Bush's War

Richard Armitage

photo of armitage

Armitage served as deputy secretary of state under Powell during the Bush administration's first term. Here, he recounts some examples of Bush's dysfunctional national security team, including how the bitter policy battles over Iraq became personal. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Dec. 18, 2007.

What happened to you on 9/11?

I was in a meeting in my office. My staff just came in and said something just happened at one of the Twin Towers in New York. I ... saw that an airplane had hit it, and I knew immediately this was not an accident.

I called down to our counterterrorism coordinator and said, "We have a problem here." At that moment, the second plane flew into the towers. And during that day, we evacuated the State Department. I stayed in the Ops Center and ran it in Secretary [Colin] Powell's absence, contacted all our friends, allies -- and even those who are not so friendly, like the Russians -- to explain we were going to military alert; we didn't know the dimensions of the problem, and they shouldn't be alarmed.

How did it feel when the plane hit the Pentagon?

It was another day at the office for me. Six years in Vietnam, and this was a problem; it just had to be resolved.

You got an e-mail that said they're coming for the State Department building?

We got a phone call saying State's going to be a target; there's another plane up there. And just at that moment, there was a loud noise out in the streets, and CNN started reporting there had been a car bomb outside the State Department. It turned out all to be false.

Where was the secretary?

He was in Peru. I talked to him within 10 minutes of the plane hitting. And then the second plane hit. The secretary got on his airplane and came back. He arrived late that evening. ...

The secretary landed at Andrews Air Force Base. He came right to the department, just to swing by to have a quick word with me. I went downstairs and saw him outside the department in the evening. The streets were completely deserted. The only lights you saw at all were police cars.

And then he rushed over for the meeting with the president. … We gathered again at the State Department around 11:30 or midnight. ...

On that day, ... even at that early stage, folks were searching for a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Is this correct? Were you picking up any of that?

No, not on that first day. None at all. In fact, our friends at the Pentagon were fully occupied in just trying to make sure their building survived and that their command structure stayed up. I even offered Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld the use of our secondary command post, because I could see in the video conference the smoke was starting to come into the rooms. They were occupied.

So that was all business that day. There wasn't any of this nonsense with Saddam Hussein, etc., until somewhat later.

Did you have any idea that the president's speechwriters were crafting language immediately?

No. And Mr. [Richard] Perle, [then-chair of the Defense Policy Board], can speak for himself. But the use of language such as "states which harbor terrorists" or would "permit safe haven" was actually language that was left over from [Secretary of State] George Shultz in the late '80s. This was not brand-new language, and it wasn't the specific purview of neocons. …

I knew back in the '80s, when I was an assistant secretary of defense, we were using some of that language directed toward our European friends. At the time, certain states in Europe weren't quite as energetic about the problem of terrorism as the United States was because they had worked out arrangements where terrorists would not conduct operations on their soil.

What was Secretary Powell saying to you at that moment? What was the State Department plan?

On the first night? He met with the president that evening, about 10:00 or so. He came back to the department, 11:30, and he made it quite clear that we were to contact, again, all our friends and allies, make sure that everyone understood that we were fully intact, we hadn't been decapitated in any way, that we would get to the bottom of this. We'd keep them informed.

And then Secretary Powell and I made our plans for a meeting I was already scheduled to have with the director of intelligence from Pakistan. ...

What happened with the Pakistanis?

I had very tough, strong, direct words with the Pakistanis. I did not threaten to bomb them to kingdom come or back to the Stone Age as they allege.

But it was a new day in Washington. Our Pakistani friends wanted to talk about the history of their involvement with the Taliban, and I was trying to make the point that that was past history. History for us, the new U.S.-Pakistan relation began today, and that they should be prepared for it. They were either with us or against us. And President [Pervez] Musharraf, I think, made the wise decision that he did.

How forceful did you feel about it?

I felt forceful enough, when I was finished with the meeting, to have a private word with the director of intelligence of Pakistan. I said to him that I'd received an award from the government of Pakistan for activities during the Soviet war, and I'd be glad to give it back to him, because if Pakistan didn't join us, no American would want to be seen in the company of Pakistan again.

How was that received?

He thought I was very rude and very sort of undiplomatic, I was later told.

Were you rude and undiplomatic?

I was not rude. I was very undiplomatic.

What were the stakes?

The stakes were whether we could have U.S.-Pakistan relations or whether Pakistan would continue to aid the Taliban, and thereby make our job that much more difficult in Afghanistan.

You did this with the blessing of the secretary of state?

Completely, with his foreknowledge. We staffed it together and staffed it with no one else in the administration. If we had staffed it with the rest of the administration, we'd still be arguing over the talking points. ...

