‘They Had Already Decided They Wanted to Invade Iraq’ – CounterSpin interviews with Robert Dreyfuss and Diana Duarte on media and the Iraq War

The CounterSpin episode for March 22, 2019, reaired classic interviews with Robert Dreyfuss (2/27/04) and Diana Duarte (3/22/13) about media’s Iraq War roles.


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MP3 Link

Janine Jackson:  Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson. This week on CounterSpin: Many in media were critical of Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for George W. Bush, who used the March anniversary of the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, based on what Americans were told was the threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, as an opportunity to launch a Twitter tirade to say, “It’s a myth that Bush lied.” He and Bush “faithfully and accurately reported” intelligence community assessments, Fleischer maintained.

Media seemed concerned that Fleischer was insufficiently respectful of the toll of the Iraq War, including what the Washington Post modestly estimated as “thousands of dead Iraqis”—researchers would put that number at, minimally, half a million.

But Fleischer’s revision isn’t just wrong in emphasis or in sentiment. And we didn’t have to wait 16 years to know that. In February 2004, CounterSpin spoke with investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss about that pre-war intelligence on Iraq, and the role of a secret and largely unaccountable organization inside the Pentagon in manufacturing and publicizing it. We’ll hear that interview again today.

Also on the show: There is the way elite media gin the US public up for war, ofttimes against countries most Americans couldn’t find on a map, like Venezuela. That involves cartoonish demonization of leaders, and feigned outrage at human rights concerns that are not of interest in other places. With the Iraq War, elite media were, after the fact, willing to say “mistakes were made” around evidence of weapons, but, as we discussed with Diana Duarte, on the war’s 10th anniversary in March of 2013, there is little ongoing curiosity about the other justifications media endorsed, including that toppling Saddam Hussein would advance human rights in Iraq, and especially the rights of women. We’ll also hear that conversation again today.

Corporate media’s role in the run-up to—and the ongoing aftermath of—the war on Iraq, this week on CounterSpin.


Janine Jackson: The toll of the US war on Iraq, following years of devastating sanctions, can hardly be reckoned. At least half a million people killed, millions displaced, made ill, their homes and communities destroyed, of course the political repercussions in the region, and thousands of US servicemembers killed and wounded—all of it based on falsehoods, peddled to the US public by warmongering politicians enabled by the press.

After months of coverage dominated by pro-war pundits and former generals—Iraqis themselves rarely heard from—many Americans likely accepted the official story that the invaders would be welcomed as liberators in the streets of Baghdad. But vast numbers did not. Millions marched in the streets in opposition to the war before it started. But that viewpoint was sidelined and worse in corporate media, whose current rehabilitation of the author of the nightmare, George W. Bush, is only the latest sign of their eager amnesia about the role they played in leading us to an illegal war based on lies.

In February of 2004, CounterSpin spoke with investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss about pre-war intelligence on Iraq, and the role of a secret and largely unaccountable organization inside the Pentagon in manufacturing and publicizing it. Dreyfuss co-authored an article for Mother Jones on the matter called “The Lie Factory.” This is CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall in early 2004, speaking with journalist Robert Dreyfuss.

Mother Jones: The Lie Factory

Mother Jones (1–2/04)

Steve Rendall: Robert, when David Kay announced that he didn’t think they’d find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he was adamant that the administration was misled by the CIA, and that intelligence was not shaped or distorted by the Bush administration. Much of the media discussion followed that same line, but your article suggests that there’s a lot more to the story. Tell us a little bit about what you found.

Robert Dreyfuss: I think the most important thing is that while the CIA probably did not get very much right about Iraq, they were at least convinced, most of the intelligence agencies, that there was a lot of doubt, that there were a lot of things they didn’t know. The doubts got completely erased in the policymaking circles, and in particular the Pentagon—which set up its own little sort of rump intelligence unit called the Office of Special Plans, under Douglas Feith at the Pentagon bureaucracy—not only was responsible for deleting these doubts, but they had some value added, too.

They added in their own spin and their own intelligence, part of which came from Iraqi exiles, part of which came from their own staff, which was doing its own intelligence. And they created talking papers that ended up wildly exaggerating the threat that Iraq allegedly posed to both the United States and to its neighbors, and that information went directly to Vice President Cheney’s office and to the White House, and it led the administration in the direction of going to war, because that was a war they already wanted.

