The Lie Factory
The inside story of how the Bush administration pushed
disinformation and bogus intelligence and led the nation to war.
Robert Dreyfuss and Jason Vest
Jones" -- -- It's a crisp fall day in western
Virginia, a hundred miles from Washington, D.C., and a breeze is
rustling the red and gold leaves of the Shenandoah hills. On the
weather-beaten wood porch of a ramshackle 90-year-old farmhouse, at
the end of a winding dirt-and-gravel road, Lt. Colonel Karen
Kwiatkowski is perched on a plastic chair, wearing shorts, a purple
sweatshirt, and muddy sneakers. Two scrawny dogs and a lone cat are
on the prowl, and the air is filled with swarms of ladybugs.
So far, she says, no investigators have come knocking. Not from the
Central Intelligence Agency, which conducted an internal inquiry
into intelligence on Iraq, not from the congressional intelligence
committees, not from the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory
Board. All of those bodies are ostensibly looking into the Bush
administration's prewar Iraq intelligence, amid charges that the
White House and the Pentagon exaggerated, distorted, or just plain
lied about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda terrorists and its possession of
nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. In her hands, Kwiatkowski
holds several pieces of the puzzle. Yet she, along with a score of
other career officers recently retired or shuffled off to other
jobs, has not been approached by anyone.
Kwiatkowski, 43, a now-retired Air Force officer who served in the
Pentagon's Near East and South Asia (NESA) unit in the year before
the invasion of Iraq, observed how the Pentagon's Iraq war-planning
unit manufactured scare stories about Iraq's weapons and ties to
terrorists. "It wasn't intelligence‚ -- it was propaganda," she
says. "They'd take a little bit of intelligence, cherry-pick it,
make it sound much more exciting, usually by taking it out of
context, often by juxtaposition of two pieces of information that
don't belong together." It was by turning such bogus intelligence
into talking points for U.S. officials‚ -- including ominous lines
in speeches by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, along with
Secretary of State Colin Powell's testimony at the U.N. Security
Council last February‚ -- that the administration pushed American
public opinion into supporting an unnecessary war.
Until now, the story of how the Bush administration produced its
wildly exaggerated estimates of the threat posed by Iraq has never
been revealed in full. But, for the first time, a detailed
investigation by Mother Jones, based on dozens of interviews‚ --
some on the record, some with officials who insisted on anonymity‚
-- exposes the workings of a secret Pentagon intelligence unit and
of the Defense Department's war-planning task force, the Office of
Special Plans. It's the story of a close-knit team of ideologues who
spent a decade or more hammering out plans for an attack on Iraq and
who used the events of September 11, 2001, to set it into motion.
Six months after the end of major combat in Iraq, the United States
had spent $300 million trying to find banned weapons in Iraq, and
President Bush was seeking $600 million more to extend the search.
Not found were Iraq's Scuds and other long-range missiles, thousands
of barrels and tons of anthrax and botulism stock, sarin and VX
nerve agents, mustard gas, biological and chemical munitions, mobile
labs for producing biological weapons, and any and all evidence of a
reconstituted nuclear-arms program, all of which had been repeatedly
cited as justification for the war. Also missing was evidence of
Iraqi collaboration with Al Qaeda.
The reports, virtually all false, of Iraqi weapons and terrorism
ties emanated from an apparatus that began to gestate almost as soon
as the Bush administration took power. In the very first meeting of
the Bush national-security team, one day after President Bush took
the oath of office in January 2001, the issue of invading Iraq was
raised, according to one of the participants in the meeting‚ -- and
officials all the way down the line started to get the message, long
before 9/11. Indeed, the Bush team at the Pentagon hadn't even been
formally installed before Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of
Defense, and Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of Defense for policy,
began putting together what would become the vanguard for regime
change in Iraq.