What was an empty, deserted Washington like?

Well, it's pretty unique. I went home around 2:00, and I don't think I saw another car. I got home, and there were police cars outside my house. I shooed them away -- I thought they had better things to do than to hang out at the deputy secretary's house -- and went to sleep for a couple hours and came back in. ...

[When did you get a sense that people were pushing to include Iraq in the response to 9/11?]

The first sense that we got, the State Department got, of that was when Secretary Powell was at Camp David. I think the deputy secretary of defense, Mr. [Paul] Wolfowitz, raised a Saddam Hussein possible connection. As far as I'm informed by the secretary of state, it was shot down by everyone, including the president. The vice president kept his counsel, however.

Was Secretary Powell forceful in his rejection of the arguments?

I think he's always forceful. He was also correct. It's always better to be correct. ...

Secretary Powell's whole agenda was to make sure we concentrated on getting as large a coalition as possible for the Afghan invasion, because he realized there would be a day after the invasion when it would be necessary to have some nation-building. ...

What position did Secretary Rumsfeld take on these matters?

He was silent, as I was informed.

Why is Wolfowitz doing it?

I don't know. I was surprised to see the deputy secretary of defense there. This was billed as a principals' meeting. We at the State Department always took those things seriously. I stayed back at the department. When Mr. Rumsfeld got to Camp David, Mr. Wolfowitz was with him. ...

Had you been aware, before 9/11, that there was a separation between certain factions of the administration?

It was clear that there were some in the administration, primarily in the Defense Department and in the vice president's office, who did not want to engage in such things as "smart sanctions." Secretary Powell had been successful -- and under tremendous opposition from those bodies -- in getting the president to agree to a smart sanctions regime for Iraq. This would keep our allies closely aligned with us. But we were fought tooth and nail by others in the administration as we tried to get this. We won; we prevailed. This was all pre-9/11. So it was becoming very clear that there were two sides to this argument.

It was further evidenced through the support for [Iraqi National Congress founder] Ahmad Chalabi that some of the administration had. Others of us, particularly the State Department and the CIA, did not have the same degree of faith in Mr. Chalabi.

What was at the heart of this dispute? Was it something personal between Secretaries Rumsfeld and Powell?

No, no. Mr. Rumsfeld was not personally dismissive of Secretary Powell in any way, nor was Secretary Powell of Mr. Rumsfeld. This was a policy dispute; it was not a personal dispute. Below that level, at my level and others', it was both a policy dispute, and it became, unfortunately, quite personal.

In what sense?

Well, friendships were dashed, etc. I mean longstanding, 20-year, 25-year friendships.

You and who?

Me and Wolfowitz, for instance. We'd worked together handsomely for years and years. And unfortunately, our friendship has soured over this.

This is difficult?

How's that? You know, where you sit is where you stand. I was in Washington, and sometimes these things happen. It's unfortunate. ...

When it's not dysfunctional, it's very important, because you have to squeeze out all the issues for a president and let the only nationally elected leader make his decision. So it is important to have different points of view established and explored, as long as it doesn't become dysfunctional.

After the Sept. 15 meeting, were the secretary and yourself surprised that the issue of Iraq was being raised?

It was raised by one person and dismissed almost immediately. It was sort of a warning sign. But it was not raised and raised and raised again and again. It was dismissed, and attention was focused on Afghanistan.

What is [then-British Prime Minister] Tony Blair's involvement in these matters?

In Afghanistan Mr. Blair's role was very helpful. There were some in the administration that actually wanted to go alone to Afghanistan. Secretary Powell did not, and Mr. Blair thought it was important that we gather friends and allies round. He sort of echoed the message of Secretary Powell. ... So I found Mr. Blair's activities very important for us.

Why was Tony Blair participating in these matters?

I think he felt that terrorism was not just a U.S. problem, that this was a phenomenon that could infect all of us. And indeed, in that respect, it turned out he was correct.

Who was resistant?

Resisting going in a group? Well, some in the Pentagon and the vice president's office, because to the extent you share the burden, you also share power.

Is it that simple?

Well, of course it's that simple. It's always harder to work in concert with others than it is to do it alone. And this is not a new phenomenon. Think of the great Eisenhower-Montgomery disputes of World War II. ...

Is there a larger policy convergence between Powell and Blair of the view of the Middle East?

Yes, it turned out that there was. Mr. Blair had always been interested in a Middle East peace process. Secretary Powell was very interested in it, over time got the president to agree to the roadmap, which actually kept Israel and the Palestinians in some sort of closeness for a while, kept things from falling apart. Mr. Blair had always been very keen on that.