In other words, the idea that they were invading Iraq based on faulty intelligence has it exactly backwards. They had already decided they wanted to invade Iraq. So the intelligence was then used to justify a pre-existing policy.

And so for Bush to argue, or anyone else to argue, that the administration went to war based on faulty intelligence is just plain silly. They would have gone to war in any case, but they were afraid to make the argument that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy and therefore, for reasons of national strategy, for reasons of oil, for reasons of Middle East policy and protecting Israel, for all of these reasons, we’re going to invade Iraq. That probably wouldn’t have sold, either to the American public or to Congress, so instead they picked on this “Iraq is a threat” argument.

SR: So, Robert Dreyfuss, can I assume that the “lie factory” referred to in the title of your piece refers to this internal Pentagon Office of Special Plans?

RD: Yeah. It started right after 9/11; within a month of 9/11, they set this unit up. It wasn’t called the Office of Special Plans then; it had a different name. It went from being something like two or three people, and it expanded, and brought in contractors and consultants, and eventually took the name Office of Special Plans, which incorporated this intelligence unit. That’s what became, basically, the war planning office at the Pentagon.

SR: And from what you report, they pushed out analysts that weren’t going along with the program to some degree.

RD: They really purged anybody who wasn’t part of the zealous team of missionaries that believed in the war. These people were forced into retirement, they were transferred to other offices, some of them just quit in disgust. And they brought in people, ironically, who were not intelligence experts, people who were ideologues, but who were not particularly skilled at either intelligence collection or analysis.

So what they did is they took these piles and piles of information, with thousands of little data bits, and they picked out the ones that supported the case for going to war, and they discarded all the rest.

And any intelligence conclusion is based on evaluating all of the information, a lot of which is going to be contradictory. Some of it’s based on forged documents, on lies, on misinformation, on just plain old honest human mistakes. So all of that information isn’t going to agree, and the job of an intelligence analyst or a professional is to look at it all and say, “Here’s my conclusion, and here’s the reasons why my conclusion isn’t 100 percent, so I give this a certain percent validity.”

Well, this office didn’t do that at all; they just basically said, “We’re gung ho for war, and Iraq is an enormous threat to American national security.” And all of the junk that we heard about unmanned aerial vehicles striking the United States, and Iraq building its nuclear program and importing WMD-related materials, all of that was a crock.

SR: In your reporting of this, you conducted a lot of interviews, and one that was particularly compelling was one you did with a certain former Air Force colonel. Tell us about that story, briefly.

RD: Her name’s Karen Kwiatkowski. She was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, and she worked inside the Pentagon in the Near East/South Asian Affairs Office, which is where this Office of Special Plans took shape. And so she watched it all, week by week, taking shape, and she was horrified by it. She is a tremendously courageous whistleblower, in fact, because she’s a conservative, not someone who’s some sort of fuzzy-minded liberal. She was, however, shocked by what she calls the “neoconservative cabal” that was shaping the way this office operated and, in particular, by the intervention of people like Dick Cheney’s staff director Lewis Libby and others, who were tasking, or assigning, jobs and missions to this unit, which is highly unusual. It’s an office that should work down deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, and here’s the vice president’s office operating on a day-to-day basis in touch with them.

SR: Robert Dreyfuss, at this point, it seems that some very good reporting has come out of mainstream media, particularly from the Washington Post. But some critics suggest the Post hasn’t pushed its reporting to the front page often enough. Even Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote recently, “Make sure you read Page A17, or wherever the next piece of the puzzle appears.” What do you think of the priority the media has given to this story so far?

Robert Dreyfuss

Robert Dreyfuss: “The core of the problem is the media is unwilling to look at the government and say that there’s conscious malfeasance happening. They much prefer to say this was a mistake.” (image: Echo Chamber Project)

RD: I think it has gotten somewhat lost for two reasons. One is it got lost because the aftermath of the war was so catastrophically bad, with an insurgency and a complete mess and a seemingly completely bumbling US administration over there, that that’s become the main story.

And then, second, it’s sort of obvious that Bush and Cheney were saying “WMD” for months and months and months, and we got over there and they weren’t there. So what else can you say except, “Well, we didn’t find them, and they were wrong?” So I think they sort of lost the handle on how to investigate the wrongdoing.

