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Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War [Paperback]

by Michael Isikoff, David Corn
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (165 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews


"Indispensable ... There have been many books about the Iraq War, and there will be many others before we are through. This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft."

"The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations ... fascinating reading."

"A bold and provocative book."

About the Author

MICHAEL ISIKOFF is an award-winning investigative correspondent for Newsweek, a frequent guest on MSNBC and other cable news networks, and the author of the bestselling Uncovering Clinton.

DAVID CORN is the Washington editor of The Nation. He’s the author of the bestselling The Lies of George W. Bush, the novel Deep Background, and the biography Blond Ghost.

From The Washington Post

In October 2002, a file of documents from the U.S. embassy in Rome arrived on the desk of one of the State Department's senior nuclear proliferation analysts. The papers had been handed over by an Italian journalist, who had been given them by an informer who had, in turn, obtained them from a mysterious source in the embassy of Niger. The documents purported to show that Niger had signed a July 2000 deal to supply Iraq with 500 tons of yellowcake uranium -- about one-sixth of the African country's annual production and a key ingredient in a uranium-enrichment process that could provide Saddam Hussein's regime with a nuclear bomb.

As Simon Dodge of the State Department's intelligence bureau began to review the documents in Washington, he soon concluded that they were fakes. One of the papers described a secret meeting in Rome at which representatives of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya and Pakistan formed a joint "plan of action" to defend themselves against the West in alliance with "Islamic patriots accused of belonging to criminal organizations." Dodge later told Senate investigators that he considered the claim "completely implausible," or, as Michael Isikoff and David Corn put it, "something out of James Bond -- or maybe Austin Powers." Niger embassy stamps, palpably fake, linked the "plan of action" document to those depicting the Iraq deal. The papers are a hoax, Dodge e-mailed colleagues.

This was not what most in the White House wanted to hear. By October 2002, when Dodge began examining the Niger documents, the Bush administration was already accelerating its drive for war against Iraq. An authoritative demolition of one of the most dramatic parts of that case -- that Baghdad was building a nuclear weapon -- was deeply unwelcome and, coming from the diplomats at the State Department, viewed with particular suspicion by Vice President Cheney's office. Partly by accident (the CIA merely put its copy of the "obviously forged" Rome papers in a vault and left them there) and partly because it simply did not want to know, the White House remained in denial about the unreliability of the whole Niger uranium story. Fatefully, the president would use the claim in his State of the Union address in January 2003. It was the principal basis for the administration's repeated rhetorical flourish that the Iraqi smoking gun might "come in the form of a mushroom cloud." And it was a phony.

The Niger claim provides the central thread in Hubris, Isikoff and Corn's exhaustive reconstruction of the formulation and selling of the Iraq War. For those who wish to understand how one of the most powerful officials in the land -- Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- came to be under indictment for obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements arising out of the Niger story, this book is indispensable.

But Niger was not the only proffered justification for the attack on Iraq that eventually crumbled to dust in the light of day. So did the false claims of Iraqi defectors, such as the shadowy informant known as "Curveball," that Iraq possessed mobile biological laboratories, a claim that was a centerpiece of then-secretary of state Colin Powell's U.N. presentation in February 2003. So did the misguided conviction that Iraq's purchase of aluminum tubes was proof of a nuclear-arms program. So did the long-disproved claim that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence agents in Prague in April 2001, which became almost an article of faith for the administration's hawks.

There have been many books about the Iraq war, and there will be many others before we are through. This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft that led so many people to persuade themselves that the evidence pointed to an active Iraqi program to develop weapons of mass destruction and that it was in the interests of the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

This is seemingly an eternal theme. The deeper we are drawn into Isikoff and Corn's account, the more we enter March of Folly territory. When the late Barbara W. Tuchman published her masterly 1984 account of the ruinous policies that governments have pursued through the ages, she ranged across a canvas stretching from the Trojan war to Vietnam.

