9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies

By James Bamford

Doubleday. 420 pp. $26.95

As debate continues to rage about the flaws in the American occupation of Iraq, James Bamford takes a fresh look at the run-up to the 2003 conflict, to examine how pre-war intelligence spurred the onset of war. Bamford, author of two earlier investigative studies of the National Security Agency, The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets, sets out in A Pretext for War to show that key figures in the Bush administration -- national security adviser Richard Perle, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith -- locked in a plan to wage war in Iraq well before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He charges that these four leading hawks manipulated the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency in a desperate attempt to justify a regime change in Iraq that they had been strategizing to bring about for years. He suggests further that the administration's rush to war grew out of a key and chronic blind spot in American policy circles: the failure to recognize the central role of the Palestinian cause in igniting Arab rage against the United States.

Bamford makes this case largely in the last third of his book. He uses the first two-thirds to meticulously lay out how the Sept. 11 aircraft were hijacked, the numerous intelligence and logistical failures that led to al Qaeda's successful strike and the reaction to the attacks in official Washington. Highly readable and well-researched, this account offers new insights into how the Sept. 11 hijackings occurred, while also showing how terribly ill-equipped and unprepared our defense systems were to deal with these kinds of attacks.

Other writers have also chronicled the overall failures and some of the panic, but Bamford found much new information that underscores just how chaotic and dangerous things really were in Sept. 11's immediate aftermath. For example, Bamford notes that two Air National Guard jets were scramble-ready and perhaps could have intercepted at least one of the suicide airliners, yet were assigned that day to unarmed bomb practice. Even if they had scrambled earlier, however, the fighter jets had no weapons to shoot down the hijacked jets. In fact, Bamford says, "on September 11, 2001, the entire United States mainland was protected by just fourteen planes spread out over seven bases."

Bamford goes on to track the reactions to the attack inside the NSA and CIA and supplies a chronology detailing when various senior administration officials were notified. For example, CIA director George Tenet received no word until well after the second aircraft had crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. The top military commanders were just as out of touch. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry Shelton, was en route to Europe, and his deputy, Gen. Richard Myers, was on Capitol Hill. "Through it all, the general in charge of the country's military was completely ignorant of the fact that the United States was under its worst attack in nearly two centuries," Bamford writes. "Nor did he know that about forty minutes earlier, the President had decided to declare war."

Bamford dislikes President Bush intensely and makes little effort to hide it. He re-examines the president's actions on Sept. 11, from when he heard of the attacks to his flight across the country before finally returning to Washington, and concludes that "disturbingly, the story George W. Bush often tells of his learning of the attacks cannot possibly be true." He reaches this conclusion by chronicling the appearance of the first video snippets of the crashes on television and determining that the president could not have seen the footage at the time he claimed he did. He also strongly implies Bush was a coward for not returning immediately to Washington, D.C., contrasting his actions to those of Lyndon Johnson after the Kennedy assassination. (While Bush's decision not to return to Washington is debatable, to assume that it arose out of cowardice -- without any confirming testimony from people who would know -- seems overly harsh. The early moments of the attacks were chaotic -- and Washington itself was a target.) Bamford treads less familiar and more interesting ground when he describes the secret sites to which Bush, senior cabinet members and congressional leaders were taken, and the atmosphere inside. Again, others (notably Sen. Tom Daschle) have provided similar accounts, but by skillfully integrating these scenes with his own interviews, Bamford paints a vivid picture of the leadership of the free world bracing for an apocalypse.

In reviewing America's intelligence breakdowns, Bamford focuses mainly on material familiar to most readers from the Sept. 11 hearings: the lack of coordination among intelligence agencies, the lack of human intelligence on al Qaeda and a casual inattention to the al Qaeda threat despite CIA Director George Tenet's 1999 declaration of war on Osama bin Laden. But here, too, Bamford uncovers fresh material, in his scathing report on the workings of the Alec Station, the secret CIA unit dedicated solely to tracking bin Laden and al Qaeda. Bamford effectively makes the case that the group, constantly underfunded and understaffed, made little difference: "After four years and hundreds of millions of dollars, Alec Station had yet to recruit a single source within bin Laden's growing Afghanistan operation. It was more than embarrassing -- it was a scandal."

For Bamford, though, the crowning scandal was the long-incubating plan to force Saddam Hussein out of power by military force. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and other key members of this war faction -- nicknamed the Vulcans -- had long been laying the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq. Administration insiders such as Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill have already made influential versions of this case in their recently published books, and Bamford relies on Clarke's own account of the immediate post-Sept. 11 security meetings to underline the depth of the administration's Iraq fixation.

Bamford traces the personal relations among the key players spanning several decades. Again he adds some interesting bits to the existing record: e.g., the Pentagon's distrust of the CIA's intelligence; internal turf wars among the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney over what kind of intelligence was used in planning for Iraq; and the Pentagon's establishment of separate intelligence shops to counter the CIA and DIA. Bamford also notes that it was the Vulcans Perle and Feith, together with senior State Department adviser David Wormser, who drafted the basic outlines of Bush's plan to oust Saddam, including the doctrine of preemption, back in the mid-1990s, when they were advising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu rejected the plan, which gathered dust until Bush's election, when the group returned to the corridors of power. Bamford says that the new fortunes of Perle, Feith and Wormser, together with Bush's personal determination to repay Saddam for his attempt to kill Bush's father, were instrumental in America's decision to go to war.

A Pretext for War suffers from some factual slips -- at one point, for instance, identifying Abram N. Shulsky as head of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans rather than William Luti. There are several repeated paragraphs and a frustratingly incomplete index -- all indications of a too hasty rush to publish.

However, Bamford does add to the public record in significant ways. His deconstruction of the role played by Ahmed Chalabi in feeding false information on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to U.S. intelligence agencies and reporters, especially Judith Miller at the New York Times, is especially timely. Chalabi has recently fallen from grace, and the New York Times is reviewing its reporting on WMD, publicly admitting it should have been more skeptical of some of its sources. The story of "Curveball," an Iraqi defector who provided information that was given great credence by both Pentagon intelligence and the national news media only to be debunked, is also instructive.

On balance, Bamford does a superb job of laying out and tying together threads of the Sept. 11 intelligence failures and their ongoing aftermath, using original research, the public record and a light, fast-paced writing touch. We have of course heard the brunt of Bamford's polemic indictment of Bush and the Vulcans before: that the United States invaded Iraq as the result of a "massive disinformation campaign, abetted by a lazy and timid press." Readers may find such claims a bit sweeping, but A Pretext for War nonetheless provides a useful, new and sobering stream of information -- especially as the fallout from the Vulcans' crusade looms as a potentially decisive issue in a crucial election year. *

Douglas Farah, on leave from The Washington Post, is consulting on intelligence reform and armed groups. He recently wrote "Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror."

President George W. Bush talks with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld outside the Oval Office on March 19, 2003, shortly after authorizing Operation Iraqi Freedom.