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Context of 'September 6, 2002: White House Officials Describe How They Plan to Sell Iraq War to Public, Congress, and US Allies'

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At a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Colin Powell says that Iraq has been successfully contained. “What we and other allies have been doing in the region, have succeeded in containing Saddam Hussein and his ambitions. His forces are about one-third their original size. They don’t really possess the capability to attack their neighbors the way they did ten years ago.… Containment has been a successful policy.” [US Department of State, 2/20/2001]

Entity Tags: Colin Powell, Joschka Fischer

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

White House chief of staff Andrew Card forms the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, which aims to “educate the public” about the alleged threat from Iraq. WHIG is formed concurrently with the Office of Special Plans (see September 2002). A senior official involved with the group will later describe it as “an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities.” [Washington Post, 8/10/2003] According to White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan, the WHIG is “set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the [Iraq] war,” and will continue “as a strategic communications group after the invasion had toppled Saddam [Hussein]‘s regime.” McClellan, who will become a full-fledged member of the WHIG after rising to the position of senior press secretary, will write: “Some critics have suggested that sinister plans were discussed at the WHIG meetings to deliberately mislead the public. Not so. There were plenty of discussions about how to set the agenda and influence the narrative, but there was no conspiracy to intentionally deceive. Instead, there were straightforward discussions of communications strategies and messaging grounded in the familiar tactics of the permanent campaign.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 142] Author Craig Unger will sum up the WHIG’s purpose up more bluntly: “to sell the war.” Members of the group include White House political advisers Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, James R. Wilkinson, and Nicholas E. Calio, and policy advisers led by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, her deputy Stephen Hadley, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. They meet weekly in the White House Situation Room. A “strategic communications” task force under the WHIG is charged with planning speeches and writing position papers. [Washington Post, 8/10/2003; Unger, 2007, pp. 241]
Marketing Fear, Idea of Invasion as Reasonable - After Labor Day 2002—and after suitable test marketing—the group launches a full-fledged media marketing campaign. The images and storyline are simple and visceral: imminent biological or chemical attack, threats of nuclear holocaust, Saddam Hussein as a psychopathic dictator who can only be stopped by American military force. A key element of the narrative is forged documents “proving” Iraq sought uranium from Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002). One of the main objectives is to swing the dialogue ever farther to the right, creating the assumption in the public mind that war with Iraq is a thoughtful, moderate, well-reasoned position, and delegitimizing any opposition. To that end, Cheney stakes out the “moderate” position, with statements like “many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon” (see August 26, 2002), and neoconservatives such as Michael Ledeen pushing the extremes ever rightward with calls to invade not only Iraq, but Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia (see September 20, 2001, August 6, 2002, and September 4, 2002). The real push is delayed until the second week of September. As Card reminds the group, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” (see September 6, 2002). The first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is a perfect opportunity to launch the new campaign (see September 8, 2002). [Unger, 2007, pp. 250-251] Wilkinson, the group’s communications director, is tasked with preparing one of the group’s first public releases, a white paper that will describe the “grave and gathering danger” of Iraq’s “reconstituted” nuclear weapons program. Wilkinson will claim that Iraq “sought uranium oxide, an essential ingredient in the enrichment process, from Africa.” [CounterPunch, 11/9/2005]
'Push[ing] the Envelope' - According to an intelligence source interviewed by the New York Daily News in October 2005, the group, on “a number of occasions,” will attempt “to push the envelope on things.… The [CIA] would say, ‘We just don’t have the intelligence to substantiate that.’” [New York Daily News, 10/19/2005] In 2003, three unnamed officials will tell a Washington Post reporter that the group “wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence,” what author and reporter Charlie Savage will call “a stark display of the political benefits that come with the power to control information.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 357] In 2008, McClellan will write of “the heightened rhetoric on Iraq, including unequivocal statements that made things sound more certain than was known.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 137]
Using Friendly Media Outlets - An important part of the WHIG strategy is to feed their messages to friendly journalists, such as New York Times reporter Judith Miller. James Bamford, in his book A Pretext for War, will write: “First OSP [Office of Special Plans] supplies false or exaggerated intelligence; then members of the WHIG leak it to friendly reporters, complete with prepackaged vivid imagery; finally, when the story breaks, senior officials point to it as proof and parrot the unnamed quotes they or their colleagues previously supplied.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 325]

Entity Tags: Stephen J. Hadley, Scott McClellan, Saddam Hussein, Nicholas E. Calio, White House Iraq Group, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Condoleezza Rice, Mary Matalin, Andrew Card, Craig Unger, James Bamford, Charlie Savage, Karen Hughes, James R. Wilkinson, Karl C. Rove