Talk about the NSC [National Security Council] meeting where the discussion quickly turned to Iraq.

There was an early NSC meeting where the question of Saddam Hussein had been brought up. ... To some extent, one could understand that. This was a remnant that had been left over from Bill Clinton's administration, where he had actually proposed a regime change. Our airplanes and British airplanes were being shot at every day -- not every other day, but every day -- over Iraq. It was only a matter of time before something more dramatic happened. So I didn't take it as totally unusual that you could raise Saddam Hussein early in the administration.

But it was put to the right in terms of things that we had to deal with. There were so many other things coming along: Treaty of Moscow, all of those type of things; and then Afghanistan, 9/11. So we had a lot of things on our plate to really debate before Iraq.

You weren't thinking about Iraq?

I wouldn't say it was gone, but it certainly was moved to the right, as I indicate. Look, other things intrude into the real world, such as the animosity and later the terrorism between Pakistan and India, where they almost went to nuclear war. We didn't spend our time focusing totally on Iraq. We had other issues to resolve and did our best for our nation. …

What was the role of Iran with regard to Afghanistan?

... The State Department wanted to talk to Iran, and we were allowed to have meetings with Iran on the question of Afghanistan, but not to give them anything. We didn't want to owe Iran anything.

So we went to them, told them we would be involved in military operations. If our aircraft strayed into Iranian territory or, God forbid, went down there, we would do what we needed to do to retrieve our pilot. They shouldn't misunderstand that we had any desires about Iranian territory. And they actually responded fairly well, because they shared, to some extent, our interest in an Afghanistan free of drugs and, frankly, free of the Taliban.

That's a major event.

It's an event. It's an event.

Not a major event?

I wouldn't call it a major event. We're having military activities on their border; they should know about it. And I think that, as I say, in the question of Afghanistan, we shared [interests], to some extent.

Did you encounter forces inside the administration who were not in favor of --

They wanted to make sure that we didn't use this to broaden our relationship with Iran.

"They" meaning the vice president?

Primarily in the Defense Department.

Why?

The whole time I was in government, some of us wanted to talk to our enemies as well as our friends and thought that was a good part of diplomacy. There were other parts of the government, and probably sometimes the president himself, who felt that maybe diplomacy was weakness at this moment and that perhaps they didn't have the faith that we could sit at the table and not have our pockets picked. ...

Talk about the incident surrounding the president signing the order setting up military commissions.

[Then-Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues] Pierre Prosper's activities are also tied together with our general counsel, Mr. [William Howard] Taft [IV]. They were, I thought, fighting the good fight, resisting commissions, resisting any sort of disregard to the Geneva Convention, all of those things.

But it turns out there were two meetings going on. There was one that we were participating in and then another one that was being run with [then-White House Counsel] Mr. [Alberto] Gonzales and Mr. [David] Addington of the vice president's office, and they were much more draconian and strict in their interpretation of how we should act.

Why were they doing that?

I think that they really felt -- I think overreacted -- but felt quite strongly that this was a chance not only to sort of engage in what was a new war but also to loosen up the bounds and the bindings that had been put on the presidency by successive Congresses.

What do you think about that?

I've shared from time to time the frustration of congressional oversight on the executive branch. But I've come to the view that a system like ours needs a certain tension between the Congress and any executive branch in order to keep us on the rails.

I think what happened to some extent, unfortunately in the Bush administration, is that since there was no congressional action for some time -- they were absent without leave, as it were -- that tension went out of the system, and the executive branch took unto themselves powers that probably were not envisioned by the founding fathers. I think any executive branch lacking the tension of Congress would have done the same.

How did you feel when the president signed this Military Commissions Act?

I'll just speak for myself. I thought it was a grand mistake on his part, and I was kind of pissed off that we had been on the gerbil wheel working hard and in good faith to try to come up with what is best for our nation, in our view, and to find out that there was another set of people meeting, doing other things.

There were other things, we know now, going on at the Office of Legal Counsel.

We know now because we've all read Mr. [Jack] Goldsmith's book. At the time, I certainly didn't know.

What are your feelings in retrospect?

The same as previously. I thought that, although it's arduous and time-consuming, when you exhaust yourself in the battle of ideas, you generally come up with the best solution. When somebody hijacks the system, then, just like a hijacked airplane, very often no good comes out of it.

Have you known Dick Cheney for a long time?

I've known Secretary Cheney since he was a member of Congress, yes.

Did it surprise you that he felt so strongly about these issues?

I would say yes, it did. I've always had a great regard for the secretary. He's always very kind, Secretary Cheney, Vice President Cheney, and I wondered how he'd become so sort of driven on these issues of executive privilege, etc.