Both Wolfowitz and Feith have deep roots in the neoconservative
movement. One of the most influential Washington neo- conservatives
in the foreign-policy establishment during the Republicans'
wilderness years of the 1990s, Wolfowitz has long held that not
taking Baghdad in 1991 was a grievous mistake. He and others now
prominent in the administration said so repeatedly over the past
decade in a slew of letters and policy papers from neoconservative
groups like the Project for the New American Century and the
Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Feith, a former aide to
Richard Perle at the Pentagon in the 1980s and an activist in
far-right Zionist circles, held the view that there was no
difference between U.S. and Israeli security policy and that the
best way to secure both countries' future was to solve the
Israeli-Palestinian problem not by serving as a broker, but with the
United States as a force for "regime change" in the region.
Called in to help organize the Iraq war-planning team was a longtime
Pentagon official, Harold Rhode, a specialist on Islam who speaks
Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi. Though Feith would not be
officially confirmed until July 2001, career military and civilian
officials in NESA began to watch his office with concern after Rhode
set up shop in Feith's office in early January. Rhode, seen by many
veteran staffers as an ideological gadfly, was officially assigned
to the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, an in-house Pentagon
think tank headed by fellow neocon Andrew Marshall. Rhode helped
Feith lay down the law about the department's new anti-Iraq, and
broadly anti-Arab, orientation. In one telling incident, Rhode
accosted and harangued a visiting senior Arab diplomat, telling him
that there would be no "bartering in the bazaar anymore. You're
going to have to sit up and pay attention when we say so."
Rhode refused to be interviewed for this story, saying cryptically,
"Those who speak, pay."
According to insiders, Rhode worked with Feith to purge career
Defense officials who weren't sufficiently enthusiastic about the
muscular anti-Iraq crusade that Wolfowitz and Feith wanted. Rhode
appeared to be "pulling people out of nooks and crannies of the
Defense Intelligence Agency and other places to replace us with,"
says a former analyst. "They wanted nothing to do with the
professional staff. And they wanted us the fuck out of there."
The unofficial, off-site recruitment office for Feith and Rhode was
the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank whose
12th-floor conference room in Washington is named for the dean of
neoconservative defense strategists, the late Albert Wohlstetter, an
influential RAND analyst and University of Chicago mathematician.
Headquartered at AEI is Richard Perle, Wohlstetter's prize protege,
the godfather of the AEI-Defense Department nexus of
neoconservatives who was chairman of the Pentagon's influential
Defense Policy Board. Rhode, along with Michael Rubin, a former AEI
staffer who is also now at the Pentagon, was a ubiquitous presence
at AEI conferences on Iraq over the past two years, and the two
Pentagon officials seemed almost to be serving as stage managers for
the AEI events, often sitting in the front row and speaking in stage
whispers to panelists and AEI officials. Just after September 11,
2001, Feith and Rhode recruited David Wurmser, the director of
Middle East studies for AEI, to serve as a Pentagon consultant.
Wurmser would be the founding participant of the unnamed, secret
intelligence unit at the Pentagon, set up in Feith's office, which
would be the nucleus of the Defense Department's Iraq disinformation
campaign that was established within weeks of the attacks in New
York and Washington. While the CIA and other intelligence agencies
concentrated on Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda as the culprit in the
9/11 attacks, Wolfowitz and Feith obsessively focused on Iraq. It
was a theory that was discredited, even ridiculed, among
intelligence professionals. Daniel Benjamin, co-author of The Age of
Sacred Terror, was director of counterterrorism at the National
Security Council in the late 1990s. "In 1998, we went through every
piece of intelligence we could find to see if there was a link
between Al Qaeda and Iraq," he says. "We came to the conclusion that
our intelligence agencies had it right: There was no noteworthy
relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq. I know that for a fact."