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

At a meeting of the White House Iraq Group, speechwriter Michael Gerson suggests that Bush argue in his next speech that the US should not wait until there is conclusive evidence that Iraq has acquired a nuclear weapon because the first sign of a “smoking gun” may be a “mushroom cloud.” Gerson’s suggestion is met with enthusiastic approval. The soundbite is so well liked that the phrase is leaked to the New York Times before the speech, appearing in an article on September 8 (see September 8, 2002). [Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 35] Gerson, a devout evangelical Christian, was trained by former Nixon aide Charles Colson, whom Colson’s former colleague John Dean describes as “Nixon’s hatchet man and political schemer.” [Dean, 2004, pp. 62]

Entity Tags: Michael Gerson, White House Iraq Group

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

White House officials, in interviews with the New York Times, describe the administration’s strategy to convince the public, Congress, and US allies of the need to confront Iraq. They say the centerpiece of the strategy will be Bush’s September 11 speech at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, which they have been planning since at least June. (The speech will not actually make a case for confronting Iraq. Bush will first make his case to the nation in his October 7 speech (see February 20, 2001).) Explaining why the White House did not launch this effort in August when the administration’s plans came under intense criticism from a number of different quarters, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card tells the New York Times, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Card is the founding member of the White House Iraq Group (see August 2002 and June 9, 2008), which was formed to “educate the public” on the alleged threat from Iraq. The officials also tell the Times that one of the administration’s goals is for Congress to pass a resolution approving the use of force in Iraq within the next four to five weeks. “In the end it will be difficult for someone to vote against it,” one administration official tells the Times. [New York Times, 9/7/2002] In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write: “The proposed hurry-up vote on the eve of the first election since 9/11 presented a win-win scenario for the White House: If Democrats voice caution or skepticism about the proposed war resolution (see October 11, 2002), then the GOP could portray them as weak on terrorism ahead of the election, and if Democrats supported the bill, then the Bush-Cheney administration would fortify its powers by eliminating even the suggestion that it might later need to ask for permission to launch any war against Iraq” (see August 2002). By mid-September, Republican Congressional candidates will make Iraq a central issue of their campaigns, proclaiming unwavering support for Bush and attacking their Democratic opponents. In New Mexico, Republican House candidate Mike Pence will say of his opponent, John Arthur Smith, who is still considering whether or not to support the invasion, “While Smith ‘reflects’ on the situation, the possibility of a mushroom cloud hovering over a US city (see September 4, 2002) remains.” In Minnesota, Republican Senate candidate Norm Coleman will attack Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone for refusing to “stand with the president.” Similar tactics will be used in campaigns around the country. As a result, almost every Democrat facing re-election joins Republicans in supporting the war authorization. Savage will write, “Thus, even though the Founders wanted Congress to make the final decision about when the United States should go to war, lawmakers abdicated their responsibility and delegated their power to the president.” [USA Today, 10/13/2002; Savage, 2007, pp. 156-157]

Entity Tags: Norm Coleman, Mike Pence, Andrew Card, White House Iraq Group, Bush administration (43), John Arthur Smith, Charlie Savage, Paul Wellstone

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

Tom Daschle.Tom Daschle. [Source: Salon]Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle blasts the Bush administration for trying to use the debate over the Iraq war resolution for political purposes, and for smearing the patriotism of Democrats who question the need for the resolution. After reading through a number of statements by White House and Congressional Republicans, including one from President Bush who said Senate Democrats were “not interested in the security of the American people,” the usually conciliatory and soft-spoken Daschle retorts, “‘Not interested in the security of the American people’? You tell Senator [Daniel] Inouye he’s not interested in the security of the American people. You tell those who fought in Vietnam and in World War II they’re not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous. Outrageous. The president ought to apologize.” Inouye (D-HI) lost his arm while fighting in World War II. Daschle also cites a Republican pollster who says war as a political issue could tip the elections in favor of the Republicans, references Dick Cheney’s use of Iraq as an issue to promote the campaign of a GOP House candidate in Kansas (see September 25, 2002), and recalls White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card’s statement that “from a marketing point of view,” it makes sense to raise the issue of Iraq after Labor Day when lawmakers would be back from their August break (see September 6, 2002). White House press secretary Ari Fleischer counters that Daschle is taking Bush’s comment out of context, and is relying on erroneous or misleading press releases to make his charges. Fleischer advises to “take a deep breath,” “stop finger-pointing,” and join Bush in “protect[ing] our national security and our homeland defense.” Daschle responds to Fleischer’s comments by saying there is “no context” in which Bush or any other Republican can fairly question whether Senate Democrats are interested in national security. He says the White House’s explanation of Bush’s remarks are “not worth the paper they’re printed on.” Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) charges that Daschle and his fellow Democrats are unfairly attacking the president. “Who is the enemy here, the president of the United States or Saddam Hussein? [Daschle] needs to cool the rhetoric.” Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) retorts, “There is nothing more sobering than the decision to go to war. But the administration has turned the decision into a bumper-sticker election theme.” [CNN, 9/26/2002]

