'To Start a War' author Robert Draper talks about the intelligence disasters that led Bush to invade Iraq

  • Robert Draper, a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine spoke with Business Insider about his new book "To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq."
  • The book recounts all the terrible decisions based off of bad intelligence and motivated reasoning that led the most disastrous US foreign policy action in recent memory.
  • "I'm not totally convinced that there has been the level of introspection throughout the Washington community that there ought to be. And I hope if my book can provide us a service, that would be that it would inspire that kind of reckoning and self-inspection," Draper said.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Robert Draper, a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine and a contributor to National Geographic, is the author of the new book "To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq." Draper in 2008 published another book about Bush, "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush," which covered the first six years of his presidency. 

In a phone interview with Business Insider Columnist Anthony L. Fisher, Draper talked about why he felt the time was right to revisit the greatest foreign policy catastrophe of modern times, Donald Rumsfeld's micro-managing megalomania, and who in the administration will Colin Powell never forgive. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

"A fundamental illogic pervaded"

Fisher: Such a catastrophic moment in recent American history, while not forgotten, is certainly not discussed nearly as much as one might expect. So what made you want to write this book now? 

Draper: This was sort of a case of unfinished business for me. I had done this biography of Bush's presidency while the Iraq saga was still unfolding. It was such a moving target that I didn't sufficiently cover it in that book. On top of that I also felt at pains to really unlock this central mystery of Bush's presidency, which is, why did he go to war at the time that he did against a country that had not attacked us? 

I decided to do this book in the middle of 2017, when the Trump presidency was already underway. There was reason to ask, how did we get to this point where we are governed by a reality TV host with zero political experience who has somehow convinced 63 million Americans that "I alone can fix it"?

When you parse that out, some of why people voted for Trump can be explained by cultural grievances up to and including out and out racism. Some of it can be explained by the echo chamber of conservative media that demonized Hillary Clinton over 25 years. some of it is because during the primaries Trump distinguished himself from his Republican opponents by basically saying you're part of the problem, all of your experience, what did it get us? It got us this catastrophic war in Iraq, which was something that Republicans at the time hadn't given voice to. 

So it just occurred to me that this was in a way, a kind of origin point for where we are today, even leaving aside the fact that it is now the most consequential foreign policy blunder of the last half century. For all of those reasons, I felt it was well worth revisiting at this point. 

And of course, there were a lot of people who just weren't comfortable or could not talk about Iraq when I was doing my interviews in 2005, 2006, and 2007. My intuition was that  separated from the events by 15 years, a lot of people would be more inclined to talk and that proved to be the case.

Fisher: There were three early intelligence mistakes that had any one of them been caught in time, it might have derailed the narrative that sent us headlong into war. One was the Egyptians torturing of al Qaeda senior operate Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, and the CIA not admitting until March 2004, that he gave no reliable evidence under torture. Another was the use of later-discredited Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as a primary source. Then there was the intelligence claiming 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta met with an Iraqi official in Prague. 

The way you put it was that "a fundamental illogic pervaded," and that the scenario basically never made any sense. Like, there is no reason for Atta to go to Prague to get material support for a terror attack that relied on box-cutters.  

Draper: Exactly. I mean, why spread the conspiracy and run the risk that it will be exposed? There was a particular CIA analyst was constantly in dialogue with deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz about this and he showed me his journal, which included these notes. It included that very observation.

I would, by the way, add a fourth, and that is the unmanned aerial vehicles intelligence. It was this truly alarming proposition that the president learned in the spring of 2002 that apparently the Iraqi regime was acquiring a mapping software of American cities. That was the first available evidence that Saddam was indeed interested in striking the American homeland. It really freaked Bush out. It freaked a lot of people in the administration out, and it just turned out to be untrue. It turned out that there was an innocuous explanation for the purchase of that software — that it came with hardware [the Iraqis] wanted for domestic reconnaissance missions for their surveillance vehicles. 

But this was kind of typical after 9/11. The Bush administration had been so unprepared for that eventuality had failed to see it coming and overcompensated by seeing demons everywhere and viewing things in the darkest possible light. 

It's interesting to contemplate this now because we see the current president, someone who actively promotes untruths. And if there's anything that you can draw as connective tissue between President Bush and President Trump — Bush I don't think was promoting things that he knew to be false. He was in fact promoting things that he believed to be true without having any real evidence to support that belief. 

Fisher: At one point you mentioned that — while the administration was making the case for war to the public and the UN — Bush suggest that they should bring someone in "with Madison Avenue experience."

Draper: That was one of the more interesting revelations when I was doing the reporting because it's been widely thought that Bush was not sure of whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and thus whether we should go to war. And George Tenet, the CIA director tells them, "it's a slam dunk, sir." And that's not what happened. 

The president really believed Saddam had weapons. He just didn't believe the CIA was doing a particularly good job of making that case. And so, as you mentioned, he said let's get people in, let's get lawyers in to help with the case. Let's get people from Madison Avenue. And then he added one step further and said, and lets them be sure and tie in the whole business of terrorism for a domestic audience. 