I think I misunderstood his tenure as secretary of defense. At the time, he was surrounded by such pragmatic people as [Secretary of State] Jim Baker and [National Security Adviser] Brent Scowcroft and Chairman Powell and, I must say, President George Bush 41. So I think I didn't realize the depth of his conservatism.

Is it that once unfettered by those other gentlemen, free to operate without a Congress interested in oversight, perhaps the real Cheney emerges?

Maybe it was always Dick Cheney that had been somewhat kept under wraps because of being surrounded by pragmatic folks.

Is Dick Cheney the center player in those principals' meetings?

No. Mr. Cheney was generally very quiet. When he'd speak up, he'd indicate that he had a little problem with something. He'd generally say, "Now, let me get my head around this."

But he was very forceful in those meetings. I don't mean that in a negative term. He kept his own counsel, for the most part, at least the meetings we'd call National Security Council meetings. Of course he had an enormous amount of time with the president alone and in the company of the secretary of defense and others.

What are your feelings about Secretary Rumsfeld?

I was quite critical of his role as secretary of defense. I'm not critical of him as a patriot and as a guy who was hardworking to beat the band. I didn't know how he could spend so much time having snowflakes when the building demanded so much time to run. I didn't understand his combative attitude with Congress, because having been a congressman himself, he should know you can get generally what you want from the Congress if you just work with them a little bit. This is our system. You may not like it, and you may chafe under it. So I was fairly critical.

It's been reported that Don Rumsfeld took offense when the CIA took charge of Afghanistan. Am I missing something?

I think so. There was plenty to go around. Tommy Franks, Gen. Franks from CENTCOM, was busy, at Mr. Rumsfeld's behest, developing his own attack plan for Afghanistan. There was some real question.

There's a scene in Mr. [Bob] Woodward's first book where, we're briefing the president about Afghanistan operations. [Then-CIA Director] Mr. [George] Tenet briefed, and Mr. Rumsfeld briefed, and the president saw me looking a little quizzical and said: "What's the matter, Rich? What's your problem?" And I said, "Mr. President, this sounds FUBAR to me." He was a little annoyed. And he said: "Really? What?" And I said: "I don't know who's in charge here. You've got to have someone in charge."

According to Woodward's retelling of the tale, later, Mr. Bush told Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice, the national security adviser, that Armitage was right; fix this; get somebody in charge. So I think there were a lot of loose ends originally. I don't know that Mr. Rumsfeld perceived it as a body blow. ...

Tora Bora. What happened?

It looks like another FUBAR to me. Clearly we weren't forceful enough probably as a command responsibility, in my view, from Tampa. But in retrospect it was a mistake, and it apparently let Osama bin Laden escape.

Why?

I don't think anybody wanted to. I think it was just one of those fog-of-war things. We just blew it.

That simple? The CIA says: "We saw personnel leaving Afghanistan. The decision has been made. They don't want to go to the mountains to get killed. These individuals are getting ready for something much more important."

That may be the case. I'll defer to the CIA guys who were on the scene.

What do you think?

Opinions are like belly buttons: We've all got them. So I'll just stick to what I know.

George Tenet said his job was to knock down the Al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein connection. If he could stop that, none of the rest would fly. He worked hard to do that.

Yes, he did.

With some success?

I thought so.

How could you tell that's what he was doing? Was he talking to you about it?

I talked to George Tenet all the time, as he would tell you. We're friends as well, and I'm proud of that. I don't want to say he was looking to knock down the Al Qaeda-Hussein [connection]. If he'd seen it, he'd have come forward with it. But he explored every avenue and couldn't find the threads that hooked up, and he looked and he looked and he looked.

And every time he'd come up and say, "No, I can't connect the dots there," there would be some static in the system from the vice president or from certain parts of the Pentagon, who were running their own intelligence-gathering operation, trying to connect dots which were unconnectable.

Is that what happened?

I think that's what happened. But George -- I wouldn't want to say that he was trying to knock it down. I'd say he was trying to prove it, and he couldn't. And he'd come forward saying, "It's not there; we can't find it."

And yet certain parties persisted with the story that [9/11 hijacker] Mohamed Atta met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague.

You hear some people occasionally -- even now, in the waning days of the Bush administration -- still talking about Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

What does the secretary of state hope to get out of his Aug. 5, 2002 dinner with the president?

As I recall, he wanted to try to take the temperature of the president, see where the president was on the whole question of Iraq. And when he came back, he told me the president was in a good place, was fine; he wasn't going to be rushed into this. This is what the secretary thought. ... The secretary felt quite good about it.