Entity Tags: Robert C. Byrd, Andrew Card, Ari Fleischer, Bush administration (43), Saddam Hussein, Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Daniel Inouye

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

US senators vote 77 to 23 in favor of SJ Res. 46 (see October 2, 2002) authorizing the president to use military force against Iraq, despite significant opposition from their constituencies. [US Congress, 10/2/2002; Washington Post, 10/11/2002] Democratic senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Robert Byrd (D-WV), and Mark Dayton (D-MN) attempt to come up with an alternative, SJ Res. 45, but discussion on it is postponed indefinitely by a 75 to 25 vote. [US Congress, 9/26/2002]
Sen. Carl Levin. SJ Res. 45 with Amendments 4858-62 (Rejected) - “To authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces, pursuant to a new resolution of the United Nations Security Council, to destroy, remove, or render harmless Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons-usable material, long-range ballistic missiles, and related facilities, and for other purposes.” [US Congress, 10/10/2002]
Sen. Richard Durbin. SJ Res. 45 with Amendments 4865 (Rejected) - To amend the authorization for the use of the Armed Forces to cover an imminent threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction rather than the continuing threat posed by Iraq.
Sen. Barbara Boxer. SJ Res. 45 with Amendments 4866-67 (Not Voted On) - “In families with minor children where both parents serve on active duty in the Armed Forces or where both parents are members of the National Guard or Reserves, the secretary of defense shall make every effort to ensure that not more than one of the parents is deployed in combat.”
Sen. Robert Byrd. SJ Res. 45 with Amendments 4868 (Rejected) - To provide statutory construction that constitutional authorities remain unaffected and that no additional grant of authority is made to the president not directly related to the existing threat posed by Iraq. [US Congress, 10/10/2002]
Sen. Robert Byrd. SJ Res. 45 with Amendments 4869 (Rejected) - To provide a termination date for the authorization of the use of the Armed Forces of the United States, together with procedures for the extension of such date unless Congress disapproves the extension. [US Congress, 10/10/2002]
Sen. Mark Dayton. SJ Res. 45 with Amendments 4870 (Rejected) - Allows the president to prepare for the deployment—not use—of the US Armed Forces. If he determines that the use of force is necessary to protect the US from an imminent threat posed by Iraq, he may request a declaration of war to be voted upon by Congress. [US Congress, 10/10/2002]
Many Opponents Believe Iraq a Threat - Even some of the most ardent opponents of the war believe the allegations about Iraq’s WMD: Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) says, “I believe that Iraq presents a genuine threat, especially in the form of weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological, and potentially nuclear weapons.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 266]
Senators Lack Key Information for Informed Vote - Virtually none of the senators, for or against the use of force, bothered to read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to help them ascertain the reality behind the administration’s insistence on the necessity for military action (see October 1, 2002). Almost all of them relied instead on briefings from administration officials. They were not told of the doubts about the Niger documents (see October 9, 2002), or the doubts surrounding the intelligence source dubbed “Curveball” (see Mid- and Late 2001). Nor are they aware that the CIA has “turned” Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, who says that Iraq has long since terminated its WMD programs (see Late September 2002). [Unger, 2007, pp. 265]
Senate Leadership 'Caved in,' Former Ambassador Says - Former ambassador Joseph Wilson will write in 2004 that while a number of Senate Democrats opposed giving Bush a “blank check” to use military force as he sees fit, the efforts fail because “the Democratic leadership essentially caved in. The combination of threats of defeat at the polls with presidential promises that the congressional resolution would provide him the ammunition he needed to negotiate a strong UN resolution on disarmament proved to be too much for careerist politicians.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 328]
Former Senator Says Electoral Politics Were Key to Vote - In 2009, Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, will reflect: “Unlike the first George Bush, who had purposefully put off the vote on the Persian Gulf War until after the elections of 1990—we voted in January of 1991 (see January 9-13, 1991)—here they put the vote in October of 2002, three weeks before a congressional election. I think there were people who were up for election who didn’t want, within a few days of meeting the voters, to be at such stark opposition with the president.” [Vanity Fair, 2/2009]

