein’s alleged WMD programs, not only to US intelligence agencies, but also to US mainstream media, especially the New York Times, according to a recent report in the New York Review of Books.
Within the administration, Chalabi worked most closely with those who had championed his cause for a decade, particularly neo-conservatives around Cheney and Rumsfeld Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith and Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby.
Feith’s office was home to the office of special plans (OSP) whose two staff members and dozens of consultants were tasked with reviewing raw intelligence to develop the strongest possible case that Hussein represented a compelling threat to the United States.
OSP also worked with the defense policy board (DPB), a hand-picked group of mostly neo-conservative hawks chaired until just before the war by Richard Perle, a longtime Chalabi friend.
DPB members, particularly Perle, former CIA director James Woolsey and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, played prominent roles in publicizing through the media reports by INC defectors and other alleged evidence developed by OSP that made Hussein appear as scary as possible.
Chalabi even participated in a secret DPB meeting just a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon in which the main topic of discussion, according to the Wall Street Journal, was how 9/11 could be used as a pretext for attacking Iraq.
The OSP and a parallel group under Feith, the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, have become central targets of congressional investigators, according to aides on Capitol Hill, while unconfirmed rumors circulated here this week that members of the DPB are also under investigation.
The question, of course, is whether the individuals involved were themselves taken in by what Chalabi and the INC told them or whether they were willing collaborators in distorting the intelligence in order to move the country to war for their own reasons..
It appears that Chalabi, whose family, it was reported this week, has extensive interests in a company that has already been awarded more than 400 million dollars in reconstruction contracts, is signaling his willingness to take all of the blame, or credit, for the faulty intelligence.
But one of the reasons for going to war was suggested quite directly by Garner who also worked closely with Chalabi and the same cohort of US hawks in the run-up to the war and during the first few weeks of occupation in an interview with The National Journal.
Asked how long US troops might remain in Iraq, Garner replied, "I hope they’re there a long time," and then compared US goals in Iraq to US military bases in the Philippines between 1898 and 1992.
"One of the most important things we can do right now is start getting basing rights with (the Iraqi authorities)," he said. "And I think we’ll have basing rights in the north and basing rights in the south … we’d want to keep at least a brigade."
"Look back on the Philippines around the turn of the 20th century: they were a coaling station for the navy, and that allowed us to keep a great presence in the Pacific. That’s what Iraq is for the next few decades: our coaling station that gives us great presence in the Middle East," Garner added.
While US military strategists have hinted for some time that a major goal of war was to establish several bases in Iraq, particularly given the ongoing military withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, Garner is the first to state it so baldly.
Until now, US military chiefs have suggested they need to retain a military presence just to ensure stability for several years, during which they expect to draw down their forces.
If indeed Garner’s understanding represents the thinking of his former bosses, then the ongoing struggle between Cheney and the Pentagon on the one hand and the State Department on the other over how much control Washington is willing to give the United Nations over the transition to Iraqi rule becomes more comprehensible.
Ceding too much control, particularly before a base agreement can be reached with whatever Iraqi authority will take over Jun. 30, will make permanent US bases much less likely.