I think the core of the problem is the media is unwilling to look at the government and say that there’s conscious malfeasance happening. They much prefer to say this was a mistake, or this was just, you know, incompetence or conflict of interest, or all kinds of other things that are more, I guess, easier to swallow, than to say that someone was out there deliberately manufacturing evidence.

I mean, one of the most obvious cases is, no one has really investigated who forged those uranium documents. There’s no argument that those documents were deliberately forged by someone. It wasn’t a mistake. And finding out what we know about who forged them—and I believe that somebody in the intelligence system here knows—is something that reporters ought to be just leaping into, and I don’t see that too many people are even asking the question.

And there are other questions like that that I think have just been ignored, and in part because reporters follow the official investigations, and now there have been several efforts by the Republicans in Congress to intimidate investigations and say, “Well, there’s nothing there.” The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has pretty much said that point blank. So I think to the extent that the official investigations are turning into coverups, then I think the media is finding it difficult to get these more explosive charges onto the front page.

SR: You’ve appeared on CounterSpin before, discussing Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi and his unreliability. A recent Knight Ridder story points out that, in spite of the fact that defectors and witnesses put forth by Chalabi’s INC “exaggerated what they knew, fabricated tales, or were coached by others what to say,” the US intends to continue funding the INC’s intelligence-gathering. The Knight Ridder story hasn’t received much attention in other media now. What are your thoughts on this part of the story? Bear in mind that we only have a few seconds left, Robert.

RD: Well, we’re not just funding him, we’re supporting him to become the next president of Iraq! I mean, here’s a guy who is a long-term, historic crook and bank-embezzler; now we know he’s also a liar about intelligence, and the Pentagon is still supporting him to become the leader of the nation, never mind a couple million dollars to fund his organization. So I continue to be stunned and amazed that Chalabi has any credibility whatsoever with anyone. Although apparently he’s been quite a valuable source for Judy Miller at the New York Times over the years, so I guess he’s got some friends in the media himself.

Janine Jackson: That was Robert Dreyfuss speaking with CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall. The article “The Lie Factory,” by Dreyfuss and Jason Vest, can still be found on MotherJones.com.


Janine Jackson: CounterSpin spoke with Diana Duarte, communications director at the international human rights group MADRE, in March of 2013, when corporate media were doing their annual looks back at the invasion and occupation of Iraq, largely limited, as ever, to consideration of the war as a “strategic miscalculation,” but not a grievous violation of international law and of human rights.

I started with a reference to a New York Times columnist:

NYT: The Meaning of a Skull

New York Times (4/27/03)

Thomas Friedman wrote in April 2003, “As far as I am concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war.” And even though all the talk now is about how we were “misled” about particular evidence of weapons, the truth is plenty of people said, “It’s really enough that we don’t like Saddam Hussein” (anymore, but that’s another story).

There was a human rights justification for the war, and that had a lot to do with liberating women. And I don’t know how much that idea is being interrogated, even today. What do you think we should know about the status of human rights for women in the Iraq of 2013?

Diana Duarte: It’s certainly the case that the justification of liberating women was mobilized very strongly in the early days of the war, and we still see that to this day, that it’s one of the strawmen that is still standing, and it’s so far from the truth.

The women that we work with, we partner with an Iraqi women’s organization on the ground that has told us, time and again, that conditions for women now are worse than they were before the war. Now women are facing wave after wave of violence, women are facing violence in the home and in the street, largely due to the fact that this war unleashed—and the US was implicated, and very strongly involved in fueling—militias that have targeted women, have used gender-based violence as a way to sustain a social vision that is based on subjugating women.

JJ: So it really is a systemic violation of women’s rights, and not simply women as civilians being caught up in the “sectarian strife” we hear about.

DD: Exactly. It’s a strategy. Their vision of the world, the vision of these repressive political forces, who have been allies of the US, is largely based on subjugating women, on keeping women in their place in the home, and of subjugating any kind of secular force in the society. And women have been at the frontlines of this kind of violence.

JJ: And this has affected, of course, even the drafting of the constitution in Iraq.