Entity Tags: Daniel Robert (“Bob”) Graham, Barbara Boxer, Mark Dayton, Carl Levin, Richard (“Dick”) Durbin, Robert C. Byrd

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

A Wall Street Journal op-ed claims that President Bush never claimed the Iraqis posed an “imminent threat” with their putative WMD programs, and that former ambassador Joseph Wilson is unfairly “moving the goalposts” by saying that the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD never passed what they call the “imminent threat test.” As far back as September 2001, after the attacks on New York and Washington, the Bush administration began claiming that Iraq posed a serious threat to the US (see September 11, 2001-March 17, 2003, Shortly After September 11, 2001, September 14, 2001, August 2002, and September 6, 2002). Bush had apparently characterized Iraq as an “imminent threat” even before becoming president (see May 17, 2000). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has used the term “imminent threat” (see September 18, 2002), as have other members of the administration, such as press secretary Ari Fleischer, communications chief Dan Bartlett, and Defense Policy Board chief Richard Perle. Vice President Dick Cheney had publicly threatened Iraq with military action as far back as December 2001 (see December 11, 2001). Bush had included Iraq as one of the now-infamous “Axis of Evil” in early 2002 (see January 29, 2002). And Bush, Cheney, and top White House officials had characterized Iraq and Saddam Hussein as a threat since March 2002 (see March 24, 2002, August 15, 2002, August 20, 2002, August 26, 2002, Fall and Winter 2002, September 7, 2002, September 8, 2002, September 8, 2002, September 12, 2002, September 13, 2002, September 18, 2002, September 19, 2002, September 24, 2002, September 26, 2002, October 1, 2002, October 1, 2002, October 3, 2002, October 7, 2002, October 7, 2002, January 10, 2003, and March 6, 2003). Wilson will later observe, “While the Journal may have been technically correct that the president had not uttered those exact words, he [and his top officials] walked right up to the phrase.” He will note that Bush’s “staff and administration allies, of course, had been less concerned about splitting hairs as they promoted the invasion.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 367-368]

Entity Tags: Donald Rumsfeld, Ari Fleischer, Dan Bartlett, Richard Perle, Wall Street Journal, Joseph C. Wilson, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

The recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report on misleading, exaggerated, and inaccurate presentations of the prewar Iraqi threat by the Bush administration (see June 5, 2008) leaves out some significant material. The report says that the panel did not review “less formal communications between intelligence agencies and other parts of the executive branch.” The committee made no attempt to obtain White House records or interview administration officials because, the report says, such steps were considered beyond the scope of the report. Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus notes that “[o]ne obvious target for such an expanded inquiry would have been the records of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a group set up in August 2002 by then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.” WHIG (see August 2002) was composed of, among other senior White House officials, senior political adviser Karl Rove; the vice president’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, and James Wilkinson; legislative liaison Nicholas Calio; and a number of policy aides led by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley.
WHIG Led Marketing of War - Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, recently wrote in his book What Happened that WHIG “had been set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the war to the public.… The script had been finalized with great care over the summer [for a] “campaign to convince Americans that war with Iraq was inevitable and necessary.” On September 6, 2002, Card hinted as much to reporters when he said, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” (see September 6, 2002). Two days later, the group scored its first hit with a front-page New York Times story about Iraq’s secret purchase of aluminum tubes that, the story said, could be used to produce nuclear weapons (see September 8, 2002). The information for that story came from “senior administration officials” now known to be members of WHIG. The story was the first to make the statement that “the first sign of a ‘smoking gun’ [proving the existence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program] may be a mushroom cloud” (see September 4, 2002); that same morning, the same message was repeated three times by various senior administration officials on the Sunday talk shows (see September 8, 2002, September 8, 2002, and September 8, 2002). WHIG did not “deliberately mislead the public,” McClellan claimed in his book, but wrote that the “more fundamental problem was the way [Bush’s] advisers decided to pursue a political propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people.… As the campaign accelerated,” caveats and qualifications were downplayed or dropped altogether. Contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or simply disregarded.”
Records Perusal Would 'Shed Light' - If indeed the White House “repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even nonexistent,” as committee chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) has said, then an examination of WHIG’s records would, Pincus writes, “shed much light” on the question. [Washington Post, 6/9/2008]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Karen Hughes, John D. Rockefeller, James R. Wilkinson, Condoleezza Rice, Bush administration (43), Andrew Card, Karl C. Rove, Mary Matalin, Senate Intelligence Committee, Stephen J. Hadley, Walter Pincus, White House Iraq Group, Nicholas E. Calio, Scott McClellan, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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