I was just literally right before you called trading emails with a former CIA manager in charge of the Iraq issue. And she was very proud of the fact that they managed to beat back the whole argument that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were in cahoots. And as I was telling her, I actually don't think they did succeed because there's the president basically encouraging the CIA to make sure to talk about Saddam's ties to terror groups and the only ties that were of any meaningfulness were that he had occasionally cut checks to widows of Palestinian bombers. Which didn't in any way, distinguish himself from the Jordanians, the Saudis, and the Egyptians. They did the same thing. 

Rumsfeld the control freak 

Fisher: [Former Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld basically ran roughshod over every dissenting voice, not only int administration, but in his own department. It's been well reported that he was opposed to nation building and to spending much time thinking about an exit strategy. But I don't know that I ever saw it as explicit as it did in your book. You reported that he'd issue edicts that there would be no planning for a post-fall Saddam, and that it was forbidden within the Department of Defense for anyone to be distributing memos about what to do after the fall of Saddam. 

Draper: This is typical of the secretary of defense. He would pose riddles and not really want to answer them, but just wanted to sort of demonstrate his superior knowledge by asking the right questions. And he did say that we should be thinking more about what comes after, but that didn't mean that he himself wanted the responsibility for it. And when in fact it did fall to the Pentagon to basically be in control of post-war Iraq, that was considered inside the Pentagon by Wolfowitz and [former undersecretary of Defense] Douglas Feith, and even Rumsfeld as a kind of victory, but not so much because they themselves had carefully crafted plans for how to govern Iraq after the invasion. It was more that they were just delighted that the State Department didn't get to be in charge. 

Rumsfeld's basic view was to take the hands off the bicycle seat, as he frequently described it, to have the Iraqis govern themselves. But so many unwise assumptions were built into that very notion, principally that the Iraqis could themselves repair a broken nation and that all of these different sectarian groups would somehow rally together in the opportunity to do so. There was just no evidence to support those scenarios. 

Fisher: I remember at the time there was so much made about the "coalition of the willing." In the book, you touch on how Lithuanian troops volunteered to do night patrols in Sadr City, but the Department of Defense said that they couldn't give them night vision goggles. [Former National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice knew that there weren't enough troops to occupy Iraq effectively after the war was over. And Rumsfeld wouldn't allow the Brits or the Aussies to take a greater role in that. Did Rumsfeld oppose the idea of even having a coalition?

Draper: In a practical sense, he might as well have opposed it. But he didn't oppose the concept of a coalition. He just believed that the coalition should be entirely on America's terms. Within that idea was that the coalition needed also to be almost entirely under Secretary Rumsfeld terms, and among the things on which he placed such primacy were the responsibilities of his office and of the Pentagon writ large. He didn't want anybody poaching on his turf. Whether that was the national security advisor, who he believes was incorrectly interposing herself into the chain of command between the secretary of defense and the commander in chief. Or other nations who might have their own views and their own stipulations about what to do. 

What you've described is very much in keeping with this guy who was to put it bluntly, a control freak. Almost nothing was too small for Rumsfeld. If anything was of the slightest significance, he wanted to be the one that shaped the policy. And of course, as a practical matter, that became just an infuriating thing that would slow things down. And it also created tons of problems in the sort of interagency discussions between State and the Pentagon and the CIA Joint Chiefs of Staff about when and how to do what Rumsfeld wanted. 

Fisher: You paint a picture of President Bush as much more thoughtful and competent than I think a lot of people perceived them to be at the time. But there are a few moments where it seems like he's just delusional about the consequences of going to war. He even thought that invading Iraq could lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians in a year. There's another dramatic moment where Basra is dark and looted and occupied by British troops —  and Bush is watching in TV, dumbfounded by the fact that they're not cheering and handing out sweets. Was Bush's larger worldview just fatally flawed from the get-go? 

Draper: I think that the conventional wisdom, particularly among a lot of Democrats, was Bush is stupid. He wasn't and he isn't. But it is certainly the case that Bush's intellectual curiosity could fail him at times. It's ironic because he could be very dutiful when it came to the things that he believed the president is supposed to do, like take a presidential daily briefing with the CIA. He did that six days a week for the entirety of his presidency. But when it came to immersing himself in the details, in what he would disparagingly referred to as "nuance," —  he'd say "I don't do nuance" — he had these kind of sweeping notions that gave him the opportunity to cut the corners that would otherwise require hard work. 

He believed in his bones that everybody yearns for freedom. And that anyone given the opportunity for freedom would jump at that opportunity. So he believed that's what would happen in Iraq. It just simply made sense to him. Unfortunately, not only was that not true, but there were plenty of people who could have told him that wasn't true. And I do think this is where his top aides, including Condoleezza Rice, failed him in that no one brought into the Oval Office a dissenting point of view. 