Diana Duarte (photo: MADRE)

Diana Duarte: “Women’s rights were quite easily and freely traded away by the US.” (photo: MADRE)

DD: Exactly. Women’s rights were quite easily and freely traded away by the US, in the hopes that it would create some kind of stability in the country. And stability is certainly the farthest from what we see on the ground nowadays.

JJ: There was a report in the Guardian recently, that was presented as new, about links between the Pentagon and these Iraqi militias responsible for torture and killing of civilians. But MADRE had written about this back in 2007, at least, based on experiences of those partner organizations in Iraq. Isn’t that true?

DD: Certainly I want to say that the story that is being told by the Guardian is an important story to tell, highlighting the role of the US and the Pentagon policy of organizing militias and paramilitaries,  purportedly to combat an insurgency, but with dramatic and terrible human rights implications for women and communities in Iraq.

But the thing about it is that it should be not be framed as some kind of revelation, or even as news at this point, as you were saying. We and other human rights organizations have been highlighting this as a policy for years. We did release a report in 2007, called “Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy,” which named people specifically who were involved in advancing this policy.

In that Guardian article that you mentioned, they even go so far as to say that this is the “first time” that US advisors are being implicated in these human rights abuses, which is certainly startling and strange for us to hear, given that we and other human rights organizations have been implicating those same US advisors—including James Steele, who’s mentioned in the article—for many years now.

Another thing that was sort of strange about the article is where they do mention the connection to James Steele in Central America, where he was very much involved in a policy of fueling paramilitaries in El Salvador to manage this counterinsurgency, but again with dramatic human rights implications. And they call it “an eerie parallel” to what happened in Iraq, as if it’s just a strange coincidence, as if he didn’t have a resumé, a background, in this kind of strategy, and as if that wasn’t part of the reason that he was brought to Iraq, to implement that same strategy once again, with similar effect.

JJ: The New York Times had a story on how the war’s anniversary was “barely noted in Washington,” and had comments from officials and former officials. But if they’d wanted to find people talking about it, right outside the White House was a group of veterans and human rights groups who were talking about the Right to Heal Initiative, calling for reparations for Iraq and treatment for veterans. So there are people calling for action today about the impact of this war.

DD: And the Right to Heal applies certainly to US veterans, who will be dealing with the implications of this war for years to come. But it also applies to communities in Iraq. One of the people who was standing outside of the White House, as you mentioned, was a woman named Yanar Mohammed. She’s our partner in Iraq, and we have been working with her to highlight and to bring support to one community in particular, called Hawija, that is dealing with the fallout of environmental contamination by a nearby US military base, which has resulted in rampant levels of birth defects and cancers among children who have been born in recent years. So the Right to Heal is something that we will need to be advocating for and pushing for for generations to come.

McClatchy: US Pledge to Help Iraqis Who Aided Occupation Largely Unfulfilled

McClatchy (3/14/13)

JJ: The last time we spoke to MADRE’s Yifat Susskind, she was talking about that increase in cancers. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health said that in Fallujah alone, the rate of life-threatening illness and birth defects is “significantly greater than those reported for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

I saw a piece by McClatchy’s Hannah Allam, about how thousands of Iraqis eligible for resettlement in the US, because they risked their lives helping the US in the war as interpreters and so forth, aren’t getting it—and there’s no appeals process. Patrick Cockburn wrote about how official corruption in Iraq is so deeply and particularly harmful to development there.

It just seems that there are so many stories that reporters could be telling, that are not looks back or navel-gazing, but are really today stories.

DD: And also the stories will continue to emerge, and  it’s important to connect the dots between what we’re seeing now and policies that went back all the way to the 1980s, as I was saying, but that we should be demanding accountability for at this point. It’s been 10 years, yes. But the US role in Iraq is something we still need to be talking about, and that we still need to be demanding justice for, and we’ll continue to do that with our partners on the ground.

JJ: And that reporters need to maybe change who they’re talking to, so they can stop talking about how no one’s saying anything about it.

DD: Exactly. And that government statements can be convenient covers for human rights violations on the ground, and that the partners that we’re working with, and the human rights activists throughout the region, have been really working hard to highlight these kinds of stories, and that they’re the ones whose stories should be told.

JJ: That was Diana Duarte from the human rights group MADRE, speaking with CounterSpin in 2013. And before that, Robert Dreyfuss from 2004.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.