Let's be clear: Neither Secretary Powell or I opposed the notion of removing Saddam Hussein by force, but we wanted to avoid the war if we could. But if we couldn't, the notion of removing Saddam Hussein from the scene seemed eminently sensible, given that you had, what, 16 or so U.N. Security Council resolutions basically saying the same thing. So we weren't anti-war; we tried to avoid this war.

What was the impetus behind that meeting? Was Powell worried that Bush was falling prey to Cheney and others' aspirations?

Probably. As I recall, the secretary had been traveling somewhere. Whenever you're out of town, no matter modern communications, you feel a little bit out of touch. So I think he wanted to come back and really, as I say, take the temperature of the president, find out, you know, were the war drums beating faster than we thought they should? As I recall, he thought the president was in a good place when he came back.

He extracted a promise that the president would go to the U.N. and lay the issue at their feet.

Secretary Powell made it clear that he felt that we should give it another go. There were others in the administration who didn't want to do that, fearful that it would allow Saddam Hussein off the hook if he took us up on our offer. And Secretary Powell was very clear with the president on that: that if inspectors were allowed back in, if Saddam Hussein did everything we wanted, this would mean no war, at least under those circumstances. The president understood it, and he agreed that when he went to New York for the United Nations General Assembly that he would include a reference for going back to the United Nations again. We felt it was a great show of statesmanship by the president.

The vice president was angry about it.

Well, I assume that. He never yelled at me about it, but we've heard that.

Was his VFW speech Cheney's form of "yelling at" you?

The VFW speech, he wasn't yelling at us; he was yelling at the president. The president was annoyed, because it seemed to prejudge a decision that, as far as at least Secretary Powell and I, hadn't been made.

What do you mean, the president was annoyed?

My understanding is the president asked Dr. Rice to call Mr. Cheney and tell him to dial it back a little bit.

Is that right?

That's what I understand.

After the VFW speech?

After the VFW speech.

Do you know if she did that?

If he wanted it, she did it. And I think his subsequent speech was dialed back a bit. You can check the record, but I'm quite sure that's right.

This is the first time Cheney mentions weapons of mass destruction. He turns from ... the connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein to weapons of mass destruction, which is something we all worry about.

We all did worry about it. I must say that finally to find out that he didn't have them -- he had programs, but he didn't have weapons -- was a great surprise to all of us, and, by the way, a great surprise to many Iraqis in the military.

During the vice president's speech, where is the secretary? Where are you?

I don't recall. We heard about it almost instantly because the CNN is always on in our offices, or BBC, by the way -- in my office, both. We didn't see the speech beforehand. I know that.

They didn't vet it?

We didn't vet it.

Is that unusual?

For a vice president, no, it's not.

Is the vice president's speech a kind of call to arms?

Yeah, as it turned out. We were all astonished.

Astonished?

I was, yeah. It seemed so far ahead of where we had understood the president's decision-making process was.

I read that you called the National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice dysfunctional to her face once, at least.

No, it wasn't a rude meeting. I told her I thought that we weren't getting decisions out of the NSC and national security apparatus, and it caused us to, each morning, get back on the gerbil wheel and gerbil away. And in Washington, after yes, the second best answer is no, so you can move on to other things.

But I must say, I didn't do her justice at the time, because I didn't credit that she had to live in the atmosphere in which she lived with all the competing pressures from Defense and from the vice president's office and all of that. I've become much more benign in my judgment of this. She was the national security adviser that President Bush wants. She was not a national security adviser perhaps in the mold that I was used to. But that's not my call; that's the president's call. ...

Describe what she was for him.

She was a faithful sounding board for him, and I think a faithful confidante for him. That's what he wanted, apparently. That would be my take. ...

We've talked to individuals who have worked for Dr. Rice. We hear that Rumsfeld would walk into meetings and say: "Don't take notes. What are you doing in this room? I don't talk to you. I talk only to him." True?

Well, if you're saying that was all directed against her, not true. But those words spoken by Mr. Rumsfeld to others in the room from time to time? Yes, true.

Intense?

Oh, just kind of pissing on the hydrants and making sure that everybody knows that he's who he is, etc. Just a way to intimidate folks.

Did Secretary Rumsfeld need to intimidate individuals?

I don't think he needed to. And the secretary of defense, in our system, is a man or a woman of enormous stature already. It was unnecessary. And I thought it was seen, in my own views, it was rather laughable and kind of a bullying technique.

Why would he do that?

You'd have to ask him.

Did he ever try it with you?

No.

In September 2002, there were words exchanged between Secretary Powell and the vice president with regard to the United Nations. Were you a witness to this?

No.

Did you hear about it?

