On Sept. 17, 2001, six days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush signed a 21/2-page document marked "TOP SECRET" that outlined the plan for going to war in Afghanistan as part of a global campaign against terrorism.
Almost as a footnote, the document also directed the Pentagon to begin planning military options for an invasion of Iraq, senior administration officials said.
The previously undisclosed Iraq directive is characteristic of an internal decision-making process that has been obscured from public view. Over the next nine months, the administration would make Iraq the central focus of its war on terrorism without producing a rich paper trail or record of key meetings and events leading to a formal decision to act against President Saddam Hussein, according to a review of administration decision-making based on interviews with more than 20 participants.
Instead, participants said, the decision to confront Hussein at this time emerged in an ad hoc fashion. Often, the process circumvented traditional policymaking channels as longtime advocates of ousting Hussein pushed Iraq to the top of the agenda by connecting their cause to the war on terrorism.
With the nation possibly on the brink of war, the result of this murky process continues to reverberate today: tepid support for military action at the State Department, muted concern in the military ranks of the Pentagon and general confusion among relatively senior officials -- and the public -- about how or even when the policy was decided.
The decision to confront Iraq was in many ways a victory for a small group of conservatives who, at the start of the administration, found themselves outnumbered by more moderate voices in the military and the foreign policy bureaucracy. Their tough line on Iraq before Sept. 11, 2001, was embraced quickly by President Bush and Vice President Cheney after the attacks. But that shift was not communicated to opponents of military action until months later, when the internal battle was already decided.
By the time the policy was set, opponents were left arguing over the tactics -- such as whether to go to the United Nations -- without clearly understanding how the decision was reached in the first place. "It simply snuck up on us," a senior State Department official said.
The administration has embarked on something "quite extraordinary in American history, a preventive war, and the threshold for justification should be extraordinarily high," said G. John Ikenberry, an international relations professor at Georgetown University. But "the external presentation and the justification for it really seems to be lacking," he said. "The external presentation appears to mirror the internal decision-making quite a bit."
Advocates for military action against Iraq say the process may appear mysterious only because the answer was so self-evident. They believe that Bush understood instantly after Sept. 11 that Iraq would be the next major step in the global war against terrorism, and that he made up his mind within days, if not hours, of that fateful day. "The most important thing is that the president's position changed after 9/11," said a senior official who pushed hard for action.
"Saddam Must Go"
A small group of senior officials, especially in the Pentagon and the vice president's office, have long been concerned about Hussein, and urged his ouster in articles and open letters years before Bush became president.
Five years ago, the Dec. 1 issue of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, headlined its cover with a bold directive: "Saddam Must Go: A How-to Guide." Two of the articles were written by current administration officials, including the lead one, by Zalmay M. Khalilzad, now special White House envoy to the Iraqi opposition, and Paul D. Wolfowitz, now deputy defense secretary.
"We will have to confront him sooner or later -- and sooner would be better," Khalilzad and Wolfowitz wrote. They called for "sustained attacks on the elite military units and security forces that are the main pillar of Saddam's terror-based regime."
In an open letter to President Bill Clinton in early 1998, Wolfowitz, Khalilzad and eight other people who now hold positions in the Bush administration -- including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- urged Clinton to begin "implementing a strategy for removing Saddam's regime from power."
Many advocates of action were skeptical that Hussein could be contained indefinitely, even by repeated weapons inspections, and they viewed his control of Iraq -- and his possible acquisition of weapons of mass destruction -- as inherently destabilizing in the region. Many were also strong supporters of Israel, and they saw ousting Hussein as key to changing the political dynamic of the entire Middle East.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush and Cheney's position was not as clear-cut.
In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," about one year before the Sept. 11 attacks, Cheney defended the decision of George H.W. Bush's administration not to attack Baghdad because, he said, the United States should not act as though "we were an imperialist power, willy-nilly moving into capitals in that part of the world, taking down governments." In the current environment, he said, "we want to maintain our current posture vis-a-vis Iraq."
