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Cheney Was Unwavering in Desire to Go to War
Tension Between Vice President and Powell Grew Deeper as Both Tried to Guide Bush's Decision

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

This is the third of five articles adapted from "Plan of Attack," a book by Bob Woodward that is a behind-the-scenes account of how and why President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq. Simon & Schuster. © 2004.

On April 10, 2003, Ken Adelman, a Reagan administration official and supporter of the Iraq war, published an op-ed article in The Washington Post headlined, " 'Cakewalk' Revisited," more or less gloating over what appeared to be the quick victory there, and reminding readers that 14 months earlier he had written that war would be a "cakewalk." He chastised those who had predicted disaster. "Taking first prize among the many frightful forecasters" was Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser in the first Bush administration. Adelman wrote that his own confidence came from having worked for Donald H. Rumsfeld three times and "from knowing Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz for so many years."

Vice President Cheney phoned Adelman, who was in Paris with his wife, Carol. What a clever column, the vice president said. You really demolished them. He said he and his wife, Lynne, were having a small private dinner Sunday night, April 13, to talk and celebrate. The only other guests would be his chief adviser, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of defense. Adelman realized it was Cheney's way of saying thank you, and he and his wife came back from Paris a day early to attend the dinner.

When Adelman walked into the vice president's residence that Sunday night, he was so happy he broke into tears. He hugged Cheney for the first time in the 30 years he had known him. There had been reports in recent days of mass graves and abundant, graphic evidence of torture by Saddam Hussein's government, so there was a feeling that they had been part of a greater good, liberating 25 million people.

"We're all together. There should be no protocol; let's just talk," Cheney said when they sat down to dinner.

Wolfowitz embarked on a long review of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and what a mistake it had been to allow the Iraqis to fly helicopters after the armistice. Hussein had used them to put down uprisings.

Cheney said he had not realized then what a trauma that time had been for the Iraqis, particularly the Shiites, who felt the United States had abandoned them. He said that experience had made the Iraqis worry that war this time would not end Hussein's rule.

"Hold it! Hold it!" Adelman interjected. "Let's talk about this Gulf war. It's so wonderful to celebrate." He said he was just an outside adviser, someone who turned up the pressure in the public forum. "It's so easy for me to write an article saying, 'Do this.' It's much tougher for Paul to advocate it. Paul and Scooter, you give advice inside and the president listens. Dick, your advice is the most important, the Cadillac. It's much more serious for you to advocate it. But in the end, all of what we said was still only advice. The president is the one who had to decide. I have been blown away by how determined he is." The war has been awesome, Adelman said. "So I just want to make a toast, without getting too cheesy. To the president of the United States."

They all raised their glasses. Hear! Hear!

Adelman said he had worried to death that there would be no war as time went on and support seemed to wane.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Cheney said, the president understood what had to be done. He had to do Afghanistan first, sequence the attacks, but after Afghanistan -- "soon thereafter" -- the president knew he had to do Iraq. Cheney said he was confident after Sept. 11 that it would come out okay.

Adelman said it was still a gutsy move. When John F. Kennedy was elected by the narrowest of margins, Adelman said, he told everyone in his administration that the big agenda items such as civil rights would have to wait for a second term. Certainly it was the opposite for Bush.

Yes, Cheney said. And it began the first minutes of the presidency, when Bush said they were going to go full steam ahead. There is such a tendency, Cheney said, to hold back when there is a close election, to do what the New York Times and other pundits suggest and predict. "This guy was just totally different," Cheney said. "He just decided here's what I want to do, and I'm going to do it. He's very directed. He's very focused."

"I want you three guys to shut up," Lynne Cheney said, pointing at Cheney, Wolfowitz and Adelman. "Let's hear what Scooter thinks."

Libby, smiling, just said he thought what had happened was "wonderful."

