The engines of unarmored Humvees whirred on the Kuwait-Iraq border, readied for a mission to find weapons of mass destruction that would never be accomplished.
Brandon Friedman, then an Army officer helping oversee a company of soldiers, cracked open his journal 16 years ago Wednesday. “After dark we listened to the cruise missiles fly overhead,” he wrote on March 20, 2003. U.S. troops swarmed the capital less than two weeks later. Baghdad fell. And then, a realization became widespread among troops tasked with keeping the city from losing its mind.
“It was clear within days there were no weapons of mass destruction,” Friedman said Wednesday. “Personally, I felt like we had been used.”
Friedman recalled that feeling on the war’s anniversary. So did Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, who became the public face for justifying the war.
In a 22-tweet monologue Tuesday night, Fleischer sought to knock down a conception that the administration lied its way into one of the 21st century’s most significant security blunders.
“It’s been on my mind for years. It’s a myth that Bush lied. And it’s a myth with great implications,” Fleischer told The Washington Post. “It also can teach young people the wrong lessons. And I wanted to set it straight.”
As he had before, Fleischer acknowledged the “major intelligence failure” that led to the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein possessed the weapons.
But his focus on Bush’s image, rather than the legacy of the war — a years-long insurgency, thousands of dead Iraqis and U.S. troops and fertile grounds for the Islamic State to bloom — touched off anger among some veterans and a former CIA analyst.
“If I were Ari Fleischer, this is not the day I would choose to say something,” Friedman said. “I would try to have respect for the dead, knowing the role I played kicking off his war.”
Andrew Exum, a former Army ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, also criticized Fleischer over his focus.
“On one side of history’s ledger, we have 4,500 American lives, 100,000+ Iraqi lives, and $800 billion that could have gone toward schools, health care, and infrastructure at home,” Exum, who also served at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter. “On the other side, though, we have some hurt feelings.”
Nada Bakos, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and author of “The Targeter,” took issue with Fleischer’s suggestion that he and Bush “faithfully and accurately reported” intelligence community assessments. Fleischer said that in the context of weapons of mass destruction, Bakos said, but he was involved in another matter that also helped push public approval toward invasion: Hussein’s connection to al-Qaeda.
“We told [the White House and Pentagon] that al-Zarqawi was not a member of al-Qaeda before the invasion,” Bakos said, referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who only later founded the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, the next year.
And yet, the administration leaned on the supposed connection to make a stronger case for war. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell used al-Zarqawi’s name 21 times in remarks at the U.N. Security Council in February 2003. Fleischer used those remarks to tie the terrorist group to Hussein’s threat in a news briefing 13 days before the invasion.
Bakos also took issue with the content of Fleischer’s tweets.
“It’s disturbing a senior member of a previous administration cannot show how we learn from mistakes. I find it incredibly disturbing in light of today’s political environment,” she said. “Him playing victim is so off-putting given where he worked.”
Fleischer brushed off the thrust of those criticisms, saying his career focused on policy and he privately pursues charitable ways to honor those whose lives were lost in war. And he has often said that Hussein had no connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he added.
One Iraq veteran criticized Fleischer for suggesting that a 2005 report on intelligence failures was released “after the war.” U.S. troops continued to fight and die there for years longer.
“I did two more tours after that as did my son-in-law,” retired Army officer Fred Wellman said on Twitter. “Ari and the gang had moved on to lucrative speaking gigs while us dumb grunts kept fighting their ‘oops.’ ”
Fleischer clarified to The Washington Post that he meant the report came after the invasion.
He also riffed on a hypothetical. What if Bush knew there were no weapons of mass destruction?
“It’s fair to say the president thought the world would be better without Saddam Hussein. But I don’t think he would have gone to war if the CIA told him there were no WMDs,” he said. “It shaped everything the president did.”
And yet, there were other mistakes, he said.
When Friedman and thousands of other U.S. troops roamed post-invasion Iraq, a realization began to ripple through Washington. There were not enough troops to occupy the country or to fight the war to come.
“That was a Department of Defense and White House mistake,” Fleischer said.
That epiphany struck Friedman in a different way.
“We were professionals sent on a wild-goose chase using a half-baked plan for political purposes,” he later wrote in his memoir, “The War I Always Wanted.”
That was released in 2007. U.S. troops are still in Iraq.