To qualify as folly, Tuchman wrote, a policy must meet three criteria: It must have been seen at the time as counterproductive; a feasible alternative course of action must have been available; and the policy must have been that of a group of people, not merely a single tyrant or ruler. If ever a policy qualifies on all counts, it was the U.S.-imposed regime change in Iraq. Isikoff and Corn are reporters (for Newsweek and the Nation, respectively), not historians, but they still compel the reader to confront a further, essential dimension of folly's march. In each case -- the Niger uranium papers, the mobile labs, the aluminum tubes, the Atta-Iraq link -- there were people up and down the policy chain, including some at the very top, who either knew at the time or should have known that the claims were false or unreliable.

Many critics of the Iraq War have highlighted the ideological drive behind the invasion. Fewer have grappled with the more complex question of why it was impossible for skeptics, doubters and more scrupulous analysts to stop it. Isikoff and Corn enable us to understand better how this devastating policy tragedy played out. But as Coleridge once observed, the light of experience is but a lantern on the stern, illuminating only the waters through which we have passed. Sadly, Isikoff and Corn can't tell the next generation how to avoid such tragedies.

Reviewed by Martin Kettle
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast.
–President George W. Bush
EARLY ON the afternoon of May 1, 2002, George W. Bush slipped out of the Oval Office, grabbed a tennis racquet, and headed to the South Lawn. He had a few spare moments for one of his recreational pleasures: whacking tennis balls to his dogs, Spot and Barney. It was a pleasant spring day in Washington and not an especially taxing one for the president. He had no pressing political worries. Having routed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan the previous fall, Bush was standing tall in the polls, with an approval rating hovering at 70 percent. That morning, there had been his usual terrorism briefings, then meetings with congressional leaders where Bush had talked about moving forward his domestic proposals, including a measure promoting faith-based social programs. Later in the day, the president was due to meet the vice president of China. Bush also had an unusual press interview on his schedule that afternoon. As he hit the balls and watched the dogs scamper, Bush prepared for that session with two press aides by reviewing questions he would likely be asked about one of his predecessors he admired most: Ronald Reagan.
Ever since September 11, 2001, Bush had increasingly identified with Reagan: his optimism, his firm convictions, his stark, uncompromising stand against Soviet communism. Bush had come to consider Reagan’s battle against the Soviet Union a parallel of his own struggle against Islamic extremism. The Evil Empire was now the Axis of Evil–that trio of tyrannies, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, that Bush had proclaimed the nation’s foes months earlier during his first State of the Union speech.
Frank Sesno, the veteran newscaster, was due shortly at the White House to query Bush about Reagan and the parallels between his presidency and Bush’s. The interview was for a History Channel special that would air upon the death of the former president, who was ninety-one years old and suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. On a two-page “pre-brief ” memo prepared by his staff and containing questions that might be asked,Bush had written out by hand points he wanted to emphasize. The presidential scribbles, his aides thought, were revealing–perhaps a window onto Bush’s view of himself. “Optimism and strength,” Bush had scrawled on top of the memo. Also, “decisive” and “faith.” Next to a question about Reagan’s direct, blunt style, Bush had written, “moral clarity.” He had drawn an arrow next to the word “forceful.” Alongside a question about the 1983 suicide bombing attack on the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon (which killed 241 American troops) and how a president copes with such losses, Bush had written, “There will be casualties.”
On the South Lawn, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and another member of the communications staff, a burly, irrepressible former television producer named Adam Levine, reviewed these points with Bush. Then they all moved inside and headed upstairs to the Red Room so Bush could have makeup applied for the interview. Bush casually asked Fleischer how his day had been going and what the talk in the pressroom was. Fleischer mentioned Helen Thomas, the longtime correspondent then writing for Hearst News Service. She was a gadfly and constantly giving Fleischer a tough time about an issue much in the news: Iraq. Bush and other administration officials had been decrying Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, as a threat to the United States and the world. To many, it sounded like war talk. The media were filled with speculation that the White House was preparing for an invasion. But Bush had steadfastly refused to state his intentions. His aides repeatedly claimed that Bush had reached no decisions. Interviewed by a British broadcaster a few weeks earlier, Bush had resorted to a Clintonesque evasion: “I have no plans to attack on my desk.”
At that day’s daily press briefing, Thomas had peppered Fleischer with questions about Iraq. Referring to stories in the media about secret plans for military action, she asked, “What is the president’s rationale for invading Iraq?” What made Saddam different from other dictators and worth an invasion? Fleischer bantered with Thomas and pointed out that “regime change” in Iraq had been the official policy of the U.S. government since President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. Thomas shot back: Did the law mandate that the United States overthrow the Iraqi government by force? Bush, Fleischer said, “believes that the people of Iraq, as well as the region, will be more peaceful, better off without Saddam Hussein.” Thomas retorted, “That’s not a reason” to go to war. “Well, Helen,” Fleischer replied, “if you were the president, you could have vetoed the law.” The reporters chuckled, and Fleischer called on another journalist.
As Fleischer recounted this exchange for the president, Bush’s mood changed, according to Levine. He grew grim and determined–steely. Out of nowhere, he unleashed a string of expletives.
“Did you tell her I don’t like motherfuckers who gas their own people?” the president snapped.
“Did you tell her I don’t like assholes who lie to the world?”
“Did you tell her I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast?”
Fleischer paused. “I told her half of that,” he replied. Bush laughed, as did his aides. Still, Bush’s visceral reaction was telling. This wasn’t bluster; this was real. The president had meant what he said–every word of it. This was the Bush that Levine admired. “You know where we’re going here,” Levine thought.