It was a pretty amazing accomplishment, they all agreed, particularly given the opposition to war. Here was Scowcroft, the pillar of establishment foreign policy, vocally on the other side, widely seen as a surrogate for the president's father. There had been James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, insisting on a larger coalition of nations. And Lawrence Eagleburger, Baker's successor in the last half year of the first Bush administration, on television all the time saying war was justified only if there was evidence that Hussein was about to attack us. Eagleburger had accused Cheney of "chest thumping."

They turned to the current secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, and there were chuckles around the table.

Cheney and Wolfowitz remarked that Powell was someone who followed his poll ratings and bragged about his popularity. Several weeks earlier in a National Public Radio interview, Powell had said, "If you would consult any recent Gallup poll, the American people seem to be quite satisfied with the job I'm doing as secretary of state."

He sure likes to be popular, Cheney said.

Wolfowitz said that Powell did bring credibility and that his presentation to the United Nations on weapons of mass destruction intelligence had been important. As soon as Powell had understood what the president wanted, Wolfowitz said, he became a good, loyal member of the team.

Cheney shook his head, no. Powell was a problem. "Colin always had major reservations about what we were trying to do."

Cheney said he had just had lunch with the president. "Democracy in the Middle East is just a big deal for him. It's what's driving him."

"Let me ask," Adelman inquired, "before this turns into a love fest. I was just stunned that we have not found weapons of mass destruction." There were several hundred thousand troops and others combing the country.

"We'll find them," Wolfowitz said.

"It's only been four days, really," Cheney said. "We'll find them."

"We really need to get the president-elect briefed up on some things," Cheney said, adding that he wanted a serious "discussion about Iraq and different options." The president-elect should not be given the routine, canned, round-the-world tour normally given incoming presidents. Topic A should be Iraq.

Cheney had been secretary of defense during George H.W. Bush's presidency, which included the Gulf War, and he harbored a deep sense of unfinished business about Iraq. In addition, Iraq was the only country the United States regularly, if intermittently, bombed these days.

The U.S. military had been engaged in a frustrating low-grade, undeclared war with Iraq since the Gulf War when Bush's father and a United Nations-backed coalition had ousted Hussein and his army from Kuwait after they had invaded that country. The United States enforced two designated no-fly zones, which meant the Iraqis could fly neither planes nor helicopters in these areas, which made up about 60 percent of the country. Cheney wanted to make sure Bush understood the military and other issues in this potential tinderbox.

On Jan. 10, a Wednesday morning 10 days before the inauguration, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Powell went to the Pentagon to meet with Cohen. Afterward, Bush and his team went downstairs to the Tank, the secure domain and meeting room for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Two generals briefed them on the state of the no-fly zone enforcement. No-fly zone enforcement was dangerous and expensive. Multimillion-dollar jets were put at risk bombing 57mm antiaircraft guns. Hussein had warehouses of them. As a matter of policy, was the Bush administration going to keep poking Hussein in the chest? Was there a national strategy behind this, or was it just a static tit for tat?

Lots of acronyms and program names were thrown around -- most of them familiar to Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell, who had spent 35 years in the Army and been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. President-elect Bush asked some practical questions about how things worked, but he did not offer or hint at his desires.

The Joint Chiefs' staff had placed a peppermint at each place. Bush unwrapped his and popped it into his mouth. Later he eyed Cohen's mint and flashed a pantomime query, Do you want that? Cohen signaled no, so Bush reached over and took it. Near the end of the hour-and-a-quarter briefing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, noticed Bush eyeing his mint, so he passed it over.

Cheney listened, but he was tired and closed his eyes, conspicuously nodding off several times. Rumsfeld, who was sitting at a far end of the table, paid close attention, though he kept asking the briefers to please speak up or please speak louder. "We're off to a great start," one of the chiefs commented privately to a colleague after the session. "The vice president fell asleep, and the secretary of defense can't hear."

Given Cheney's background in national security going back to the Ford administration, his time on the House intelligence committee and as secretary of defense, the new president said that at the top of his list of things he wanted Cheney to do was intelligence.