The closest that we saw to that was the dinner that [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell had with Bush in the White House residence, where he said in effect, "you break it, you own it." That was unwelcome news for Bush and it was also singular. No one else said that kind of stuff to him. Instead, they trotted in Iraqi refugees who had not seen their country in 30 years to give happy talk about how people would throw sweets and flowers at the feet of soldiers when they came in to liberate Iraq.

Saddam thought 9/11 was the moment when the US and Iraq would become allies

Fisher: One of the more interesting observations I found in your book was Saddam's reaction to 9/11. He thought that this was going to be a sea change for him, but he thought it was going to be the opposite direction. He figured that the US political apparatus would understand that he was opposed to Islamist extremists and that they'd come calling as an ally in the War on Terror. Was that ever a consideration in the US government? Did anyone stand up and say, "You know what, Saddam could be actually a help if we do this right?"

Draper: Ironically, Rumsfeld mentioned in one of his many snowflakes that among the possibilities — I think this was pre- 9/11 — was maybe we reach out to Saddam and forge some kind of relationship with him. But again, it was one of these intellectual exercises, not as seriously thought-out policy, much less something that he was promoting. The read on Saddam by the Bush administration was that this guy was a malevolent threat. That he truly had it out for America and therefore would stop at nothing, would Confederate with al-Qaeda or whomever else, and perhaps hand over his own weapons of mass destruction to others who wanted to do America in. Everything about what I've just said was factually inaccurate. Much closer to the truth was, as you referenced, that Saddam really believed after 9/11, that America would realize they needed him, they needed Iraq, and that theirs would be an obvious alliance.

Saddam being an obnoxious jerk, not to mention a horrible dictator, gave us plenty of reason not to want to get in bed with a dictator. Saying on September the 12th that America reached the thorns of its policies. That kind of gloating was definitely taken note of by the Bush administration. But you could also argue that it was just like an extremist pandering to his extreme base. 

In fact, his deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz said as much when  a couple of weeks after 9/11 he sent two different letters to a former Reagan official with the intention of having them transmitted to the Bush White House, basically saying pay no attention to my man's bluster. We want to be allies. We should be allied. We've been targets of assassination from Islamic extremists ourselves, so we should work together on this. And I think that it really did not occur to Saddam until much too late that we would not see the logic of that. 

Colin Powell holds a grudge

Fisher: You wrote about Colin Powell's obvious regrets for his involvement and that he's said he believes the first line of his obituary will be something to do with making the false case for war with Iraq. I know you've been in touch with him recently for this book, does he feel betrayed by anyone in the administration? Does he hold a grudge against anyone in particular? 

Draper: I think he very pronouncedly holds a grudge against the CIA director George Tenet. I think that he feels like he was misled by Tenet, who surrounded him during the speech preparation for his UN presentation with all these analysts who were assuring him, "Yes, yes. We absolutely believe that this intelligence is righteous." While in fact there were people within the agency who very much doubted the validity of that analysis and [Powell] never got to meet those guys. So I think he feels led down a primrose path by Tenet. 

He certainly developed a dislike of Cheney and Rumsfeld, but curiously, absent from his monologues about his former colleagues is any animus towards President Bush. To this day, it's difficult for me to tell whether he just believes that it is unbecoming for a four star general to be criticizing his commander in chief or it's that he really believes that Bush himself did the best with the information that he had, but was misled by those people around him. I suspect a mix of those two. 

Fisher: There's an episode near the end of the book where captured Iraqi military officials are being led around suspected WMD sites. And one Iraqi general points to a completely innocuous truck and says to his interrogators, "Anyone who told you that this truck was used for biological weapons that purpose should be fired. To your knowledge, was anyone fired? Was there any reckoning within the intelligence community?

Draper: No. In fact, the closest to anyone being fired were a couple of analysts who were mentioned in the book — Jerry Watson and Larry Fox — who were so bothered by how so wrong the WMD intelligence turned out to be that they were pestering their senior managers that we need to come clean with the American public about it. And the senior managers got so tired of listening to those two that they basically moved them off campus out of Langley headquarters. But to my knowledge, not one person was fired for those intelligence failures, quite the contrary. Many of them are doing quite well today. Tenet received the Presidential Medal of Honor. 

Certainly in any major corporation to see such a gross failure in judgment and competence you'd see a lot of heads roll. That didn't happen here. 

The Iraq debacle turned out to be an all-encompassing institutional failure. And by all encompassing, I really mean all of Washington, not just the Bush administration, but the legislative branch and the media and the intelligence community, as well. It's really hard to know what, if anything, might've stopped George W Bush's singular decision to go to war. But what we do know is that he encountered the closest thing to a glide path. And while I recognize the context for this was 9/11 and a genuine fear throughout Washington and beyond that another wave was coming, the blindness that set in as a result of that fear really ill-served the American public. I'm not totally convinced that there has been the level of introspection throughout the Washington community that there ought to be. And I hope if my book can provide us a service, that would be that it would inspire that kind of reckoning and self-inspection.

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