In the run-up to the Iraq war, FBI veterans say they were pressured by the Bush administration to come up with links, no matter how tenuous, between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda to help sell the planned military incursion.
They came up empty, however, and were told to redouble their efforts, scraping the bottom of the barrel, former officials say. When they still came up empty, the administration did not invite the bureau to the critical prewar National Foreign Intelligence Board (NFIB) meeting that produced the dossier on Iraq used by the White House to sway Congress.
The FBI normally has a seat at the NFIB. But in this case, it was not represented, even though the dossier makes judgments about the likelihood of Hussein launching terrorist attacks inside the U.S. a topic clearly within the FBI’s realm of expertise.
John M. Cole, who retired late last year from the FBI as program manager for foreign intelligence investigations covering Pakistan and Afghanistan, says he and other managers were tasked before the war with exhausting all sources in the field for information tying Iraq to al-Qaeda.
"Everybody was tasked," he recalls in a exclusive interview. "Right before we attacked, my unit chief [in Washington] came over and said, ‘OK, I want you to e-mail the field divisions and ask them to check their sources to find if they’re aware of any connection between al-Qaeda or any terrorist groups and the Iraqi government.’"
Cole, who worked out of FBI headquarters, says the bureau-wide search did not turn up any substantive links.
"We had some very good sources, and I sent the communication out, and they all came back negative nothing that they were aware of," he says. "Some of them said al-Qaeda doesn’t even get along with the Iraq regime because they’re not fundamentalist enough, and there were other reasons why they didn’t associate with each other."
However, FBI sources did find links between Hussein’s regime and the Palestinian Intifada against Israel. Hussein had sent millions of dollars to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.
"The only connection they came even close to establishing was that the Iraqi government was providing funds to the suicide bombers’ families in the Palestinian territories," Cole says. "That was the only thing we could find, but that hardly amounted to a direct threat against the United States."
When they reported back to headquarters that they’d struck out finding a solid Iraq-al-Qaeda link, top FBI brass insisted they dig harder. "They said, ‘Look again,’" Cole recalls.
"I remember thinking it was bullsh*t, because it just seemed to me they were grasping at anything they could find to justify this war," Cole says. "And I was sitting there telling [a colleague] this is wrong we should never attack somebody unless they’re a threat to us. Saddam’s not attacking us, he hasn’t attacked us, he’s not the threat. The al-Qaeda group is the threat. Why are we even looking at Iraq?"
Phone calls seeking comment from FBI headquarters were not immediately returned.
Cole, who voted for Bush in 2000, says the president’s decision to invade Iraq in the middle of a war on al-Qaeda played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands, and only made America a bigger target for terrorists.
"We’re in a mess now though. Bin Laden started this thing, but now we’ve played right into his hands. Iraq validates everything he’s been saying about America," he says. "By attacking Iraq we’ve increased the terrorist problem."
"Bush says we’re fighting the terrorists over there and not here," he adds. "Well, he’s made the whole situation worse, as far as I’m concerned."
Before the war, CIA analysts were tasked with the same assignment of turning over every stone to see if a link between Hussein and bin Laden could be made.
Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s al-Qaeda unit at the time, says then-CIA Director George Tenet in 2002 asked his team to review all their classified files going back 10 years. Scheuer and his analysts combed through some 20,000 documents totaling more than 65,000 pages and found no connection in Iraq of a state sponsorship of al-Qaeda.
The agency took its findings to the White House, and it had "no impact," Scheuer says. Then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials nonetheless went on TV and said a relationship between Hussein and al-Qaeda could be clearly documented.
The CIA’s inconvenient findings made their way into the final judgments section of the dossier on Iraq called the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which was the consensus of the intelligence community (sans FBI input) regarding the Iraqi threat. It was presented to the White House and Congress on Oct. 1, 2002.
Page four of the 92-page NIE concluded that there is no evidence to suggest Hussein’s regime "directed attacks against U.S. territory" or formally collaborated with al-Qaeda.
