The Misinformers

Much of the intelligence the White House relied on in planning and justifying this war has been shown to be wildly optimistic or just plain wrong — but then, as Robert Dreyfuss says, accurate intelligence often isn’t what politicians want to hear.

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In the current Issue of Mother Jones, contributing writer Robert Dreyfuss explains how the Bush administration’s war in Iraq has its roots in the 30-year-old planning of a small clan of neoconservative Washington hawks. But this war wasn’t sold as the long-delayed playing out of that script for global domination. Nor was it sold as the culmination of a decade-old neoconservative drive for regime change in Baghdad. This war was sold as a campaign to disarm Iraq, and to ensure that Saddam Hussein’s regime could not pass weapons of mass destruction along to terrorist groups. And it was sold as a quick war.

Those claims are rapidly unraveling. US and British forces are still facing stiffer-than-expected resistance across Iraq, and coalition troops have yet to discover any “smoking gun” evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or connections to terrorist networks. asked Dreyfuss, who has also written extensively on what is euphemistically called “the intelligence community,” how the administration could have gone so far astray. Two weeks in, the war has proven far nastier than the Bush administration’s hawks envisioned. And much of the intelligence the White House relied on in deciding on war — information that predicted an American ‘cakewalk,’ for instance — appears to have been either wildly optimistic or just plain wrong. How did the war planners come to base their strategy on such flawed intelligence?

Robert Dreyfuss: It’s really a two-part answer. First of all, you have a group around Donald Rumsfeld, who apparently believe that air power, technology, and highly mobile strike forces can supersede the importance of heavy armor and infantry and ground forces. [It’s] something that has been creeping into American military doctrine over the last ten or fifteen years, but which has gotten Rumsfeld into a lot of trouble with the military brass since he became Secretary of Defense. He’s faced a near-revolt by the uniformed officers, who have rejected by and large this notion — or resisted it is probably a better way to put it — especially in the Army.

But in pushing the military brass toward this new kind of light force doctrine, the information that they started to collect about Iraq fed the expectations. That is, the information they began to gather about the state of the Iraqi armed forces and of popular support for the regime fed into the notion that this would be an easy war. Now it may be still too early to say how difficult the war is going to be, but I think it’s clear that the idea that the Iraqi resistance would collapse overnight and be devastated by the initial attacks was flat wrong.

So then you have to ask, why were they so ill-informed about Iraq? Part of it is ideology. Part of it is a desire to exclude from decision-making the people who really know about Iraq in the United States — mostly State Department and CIA officials who have been studying the country for decades. Third, they’ve relied to a large extent on information from Iraqi exiles. In particular, they’ve relied on the Iraqi National Congress, which has been pushing for a decade for the United States to move against Iraq. Their original theory — the Iraqi National Congress’ theory — was that the United States could support a military force, a ragtag force of Iraqi National Congress rebels, arm them and send them into Iraq with air cover and they could topple the regime because it was so weak. Now we know if that had happened, they would have been basically been blown off the face of the earth.

MJ: They had a little go at that, didn’t they, in 1996?

RD: They tried to do something along those lines. In northern Iraq, they gathered some forces in alliance with the various Kurdish militias. Of course, the big turning point in that battle was when the Kurdish Democratic Party called in Saddam’s troops to help them against the rival Kurdish militia, which was being backed by Iran at that particular point in time. And the Iraqi National Congress got caught up in the midst of this, and they were essentially crushed. One of the Kurdish militias blew up the Iraqi National Congress’ offices.

There’s a lot of fratricide among these exiles. But for years these groups have put out vast amounts of disinformation about Iraq. A lot of the misinformation that the Bush administration has been peddling about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, about Iraq’s record of torturing its citizens and so forth, while certainly based on grains of truth here and there, is wildly exaggerated. And similarly, they’ve wildly misrepresented the state of the Iraqi armed forces, particularly their loyalty to the regime.

Now, the Iraqi armed forces are a pathetically disorganized and crippled force, a shadow of what it was 15 years ago, Like all of Iraq, the armed forces have been devastated by the economic and military sanctions imposed on the country for the past 12 years. So, they’re certainly in no condition to fight a serious battle against the United States. On the other hand, I think they’ve shown an amazing level of tenacity so far, along with a fallback strategy that seems to be based on guerilla war, much as the Palestinians and their allies in Lebanon fought against Israel during the 1982 occupation of Beirut.

MJ: There seem to be real parallels there.

RD: Well, there are parallels in 50 other countries where Third World armies have fought colonial occupiers. Because really there’s a complete mismatch in terms of capabilities. In that sense, there is an analogy with Vietnam, where the Vietnamese rarely tried frontal assaults on American forces but still managed to win the war by a war of attrition. I think at least one possible outcome in this current conflict would be the United States occupying all of the 10 or 12 major cities in Iraq and trying to assemble a government to hold the place together while being constantly attacked by secular militias loyal to the notion of Arab or Iraqi nationalism, or religious extremists who see the battle against the United States in the context of the Islamic movement.

