The tensions, conflicts, personality and politics that played out behind closed doors in the Bush administration, and in particular, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
- Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with
- Daniel Benjamin
- Richard Clarke
- Steve Coll
- Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong
- Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.)
- Richard Kerr
- Lawrence Wilkerson
National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, National Security Council, 1998-2001
...The Rumsfeld-Cheney relationship -- help me understand it.
The Rumsfeld-Cheney relationship made it very difficult, I think, for the national security adviser, because for one thing, the vice president was sitting in meetings where vice presidents had never been before. So here's the national security adviser, Dr. Rice, who should be the most senior person in the room, chairing the meeting -- and she is chairing the meeting, but sitting right there is the vice president of the United States at the table, inches away, who is more senior than she is. That was difficult.
Then you combine the fact that the vice president is really personally close to the secretary of defense; that they've been working together, playing together for decades. And you have a secretary of defense ignoring the national security adviser -- not taking advice, not taking suggestions, because he talks to the White House at a higher level. That made it difficult for Dr. Rice, too.
And the effect of all of this?
I think the effect of all of this is that you have this wiring diagram that we all know of about national security. But now there's a new line on it; there's a line from the vice president directly to the secretary of defense, and it's as though there's a private line between those two. The secretary of defense, therefore, is insulated. He's given broad instructions: "You go out and solve this problem, and we'll cover you. Don't worry; the national security adviser is not going to micromanage you. Secretary of state's not going to get in your knickers. You're in charge; go take care of it."
And the director of central intelligence? Where does he fall in that circle?
[He] is regarded pretty much as an employee in that circle. He's fine as long as he doesn't say something that is not consistent with what they want to do. He's fine as long as he doesn't try to fight the secretary of defense over the assets that they jointly manage. When he tries to take on the secretary of defense, he's out of line.
And even with his personal relationship with the president, he doesn't have juice in that way?
I think the personal relationship with the president that George Tenet had is still that of an employee. It doesn't begin to touch the decades of working together that Cheney and Rumsfeld had. ...BACK TO TOP »
... How does the Tenet personality capture, if that's what happened, the president of the United States?
At the time, the principal privilege of the director of the CIA was that if he wished, and if he was in town, he had a daily appointment scheduled with the president, one on one, to provide him with a direct briefing of overnight developments in the world that the president of the United States ought to know about. Tenet used the opportunity in the morning briefing to build a personal relationship with the president.
... It's very easy to see how Tenet and George W. Bush would have gotten along on a personal level at these morning briefings. They're both men who aren't going to spend a lot of time pulling apart nuances of international relations. They're interested in short, sharp facts -- a clear sense of direction. Tenet is a great briefer. He has a relaxed personality. He, like the president, is casual in his demeanor, casual in his speech, funny, quick to banter. It's easy to imagine at these briefings that two men who didn't know each other at all discovered that they were similar personalities.
The president would have seen in Tenet a fellow traveler. His White House, though, would have had questions about Tenet's ultimate loyalty to the Bush administration. Tenet was, although this was not widely known, a registered Democrat. He had worked on the Democratic side of the aisle in his earlier career in the Senate. And though he had carefully developed a reputation as a nonpartisan Washington professional, even to the extent that he had Democratic connections, they were all on the conservative side of the party. Still, he had not come to this administration from the trenches. He had not established a record of contacts and support within the Republican Party.
So before Sept. 11, Tenet had a paradoxical relationship with the White House. His relationship with the president was very good and very personal, but his relationship with the Bush administration, particularly the true believers in the administration, was underdeveloped, and there were questions among some of the conservative and most loyal travelers in the Bush administration about whether Tenet really belonged among them. ...BACK TO TOP »
National Security Council, 1994-1999
...You write about how [the administration] really wanted to go war in April of '02, the secret meeting that happened --
Yeah, we know from several participants that there was a meeting in the Old Executive Office Building on Martin Luther King Day weekend of 2002. Now, remember, this is just four months after the attacks on New York and Washington. And we still have things going on in Afghanistan, the war is not over there. There's still a lot to be done, and there is a meeting, at which only one or two people attend from each agency.
It appears that it was chaired by Wayne Downing, who had been Deputy National Security Adviser for Counterterrorism; he had taken over from Dick Clarke. And it appears as well that the briefing papers had been produced by the Office of the Vice President, and this is a fairly strange thing to some of those who were there. One of them, who was a very senior official, said to me, "It really was not clear at this period who was in charge of the U.S. Government," which is a very striking thing. ...
I think it really meant that no one knew whether the national security adviser was playing her traditional role as the coordinator of all the different agencies involved in the national security process, or whether the vice president's office had slipped into that role. Remember, there were a lot of questions about who was going to be chairing the meetings, if the vice president was going to be regularly attending principals committee meetings? And there were a lot of uncertainties as to who was really running the show.