Indeed, that was the consensus among virtually all anti-terrorism
In short, Wurmser, backed by Feith and Rhode, set out to prove what
In an Administration devoted to the notion of "Feith-based
intelligence," Wurmser was ideal. For years, he'd been a shrill
ideologue, part of the minority crusade during the 1990s that was
beating the drums for war against Iraq. Along with Perle and Feith,
in 1996 Wurmser and his wife, Meyrav, wrote a provocative strategy
paper for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called "A Clean
Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." It called on Israel
to work with Jordan and Turkey to "contain, destabilize and roll
back" various states in the region, overthrow Saddam Hussein in
Iraq, press Jordan to restore a scion of the Hashemite dynasty to
the Iraqi throne, and, above all, launch military assaults against
Lebanon and Syria as a "prelude to a redrawing of the map of the
Middle East which would threaten Syria's territorial integrity."
In 1997, Wurmser wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal called
"Iraq Needs a Revolution" and the next year co-signed a letter with
Perle calling for all-out U.S. support of the Iraqi National
Congress (INC), an exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi, in promoting an
insurgency in Iraq. At AEI, Wurmser wrote Tyranny's Ally: America's
Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein, essentially a book-length version
of "A Clean Break" that proposed an alliance between Jordan and the
INC to redraw the map of the Middle East. Among the mentors cited by
Wurmser in the book: Chalabi, Perle, and Feith.
The purpose of the unnamed intelligence unit, often described as a
Pentagon "cell," was to scour reports from the CIA, the Defense
Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and other
agencies to find nuggets of information linking Iraq, Al Qaeda,
terrorism, and the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
In a controversial press briefing in October 2002, a year after
Wurmser's unit was established, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
acknowledged that a primary purpose of the unit was to cull
factoids, which were then used to disparage, undermine, and
contradict the CIA's reporting, which was far more cautious and
nuanced than Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith wanted. Rumsfeld
particularly enjoyed harassing the CIA staffer who briefed him every
morning, using the type of data produced by the intelligence unit.
"What I could do is say, 'Gee, what about this?'" Rumsfeld noted.
"'Or what about that? Has somebody thought of this?'" Last June,
when Feith was questioned on the same topic at a briefing, he
acknowledged that the secret unit in fact looked at the connection
between Iraq and terrorism, saying, "You can't rely on deterrence to
deal with the problem of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of
state sponsors of terrorism because [of] the possibility that those
state sponsors might employ chemical weapons or biological weapons
by means of a terrorist organization proxy.
Though Feith, in that briefing, described Wurmser's unit as an
innocent project, "a global exercise" that was not meant to put
pressure on other intelligence agencies or create skewed
intelligence to fit preconceived policy notions, many other sources
assert that it did exactly that. That the White House and the
Pentagon put enormous pressure on the CIA to go along with its
version of events has been widely reported, highlighted by visits to
CIA headquarters by Vice President Cheney and Lewis Libby, his chief
of staff. Led by Perle, the neocons seethed with contempt for the
CIA. The CIA's analysis, said Perle, "isn't worth the paper it's
printed on." Standing in a crowded hallway during an AEI event,
Perle added, "The CIA is status quo oriented. They don't want to
That became the mantra of the shadow agency within an agency.
Putting Wurmser in charge of the unit meant that it was being run by
a pro-Iraq-war ideologue who'd spent years calling for a pre-emptive
invasion of Baghdad and who was clearly predisposed to find what he
wanted to see. Adding another layer of dubious quality to the
endeavor was the man partnered with Wurmser, F. Michael Maloof.
Maloof, a former aide to Perle in the 1980s Pentagon, was twice
stripped of his high-level security clearances‚ -- once in late 2001
and, again, last spring, for various infractions. Maloof was also
reportedly involved in a bizarre scheme to broker contacts between
Iraqi officials and the Pentagon, channeled through Perle, in what
one report called a "rogue [intelligence] operation" outside
official CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency channels.
