WAS THE U.S. MISLED INTO THE WAR ON IRAQ? A Resource & Study Guide for HS & College

A student reading includes statements from President Bush addressing this question, followed by original documents that support or contradict his claims.

Was the U.S. misled into the war on Iraq? Congress and the media have been focusing their attention on this question lately, creating a teachable moment for students on an issue that goes to the heart of democratic government. Democracy cannot live if its leaders mislead its citizens, especially on a decision to go to war.

Politicians, the Bush administration included, often make claims that go unchecked by the media. In the reading below, we present claims made by President Bush in his Veterans Day 2005 speech, and then present evidence for and against these claims. The reading is intended as a resource for teachers and students. While not exhaustive, it provides documented information on four major issues:

1. Did members of Congress have the same information as the president when in October 2002 they voted to authorize the president to "defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq"?

2. Did the Bush administration manipulate its intelligence and mislead the Congress and the American people before the U.S. invasion of Iraq?

3. Did the Bush administration pressure U.S. intelligence agencies to provide it with the intelligence it wanted?

4. Did intelligence agencies around the world agree with the Bush administration's assessment of Saddam Hussein?

You might choose to focus on just one of these questions and related documentation for class discussion. Or you might deal with all of the questions but provide just a sampling of the documentation. Or, assign one question for independent or small-group student inquiry followed by reports to the class. In each case, you might invite students to search for additional sources bearing on the assigned question.



What the president says and what the record reveals


During the months before the Iraq war began, Bush administration leaders and leaders of U.S. allies as well as most Americans believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that certainly included chemical and biological weapons. The evidence for this belief was based largely on Saddam Hussein's earlier behavior and UN inspections.

Hussein had used chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the 1980s and against the Kurdish people in his own country. After the Gulf War in 1991, UN inspectors in Iraq found and destroyed biological and chemical weapons as well as the elements of a nuclear weapons program.

In 1998 Saddam Hussein forced the removal of these inspectors. Many people suspected that he subsequently restored his biological and chemical weapons stockpiles and restarted his nuclear weapons program.

But without the presence of inspectors or intelligence agents in Iraq, it was impossible to be certain. What intelligence the U.S. did have came mostly from other countries' intelligence agencies, from Iraqi exiles, from prisoners or from electronic sources. For instance, a British intelligence report said that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium for a nuclear program from an African nation. An Iraqi exile told German intelligence about Iraq's mobile biological weapons labs. An al Qaeda prisoner informed U.S. intelligence that Iraq was training al Qaeda recruits to use biological and chemical weapons. All of these reports turned out to be inaccurate.

In late 2002, the U.S. and other governments forced Saddam Hussein to readmit the UN inspectors. By early March of 2003 they had found no weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration, maintaining that Saddam had plenty of territory in which to hide them and that his cooperation with the inspectors was inadequate, declared that he was a threat to U.S. security and world peace. On March 20, 2003, the U.S. launched an invasion of Iraq that was opposed by many people and governments around the world, including allies France and Germany.

A minority of Americans also disapproved. In recent months, however, that minority has grown into a majority. The growing disapproval of the war has been fueled by the continuing Iraqi insurgency, the mounting deaths of American soldiers, and a bill that has reached $200 billion. Disapproval increased because no weapons of mass destruction were found, even though the president and his closest associates had presented these weapons as a threat to the nation that had to be eliminated. There is also growing public skepticism about the information the Bush administration presented to Congress and to the public before the war. Certain questions have been asked from the beginning: Was the U.S. led into the Iraq war under false pretenses? Did the Bush administration first decide to invade Iraq, then twist the intelligence to make their argument?

President Bush's Veterans Day Speech

In a Veterans Day speech on November 11, 2005, President Bush responded sharply. He criticized Democrats and others who have accused him of misleading the nation into the war on Iraq or misusing intelligence. The president's responses to these accusations included the following:

1. "More than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate, who had access to the same intelligence [as I had], voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power."

2. "While it is perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite history on how the war began. Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war."

3. "These [Bush administration] critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs."

4."They [Democrats and other critics] also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein."

Several days later Vice President Cheney joined the president in his attack on critics. He declared that those who suggest the Bush administration manipulated prewar intelligence are making "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city [Washington, DC]." He also said, "The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone, but we're not going to sit by and let them rewrite history." He also repeated the president's insistence that Democrats saw the same prewar intelligence available to the White House. (11/16/05)

What does the record reveal about these issues?

1. "More than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate, who had access to the same intelligence [as I had], voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power."