Not in a way that stuck in my memory. I certainly would have heard any -- I get a debrief. But ... what you say is an argument can be a difference of opinion. I never saw people raise their voice in an intemperate way. I could tell they'd be icy cold and ice in it sometimes, but it's not one of these arguments where people are yelling at each other and throwing papers down and whatnot.

But the stakes are high at that moment anyway, correct?

Yeah, we felt, as we'd kind of indicated based on our discussion with the president, we were going to go back for another resolution, so yeah.

What is the story about the teleprompter during the president's speech at the U.N.?

The secretary and the president were in what I would [call] the greenroom, at the U.N. ... The secretary called me on his cell phone and said: "I'm here with the president, and it's in. It's in. The line is in the speech."

And I said, "That's wonderful news." The president said, "Who's on the phone, Colin?" He said, "Well, it's Rich." And the president, I heard him in the background yell, "Hey, Tiny." I told the secretary, "Tell the president good luck."

Then I hung up, and I watched the speech. And the president went past the place in the speech where a line had been inserted. It had been finally fought about and decided at such a late date that it didn't make it into the teleprompter. The president realizing that he'd gone past it and not inserted it, then ad-libbed it. You can tell in the speech where he did. And when I picked myself up off the floor, I was mightily relieved. ...

Why does this matter?

I think for us, this was a last attempt to avoid war, to make sure that the international community [could] see that the United States had gone the extra mile to try to talk Saddam peacefully out of his perch. Others in the administration were actually afraid, I believe, that Saddam would come out of his perch, would take this last opportunity and deny someone the opportunity of knocking him out.

When you say "others," do you mean the vice president?

I mean some in the vice president's office and in the secretary of defense's office. ...

[What happened with the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)?]

NIEs, if you want it bad, you get it bad. And I think that's what happened. And this was an NIE that it turned out many members of the U.S. Senate didn't even read. In retrospect, it's a bad NIE when you look at it from this distance and see it's really not a good piece of work.

I think in their defense, the CIA would say ... 16 intelligence agencies [had] to coordinate something in two weeks' time.

And Tenet?

He was a pro. I mean, he was given the task; he had to do the best he could. They don't spend time bitching and moaning about it after the fact. He had to do it.

By then is he worried about a groupthink that has taken us to war?

In October it was much clearer to me that we were heading on a path. It wasn't clear to me that the final decision had been made. Of course I'm not in the meetings that Mr. Tenet has with the president. ... The Congress voted to authorize the president to do this before the president had made a decision to do, which is rather kind of backward. So there were a lot of tides pushing on the administration at that time, not just groupthink internally. ...

Are you and the secretary saying, "We hope this doesn't come to war," in the fall?

We didn't think the president was at that point at that time. ... There was a push forward. But one could see it, to some extent, as a helpful pressure, that might allow Saddam Hussein, if he were of a mind, to see, "Wait a minute, these guys are serious, and the Congress is with them, so maybe I'd better take a new tack here." So I wouldn't entirely dismiss this tide as being unhelpful or whatnot. It could have been helpful had Saddam Hussein not been so bloody-minded.

Does the secretary consider resignation before the war? Does he ever consider it seriously?

You're misinterpreting or not hearing what I said previously, and that is that neither the secretary nor I were opposed to the notion of removing Saddam Hussein. We tried to avoid it. We had some differences of opinion about how to do it.

The secretary, as Gen. Franks' book indicates, wanted many more forces. I wanted to delay the decision a little bit -- not to change the decision, but to delay it. I wanted to have a little more consolidation in Afghanistan. But neither of us were opposed.

Second, that if you look at Secretary Powell's tenure for four years as secretary of state, I think you can put an awful lot of scalps on the wall about things he accomplished, big and little, whether it's India-Pakistan or whether it's the Treaty of Moscow, Millennium Challenge Account, yada yada. There are a lot of them.

So you weigh it. Had he left, do you think that would have stopped the war? No. I don't think anyone thinks that. The Congress had voted in October, long before the secretary gave his U.N. speech. The Congress voted not too long before the president gave his State of the Union speech. ... I don't think a resignation of one or two members of the administration would have necessarily changed that tide. ...

Talk about the secretary's speech to the U.N. He was given several pages by [then-Chief of Staff to the vice president] Scooter Libby, correct?

I can't recall that we accepted any of it.

How does it arrive?

It was sent over, as I recall, through the Ops Center.

An already-typed package?

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

It says "Office of the Vice President"?

Yeah. I can't remember, but the secretary spent, what, four or five days out at the CIA? Dr. Rice was there. [Then-Deputy National Security Adviser] Mr. [Stephen] Hadley, was there a lot of time, Tenet and others. And he'd been out there four days or so. The secretary called me on a Saturday and said, "What are you doing tomorrow?," and I said, "Well, I'll just be in the office." He said, "Can you come with me to the agency?," and I said, "Sure."

