Bush's Paper Trail Grows
John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in
On March 27, The New York Times published an article based on access to the full British record of the Iraq policy conversation that President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair held on January 31, 2003, as recorded by Blair’s then-national security adviser David Manning. British legal scholar Philippe Sands had already revealed this discussion in his book Lawless World , and the British television network Channel 4 had—two months ago—printed many of the same excerpts of Manning’s memo, but the Times coverage focused new attention on the memo, previously ignored by the U.S. media.
The memo reveals that the two leaders agreed that military action against Iraq would begin on a stipulated date in March 2003—despite the fact that no weapons of mass destruction had been found there. The memo reveals how the two leaders mulled over ways to supply legal justification for the invasion. Indeed this record supplies additional evidence for the view that Bush planned all along to unleash this war.
Suddenly, the media descended upon the Bush White House demanding explanations. Spokesman Scott McClellan answered that “we were preparing in case it was necessary, but we were continuing to pursue a diplomatic solution.” McClellan tried to turn the question around by insisting that the press had been covering Bush at the time chronicled in the memo, implying that if the truth were different the press should have known better. He referred repeatedly to a December report from U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to back his assertion that Iraq had failed to cooperate with the inspections. Evidently that cowed the reporters, for there has been little follow-up. But White House damage control should not be allowed to cover up this evidence that the president knew his case for war was based on faulty evidence.
First, the evidence is overwhelming that Bush hosted the January 31 meeting to manage his move to war, not as an occasion to review progress toward disarming Iraq. The record of the session shows this—with talk of the war plan, the starting date, the justification and the securing of a second U.N. resolution as a legal cover, but there is more than that. Consider the context: the day the memo was taken U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell began the extensive review at the CIA of the allegations he would use to make his Security Council “briefing”—already scheduled—supposedly “bulletproof.” It was also that same day that the codebreaking National Security Agency issued a directive to spy on the friendly nations who were members of the U.N. Security Council to divine their attitudes on the move to war.
The day before, according to Bob Woodward’s account, Bush had told Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, “We will kick ass.” By his account, Berlusconi tried to dissuade Bush from war. Woodward duly notes the president resorting to his standard line that no decision had yet been made on military action. The Manning memo suggests otherwise, with Bush revealing March 10 as the projected date for beginning bombing—a campaign to hit 1,500 targets in four days, the “shock and awe” which U.S. officials bragged about at the time. Moreover, on January 24, the U.S. military commander, General Tommy Franks, had sent his final war plan up through Rumsfeld to the president. Bush’s comment to Blair on January 31, that “he was not itching to go to war,” is belied by the entire surrounding structure of events.
The other significant finding in the Manning memo concerns Tony Blair’s intentions. The press reporting at the time—regardless of what Scott McClellan says today—was that the purpose of the Blair-Bush meeting was to decide whether there needed to be a second U.N. resolution. Postwar investigations in London show that in late January Blair received official advice from his attorney general Lord Goldsmith that such a resolution was necessary to fulfill the terms of the existing resolution 1441. At the meeting with Bush, however, the record shows Blair presented the project as a convenience. “If anything goes wrong . . . a second resolution would give us international cover, especially with the Arabs,” Blair said, according to Manning’s memo.
Bush went along with Blair’s talk of a resolution, but his own propositions on justifications for war revealed his true lack of interest in U.N. action. Bush speculated about deceiving Saddam into shooting at U.S. aircraft phonied up to look like U.N. planes, or getting an Iraqi scientist to assert that WMD were being concealed. The most widely reported aspect of the Bush-Blair meeting was these speculations (talk of a Saddam assassination was less justification than opportunity).
Bush told Blair he would “twist arms” to get a U.N. resolution, corresponding exactly to the NSA spy directive, which would track the success of Bush arm-twisting through U.N. members’ own communications. Regardless of the outcome, Bush told Blair, “military action would follow anyway.” Blair’s assurance at that point that Britain stood with the U.S. put him squarely in the box with Bush of seeking to initiate an aggressive war.
Finally, on the matter of U.N. inspections, David Manning appears to have engaged in some policy advocacy, as opposed to strictly confining himself to recording the proceedings of this meeting in his memorandum to Tony Blair. Manning’s paper notes the conversation among the leaders on the urgency of action if Bush’s timeline was to be met. Blair’s adviser argued that, “We therefore need to stay closely alongside Blix, [and] do all we can to help the inspectors make a significant find.” But Manning’s view did not reflect the realities of—at least—U.S. intelligence cooperation with the inspections. Rather, the CIA had been parsimonious in its help, taking weeks to begin providing tips, and then holding back many of its target folders, while national security adviser Condi Rice had put pressure on Blix to declare Iraq in violation.
Immediately upon finishing their talk, at 4:12 p.m. Bush and Blair appeared before newsmen, where Bush declared, “Saddam Hussein is not disarming. He is a danger to the world.” Bush then added archly, “This issue will come to a head in a matter of weeks, not months,” an almost exact repetition of Blair’s comment at their secret meeting, as recorded by Manning, that “we should be saying that the crisis must be resolved in weeks, not months.”
President Bush asserted, inaccurately, that Resolution 1441 “gives us the authority to move without any second resolution,” a position the Attorney General of Great Britain had rejected only days before. Blair followed up, insisting that Dr. Blix had told the Security Council that Saddam was not cooperating with UN inspectors. In fact, what Blix had said when he reported to the U.N. on January 27 was that there had been difficulties with the Iraqi government but the situation was improving, and he added that his inspectors had made 300 visits to 230 different sites without finding any evidence of WMD. Nuclear inspector Mohammed ElBaradei had agreed, “We have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons program.” Hans Blix’s own take on the Bush-Blair conversation rings true: “The U.S. government did not want to raise the hope that there was any way out but war.”
On balance the newly revealed record of President Bush’s secret meeting of January 31, 2003, confirms that by that date Bush’s Iraq war was certain. The Manning memo supplies an explicit picture of Bush not merely cherrypicking only the intelligence he wanted to use, but scheming to overcome the consequences of not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
In all likelihood the debate over the Iraq war will come to center on the question of how much sooner than January 2003 was Bush’s war policy cast in stone. Was it September 2002, when Bush blurted out “I don’t know what more evidence we need” and set up the White House Iraq Group to sell the war? Was it April at a previous Bush-Blair summit in Crawford or December 2001 when General Franks presented the first war plan to the president? Was it on or immediately after 9/11 or was it the day George W. Bush took the oath of office as President of the United States?