  • The president's Daily Brief (PDB) by the CIA contains his most sensitive intelligence. For example, on September 21, ten days after 9/11, the president learned from the PDB that the U.S. intelligence community had "no evidence" linking Saddam Hussein to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (see below for further details). Before the war the Bush administration did not provide this information to Congress.
  • On the other hand, the Robb-Silberman Commission (appointed by the president) reported that intelligence in the PDB was not "markedly different" than the intelligence given to Congress in the National Intelligence Estimate. (The commission report also said that both the PDBs and the Senior Executive Intelligence Brief "left an impression of many corroborating reports [of Iraq's possession of WMDs] where in fact there were very few sources. And, in other instances, intelligence suggestion of existence of weapons programs was conveyed to senior policy makers, but later information casting doubt upon the validity of that intelligence was not.")
  • The 9/11 Commission, appointed by President Bush, reported that the top al Qaeda leaders so far captured, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad and Abu Zubayda, revealed to interrogators that Osama bin Laden had prohibited al Qaeda Operatives from cooperating with Saddam Hussein. According to them, Bin Laden regarded Saddam as a renegade Muslim leader who was a secular nationalist. Before the war the Bush administration did not provide this information to Congress.
  • Bush administration leaders used information from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a top al Qaeda prisoner, as the basis for their publicly stated view that Iraq was training al Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons. But in February 2002, more than a year before the Iraq invasion, an intelligence report in a Defense Intelligence Agency document (declassified recently, according to the New York Times, 11/6/05) said it was probable that al-Libi "was intentionally misleading the debriefers" in telling them that Iraq was providing such training to al Qaeda operatives. Before the war the Bush administration did not provide Congress with this assessment of al-Libi's reliability.
  • During the period before the war there was much discussion about aluminum tubes Saddam Hussein had purchased. Vice President Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor to the president, among others, described the tubes as materials used in centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapon production. CIA analysts supported this interpretation. But there was disagreement in the U.S. intelligence community about the tubes. Nuclear experts in the Energy Department said the tubes were inappropriate for uranium enrichment. They also said the tubes were probably for use in artillery rockets. This interpretation turned out to be correct. Before the war the Bush administration did not provide Congress with this Energy Department assessment.
  • Bush administration leaders had intelligence information from the Department of Defense's Office of Special Plans, then run by undersecretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, and from the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi. Bush administration leaders used some of the information from these sources in public statements that turned out to be inaccurate-including parts of Secretary of State Powell's 2/5/03 speech before the Security Council. The Chalabi group, for example, provided the administration with a source named "Curveball," who supplied false information about Iraq's non-existent mobile biological labs (more information on this subject below). Although the U.S. intelligence community had serious doubts about the reliability of the information from Chalabi and Curveball, the Bush administration did not provide Congress with information about these doubts.

2. "While it is perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite history on how the war began. Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war."
a. Bush administration claim: Iraq was linked to al Qaeda

Before and during the war, the Bush administration repeatedly linked Iraq to al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. For many Americans, this was a central justification for the war. Among the administration's statements linking the 9/11 attackers to Iraq:

  • "President Bush's national security advisor [Condoleezza Rice] Wednesday said Saddam Hussein has sheltered al Qaeda terrorists in Baghdad and helped train some in chemical weapons development. (CNN, 9/26/02)
  • "We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases." (President Bush, 10/7/02)
  • "Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda." (President Bush, January 2003 State of the Union address)
  • "Iraq has also provided al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training." (President Bush, February 2003)
  • [It is] "pretty well confirmed that Mohammed Atta did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April..." (Vice President Cheney, 12/9/01) (After the CIA and 9/11 commission denials that such a meeting occurred, the vice president said, "I don't know whether the meeting occurred.")

Although the 9/11 Commission noted that around 1997 Bin Laden "sent out a number of feelers to the Iraqi regime, offering some cooperation," evidence for any link between al Qaeda and Iraq was weak. Both the CIA and the 9/11 commission have stated there is "no credible evidence" that Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, met with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia in 2000. A 2002 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency stated, "Saddam's regime is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control."

Long before many of Bush's statements linking al Qaeda and Iraq, he was advised that the evidence was weak. According to the National Standard (11/22/05): "Ten days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush was told in a highly classified briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the attacks and there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda, according to government records and current and former officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter. This information was provided to Bush on September 21, 2001 during the 'President's Daily Brief.'"

Six months after the war began, Bush acknowledged as much: "We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11." (President Bush, 9/17/03)

b. Bush administration claim: Iraq was actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration claimed that the Hussein regime was actively developing a capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Among the Bush administration statements on this issue:

  • "[We] now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons... Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon....Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us." (Vice President Cheney, 8/26/02)
  • "We do know with absolute certainty that [Saddam Hussein] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon." (Vice President Cheney, 9/8/02)
  • The tubes are "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs. We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." (National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, CNN, 9/8/02)
  • "Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment used in gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons." (President Bush, 10/7/02)
  • "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." (President Bush, State of the Union address, (1/28/03)
  • "And we believe he [Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." (Vice President Dick Cheney, "Meet the Press," 3/16/03)
  • "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed by sources, solid sources... Saddam Hussein already possesses two out of three components needed to build a nuclear bomb. (Secretary of State Colin Powell, speech before the Security Council, 2/5/03)

According to the CIA's Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (known as the Duelfer Report), Saddam Hussein "wanted to end sanctions while preserving the capability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction when sanctions were lifted." The report stated that "Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability in an incremental fashion." (The Duelfer Report, 9/30/04)

However, U.S. forces failed to find any evidence that a nuclear weapons program was being developed in Iraq.