In the first months of the new administration, Cheney made the rounds of the intelligence agencies -- the CIA; the National Security Agency, which intercepts communications; and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. He was determined to get up to speed on what had transpired in the eight years since he had left government. Bush also asked Cheney to study the nation's vulnerability to terrorism, primarily from biological and chemical threats. By the summer of 2001, Cheney had hired a retired admiral, Steve Abbott, to oversee a program for taking homeland defense more seriously.

With the president's full knowledge and encouragement, Cheney became the self-appointed examiner of worst-case scenarios. He would look at the darker side, the truly bad and terrifying scenarios. Because of his experience and temperament, it was the ideal assignment for Cheney. He felt the administration had to be prepared to think about the unthinkable. It was one way to be an effective second-in-command -- carve out a few matters, become the expert in them and then press the first-in-command to adopt your solutions.

Cheney thought that the Clinton administration had failed in its response to terrorist acts, going back to the World Trade Center bombing, in 1993, and that there had been a pattern of weak responses: no effective response to the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, the U.S. military installation in Saudi Arabia; not enough to the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa; none to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

After Sept. 11, it was clear to Cheney that the threat from terrorism had changed and grown enormously. So two matters would have to change. First, the standard of proof would have to be lowered -- irrefutable smoking-gun evidence would not have to be required for the United States to defend itself. Second, defense alone wasn't enough. They needed an offense.

The most serious threat now facing the United States was a nuclear weapon or a biological or chemical agent in the hands of a terrorist inside the country's borders. And everything, in his view, had to be done to stop it.

"The vice president, after 9/11, clearly saw Saddam Hussein as a threat to peace," Bush said in an interview last December. "And was unwavering in his view that Saddam was a real danger."

Powell was often confounded by Cheney. Years earlier, writing his best-selling memoir, Powell kept trying to pin down the remoteness of the man and had drafted and redrafted the sections on Cheney, sending them off to his best friend, Richard L. Armitage, now deputy secretary of state. Not quite right, Armitage kept replying. Powell finally told Armitage he had found a way to be "relatively truthful but not harmful."

In the final version of "My American Journey," published in 1995, Powell wrote of Cheney, "He and I had never, in nearly four years, spent a single purely social hour together." He told of Cheney's last day as defense secretary, when he had gone to Cheney's suite of offices at the Pentagon and asked, "Where's the secretary?" Informed that Cheney had left hours ago, Powell wrote, "I was disappointed, even hurt, but not surprised. The lone cowboy had gone off into the sunset without even a last, 'So long.' "

Powell had different issues with Bush. They were uncomfortable with each other. A sense of competition hovered in the background of their relationship, a low-voltage pulse nearly always present. Powell had considered running for president in 1996. He had had stratospheric poll ratings as the country's most admired man. For personal reasons and after making a calculation that there were no guarantees in American politics, he had decided not to run. But he had been the man in the wings, the former general and war hero, a moderate voice who would not run in 2000 when George W. Bush did.

For the first 16 months of the administration, Powell had been "in the refrigerator," or worse, as he and Armitage called his frequent isolation. It gnawed at him when stories appeared in the media suggesting that he was going to resign, what he privately called the "Powell's-on-his-way-out-again mode." As planning for a war with Iraq became the focus of the war cabinet, Powell became more and more frustrated. Armitage had been pushing hard for Powell to request private time with the president to build a personal relationship -- and present his case.

He achieved a breakthrough of sorts on Aug. 5, 2002, when Bush invited Powell and Condoleezza Rice to the residence. The meeting expanded to include dinner in the family dining room and then continued in the president's office.

Powell's notes filled three or four pages. War could destabilize friendly governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, he said. It could divert energy from almost everything else, not just the war on terrorism, and dramatically affect the supply and price of oil. What of the image of an American general running an Arab country, a Gen. MacArthur in Baghdad? Powell asked. How long would it be? No one could know. How would success be defined? War would take down Hussein, and "you will become the government until you get a new government."

By the time they were in Bush's office, Powell was on a roll.

"You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people," he told the president. "You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You'll own it all." Privately, Powell and Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.