As the momentum for war began to build in early 2002, Wolfowitz and
Feith beefed up the intelligence unit and created an Iraq
war-planning unit in the Pentagon's Near East and South Asia Affairs
section, run by Deputy Undersecretary of Defense William Luti, under
the rubric "Office of Special Plans," or OSP; the new unit's
director was Abram N. Shulsky. By then, Wurmser had moved on to a
post as senior adviser to Undersecretary of State John Bolton, yet
another neocon, who was in charge of the State Department's
disarmament, proliferation, and WMD office and was promoting the
Iraq war strategy there. Shulsky's OSP, which incorporated the
secret intelligence unit, took control, banishing veteran experts‚
-- including Joseph McMillan, James Russell, Larry Hanauer, and
Marybeth McDevitt‚ -- who, despite years of service to NESA, either
were shuffled off to other positions or retired. For the next year,
Luti and Shulsky not only would oversee war plans but would act
aggressively to shape the intelligence product received by the White
Both Luti and Shulsky were neoconservatives who were ideological
soul mates of Wolfowitz and Feith. But Luti was more than that. He'd
come to the Pentagon directly from the office of Vice President
Cheney. That gave Luti, a recently retired, decorated Navy captain
whose career ran from combat aviation to command of a helicopter
assault ship, extra clout. Along with his colleague Colonel William
Bruner, Luti had done a stint as an aide to Newt Gingrich in 1996
and, like Perle and Wolfowitz, was an acolyte of Wohlstetter's. "He
makes Ollie North look like a moderate," says a NESA veteran.
Shulsky had been on the Washington scene since the mid-1970s. As a
Senate intelligence committee staffer for Senator Daniel Patrick
Moynihan, he began to work with early neoconservatives like Perle,
who was then an aide to Senator Henry Jackson. Later, in the Reagan
years, Shulsky followed Perle to the Pentagon as Perle's
arms-control adviser. In the '90s, Shulsky co-authored a book on
intelligence called Silent Warfare, with Gary Schmitt. Shulsky had
served with Schmitt on Moynihan's staff and they had remained
friends. Asked about the Pentagon's Iraq intelligence "cell,"
Schmitt‚ -- who is currently the executive director of the Project
for the New American Century‚ -- says that he can't say much about
it "because one of my best friends is running it."
According to Lt. Colonel Kwiatkowski, Luti and Shulsky ran NESA and
the Office of Special Plans with brutal efficiency, purging people
they disagreed with and enforcing the party line. "It was organized
like a machine," she says. "The people working on the neocon agenda
had a narrow, well-defined political agenda. They had a sense of
mission." At NESA, Shulsky, she says, began "hot-desking," or taking
an office wherever he could find one, working with Feith and Luti,
before formally taking the reins of the newly created OSP. Together,
she says, Luti and Shulsky turned cherry-picked pieces of
uncorroborated, anti-Iraq intelligence into talking points, on
issues like Iraq's WMD and its links to Al Qaeda. Shulsky constantly
updated these papers, drawing on the intelligence unit, and
circulated them to Pentagon officials, including Rumsfeld, and to
Vice President Cheney. "Of course, we never thought they'd go
directly to the White House," she adds.
Kwiatkowski recalls one meeting in which Luti, pressed to finish a
report, told the staff, "I've got to get this over to 'Scooter'
right away." She later found out that "Scooter" was none other than
Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.
According to Kwiatkowski, Cheney had direct ties through Luti into
NESA/OSP, a connection that was highly unorthodox.
"Never, ever, ever would a deputy undersecretary of Defense work
directly on a project for the vice president," she says. "It was a
little clue that we had an informal network into Vice President
Although Feith insists that the OSP did not seek to gather its own
intelligence, Kwiatkowski and others sharply disagree. Staff working
for Luti and Shulsky in NESA/OSP churned out propaganda-style
intelligence, she says. As an example, she cited the work of a U.S.
