The Iraq War Ten Years Later: Declassified Documents Show Failed Intelligence, Policy Ad Hockery, Propaganda-Driven Decision-Making

National Security Archive Publishes “Essential” Primary Sources on Operation Iraqi Freedom

The U.S. invasion of Iraq turned out to be a textbook case of flawed assumptions, wrong-headed intelligence, propaganda manipulation, and administrative ad hockery, according to the National Security Archive’s briefing book of declassified documents posted today to mark the 10th anniversary of the war.

The Archive’s documentary primer includes the famous Downing Street memo (“intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”), the POLO STEP PowerPoint invasion plans (assuming out of existence any possible insurgency), an FBI interview with Saddam Hussein in captivity (he said he lied about weapons of mass destruction to keep Iran guessing and deterred), and the infamous National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (wrong in its findings, but with every noted dissent turning out to be accurate).

“These dozen documents provide essential reading for anyone trying to understand the Iraq war,” remarked Joyce Battle, Archive senior analyst who is compiling a definitive reference collection of declassified documents on the Iraq War. “At a moment when the public is debating the costs and consequences of the U.S. invasion, these primary sources refresh the memory and ground the discussion with contemporary evidence.”

A decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq (March 19, 2003), the debate continues over whether the United States truly believed that Iraq’s supposed WMD capabilities posed an imminent danger, and whether the results of the engagement have been worth the high costs to both countries. To mark the 10 th anniversary of the start of hostilities, the National Security Archive has posted a selection of essential historical documents framing the key elements of one of America’s most significant foreign policy choices of recent times. The records elucidate the decision to go to war, to administer a post-invasion Iraq, and to sell the idea to Congress, the media, and the public at large.

The Archive has followed the U.S. role in the war since its inception and has filed hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests for declassification of the underlying record. As the government releases these records, the Archive regularly makes them available on its Web site. In the near future, a significant collection of freshly declassified materials will appear as part of the “Digital National Security Archive” collection through the academic publisher ProQuest. (In the shorter term, visitors may visit our new Iraq War page for a compilation of currently available declassified materials on the subject.)

The first item is a memo from the State Department’s Near East bureau, provided to incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell at the very outset of the new George W. Bush administration in 2001, outlining the Clinton administration’s policy supporting regime change in Iraq, but through financial and weapons support for internal opposition groups, propaganda efforts, and regional actors rather than direct action by the U.S. military. (The Iraq Liberation Act signed by Bill Clinton on October 31, 1998, codified this policy and committed the U.S. to continuing support for Iraqi opposition groups.)

A bullet-pointed set of notes discussed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, in late 2001 shows the Pentagon already diverting focus and energy from the Afghan campaign less than three months after the U.S. and its allies entered that country. An “Eyes Only” British government memo succinctly summarizes the climate leading to war by the summer of 2002: the U.S. saw military action as inevitable; George Bush wanted military action to be justified by linking Iraq to terrorism and WMD; to that end “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” while as to discussion in Washington of the aftermath of invasion, “There was little…”

U.S. military planning proceeded frantically throughout 2002, with Secretary Rumsfeld pushing hard for readiness for invasion before the end of the year, as the myriad power point slides the Pentagon generated demonstrate (a set of which is included here). A full-bore public relations campaign underway at the same time ramped up a climate of anticipation and even fear, with Vice President Cheney telling U.S. military veterans that the U.S. would need to use “every tool” for a threat lurking in more than 60 countries, declaring flatly that Iraq was actively pursuing offensive nuclear weapons, possessed weapons of mass destruction, and was planning their use against friends of America and the U.S. itself. The CIA leadership participated with evident eagerness, providing Congress and the public with glossy illustrated reports hyping the Iraqi threat and abandoning all standards of prudence in its characterizations of the alleged Iraqi threat.

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