So I went to his house, and we spent Sunday out there. I felt he was getting a little fatigued at having to knock down all these specious allegations, and he wanted a little reinforcement. So I went out and reinforced him for that day, and we thought we finally had a pretty tight package.

In retrospect, it turns out that there were people sitting in that room who had a knowledge that the central source of so-called Curveball was probably dissembling and never mentioned it to the secretary of state.

Why?

I have no idea.

How tough is that memory to look at retroactively?

I'm personally very unhappy because, you know, a man like Secretary Powell, who had 40 years of service to this country unblemished, and as he says, this … speech, he'll carry with him. It's a blot on what I think was otherwise the most exemplary record this nation has seen probably since George Marshall, [secretary of state, 1947-49].

Larry Wilkerson witnessed --

He was there the whole time.

He said he witnessed the secretary saying, "I can't believe this," about something, doing an eye-lock with George Tenet. Tenet said, "It's ironclad."

This was one of the reasons that the director of central intelligence was seated behind Secretary Powell in New York at the United Nations. The secretary wanted to make it very clear that this represented the best judgments that our intelligence community could come up with. It turned out that they weren't good enough.

Prime Minister Blair and the secretary put a lot on the line with [then-French Foreign Minister Dominique] de Villepin. There's an ambush. Help me understand what happened.

I think the French had always been ... very reluctant on this whole thing for reasons you'd best discuss with them. But when Mr. de Villepin came out and made his press announcement, I felt that it was sort of an ambush. I think Secretary Powell felt somewhat less so, less strongly about that, because he had many discussions with Dominique.

What do you mean, "ambush"?

As I recall, Mr. de Villepin came out and gave a public statement -- I don't have it all fresh in my memory now -- that seemed to undermine the possibility of unanimity in the Security Council or even an abstention, which would have amounted to unanimity and an abstention. ...

The secretary didn't feel it was an ambush?

No. I was madder about it than he was.

Are you in agreement with everything in Powell's speech?

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

You think it's tight?

Yeah. It was unprecedented in my almost 28 years in government that a secretary of state would ever spend that much time, day and night at the CIA, trying to make sure that something was ironclad, and having all the different folks who had a hand in getting the intelligence, preparing the intelligence, sit around with him. It was unprecedented. And so I felt that it was very tight. And I also knew, by the way, how much had been thrown out.

Most of Scooter Libby's information?

I would say almost in total, the submission that came from the vice president's -- it's attributed to Scooter. I think that many other people over there probably helped him write it, but it had every kitchen sink that you could imagine.

The Atta allegation was still there?

As I recall.

Why did he give the speech? Who asked him to give the speech?

As I understand, the president did. ... My understanding is, that said, "Listen, you're the most credible figure we have." We had an eye that we, the State Department, that if we had to move forward militarily, we wanted to make sure we had as many friends and allies with us as possible. This was the way to do that, so....

The president asked him to put it all on the line?

In retrospect, you can say that. But he asked the secretary of state, who's a very credible guy, to give a speech that we thought was very tight. It wasn't exactly putting it all on the line. As it turns out, much of the intelligence was wrong or specious [so] that it turns out, in retrospect, to have been putting it on the line.

How do you discover there are no weapons of mass destruction?

You get messages from the field every day. We had [chief Iraq weapons inspector] Mr. [David] Kay out there. We had a general who used to be our attaché in Moscow who's out there; his name slips my mind right now. They were not finding things. And frankly, we'd actually seen some indications during the initial invasion that some of the Iraqi troops had been receiving mob gear -- that is, the type of clothing you'd wear if there were a chemical or biological attack -- so we'd assumed we'd discover this stuff rather rapidly.

But three or four weeks in, when we didn't, and we started spending a lot of time looking, then doubts started to creep in. But it wasn't actually, I think, till Mr. Kay came back the first time that we really realized that oops, we may not find these. I think we were all somewhat flabbergasted. ...

How big a blow to the secretary was this revelation?

He, as I, felt quite certain that there were weapons of mass destruction. And no matter what it looks like in hindsight, I don't know of anyone in the administration going in who didn't feel that that was the case. By the way, that's also true of all of our major allies.

When weapons of mass destruction are proven to be nonexistent, how does Secretary Powell react?

By then, there were many things that weren't going well. We'd had the looting in Baghdad. We'd had, after some initial lulls in fighting where things were starting to pick up, the violence and all. And by the time we were fully informed that there apparently were no weapons, we were also well down the road to what was fast becoming an insurgency. And other things intruded in.

