In 2002, Bush Neglected Actual WMD Threat In Order Not To ‘Derail’ Iraq War

In the months since leaving office, Dick Cheney has been hard at work defending his and George W. Bush’s record in the “war on terrorism,” claiming in his speech at the American Enterprise Institute in May that after 9/11 the Bush administration “moved decisively against the terrorists in their hideouts and their sanctuaries, and committed to using every asset to take down their networks.”

As Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel pointed out afterward, Cheney’s claim conveniently ignored the fact that top Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahri “remain at large nearly eight years after 9–11 and that the Bush administration began diverting U.S. forces, intelligence assets, time and money to planning an invasion of Iraq before it finished the war in Afghanistan against al Qaida and the Taliban.”

In a new article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Micah Zenko provides further evidence challenging Cheney’s claim about the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terrorism.

In 2002, the Bush administration had what it believed to be reliable intelligence that Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Sunni extremist group, was producing chemical weapons at Khurmal in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. As Zenko notes, “Khurmal is the only place in Iraq where the United States discovered that WMD were actively being produced, albeit in small quantities, before the war.”


In July 2002, the CIA’s George Tenet and the Joint Chiefs unanimously supported striking Khurmal, but were overruled by President Bush. Zenko concludes that Bush’s decision, which resulted in the United States missing its best opportunity to potentially kill future insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “was one of many tactical mistakes that contributed to the strategic disaster that America later faced in Iraq.”

According to Zenko, “the key question is: since it was the consensus professional opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and its Chairman -– the principal military adviser to the President -– to employ a limited force to eliminate the Khurmal camp, why did the President choose to ultimately reject that counsel?”

Based on interviews with officials who were closely involved in national security policymaking at the time, statements by government officials, and contemporary news accounts, there are four plausible explanations. While each influenced the decision somewhat, the primary explanation why the President deferred attacking Khurmal was over concerns that it could possibly disrupt what was the White House’s goal from the first meeting of the Principal’s Committee of the NSC -– regime change in Iraq.

Noting President Bush’s assertion in April 2002 that he had already “made up my mind that Saddam needs to go…The policy of my government is that he goes,” Zenko gets a nice quote from Doug Feith, who said in an interview with Zenko that the Bush administration ignored the advice of its generals to go after Khurmal because:

If you end up with empty hands [no WMD at Khurmal] you could conceivably derail a much larger project [regime change].

In other words, while they were happy to use overblown claims about Ansar al-Islam’s development of WMD (in addition to patently false claims about Ansar al-Islam’s relationship with Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, as Ansar al-Islam was under the control of neither) in order to whip up support for an invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration’s ideological commitment to that invasion was so strong that it caused them to ignore a threat out of fear that addressing it could potentially derail the greater policy goal, which was war. We already knew this, of course, in regard to Afghanistan, but for history’s sake it’s good to have one of the Iraq disaster’s chief architects on record with it in regard to Khurmal.