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Road to war

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It was September of 2002, just three days before the emotional one-year anniversary of 9/11 and the giant wound of the al Qaeda attack on New York was still open.

The Bush administration had assembled a media strategy team known as the White House Iraq Group.  It consisted of top officials, including those in the vice president’s office whose goals starting after Labor Day was to sell a war on Iraq, which had no detectable role on 9/11. 

On September 7, 2002, White House chief of staff Andy Card referred to the effort in an interview with The New York Times and said, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”

The next day, the White House marketers delivered their product, a New York Times front-page story.  U.S. says Hussein intensifies quest for A-Bomb parts. Judy Miller attributing the story to Bush administration officials reported, “Iraq has stepped up it’s quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.  In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes meant for Iraq’s nuclear program.

Vice President Dick Cheney referred to that article in a speech and again later in a scheduled appearance on “Meet the Press” that same day.  He pointed out, “That he is in fact actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Cheney was not the only scheduled guest that day pushing The New York Times story and hammering the nuclear argument.  In a unique media blitz, the White House dispatched five A-list administration officials to the television airwaves, one to each of the Sunday talk shows. 

On FOX News Sunday, Colin Powell, said about Saddam, “We saw in reporting just this morning, he is still trying to acquire, for example, some of the specialized aluminum tubing one needs to develop centrifuges.”

Gen. Richard Myers, former Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff said “Our intelligence is always imperfect and we usually find out that what we don’t know is the most troublesome.  In this case, so we don’t know.  Our estimate is at this point he does not have nuclear weapon, but he wants one.” 

On CNN, when Condoleezza Rice was asked if it’s possible the tubes were not for nuclear weapons.  She replied, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

The nuclear claims led the papers and the nightly newscasts for two days in a row.  Then on the anniversary of 9/11, President Bush said, “We will not relent until justice is done and our nation is secure.  What our enemies have begun, we will finish.” 

The next day at the United Nations, Bush discussed Iraq’s alleged nuclear ambitions.  “Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.” Bush continued, “ Should Iraq acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year.” 

The following week, Congress began debating a war resolution.  While the Clinton administration and intelligence agencies around the world had suspected Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration was the first to argue Saddam posed a direct threat to the continental United States. 

In early October, the president spoke again about Iraq’s efforts to buy aluminum tubes, echoing Condoleezza Rice, “We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

Four days later, the Senate and the House voted to allow President Bush to launch a war on Iraq if Saddam doesn’t disarm.  The resolution stated that Iraq posed, a continuing threat to the United States by, among other things, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Many Democrats who voted for the resolution emphasized that very point. 

Unbeknownst to the public at the time, however, two agencies in the administration, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Department of Energy, concluded the aluminum tubes were the wrong specification for nuclear materials. 

Agency officials, under orders not to talk publicly, thought the tubes were intended to be Iraqi artillery rockets, not nukes.  In early January 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported, “While it would be possible to modify such tubes for the manufacture of centrifuges, they are not directly suitable for it.”

The Bush administration dismissed the IAEA report and in the president’s State of the Union, the ultimate platform for the administration to sell the idea that Saddam was a nuclear threat.

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.  Our intelligence sources tell us he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapon production,” said Bush.

The first sentence was retracted six months later, following criticism from Ambassador Joe Wilson.  In turn, that led to White House actions against Wilson and his CIA wife, that evolved into a criminal investigation into White House leaks. 

But the investigation was not in time to stop White House operatives from executing what had already been a masterful and successful marketing of what State Department official Richard Haass called at the time, “a war of choice.”

Watch each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.