"It's going to suck the oxygen out of everything," the secretary continued. So as not to sidestep the politics of it, he added, "This will become the first term." The clear implication was: Did the president want to be defined this way? Did he want to run for reelection on an Iraq war?

Powell thought he was scoring. Iraq has a history that is quite complex, he said. The Iraqis have never had a democracy. "So you need to understand that this is not going to be a walk in the woods."

The president listened and asked some questions but did not push back that much. Finally he looked at Powell. "What should I do? What else can I do?"

Powell realized he needed to offer a solution. "You can still make a pitch for a coalition or U.N. action to do what needs to be done," he said. The United Nations was only one way, but some way had to be found to recruit allies, to internationalize the problem.

Though the conversation was tense several times, Powell felt that he had left nothing unsaid. There were no histrionics. The president thanked him after two hours, an extraordinary amount of time for Powell without static from Cheney and Rumsfeld.

The New York Times had made the Scowcroft and Kissinger positions the lead article on its front page on Aug. 16: "Top Republicans Break with Bush on Iraq Strategy." It was a misinterpretation of Kissinger's remarks, which more or less backed Bush. The Times eventually ran a correction, but Cheney and his deputy, Scooter Libby, found the article extremely aggravating. The correction would never catch up with the front-page headline, and Scowcroft's dissent was indisputable and more potent. It looked as if the march to war was put off.

Cheney decided that everyone was offering an opinion except the administration. There was no stated administration position and he wanted to put one out, make a big speech if necessary. It was highly unusual for the vice president to speak on such a major issue before the president, who was going to address the United Nations on Iraq on Sept. 12. But Cheney couldn't wait. Nature and Washington policy debates abhor a vacuum. He was not going to cede the field to Scowcroft, Baker, a misinterpreted Kissinger -- or Powell. He spoke privately with the president, who gave his approval without reviewing the details of what Cheney might say.

At an NSC meeting, Cheney said to the president, "Well, I'm going to give that speech."

"Don't get me in trouble," Bush half joked.

Trouble is what Cheney had in mind.

"Cheney Says Peril of a Nuclear Iraq Justifies Attack," read the headline in the New York Times on Aug. 27. Powell was dumbfounded. The vice president had delivered a hard-line address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville and basically called weapons inspections futile. "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N. resolutions," Cheney had said of Hussein. "On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow 'back in the box.' "

The vice president also issued his own personal National Intelligence Estimate of Hussein: "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us." Ten days earlier, the president himself had said only that Hussein "desires" these weapons. Neither Bush nor the CIA had made any assertion comparable to Cheney's.

Cheney also said that these weapons in the hands of a "murderous dictator" are "as great a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action."

These remarks, just short of a declaration of war, were widely interpreted as administration policy. Powell was astonished. It was a preemptive attack on what the president had agreed to 10 days earlier. Cheney's speech blew it all up. Now Powell felt boxed in. To add to his problem, the BBC started releasing excerpts of an interview Powell had given before Cheney's speech, asserting, "The president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return."

Stories began appearing saying that Powell was contradicting Cheney. He was accused of disloyalty, and he counted seven editorials calling for his resignation or implying he should quit. How can I be disloyal, he wondered, when I'm giving the president's stated position?

Adelman thought Bush was really delaying too long in deposing Hussein. Two days after Cheney's speech, he weighed in with a blistering op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Hussein was a bigger threat than al Qaeda, he wrote, because he had a country, billions in oil revenue, an army and "scores of scientific laboratories and myriad manufacturing plants cranking out weapons of mass destruction."

The problem could not be solved with new U.N. inspections, Adelman wrote. "Every day Mr. Bush holds off liberating Iraq is another day endangering America. Posing as a 'patient man,' he risks a catastrophic attack. Should that attack occur and be traced back to an Iraqi WMD facility, this president would be relegated to the ash heap of history."