intelligence officer and Arabic specialist, Navy Lt. Commander
Youssef Aboul-Enein, who was a special assistant to Luti. "His job
was to peruse the Arabic-language media to find articles that would
incriminate Saddam Hussein about terrorism, and he translated
these." Such raw intelligence is usually subject to a thorough
vetting process, tracked, verified, and checked by intelligence
professionals. But not at OSP‚ -- the material that it produced
found its way directly into speeches by Bush, Cheney, and other
According to Melvin Goodman, a former CIA official and an
intelligence specialist at the National War College, the OSP
officials routinely pushed lower-ranking staff around on
intelligence matters. "People were being pulled aside [and being
told], 'We saw your last piece and it's not what we're looking
for,'" he says. "It was pretty blatant." Two State Department
intelligence officials, Greg Thielmann and Christian Westermann,
have both charged that pressure was being put on them to shape
intelligence to fit policy, in particular from Bolton's office. "The
Al Qaeda connection and nuclear weapons issue were the only two ways
that you could link Iraq to an imminent security threat to the
U.S.," Thielmann told the New York Times. "And the administration
was grossly distorting the intelligence on both things."
Besides Cheney, key members of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board,
including Perle and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, all Iraq hawks,
had direct input into NESA/OSP. The offices of NESA were located on
the Pentagon's fourth floor, seventh corridor of D Ring, and the
Policy Board's offices were directly below, on the third floor.
During the run-up to the Iraq war, Gingrich often came up for
closed-door meetings with Luti, who in 1996 had served as a
congressional fellow in Speaker of the House Gingrich's office.
As OSP got rolling, Luti brought in Colonel Bruner, a former
military aide to Gingrich, and, together, Luti and Bruner opened the
door to a vast flow of bogus intelligence fed to the Pentagon by
Iraqi defectors associated with Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress
group of exiles. Chalabi founded the Iraqi National Congress in
1992, with the help of a shadowy CIA-connected public-relations firm
called the Rendon Group, one of whose former employees, Francis
Brooke, has been a top aide to Chalabi ever since. A scion of an
aristocratic Iraqi family, Chalabi fled Baghdad at the age of 13, in
1958, when the corrupt Iraqi Hashemite monarchy was overthrown by a
coalition of communists and the Iraqi military. In the late 1960s,
Chalabi studied mathematics at the University of Chicago with
Wohlstetter, who introduced him to Richard Perle more than a decade
later. Long associated with the heart of the neoconservative
movement, Chalabi founded Petra Bank in Jordan, which grew to be
Jordan's third-largest bank by the 1980s. But Chalabi was accused of
bank fraud, embezzlement, and currency manipulation, and he barely
escaped before Jordanian authorities could arrest him; in 1992, he
was convicted and sentenced in absentia to more than 20 years of
hard labor. After founding the INC, Chalabi's bungling,
unreliability, and penchant for mismanaging funds caused the CIA to
sour on him, but he never lost the support of Perle, Feith,
Gingrich, and their allies; once, soon after 9/11, Perle invited
Chalabi to address the Defense Policy Board.
According to multiple sources, Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress
sent a steady stream of misleading and often faked intelligence
reports into U.S. intelligence channels. That information would flow
sometimes into NESA/OSP directly, sometimes through Defense
Intelligence Agency debriefings of Iraqi defectors via the Defense
Human Intelligence Service, and sometimes through the INC's own
U.S.-funded Intelligence Collection Program, which was overseen by
the Pentagon. The INC's intelligence "isn't reliable at all,"
according to Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA chief of
counterterrorism. "Much of it is propaganda. Much of it is telling
the Defense Department what they want to hear, using alleged
informants and defectors who say what Chalabi wants them to say,
[creating] cooked information that goes right into presidential and
vice presidential speeches."
Bruner, the aide to Luti and Gingrich's former staffer, "was
Chalabi's handler," says Kwiatkowski. "He would arrange meetings
with Chalabi and Chalabi's folks," she says, adding that the INC
leader often brought people into the NESA/OSP offices for
debriefings. Chalabi claims to have introduced only three actual
defectors to the Pentagon, a figure Thielmann considers "awfully
low." However, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles
Times, the three defectors provided by Chalabi turned up exactly
zero useful intelligence. The first, an Iraqi engineer, claimed to
have specific information about biological weapons, but his
information didn't pan out; the second claimed to know about mobile
labs, but that information, too, was worthless; and the third, who
claimed to have data about Iraq's nuclear program, proved to be a
fraud. Chalabi also claimed to have given the Pentagon information
about Iraqi support for Al Qaeda. "We gave the names of people who
were doing the links," he told an interviewer from PBS's Frontline.