The vice president’s limousine sped through downtown Washington and headed over the Potomac River on its way to Langley, Virginia. It was days after Bush’s outburst, and Dick Cheney was making another of his visits to CIA headquarters. These trips–unknown to the public at this point–had become the talk of the intelligence community. Cheney would arrive at agency headquarters and park himself in Director George Tenet’s seventhfloor conference room. Then officers and analysts would be summoned to brief him–on Iraq and other matters–and often encounter a withering interrogation. How do we know this? What more do you have on that? What have you done to follow up? Cheney was proper and respectful. His questions were delivered in his soft, low, monotone voice, his arms folded. Still, they had an intimidating impact on his briefers. “I’ve seen him people,” said John Maguire, an Iraq covert operations officer who often attended the Cheney briefings. “He would drill in on substantive details. If he asked you something that you didn’t know, you better have an answer the next time you saw him. . . . He would say, ‘I want answers on this. This is not acceptable.’ ” The worst thing to do with Cheney was to hedge or to waffle. “He’d say, ‘Make a call,’ ” Maguire recalled. He didn’t want to hear sentences that began, “We don’t know.”
During these sessions, Cheney demanded answers on Iraq. Cheney had long-standing and firm views on Saddam Hussein that went back to when he had served as secretary of defense during the first Persian Gulf War. Cheney had been convinced then that the CIA had blown it by badly underestimating how close Saddam had been to building a nuclear bomb before that war. And ever since the cataclysmic events of September 11, Cheney seemed obsessed with Iraq. He was sure that Saddam was a grave threat to the United States–and that the agency was missing the crucial intelligence that would prove it. In February 2002, Cheney had seized on a murky item presented to him during his daily morning briefing from the CIA: a report forwarded to the CIA by Italian military intelligence that Iraq had arranged to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from the impoverished African nation of Niger. If the report was accurate–if there had been such a transaction–this would be compelling evidence Iraq had revived a moribund nuclear weapons program that had been dismantled in the mid-1990s under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But there was nothing to substantiate the report, and parts of it did not make sense. Still, Cheney had jumped on it. What more can you get on this? he had asked his CIA briefer. What more can you find out? As always, the answer from the CIA was, We’ll get on this right away. And it did.
Another issue Cheney fixated on was Baghdad’s ties to terrorists, especially the allegations of a connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda. The agency would write up answers to the vice president’s repeated questions and send them to his office, often reporting that there was little to substantiate Cheney’s darkest suspicions of an operational alliance between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. But Cheney and his hard-nosed chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby (who went by the nickname of Scooter), were never satisfied and continually asked for more. “It was like they were hoping we’d find something buried in the files or come back with a different answer,” Michael Sulick, deputy chief of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, later said. There was no “obvious pressure” by Cheney and Libby to change the answers, Sulick recalled. But the barrage of questions and the frequent visits by the vice president had created an environment that was subtly, but unmistakably, influencing the agency’s work. The CIA’s analysts, Sulick believed, had become “overly eager to please.”
Libby may have been harder to please than Cheney. He was one of the most ...
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