Cheney has built up an enormous staff, much larger than any previous vice president. And he clearly has the president's ear on foreign policy issues, at a minimum in a way that no other vice president has ever had. And so, the papers at this meeting are circulated. ... They discussed just what would need to be done to go to war in, essentially, four months' time. And obviously, in meeting like this, you don't come to conclusions, you throw out all the problems that need to be assessed.
Well, at some point after this, [National Security Adviser] Condi Rice, who apparently didn't know about this meeting, got wind of it. And she insisted that all the papers be destroyed, and that there would be no further meetings along these lines.
What was her reaction to not being invited to the hearing, or the meeting?
According to those who were involved, she was aghast. She was furious. And frankly, for a national security adviser not to be invited to a meeting on whether the United States was going to go to war, and what it would take to do [so], is mind-boggling.
What does it tell you, or what did it tell your source?
Well, those people who were involved in this, and many others who didn't know about this meeting, but when told about it, said, "Yes, that's just further evidence of the extent to which a government within a government was driving foreign policy." That the traditional statutory process of a National Security Council that brings together the secretaries of state and defense, and all the other agencies sitting around deliberating, that that was no longer where the action was. That the meetings were happening, but they weren't necessarily the meetings that mattered. ...BACK TO TOP »
...How was everybody on that video conference [after 9/11]? You're an eyewitness to history. Did anybody stand out as being as particular --
At that time, everybody had the thought that the president -- I mean, these are the words they were using -- that he was a pawn of the vice president. Well, I've got to tell you, in that room, he was no pawn. He was in charge; he set the agenda. He had a way of going around, and if two people didn't agree, he'd let them discuss it and then goes, "OK, this is what I believe," and then went to the next person. Before he came back to us, he said, "Dick, you got anything to add?" This is talking to Cheney. And Cheney put his two cents' worth in. The president said, "Tommy, what do you think?" And that's how we went. ...
So the vice president in these moments?
Just deferential to the president. He took notes. If he thought that one of the staff had missed something, he'd say, "Mr. President, here would be something I'd consider." But never, ever did he make a decision, try to make a decision. It always came from the president. And the president really didn't treat him much different than he did the other staff members -- always very professional. ...
How was the relationship [between] [Gen. Tommy Franks and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld]? In the beginning, was it tough?
Really tough. Franks and he had it out a couple of times. One time Franks said [to me], "You're going to be the new CINC [Commander-in-Chief] tomorrow, because I don't think I'll be here the next day." The tensions were really high, and Franks was not getting any more sleep than I was. By the way, he drinks maybe 15 cups of coffee a day, smokes two packs of cigarettes, cigars and chews, so he's running on adrenalin and caffeine and nicotine, so it doesn't take much to scratch that line. He and Rumsfeld went at it a couple times, and finally Franks said, "Hey, either let me run it or fire me, but I can't keep being second-guessed." [Rumsfeld] wasn't second-guessing. What the secretary was doing was asking him multiple questions. Well, pretty hard to develop a plan when you're getting questioned every time you move, so Franks changed his way of doing business in that he briefed the secretary more, so he quit getting the questions. Well, pretty hard to develop a plan when you're getting questioned every time you move. ...
There was a lot of information that was coming up out of [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith's office, raw intelligence ... moved up through the secretary and even over to the vice president. Were you privy to that information, the stuff about yellowcake, about Al Qaeda, all the weapons of mass destruction? Was that coming your way, too?
... Feith wasn't somebody we enjoyed working with, and to go much further than that would probably not be a good thing. To be honest, we blew him off lots of times. Told the secretary that he's full of baloney, his people working for him are full of baloney. It was a real distraction for us, because he was the number three guy in the Department of Defense.
What was wrong with him, General?
He had some people around him that weren't very good. He thought he knew more than he did, which is dangerous. That's about it. I don't know anything else other than that, except that I had some knockdown, drag-out discussions with him.
Things that he was doing, things I didn't agree with. And he said, "Well, this is what we're going to do." And I said, "Well, if you do, we're both going to the secretary; we're going against you." He said, "Well, you're not going to --" I said: "Yeah, we are. We don't believe in what you say. You're full of baloney."
... There [were] a number of the things that we just didn't agree with: that he was pushing them to the secretary instead of running them by us first, which we always did to him -- run it by him. The secretary would say, "Well, what about this?" And I'd say, "Where'd you get that from?" "Douglas Feith." Well, yeah, of course Feith would always -- we never did anything behind anybody's back. We said: "We don't agree with him. Have Feith explain it to you. We'll walk through our reason why not; let him walk through his reason why."
The secretary was, again, even with Feith, was unmerciful. When Feith started to stumble, he said, "It's obvious you don't know what you're talking about; we'll go with Franks." ...BACK TO TOP »
...How did you hear about it, that they were headed in this direction [Iraq] in February of 2002?
Well, I heard about it during a briefing at Central Command [CENTCOM], which is located in Tampa, Fla., on the Afghanistan war. The briefing was very positive. Things were going well; victory appeared to be close at hand. Then I was told in a private meeting that no, that wasn't the case; that in fact, we were beginning to recede from the war in Afghanistan precisely to get ready for Iraq.