If that were to happen, if September or October comes and the United States is still losing soldiers each week to guerrilla attacks and snipers and the occasional car bomb that goes off in some barracks, then I think this will prove to have been a true fiasco. I don’t know if that’s the only outcome, but it’s certainly one not-unlikely outcome.

And if that happens, it’s going to be mostly because the Iraqi National Congress and its allies have convinced the fairly small, self-reinforcing clique that’s been supporting this war that it would be an easy one.

MJ: How much of the information that Rumsfeld and Powell and other administration officials have cited actually came from the INC, do you think? The al-Qaeda link? The weapons of mass destruction claims?

RD: The real issue is that the CIA has been staunchly opposed to the notions that Iraq has working relations with al Qaeda or significant stocks of weapons of mass destruction. And they’ve basically been opposed to the Iraqi National Congress and its allies because they consider them to be both corrupt and lacking any significant support inside Iraq.

So, at some point in the run-up to this war, Rumsfeld decided he was sick and tired of getting opposing advice from the CIA, which is usually backed up by the State Department. So he set up his own little intelligence shop at the Pentagon, under a guy named Abe Shulsky, who was reporting to Doug Feith, the undersecretary of Defense for Policy. That information was really not new intelligence that they were gathering, because they weren’t doing any spying. They were simply reworking information that already existed, and blending in information they were getting from Iraqi exiles who were directly plugged into this neoconservative clique.

The information that this Pentagon unit massaged into phony estimates then found its way into the speeches of Colin Powell and the proclamations of president Bush. And as we moved closer and closer to war, we found out that almost everything they said was either wrong or a lie. The poison factory in Kurdistan didn’t exist. The Iraqi attempt to get uranium from Niger was based on forged documents. The aluminum tubes that were supposedly going to be used in a nuclear program were really just rocket tubes. Just go down the list.

I mean, there are a dozen of these claims, all of which got knocked down, one by one, by intelligent people. But it was clear that the only way this kind of stuff could get on the President’s desk was because the Defense Department was churning it out.

Now, the very biggest lie was that Saddam Hussein had some sort of working relationship with Osama bin Laden’s group. That is really far-fetched in terms of what anyone who knows anything about the Arab world would understand to be true. No one really took it seriously, but the President and Powell started pushing this notion, and it fed into the single biggest reason why the American people are supporting the war — which is polls show that up to 50 or 60 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was behind Sept. 11.

MJ: But did the administration truly believe these scenarios? How much is this a question of ideology, and the single-minded pursuit of Saddam, creating a situation in which the administration was happy to be misled?

RD: There are two different types of “misled” here. I think they wanted to go to war against Iraq for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorism and nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction. They had to create a justification for war besides the fact that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. And so it seemed like the terrorism stuff would work with the American people and the weapons of mass destruction stuff would work with the United Nations and the rest of the world.

I talked to Ned Walker, who was the assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East region during the last part of the Clinton administration, and he was held over for a while when Bush came in. He told me that in the very first meeting of the National Security team — one day after Bush became president in January 2001 — the first item on the agenda was regime change in Iraq. The President was talking about regime change for months and months and months. And when it came time to actually launch the effort to go to war, they realized that regime change was not really a very convincing reason to go to war. And so they started in on all of these other pretexts.

MJ: So all of these optimistic assurances — that US forces would be greeted as liberators in southern Iraq, that the Iraqi army would just roll over — simply fed the justifications for making the decision the administration wanted to make anyway?

RD: Well the notion that this would be an easy war, I think they did believe. I think what happened in Afghanistan fed into the notion that they would be greeted as a liberating force. And it’s not entirely untrue among some segments of the Iraqi population that the Americans will be welcomed. But like any population in the world there is a spectrum of opinion, and Iraq happens to be a strongly nationalist country. And therefore the information they had about how easy it would be was simply exaggerated, to the point where they thought it would be predominant. I think they really did think that only small elements of the Republican Guard would fight, and that resistance would crumble.

MJ: It might be too early to say, but has there been any backlash within the intelligence community against the Pentagon hawks and their intelligence gathering? Is anyone saying, “I told you so?”

RD: Well, I don’t know if they’re saying it yet. Generally, the people in the national security community don’t particularly want to come out and undermine the president in the middle of a war. I don’t agree with that view — I think they should, more power to them if they do — but it’ll come after the war is over, when the Democrats decide they can start making an issue of the conduct of war. And then various military people will start quitting and writing their memoirs, and giving interviews and things like that, then we’ll find out a lot more.

MJ: Finally, has the Bush administration politicized intelligence work more than other administration?

RD: I don’t know. I can’t say that it’s more. I don’t think anybody could politicize intelligence any more than Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam. That kind of sets the gold standard for politicizing intelligence, in terms of lying about how successful we were in that war.

The job of the CIA — and I don’t mean the covert branch, the dirty tricks branch — but the job of the intelligence analysis and estimates branch is to tell the most accurate truth. And very, very often that just doesn’t coincide with what the politicians want to hear.


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