Bush, during the campaign, focused more on the dangers of nuclear proliferation than on the removal of Saddam Hussein. In a December 1999 debate among GOP presidential contenders, Bush backtracked when he said he'd "take 'em out" if Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Asked by the moderator whether he had said "take him out," Bush replied, "Take out the weapons of mass destruction."
"Transformed by Sept. 11"
In the early months of the Bush administration, officials intent on challenging Hussein sought to put Iraq near the top of the administration's foreign policy agenda. Many felt frustrated by the interagency debate. Defense officials seethed as the State Department pressed ahead with a plan to impose "smart sanctions" on Iraq and, in their view, threw bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of providing funds to the Iraqi opposition.
"Even relatively easy decisions were always thrown up to the presidential level," said a Defense official.
Meanwhile, at the White House, officials worked on refining the administration's Iraq policy, focusing especially on how to implement the official U.S. stance of "regime change" articulated by the Clinton administration. Bush was informed of the deliberations, but nothing had been settled when the terrorists attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
"Certainly, different people at different times were arguing for a more vigorous approach to Saddam," one senior official said. "But nobody suggested that we have the U.S. military go to Baghdad. That was transformed by Sept. 11."
Iraq, and its possible possession of weapons of mass destruction, was on the minds of several key officials as they struggled to grapple with the aftermath of Sept. 11. Cheney, as he watched the World Trade Center towers collapse while he was sitting in front of a television in the White House's underground bunker, turned to an aide and remarked, "As unfathomable as this was, it could have been so much worse if they had weapons of mass destruction."
The same thought occurred to other senior officials in the days that followed. Rumsfeld wondered to aides whether Hussein had a role in the attacks. Wolfowitz, in public and private conversations, was an especially forceful advocate for tackling Iraq at the same time as Osama bin Laden. And within days, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice also privately began to counsel the president that he needed to go after all rogue nations harboring weapons of mass destruction.
But these concerns were submerged by the imperative of dealing first with Afghanistan. "I remember the day that we put the map on the table, and the color drained from everybody's face," one official said. "Afghanistan is not the place you would choose to fight."
The Pentagon, while it was fighting the war in Afghanistan, began reviewing its plans for Iraq because of the secret presidential directive on Sept. 17. On Sept. 19 and 20, an advisory group known as the Defense Policy Board met at the Pentagon -- with Rumsfeld in attendance -- and animatedly discussed the importance of ousting Hussein.
The anthrax attacks, which came soon after Sept. 11, further strengthened the resolve of some key administration officials to deal with Iraq. Cheney, in particular, became consumed with the possibility that Iraq or other countries could distribute biological or chemical weapons to terrorists, officials said.
Though Cheney's aides said the vice president has been consistently concerned about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, others perceived a shift. "To his credit, he looked at the situation differently after Sept. 11 than he did before," one senior official said.
Because the culprit behind the anthrax attacks has not been found, some administration officials still are convinced that Hussein had a role in the anthrax attacks. "It's hard to get away from the feeling that the timing was too much of a coincidence," one official said.
Officials close to the president portray the Iraq decision as a natural outgrowth of concerns Bush raised during the presidential campaign, and they say he very quickly decided he needed to challenge Iraq after the terrorist attacks.
But he didn't publicly raise it earlier because, in the words of one senior official, "he didn't think the country could handle the shock of 9/11 and a lot of talk about dealing with states that had weapons of mass destruction."
"What a Fixation"
In free-wheeling meetings of the "principals" during October and November, Rumsfeld and Cheney emphasized their suspicions of ties between rogue states, such as Iraq, and terrorists. Some of the conversations were prompted by intelligence, later discounted, that al Qaeda may have been on the verge of obtaining a "dirty bomb" that would spread radioactive material.
By early November, Wayne Downing, a retired Army general who headed counterterrorism in the White House, on his own initiative began working up plans for an attack of Iraq, keeping his superiors informed of his progress. A Pentagon planning group also kept hard at work on possible options.
