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Frontline: Truth, War, and Consequences

Martin Smith
Friday, October 10, 2003; 11:00 AM

FRONTLINE traces the roots of the Iraqi war back to the days immediately following Sept. 11, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the creation of a special intelligence operation to quietly begin looking for evidence that would justify the war. The intelligence reports soon became a part of a continuing struggle between civilians in the Pentagon on one side and the CIA, State Department, and uniformed military on the other -- a struggle that would lead to inadequate planning for the aftermath of the war, continuing violence, and mounting political problems for the president.

Producer, writer and director Martin Smith was online Friday, Oct. 10 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the film and the schism between the Bush administration and the intelligence community.

Frontline's Marty Smith. (washingtonpost.com)

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"Truth, War, and Consequences," airs Thursday, Oct. 9 on PBS. (check local listings)

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Houston, Tex.: How is it possible that in a democratic country like the United States of America, a vast majority of people could have been so grossly manipulated with deformed information, exaggerations or just plain lies?

Martin Smith: Well, first of all I'm not sure that there is any hard evidence at this point that the administration was consciously lying. Clearly, they were spinning the intelligence to promote their goals. This is common when any administration needs to sell policy. I think the best part of your question is how was this possible when the evidence was not clear.

First, Iraq was a black box. There was very little human intelligence coming out. Ahmed Chalabi capitalized on this and provided defectors. Secondly, there over all was a lack of vigorous debate on Capitol Hill and in the media.


Fountain Valley, Calif.: Why do you think that the mainstream media and Democratic presidential candidates ignore, or at least seldom question the roots of this war? Richard Perle's name for example is rarely mentioned any longer, and I'd guess that very few Americans could identify Ahmed Chalabi, or connect him to this administration, and I am sure that even fewer know anything about Abram Shulsky and the Office of Special Plans.

Is it any wonder that polls show that Americans are misinformed about this war?

Martin Smith: Many people accepted that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, despite the fact that there was lots of contrary evidence there were still many analysts in the CIA who when weighing the information, leaned toward believing Saddam possessed these weapons. Saddam often acted as if he did. We know that prior to the first gulf war that he possessed and used the weapons.

I think many in the media and on Capitol Hill feared the consequences of underestimating Saddam and his capabilities for real reasons as well as their own political reasons.


Huntsville, Ala.: What is your opinion on the fate of Saddam Hussein? How do you think the capture or death of Saddam would influence the opinion of the Iraqi people, the world opinion, and the continued attacks on U.S. forces?

Martin Smith: I'm not sure that his capture would have any immediate effects on the frequency of attacks on coalition soldiers. It would be a great boost to morale, clearly, for the coalition. There may be as many people fighting as Baathists, loyalists to Saddam, as there are foreigners or people with other motivations. So it's not clear what effect capturing Saddam would have.


Novato, Calif.: Was it difficult to get Perle or Bremer for the interview? Your gut feeling on their honesty?

Martin Smith: It was somewhat difficult to get both men. But with persistence we were able to find time in their schedules and get the interview. Both men I felt were quite honest and direct.


Wilmington, N.C.: Just a comment on the program. I was in Iraq and Kuwait for 90 days starting just before the end of "hostilities" and from my experiences and perspective the program provided an extremely accurate view of the aftermath of the war.

My initial assignment to Iraq was in Um Qsar working with what was then known as ORHA-South under what I could only describe as an incompetent leadership. The entire organization seemed incapable of determining what they were supposed to be doing. It was sad thing to watch.

During a later assignment in Baghdad it was clear that ORHA HQ(which soon changed itself to the CPA) was in no better condition of fully understanding what needed to be done. I can only hope that since my departure in July that the CPA has finally determined its mission and has started to do what was needed.

Congratulations on an excellent program.

Martin Smith: Thank you for your comments. One always hopes they get it right.