In fact, it said that Hussein would not even attempt to join forces with bin Laden unless he feared an attack by the U.S. that threatened the survival of his regime. Then, and only under those desperate circumstances, the secular leader might seek "revenge" by taking the "extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists," according to the document.
"The point we made to the NIE was he [Hussein] would only provide weapons and material support to terrorists to attack the United States if he was cornered," confirms then-deputy CIA director John McLaughlin.
Indeed, the NIE gave "low confidence" to the view that "Saddam would engage in clandestine attacks against the U.S. homeland" or would even "in desperation" "share chemical or biological weapons with al-Qaeda." (Of course, it now turns out that he did not have such weapons or even the programs in place to build them.)
Curiously, the findings downplaying a terror threat from Iraq were removed from the unclassified version of the NIE, or "white paper," that the administration posted on the CIA Web site for public viewing later in October 2002.
The white paper, which was quoted often by the media, focused instead on the threat from Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. It turns out that it was adapted from an earlier document drafted by the White House Iraq Group, a secret shop set up by Bush’s chief of staff and other top advisers to sell the war to Congress and the public.
In speeches, Bush contradicted the classified findings of the NIE which of course were unknown to the public at the time insisting that Hussein’s regime was an "ally of al-Qaeda" and posed a direct terrorist threat to America.
Less than a week after the NIE was published, for example, he warned that "on any given day" provoked by U.S. attack or not, sufficiently desperate or not Hussein could team up with bin Laden and conduct a joint terrorist operation against America using weapons of mass destruction.
The next week, in an Oct. 14 speech in Michigan, Bush claimed Hussein was in league with bin Laden and planning to use his network of terrorists as a "forward army" to attack America.
"This is a man that we know has had connections with al-Qaeda," he said, referring to Saddam. "This is a man who would like to use al-Qaeda as a forward army. And this is a man that we must deal with for the sake of peace."
Last year, the 9/11 Commission concluded in its exhaustive report that there were no operational ties between Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda before Bush invaded Iraq.
Former FBI official I.C. Smith says that point would have been made even more forcefully in the prewar NIE report if the FBI had been present at the critical NFIB meeting held at Langley on Oct. 1, 2002.
Smith, who has represented the FBI at NFIB meetings in the past, says it’s no coincidence the bureau was not represented along with the other intelligence agencies, which included: the CIA; Defense Intelligence Agency; National Imagery and Mapping Agency; National Security Agency; INR, the State Department’s intelligence unit; and the Energy Department’s intelligence unit. Tenet chaired the meeting and later briefed the president and Rice on the key findings of the NIE, which was drafted by the National Intelligence Council, based at Langley.
"I was against going to war in Iraq simply because I didn’t trust the intelligence. I knew that there were few, if any, human source assets in Iraq," Smith says. "But more important, I didn’t trust Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney or Rice and their motives."
He says they hammered the FBI and CIA, as well as other agencies, to gin up negative information to justify attacking Iraq.
But when they couldn’t come up with what they needed, he says they turned to Iraqi defectors and other sources outside the government many of whom they knew to be unreliable to help them make the terror case against Iraq.
For example, a report repeatedly cited by Cheney that lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague was disputed before the war and came from an unreliable source a drunk, no less. And the claim cited by several officials, including then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and Bush himself, that Iraq was coaching al-Qaeda on chemical warfare came from an al-Qaeda informer that the Defense Intelligence Agency identified as a fabricator in reports circulated months earlier.
"It was clear to me when I saw Powell make his presentation before the UN, that most of the information, most of the suppositions, were based on intercepts and imagery that is, photographs and even drawings [in the case of the phantom mobile bioweapons labs] and not on human-source reporting" from reliable assets on the ground inside Iraq, Smith says.
And the little human-source reporting Bush officials relied on came from Iraqi defectors who had been out of the country for years, or other unreliable informers with a motive to lie, he adds.