Those links, of course, have not been discovered. Thielmann told the
same Frontline interviewer that the Office of Special Plans didn't
apply strict intelligence-verification standards to "some of the
information coming out of Chalabi and the INC that OSP and the
Pentagon ran with."
In the war's aftermath, the Defense Intelligence Agency‚ -- which is
not beholden to the neoconservative civilians at the Pentagon‚ --
leaked a report it prepared, concluding that few, if any, of the
INC's informants provided worthwhile intelligence.
So far, despite all of the investigations under way, there is little
sign that any of them are going to delve into the operations of the
Luti-Shulsky Office of Special Plans and its secret intelligence
unit. Because it operates in the Pentagon's policy shop, it is not
officially part of the intelligence community, and so it is
seemingly immune to congressional oversight.
With each passing day, it is becoming excruciatingly clearer just
how wrong U.S. intelligence was in regard to Iraqi weapons and
support for terrorism. The American teams of inspectors in the Iraq
Survey Group, which has employed up to 1,400 people to scour the
country and analyze the findings, have not been able to find a shred
of evidence of anything other than dusty old plans and records of
weapons apparently destroyed more than a decade ago. Countless
examples of fruitless searches have been reported in the media. To
cite one example: U.S. soldiers followed an intelligence report
claiming that a complex built for Uday Hussein, Saddam's son, hid a
weapons warehouse with poison-gas storage tanks. "Well," U.S. Army
Major Ronald Hann Jr. told the Los Angeles Times, "the warehouse was
a carport. It still had two cars inside. And the tanks had propane
for the kitchen."
Countless other errors and exaggerations have become evident. The
thousands of aluminum tubes supposedly imported by Iraq for uranium
enrichment were fairly conclusively found to be designed to build
noncontroversial rockets. The long-range unmanned aerial vehicles,
allegedly built to deliver bioweapons, were small, rickety,
experimental planes with wood frames. The mobile bioweapon labs
turned out to have had other, civilian purposes. And the granddaddy
of all falsehoods, the charge that Iraq sought uranium in the West
African country of Niger, was based on forged documents‚ --
documents that the CIA, the State Department, and other agencies
knew were fake nearly a year before President Bush highlighted the
issue in his State of the Union address in January 2003.
"Either the system broke down," former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who
was sent by the CIA to visit Niger and whose findings helped show
that the documents were forged, told Mother Jones, "or there was
selective use of bits of information to justify a decision to go to
war that had already been taken."
Edward Luttwak, a neoconservative scholar and author, says flatly
that the Bush administration lied about the intelligence it had
because it was afraid to go to the American people and say that the
war was simply about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Instead, says
Luttwak, the White House was groping for a rationale to satisfy the
United Nations' criteria for war. "Cheney was forced into this fake
posture of worrying about weapons of mass destruction," he says.
"The ties to Al Qaeda? That's complete nonsense."
In the Senate, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is pressing for the
Intelligence Committee to extend its investigation to look into the
specific role of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, but there
is strong Republican resistance to the idea.
In the House, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has introduced
legislation calling for a commission to investigate the intelligence
mess and has collected more than a hundred Democrats‚ -- but no
Republicans‚ -- in support of it. "I think they need to be looked at
pretty carefully," Waxman told Mother Jones when asked about the
Office of Special Plans. "I'd like to know whether the political
people pushed the intelligence people to slant their conclusions."
Congressman Waxman, meet Lt. Colonel Kwiatkowski.
Robert Dreyfuss is a longtime Washington journalist and a
contributing writer for Mother Jones. His last cover story for the
magazine focused on the neoconservative plan ot topple Saddam
Hussein and reshape the Middle East ("The Thirty-Year Itch,"
Jason Vest is a Washington reporter whose work has appeared in the
Washington Post,U.S. News & World Report, the American Prospect, and
the Village Voice.
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