Did America rush into a war in Iraq for which it was unprepared? Could the current volatility in Iraq have been prevented? And was the White House's rationale for war based on faulty and exaggerated intelligence reports?
As the Bush administration faces continuing questions about its failure to secure peace in Iraq, FRONTLINE takes an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at what some government officials say is the underlying cause of America's current problems in Iraq: the prewar political infighting among the Pentagon, State Department, and White House that hampered U.S. efforts to plan for an orderly postwar transition.
In "Truth, War and Consequences," FRONTLINE producer and correspondent Martin Smith examines why the U.S. went to war in Iraq, what went wrong in the planning for the postwar occupation, and what is at stake for both the U.S. and for Iraqis. In interviews with key players in Baghdad and Washington, Smith probes the fierce internal debate between the Pentagon and the State Department over the intelligence justifying the war and over the shape of post-Saddam Iraq. It was a debate, some officials and observers say, that bogged down America's prewar planning and distracted officials from the crucial business of preparing for postwar reconstruction.
The 90-minute documentary features interviews with key government advisors and military leaders who admit to being unprepared for the lawlessness and devastation -- both physical and economic -- that greeted them upon their arrival in Baghdad. Retired Army General Jay Garner, for example, recalls arriving in Baghdad to find that 17 of Baghdad's 23 ministry buildings -- buildings he had planned to use in U.S. reconstruction efforts -- had been "deconstructed," stripped bare even of their wiring, plumbing, and insulation. "I knew there would be looting," says Garner, the first American administrator to oversee the Iraqi reconstruction. "But I didn't think the looting would have the impact it would have [on reconstruction efforts]."
But Garner and other U.S. officials shouldn't have been caught off guard, says Robert Perito. A former deputy executive secretary at the National Security Council and advisor to the Department of Justice, Perito had long studied the postwar problems that arose in such places as Bosnia and Kosovo and was well acquainted with the crime and chaos that was likely to occur in post-Saddam Iraq. "There was no assumption made that there would be widespread civil disorder [in Iraq]," Perito continues. "This is just ignoring the lessons of history."
Perito tells FRONTLINE that his efforts to assist Garner and U.S. officials in their postwar planning were largely rebuffed. "We had meetings with people on Garner's staff and people in the administration," he says. "Their basic approach was that they couldn't really foresee what was needed, so they were going to wait until they got there, and then they were going to make recommendations."
The United States did eventually step in to stop the looting and violence, officials say. But the sudden crackdown by soldiers more accustomed to combat than crowd control produced even more problems. "Truth, War and Consequences" includes footage shot in Iraq of U.S. soldiers mistakenly firing upon -- and in one instance killing -- unarmed Iraqi civilians, as well as interviews with angry Iraqis who report numerous other such incidents.
The failure to adequately prepare for Iraq's postwar reconstruction is even more frustrating, observers say, given that the State Department convened more than 240 Iraqi exiles to study Iraq's reconstruction beginning in the spring of 2002 -- nearly a full year before the first U.S. troops entered Iraq. The Future of Iraq Project, as it was known, was charged with developing strategies for rebuilding Iraq after a war.
"This was a real effort to be there on the ground the day after and ready to go with some people designated already who could come in as Iraqis ... and ensure the continuation of a governing structure," says Edward Walker, president of the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
But the growing rancor between Pentagon and State Department officials would prevent the work done by the State Department's Future of Iraq Project from bearing fruit, insiders say. In "Truth, War and Consequences," General Garner tells FRONTLINE that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld instructed him to effectively shelve the work done by The Future of Iraq Project. "I think that it was a mistake that we didn't use that," Garner says.
Government advisors also tell FRONTLINE that the divisive administration debate over Iraq's future centered on the desire by some White House and Pentagon officials to back the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella organization of Iraqi exiles headed by Ahmad Chalabi.
Chalabi's previous failed efforts to mount a coup d'etat against Saddam Hussein had soured Clinton-era State Department and CIA officials on the Iraqi exile. In "Truth, War and Consequences," however, Chalabi emerges as a key figure not only in the Bush administration's postwar planning efforts, but also its attempts to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Government advisors and other key figures tell FRONTLINE it was Chalabi and his INC cohorts who fed intelligence linking Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda to a special intelligence office at the Pentagon established shortly after Sept. 11.
The problem, some State Department officials say, is that the information Chalabi was providing was not only suspect, but in some cases had already been discredited by U.S. intelligence agencies. Greg Thielmann, a recently retired State Department intelligence official tells FRONTLINE that several key charges the Bush administration used to make its case for war with Iraq had been disproven or discounted by U.S. intelligence analysts long before they found their way into the president's speeches.
"Instead of our leadership forming conclusions based on a careful reading of the intelligence we provided them," says Greg Thielmann, "they already had a conclusion to start out with, and they were cherry picking the information we provided to use whatever pieces of it that fit their overall interpretation. Worse than that, they were dropping qualifiers and distorting some of the information we provided to make it seem more alarmist and dangerous."
Chalabi's role in feeding suspect intelligence to the Pentagon only widened the growing rift with the State Department and intelligence agencies, insiders say, causing a logjam that effectively halted any meaningful postwar planning efforts. "There's been a debilitating and I think wasteful and damaging quarrel [regarding] Ahmad Chalabi," says former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle, one of the Iraqi exile's staunchest supporters.
In "Truth, War and Consequences," Chalabi is questioned about the intelligence he provided U.S. officials regarding links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. After first insisting that he had "very strong evidence" in the form of documents proving such a link, Chalabi hesitates when asked to produce the documents for FRONTLINE. Despite months of repeated requests from FRONTLINE, Chalabi never showed FRONTLINE the alleged documents. He now says he has the documents, but can't find them.
When asked if he feels any unease or discomfort at the fact that some Americans feel the United States was suckered into a war under the false pretenses of disarming Saddam of weapons of mass destruction, Chalabi replies, "No. ... We are in Baghdad now."
Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, a longtime supporter and advisor of the INC, says that while he did believe that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States, the primary rationale for war shouldn't have been weapons of mass destruction. To most Iraqi exiles, Makiya says, the war had a far grander purpose -- one that more than justifies their efforts to convince the United States to take on Saddam.
"We're talking about beginning something in Iraq which eventually changes the perception of the United States in that part of the world," Makiya says. "The spread of the idea that the United States is associated with the liberation of peoples from tyranny. ... The benefit will be that the rest of the Middle East will suddenly have something upon which to cement itself, a hope for the future, which it doesn't have at the moment." And yet, he concedes, "Nothing like this has ever been tried before. ... There are no rules for what is going on here. ... There are no guarantees."