It was strong stuff. Cheney did not communicate directly with Adelman on such matters, but he passed word to a mutual friend, who called Adelman right after his article appeared to report the vice president's reaction. "Ken has been extremely helpful in all this," the friend quoted Cheney as saying, "and I really appreciate what he has done and it's been great."

A day later, Aug. 29, Cheney spoke to the Veterans of the Korean War in San Antonio. It was the same speech with significant differences. He dropped his assertion that weapons inspections might provide "false comfort" and watered down his criticism, saying that "inspections are not an end in themselves."

Instead of asserting as he had in the first version of the speech that, "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," he said simply that Hussein was pursuing "an aggressive nuclear weapons program." Some other language was moderated, by eliminating a "very," for example, and about eight paragraphs were removed from the speech.

Cheney continued to argue that to ask for a new resolution would put them back in the hopeless soup of U.N. process. All Bush needed to say in his speech was that Hussein was bad -- a willful, serial violator of U.N. resolutions -- and that the president reserved the right to act unilaterally.

But that would not be asking for U.N. support, Powell replied. The United Nations would not just roll over, declare Hussein evil and authorize war. That approach was not salable. The president had decided to give the United Nations a chance, and the only practical way to do that was to seek a new resolution.

Powell detected a kind of fever in Cheney. He was not the steady, unemotional rock that he had witnessed a dozen years earlier during the run-up to the Gulf War. The vice president was beyond hell-bent for action against Hussein. It was as if nothing else existed. Powell attempted to summarize the consequences of unilateral action, an argument he felt he had down pretty well. He added a new dimension, saying that the international reaction would be so negative that he would have to close U.S. embassies around the world if we went to war alone.

That is not the issue, Cheney said. Hussein and the clear threat are the issue.

Maybe it would not turn out as the vice president thinks, Powell said. War could trigger all kinds of unanticipated and unintended consequences -- some that none of them, he included, had imagined.

Not the issue, Cheney said.

The conversation exploded into a tough debate between the two men, who danced on the edge of civility but did not depart from the formal deference they generally showed each other. It was sharp and biting, however, and they both knew how to score debating points as they pulled apart the last fraying threads of what had connected them for so many years. Powell appeared to harbor a deep-seated anger even though he was getting his way this time.

On Saturday morning, Sept. 7, Bush met with the NSC and the argument was joined again. Powell said that if for no other reason than U.S. credibility, they needed to offer a plan to begin inspections again as part of any reengagement with the United Nations on Iraq. Procedurally, the only way to do this was to seek new resolutions.

Cheney then listed all the reasons inspections could mire them in a tar pit. First, the inspectors would not be Americans, but lawyers and experts from around the world who were less concerned about, and less skeptical of, Hussein. Second, these inspectors, like those in the past, would be more inclined to accept what they were told by Iraqi authorities, less likely to challenge, more likely to be fooled. The end result, Cheney said, would be deliberations or reports that would be inconclusive. So inspections would make getting to a decision to actually take out Hussein much more difficult.

Swayed by Blair's plea later that day that for his political viability he had to be able to show he had tried the United Nations, Bush decided this time in Powell's favor.

Colin, the vice president said, look carefully at the terrorism case that Scooter prepared. Give it a good look.

Sure, Dick, Powell said. He generally used the vice president's first name when they were alone. Cheney was not ordering him or trying to direct him. It was just a request to take a serious look.

Powell looked at it. Four meetings between Sept. 11 pilot Mohamed Atta with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague -- meetings that had been alleged but never proved to have taken place. That was worse than ridiculous. Powell pitched it.

Powell thought that Cheney had the fever. The vice president and Wolfowitz kept looking for the connection between Hussein and Sept. 11. It was a separate little government that was out there -- Wolfowitz, Libby, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith and Feith's "Gestapo office," as Powell privately called it. He saw in Cheney a sad transformation. The cool operator from the first Gulf War just would not let go. Cheney now had an unhealthy fixation. Nearly every conversation or reference came back to al Qaeda and trying to nail the connection with Iraq. He would often have an obscure piece of intelligence. Powell thought that Cheney took intelligence and converted uncertainty and ambiguity into fact.