Given the short time that ORHA had to plan it shouldn't be too surprising that they were stumbling. Perhaps a comment that I could have included in the film was something that both Jerry Bremer and Jay Garner told me. And that is that if there is any lesson to be learned here, a simple one -- plan ahead, plan way ahead.


Martin Smith: And try to listen to as many people as possible and make the right assumption.


Winter Haven, Fla.: So far, what reaction has your documentary received from the administration?

Martin Smith: I have received no response that I'm aware of. I haven't gone into the office.


Lincoln, Neb.: Why is it that there is so little reported in the main stream media regarding this? Is there a trend in reporting that has forever changed in depth reporting?

Martin Smith: I'm not a media expert. I can only speculate that the commercial pressures at the major networks and cable news outlets limit both scope and depth of the reporting. I do know that there are many capable, thoughtful reporters in the field working for these organizations that are frustrated that their not given the time and resources to do more in-depth reporting. I am very lucky to have the chance to work with Frontline.


Henderson, Nev.: The footage of the actions of the soldiers upon the Iraqi community were difficult to watch and hard to imagine (from the frustration of the taxi cab driver to the loss of the family of three coming home and being shot in their car). What kind of orders were they receiving from their commanders?

I still have Mr. Bremer's words repeating through my mind to "shoot the looters."

This in no way represents the laws of our nation, so how could he think that this type of decree could possibly set the right tone for the Iraqi people or the soldiers?

Was there any form of detention center set up (and is there one now) to deal with unlawful citizens, so murdering them without a trial is not considered an acceptable form of punishment?

Please accept my gratitude for making this information available to the American public. It is so rare to see truly independent, global views in the U.S. anymore.

Martin Smith: My understanding is that they have come a long way, both in putting police on the ground, setting up courts with appropriate detention facilities. In the early days of the occupation there were no jails, there was no established procedure for processing looters. The incident to which you refer about the family returning home was a simple case of the the driver not seeing a roadblock that consisted of several cinder blocks in the road. After the event the U.S. military made a statement that they had to do more to improve their "traffic control procedures."

I do however think things are improving, how quickly is hard to say.


Washington, DC: Frontline's program last night was excellent, but I was disappointed by one thing.

It's a shame to see Frontline changing its interview style and including an on-camera interviewer/correspondent, especially one with such a poor style. You're not confronting crooked used car dealers on NBC Dateline.

Martin Smith: Thanks for your comment. I'll take all the feedback I can get.


Martin Smith: If it appeared cheesy, I apologize. If I get a lot of comments like yours I'll have to re-tool.


Martin Smith: ...I'll be forced to take the criticism seriously, that is.


Boston, Mass: Why did Martin Smith at least twice say while conducting an interview in the program that "Americans were sold this war as an imminent threat..." That is a bold face lie, an untruth from beginning to end. In President Bush's state of the union speech, he specifically countered that argument by in essence saying we cannot afford to wait until the threat from Iraq is imminent. For a program with Truth in it's title, that's a big slip up and I heard Mr. Smith say it at least twice.

Martin Smith: I'm glad you asked this question. I believe I may have used the term "imminent threat" more than twice. If you go back to the records you will see that while the president does not use the exact phrase, he talks about a "grave and gathering danger." He talks about Saddam's ability to launch chemical or biological weapons in 45 minutes.

No one that I spoke to in the administration who supported the war quibbled with the use of the term "imminent threat." It's simply not a quotation -- it's a summary of the president's assessment.


Mustang, Okla.: I saw no mention of the oil contracts or the defense contractor. You seem not to have followed the money. Is your report incomplete?

Martin Smith: I will certainly concede that the report does not cover every base. Oil as well as our strategic interests in the region could have been a longer program or a subsequent program have been explored. I did discuss with Ahmed Chalabi a meeting he had with an American oil executive, but due to time and focus it didn't make it into the program.