Who told you?
Gen. Tommy Franks. ... The general said, "Senator, I would like to speak with you privately." We went into his room, and he proceeded to tell me that they weren't fighting a war in Afghanistan; that they were, in fact, beginning to redeploy assets. He particularly mentioned special operations personnel and the Predator unmanned aircraft as examples of assets that were being redeployed from Afghanistan to get ready for Iraq.
He then laid out what he thought the strategy should be for victory in the war on terror: Finish the job in Afghanistan; move to other areas that had large numbers of cells of Al Qaeda -- Somalia, Yemen being number one and number two. He went on to say that Iraq was a special case, that our intelligence there was very poor, and that the Europeans knew more about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction than we did. ...
... Why do you think he told you this?
I think he told me this because he wanted to talk to somebody who he thought might have some ability to reverse the policies that he saw taking place. ... It was more a statement of "This is the reality of what's happening," and leaving to the listener to infer what the consequence of that would be. ...BACK TO TOP »
... When Tenet and others begin to call and say, "You know what? The al-Libi information was coerced," how do you take the bad news [about the intelligence failures]?
Well, the secretary would come through my door at least once a day, sometimes five or six times a day. Sometimes he'd sit down; sometimes he wouldn't. Sometimes he'd just unburden himself, and other times we'd actually talk seriously about an issue. I remember these scenes where he would come through my door, and he would say, "Well, George just called and took another pillar out; another substantial aspect of my presentation is gone."
How did he feel about that?
Well, he took it like a soldier, ... but it was a blow to me. I wrote out my resignation. I put it in my center drawer, typed it myself. I wouldn't even make my staff assistant type it. "Dear President Bush, I've come to the point in my service where I no longer can serve, given the nature of your foreign policy and so forth. Therefore, I respectfully submit my resignation." Once a week or so, I would take it out and look at it, fold it back up carefully and put it back in my center drawer, never having the intestinal fortitude to submit it. I won't speak for Colin Powell, but I'll tell you it really affected me. ...BACK TO TOP »
... All directors have some concerns and problems with the secretary of defense. All of them have some concerns and problems with the secretary of state. The natural allies are the national security adviser and the head of CIA. ... Defense is a huge elephant on the scene, and it commands major resources, and it has an awful lot of clout. State Department, there's always struggle between chiefs of station and ambassadors, ... who's doing this and who's interfering with whom. And so there's always some tension across that line, but there's always tension with the secretary of defense. ...
And the idea of this notion that seems to persist even today, that the CIA was a left-leaning, liberal agency? Where does that come from?
It may come out of the very group of people that I'm talking about in the sense that they were people out of New England, out of the more liberal colleges, perhaps. I didn't sense that in my experience. I didn't sense the organization as a liberal organization particularly. ...
The people that come into the organization have to go through the polygraph, so you narrow the population down to a considerable degree in that very process. It is no surprise to you that later in the 1970s, the people that probably had the easiest time getting through were Mormons, because of their lifestyle. Some of the people who had a harder time getting through were people who came out of the Berkeleys, and some of the areas where there was a more liberal attitude. ...BACK TO TOP »
Iraq Weapons Inspector 1991-1992, Iraq Survey Group, 2003-2004
... I met with Secretary Rumsfeld on a number of occasions after I took the job. ...I always found his questions probing, very intelligent. I was most impressed that for him Iraq, particularly what I was doing, was like the tar baby, and he was smart enough to know he didn't want to have anything to do with it. When I took the job, one of the proposals was that I would report to both Rumsfeld and George Tenet. Secretary Rumsfeld said, "No, you report to Tenet. Kay is Tenet's responsibility," divorcing himself from the issue. By that point, remember, when I took over the job in June, the weapons hadn't been used in the war and hadn't been found in the two months after the war.
So I got a lot of respect for Rumsfeld as a bureaucratic infighter. I've got a tremendous amount of respect that he never loses a battle, because if he loses a battle, he'll refight the next morning.
There was one occasion in which I had been back in Washington, a very small point had gone against Rumsfeld in a place I was arguing. I got back to Baghdad and in 24 hours I had found out that he had relaunched the same position in a different way. You know, a man of that age and with so many responsibilities -- you've got to be impressed by his doggedness, his energy. And I was always impressed by his own life. He's a very smart, bright man -- which isn't to say that I agree with any of his positions, I should add, I know many of them, I think they are absolutely wrong -- but I do respect him as an individual. ...
... Paul [Wolfowitz] is one of the brightest people you'll ever meet. He has a hard time processing stuff that doesn't fit into what he believes it should be. That's not unusual for bright people. Bright people think they have a better understanding of the world ... than others. And so, it takes a 10-ton truck to penetrate a barrier. And very often in the WMD issue, I was trying to explain to him things that did not fit with the preconception of Iraq. ... Like that we weren't finding the weapons, that the biological trailers didn't exist, that they were a result of a fabricator, and all of that. ...BACK TO TOP »