It was one of a long list of bad news.

Yeah. But it was overtaken by events. We were there; we were losing soldiers. Our concentration had to be on, how do we move forward? …

Were individuals in your organization anticipating that postwar Iraq, if there was a war in Iraq, would fall to the State Department?

No, we weren't. In fact, the Future of Iraq Project had Defense Department officials, had military officers, had intelligence officers all taking part. I think there was 16 volumes. I wouldn't want to call it a plan. It would be unfair to call it a plan; it was not. But it was a compendium of all the things that one would have to have [a] look at and that could go wrong to include some rioting, to include local need for law enforcement officials, all of those kind of things.

We did not have the capability nor the manpower to run a country of 26 million. I mean, we have 9,000 total Foreign Service officers, total. And they're unarmed, by the way.

Chalabi said: "You don't have to worry about it. I don't like the Future of Iraq Program. I don't like what a lot of these guys are planning. The INC [Iraqi National Congress] can run this. I can run this country; I can be president." The Defense Department liked that idea.

[This] was the same Ahmad Chalabi who came to town early on after the invasion with his INC and was involved in looting, robbing cars, things of that nature, and the same Ahmad Chalabi who couldn't get a vote, couldn't win one seat in the Iraqi parliamentary elections. The notion that [we] can put a diaspora Iraqi in who had been out of the country for 30 years to lead a nation [which had] been under that much trauma for so many years was laughable and remains laughable.

Did you know that long before?

No. I had met Mr. Chalabi in '98, and I, like many others, was quite taken with him. When I got into the Department of State and I saw that we were required by congressional action to actually fund the INC, I started to look into his activities. I looked into trying to get some receipts, as a steward of the national funds, from him, not down to the penny, not down to the dollar, not even down to the hundred dollar. I just wanted to [get] an idea of where the money was going.

And when I couldn't get it -- I couldn't get any receipts from him, and he seemed upset about this -- I no longer had the State Department fund him. The funding went to the Department of Defense. So it didn't take me long to come to the belief that Mr. Chalabi was a charlatan.

But he had real believers --

Yes, he certainly did, and in the vice president's office.

Why?

Well, he was very charming and smart. This is one smart cookie.

He convinced them that this was the answer they wanted to hear?

Well, perhaps when you're telling people what they want to hear, and that you'll recognize Israel and you can have bases in Iraq and this will be the new democratic bastion in the Middle East which can change the whole picture of the Middle East, maybe there's a bit of a siren song there.

Were you and Secretary Powell onboard with [then-Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [Eric] Shinseki's prewar troop estimates?

We hadn't done the analysis and had not the capability to do the exact analysis, so we were going from past experience. It's always easier to get troops out than to introduce them. I noticed from the secretary's even small experience in Panama, when he was chairman, he flowed an extra division of troops in there after the major fighting of Panama City was gone, saying: "We don't know what's in the hinterlands, so we'd better prepare for it. We can always get these guys out."

Why didn't we plan for that?

I can only tell you what I think. He didn't share his thinking with me, but he wanted to do this in sort of a way that indicated transformation of the military. The irony there is that the image people have of the run to Baghdad is of Cold War tanks rushing into the city -- hardly transformation. He wanted to do it on the slight. I think there was a reaction against the so-called Weinberger-Powell doctrine of overwhelming force. ...

When the looting started, it was clear that the nation-building project that we were going to have to be involved in was going to be so much magnified because everything was being taken. Wires were taken, computers, everything, so we were going down to empty shelves of buildings. ...

How does it come that Secretary Powell leaves the government?

Secretary Powell had previously told the president that he, the secretary, didn't believe the national security team was working, that you had some square pegs in a round hole, that he should leave or Don should leave, or both of them should leave, but there needed to be some changes, and that he'd be happy to leave. And that's what it turned out to be. He's the one who left.

His advice to the president was, "You really need to turn"--

"-- change this team. I should leave. Don should leave. We both should leave. But you need a team that functions better together."

What was wrong with the team?

It's a hard question. It wasn't functioning smoothly. Things weren't working well. There wasn't a great deal of, as I indicated, yelling and screaming at high levels at each other, anything of that nature. Things just weren't working well.

The president had a vision. He had a vision for the country. You can argue with it, but he had a vision of how to protect this country. But we didn't have the same good execution and accountability in the administration. So I think that's what was wrong, that if you weren't driven by your own sense of doing a good job because you were the nation's steward, and for a time, you were holding the nation's trust, then there was no accountability. And the execution faltered. So I think that's what was wrong. ...

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posted march 24, 2008

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