Weapons of Mass Dismay

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Less than three months after 9/11, the Bush Administration was planning for war with Iraq. These talking points prepared for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s meeting on November 27, 2001, with Army General Tommy Franks, the U.S. Central Command chief, make clear the justification for the coming war: “Focus on WMD.” Much of the three-page memo, recently released by the National Security Archive at the George Washington University following an FOIA request, has been redacted. But they still left plenty of good stuff in. It’s pretty chilling to read an original source document — basically the starting gun for the war with Iraq — begin with a false premise.

“It is to be expected that national intelligence services will sometimes fail to identify and discover a threat to the nation in a timely fashion,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the non-profit Federation of American Scientists. “But when intelligence warns of a threat that isn’t really there, and then nations go to war to meet the phantom threat — that is a serious, confounding and deeply disturbing problem.”

I remember the Rumsfeld-Franks meeting at Central Command headquarters well, because I flew to Tampa on Rumsfeld’s plane that day. After the pair met behind closed doors, justifying the coming war with Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s country didn’t come up once in the press conference Rumsfeld and Franks held later in the day.

Franks and Rumsfeld, Tampa, Nov. 27, 2001 / DoD

The press focused on Afghanistan instead, and the possibility that Osama bin Laden might have been developing his own weapons of mass destruction — biological, chemical or nuclear — there. Franks said that U.S. intelligence had identified more than 40 places in Afghanistan where WMD research might be happening, and that U.S. experts were scrubbing the sites for evidence of such work. “These are very exhaustive tests,” Franks said. “And what we’ll not do is mislead the secretary and the president of the United States to believe that we either do or do not have something until we’re absolutely sure.”

UPDATE: OK, so it’s not quite WMD….