Chicago, Ill.: Given the validity of your thesis of Iraq as a "black box," what is your sense of the doctrine of preventative wars? Doesn't the doctrine morph into a "just-in-case" war?

Martin Smith: Well, I don't quite understand the doctrine of prevention. In that clearly North Korea poses a greater threat, I think that the reasons for the war in Iraq are complex and while preventing a future attack from Iraq was the public justification for the war, I think the rationale is broader. Those who planned and lobbied for this war have ambitions for reforming the entire political landscape of the Middle East. They believe that if a successful democracy can be established in Iraq, that other countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran will be positively affected. They see ridding the Middle East of Saddam as step one in reaching such longterm goals as democratic reform in Saudi Arabia and peace between Israel and Palestine. I don't think that it was a war fought purely to prevent an attack. In fact, I think some in the administration were not that worried about Saddam's immediate WMD capability or his links with al Qaeda. It's simply that post-9/11 the most effective way to mobilize popular opinion behind this war was to speak about the threat Saddam posed to the region, to the West and the United States.


Willits, Calif.: Is it not historically true that Wolfowitz proposed pre-emptive (i.e., arbitrary) war in 1992, that this concept reoccurred in 1998 via Rumsfeld and Perle when they demanded aggression against Iraq in conversation with Sandy Berger, and that the Project For America in the 21st Century raised the concept to a principle of American foreign policy? If so, has not this Bush pack formally instituted totalitarian war to achieve its oil-related and geostrategic purposes? And has it not a vested interest in a "Pearl Harbor incident" to jump start that totalitarian state of war?

Martin Smith: Yes. Wolfowitz did in 1992 draft a paper on pre-emptive doctrine and it has continued to be a tenet of Bush foreign policy. However, many situations in the world are considered still on a case-by-case basis. I think, therefore, it's not likely that the U.S. will always attack countries when there is some perceived threat. I do not think the administration is as mad as you portray them. There are serious questions to be raised about whether or not this war was fully justified. And that debate's going to be with us for a long time.


Seattle, Wash.: As your program reported, there was a comprehensive plan in place constructed by the State Department headed by Jay Garner to transition the Iraqi people into a reasonably secure environment as soon as hostilities ended. There was plan for reconstruction that could have thwarted the violence, cost and loss of life we are now experiencing. Is there any indication why this plan from the administration's own experts was not implemented? Jay Garner stated the decision was voiced by Secretary of State Rumsfeld. Did he make the decision or was it handed down from the Executive office?

Martin Smith: There was planning going on within the State Dept in the Future of Iraq project -- it was not headed by Garner. Garner was instructed by Rumsfeld not to use it and he did tell me that he believes that order came from above Rumsfeld, which implies the White House. I don't think we can conclude that the Future of Iraq Project would have in any way saved the day in post-war Iraq. Some of the contributions may have gone a long way towards ameliorating the situation, but that is hypothetical. Much of the work done by the Future of Iraq Project has never seen the light of day and much of it was never synthesized or coordinated in any way that would have made it useful to someone charged with implementing post-war policy. I think what the story about the Future of Iraq Project shows is a general lack of coordination and in-fighting between State and Defense that prevented the government from effectively working together. I think it's best seen as an example rather than as something that we can point to with any certainty about its effectiveness.


Detroit, Mich.: Why did the struggle that you described among Departments happen? Is there no clear path for decision-making?

Is there an explanation beyond positioning and party politicking?

Martin Smith: There were philosophical differences and differing assessments of how to go about establishing a post-war government in Baghdad. Many in the State Department have long been skeptical of the idea that democracy could be quickly, if at all, established in a country like Iraq with no democratic tradition. Civilians at the Defense Dept on the other hand were enthralled with Ahmed Chalabi and believed he could possibly be a rallying point for Iraqis after the war and that he could emerge as a post-war leader.

The State Dept didn't trust Chalabi and didn't think it was appropriate for the U.S. to be backing anyone in particular. So these two different approaches led to clashes between State and Defense. Clashes which often debilitated dialogue, coordination and planning.