"The issue got away from the president," said a senior official who attended discussions in the White House. "He wasn't controlling the tone or the direction" and was influenced by people who "painted him into a corner because Iraq was an albatross around their necks."
After some of these meetings at the White House, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, skeptical of military action without the necessary diplomatic groundwork, would return to his office on the seventh floor of the State Department, roll his eyes and say, "Jeez, what a fixation about Iraq," State Department officials said.
"I do believe certain people have grown theological about this," said another administration official who opposed focusing so intently on Iraq. "It's almost a religion -- that it will be the end of our society if we don't take action now."
"Axis of Evil"
Much of this activity -- and these concerns -- were hidden from the public eye. Bush barely mentioned Iraq in his address to the nation nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks. In fact, the administration did not publicly tip its hand until Bush made his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2002. Even then, officials did their best to obscure the meaning of Bush's words.
Listing Iraq, Iran and North Korea, Bush declared, "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred."
"I will not wait on events, while dangers gather," Bush warned.
State Department officials puzzled over drafts of the speech and ultimately concluded the words did not represent a policy shift, though some were worried the rhetoric would have diplomatic consequences. Powell "thought it rang an alarm bell since it would send waves out there to colleagues around the world," a State Department official said.
Powell expressed concerns about the language to the White House, he said. "But he didn't push it hard."
Briefing reporters at the White House, officials played down the importance of the "axis of evil." One senior White House official advised "not to read anything into any [country] name in terms of the next phase" of the war against terrorism. "We've always said there are a number of elements of national power" in the U.S. arsenal, the aide added, including diplomacy and sanctions. "This is not a call to use a specific element" of that power.
Yet, in this period, Bush also secretly signed an intelligence order, expanding on a previous presidential finding, that directed the CIA to undertake a comprehensive, covert program to topple Hussein, including authority to use lethal force to capture the Iraqi president.
Speculation continued to run high in the media that an attack on Iraq was imminent. But within the administration, some of the advocates were becoming depressed about the lack of action, complaining that it was difficult to focus attention on Iraq, especially as the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians spiraled out of control. In March, Cheney toured the Middle East on a trip dominated by questions from Arab leaders about the Israeli-Palestinian violence. But he also stressed the administration's contention that Iraq was a problem that needed to be addressed.
"I Made Up My Mind"
Then, in April, Bush approached Rice. It was time to figure out "what we are doing about Iraq," he told her, setting in motion a series of meetings by the principals and their deputies. "I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go," Bush hinted to a British reporter at the time. "That's about all I'm willing to share with you."
At the meetings, senior officials examined new but unconfirmed evidence of Iraq's programs to build biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and considered connections between Baghdad and Palestinian terrorism. They argued over which elements of the Iraqi opposition to back, ultimately deciding to push for unity among the exiles and within the U.S. bureaucracy.
By many accounts, they did not deal with the hard question of whether there should be a confrontation with Iraq. "Most of the internal debate in the administration has really been about tactics," an official said.
Powell sent his deputy, Richard L. Armitage, who had signed the letter to Clinton urging Hussein's ouster, to many of the meetings. As a way of establishing Powell's bona fides with those eager for action, Armitage would boast -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that Powell first backed "regime change" in his confirmation hearings.
Serious military planning also began in earnest in the spring. Every three or four weeks, Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of U.S. Central Command, would travel to the White House to give Bush a private briefing on the war planning for Iraq.
On June 1, Bush made another speech, this time at West Point, arguing for a policy of preemption against potential threats. "If we wait for the threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," Bush said. That month, two major foreign policy headaches -- a potential war between India and Pakistan and the administration's uncertain policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- were also resolved, freeing the White House to turn its full attention to confronting Iraq.
Only later did it become clear that the president already had made up his mind. In July, the State Department's director of policy planning, Richard N. Haass, held a regular meeting with Rice and asked whether they should talk about the pros and cons of confronting Iraq.
Don't bother, Rice replied: The president has made a decision.