It was about the worst charge that Powell could make about the vice president. But there it was. Cheney would take an intercept and say it shows something was happening. No, no, no, Powell or another would say, it shows that somebody talked to somebody else who said something might be happening. A conversation would suggest something might be happening, and Cheney would convert that into a "We know." Well, Powell concluded, we didn't know. No one knew.

"He's the president," Powell told associates, "and he decided and, therefore, it was my obligation to go down the other fork with him."

As the war planning had progressed over the nearly 16 months, Powell had felt that the easier the war looked, the less Rumsfeld, the Pentagon and Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks had worried about the aftermath. They seemed to think that Iraq was a crystal goblet and that all they had to do was tap it and it would crack. It had turned out to be a beer mug instead. Now they owned the beer mug.

Visiting Iraq in the fall of 2003, Powell saw the mass graves and heard the testimony of witnesses to the torture and oppression. He was delighted that Hussein and his whole rotten government were gone. It was the saving grace. Certainly the decision to go to war was not 100 percent wrong. History, after all, had not yet determined whether it was right or wrong.

Cheney continued to be Powell's bête noire. At meetings of the principals, in Powell's view, Cheney improved on his technique of not betraying his position by insisting he either didn't have one, or could change his mind in 30 minutes. Powell finally decoded the technique. He concluded that he had to listen carefully because Cheney's disavowals generally turned out to be positions about which Cheney was not going to change his mind.

Relations became so strained that Powell and Cheney could not, and did not, have a sit-down lunch or any discussion about their differences. Never.

Powell thought that now that Bush and the administration had to live with the consequences of their Iraq decisions, they were becoming dangerously protective of those decisions. There was no one in the White House who could break through to insist on a realistic reassessment. There was no Karen Hughes who could go to Bush and say, "Pay attention, you're in trouble." Powell believed it was the hardest of all tasks to go back to fundamentals and question one's own judgment, and there was no sign it was going to happen. So he soldiered on once again against the current.

Cheney believed that given the intelligence reporting about Iraq-al Qaeda links over so many years and the intelligence evidence on weapons of mass destruction, no one in his right mind sitting in Bush's position as president could have ignored it.

There was so much focus on the aftermath and criticism of the postwar planning. Cheney thought it wouldn't matter in the end. It would be noise to history as long as they were successful in what they were trying to do. Outcomes mattered. He thought history would treat Bush very well, though he acknowledged that the jury was still out.

Nearly all presidents have had to deal with vice presidents with real or imagined political futures. Even Bush senior, the super-loyal vice president, broke publicly with President Ronald Reagan several times when he deemed it politically necessary, such as when the Reagan administration was negotiating with Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and Bush had distanced himself from dealings with the unsavory strongman. But Cheney had made it clear he did not aspire to the presidency.

On a few occasions, political adviser Karl Rove and the president had discussed the news stories that Cheney was the one pulling the strings and running things behind the scenes. Some of the White House communications people worried about this. Bush laughed. Both of them had seen how deferential Cheney was. "Yes, Mr. President," or "No, Mr. President." It was no different when the president and Cheney were alone.

When the president wasn't around, Cheney often referred to him as "The Man," saying, "The Man wants this." Or, "The Man thinks this." Cheney was a forceful, persistent advocate, but the president decided. The clearest evidence of that was Cheney's strenuous objection to going to the United Nations to seek new weapons inspection resolutions. The president had gone against his advice. Cheney had saluted.

Rove argued that the politics of the Cheney-is-in-charge thesis worked in their favor. First, anyone who believed that was long lost to them anyway. Second, Rove wanted them to keep talking about it, throw the campaign into that briar patch. He believed the ordinary person wouldn't buy it. Here 67 percent were saying Bush was a strong leader and that included a third of the people who disapproved of his performance in office. A strong leader would not kowtow to his vice president, and Bush did not look meek in public.

Mark Malseed contributed to this report.

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