Virginia Beach, Va.: One aspect of war planning that wasn't discussed in much detail were the cost - aside from Bremer's glib statement that it would cost quite a bit.

Did you find out any information in the course of your investigation regarding the planning for the costs of the war, and what now seems to have been the misguided assumption that the war would miraculously pay for itself using Iraqi oil revenue?

Martin Smith: I actually think that Bremer's comment about repairing Iraq costing $100 billion was quite revealing. The administration has so far only requested around $20 billion for post-war reconstruction. That leaves quite a shortfall. It is now becoming ever more clear that it will be a long time before Iraq's oil revenues can pay the bills. This month there will be an international donors conference held, but its still unclear where the shortfall is going to be made up, other than from American taxpayers.


New Castle, Del.: Was Wolfowitz scheduled to be interviewed? And why do you think that the Sec. of Defense and State, the Vice President and President did not grant interviews for your program?

Martin Smith: Wolfowitz never agreed to an interview, although we did have an interview scheduled with his number two. I was never given an explanation as to why the administration decided not to participate. That's a question best left for them.


Martin Smith: Douglas Feith's interview, Wolfowitz's number two, was cancelled.


Columbia, Md.: Frontline is known and respected as a trusted news source. How much oversight and editorial change were made to your original idea?

Martin Smith: There's lots of dialogue between myself, my co-producers and the Frontline editorial team. I've contributed to Frontline for over 20 years. I wouldn't continue to do so if I didn't trust their editorial judgment. Almost always their comments are made in order to make the point I'm trying to make clearer, sharper and more forceful. If I felt that I was being censored or made to say things that were not reflective of my reporting it would be impossible to work together.

The editorial process at Frontline is very rigorous and very helpful.


Charlotte, N.C.: Is there any other possible explanation for those 16 infamous words in the State of the Union address other than either embarrassing incompetence or deliberate deception? In the heat of the buildup to war when the case for war was being made and Cheney was camped out at CIA headquarters, how could the British report about yellow cake from Niger get into the speech without any senior administration official getting a CIA opinion on the credibility of the allegation?

When Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice etc. learned about the allegation is it at all believable that no one bothered to check it out? If an inquiry was made is there an possibility that the CIA didn't share their doubts with the administration? If the doubts were known and the bogus story was used anyway, why aren't talking about impeachment? I realize the questions are rhetorical but I just don't see how Bush gets by with this. Isn't it black and white? What am I missing? Has McLellan or any top administration official answered this question? Has the question even been asked?


Martin Smith: It's believable to me that the president himself was unaware of the investigation into the Niger uranium affair and that when he made comments in his state of the union address he believed it. I agree, it is hard to imagine, rather impossible to imagine, that others in the White House did not know that this story had been discredited by U.S. intelligence analysts and investigators. It seemed to have made it into the speech on a mere technicality. If you remember, what the president said is that they had reports from Britain that Iraq had purchased yellow cake uranium from Niger. As far as I know the Brits stand by that claim. The White House seems to want to duck this question as to why they included an apparently specious claim. My guess is that their belief that Saddam posed a threat got the better of their judgment. They were willing to make specific claims of dubious credibility or none at all in order to support their larger convictions. This is what Gregg Pealeman refers to in the program as "faith-based intelligence."


Portland, Ore.: Do you think that Bush can ride 'terrorism' into another 4 year term by wagging Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and other unforeseen imminent threats, real and hyped within the next year?

Martin Smith: If I can predict such a thing, I'd have to be a lot smarter than I am. There's simply a lot of time between now and the election. Things in Iraq may or may not improve. If the administration makes progress in Iraq I'm sure most Americans seem ready to forgive past mistakes. That is, most Americans may understand that the war was badly planned and perhaps wrongly sold, but if the Bush administration can show progress, I'm not sure the voters will make him pay.


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