Bush administration leaders knew before the Iraq invasion that America's top nuclear authorities at the Energy Department disagreed with the CIA's view that Saddam Hussein was purchasing aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment in centrifuges for his nuclear weapons program. According to a detailed investigation by the New York Times, "Senior administration officials repeatedly failed to disclose the contrary views of America's leading nuclear scientists. They sometimes overstated even the most dire intelligence assessments of the tubes, but minimized or rejected the strong doubts of nuclear experts." (10/3/04)

In February 2002, the CIA sent Joseph Wilson to Niger to determine if there was evidence that Saddam Hussein was seeking to buy uranium there for a nuclear program. He reported later that month to both the CIA and the State Department that such reports were "highly doubtful."

c. Bush administration claim: Iraq possessed biological weapons.

Before the war, the Bush administration claimed that Saddam Hussein was producing biological weapons.

  • "Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons." (President Bush, speech to UN General Assembly, 9/12/02)
  • "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to produce more, many more... We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails... In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War." (Secretary of State Colin Powell, speech before the Security Council, 2/5/03)

Bush administration leaders knew that an Iraqi exile, "Curveball," was the source of information that Iraq had mobile biological weapons labs. Curveball was an Iraqi defector to Germany in 1999. Officials of the German Federal Intelligence Service interrogated him extensively beginning in 2000 and reported their findings to the CIA.

Following a six-month investigation, the Los Angeles Times reported that "The German intelligence officials responsible for one of the most important informants for Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction say that the Bush administration and the CIA "repeatedly exaggerated his claims during the run-up to the war in Iraq." German intelligence officials warned American intelligence officials that Curveball "never claimed to produce germ weapons and never saw anyone else do it." The information he provided was "vague, mostly secondhand and impossible to confirm." They found Curveball emotionally and mentally unstable and "not a completely normal person." They were "shocked" when they heard U.S. officials using his statements in public speeches. (11/20/05)

d. Bush administration claim: Iraq possessed chemical weapons.

  • "Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agents." (Secretary of State Colin Powell, speech before the Security Council, 2/5/03)
  • "We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons-the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have." (President Bush, 2/8/03)
  • "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised... The danger is clear. Using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other." (President Bush, speech to the nation, 3/17/03)
  • "Iraq both poses a continuing threat to the national security of the United States and international peace and security...and remains in...unacceptable breach of its international obligations by, among other things, continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and supporting and harboring terrorist organizations." (President Bush's speech to Congress on why the nation had to go to war against Iraq, 3/20/03)

However, in September 2002, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reported that there was "no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has—or will—establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities.''

e. Bush administration claim: The administration did not manipulate intelligence.

A memorandum containing minutes of a meeting of the British cabinet titled "Iraq: Prime Minister's Meeting" is dated July 23, 2002, but was unknown publicly until May 1, 2005, when the Times of London published it.

The meeting included Prime Minister Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and Sir Richard Dearlove, Chief of M16, a British intelligence agency, who had just returned from meetings with top Bush administration officials in Washington.

According to the memorandum: Dearlove "reported on his recent talks in Washington... Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy...

"The Foreign Secretary said... it seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

After the public release of this document, neither Prime Minister Tony Blair nor any other British official denied its accuracy. The only comment from the White House was a statement by spokesman Scott McClellan, who said there was "no need" to comment on the British memorandum because it was "flat wrong."

However, in the months before the war, Bush insisted that no prior decision had been made:

  • "I am aware that some very intelligent people are expressing their opinions about Saddam Hussein and Iraq. I listen very carefully to what they have to say. I'll continue to consult... But America needs to know I'll be making up my mind based upon the latest intelligence and how best to protect our own country plus our friends and allies." (8/17/02)
  • "Our goal is fully and finally to remove a real threat to world peace and to America. Hopefully, this can be done peacefully. Hopefully we can do this without any military action." (10/16/02)

3. "These [Bush administration] critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs."

There have been two official investigations of the intelligence on Iraq and its suspected weapons of mass destruction. One of these, a presidential commission on weapons of mass destruction, did not address the question of whether the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence on Iraq. Judge Laurence Silberman, the commission's chairman, said upon the release of its report: "Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policy makers, and all of us were agreed that that was not part of our inquiry." (3/31/05)

The other investigation was conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and chaired by Senator Pat Roberts (Republican, Kansas). It completed Phase l of its inquiry before the 2004 presidential election and concluded, among other things, that the Bush administration had not pressured intelligence sources to alter their judgments. But the senate committee has not completed Phase 2. It will deal with whether or not Bush administration officials misrepresented or misused the intelligence community's judgments or omitted dissenting views.

An independent investigatory panel was led by Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the CIA. He stated: "Requests for reporting and analyses of [Iraq's links to al Qaeda] were steady and heavy in the period leading up to the war, creating significant pressure on the intelligence community to find evidence that supported a connection." (Salon, May 2004)

4."They [Democrats and other critics] also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein."

  • "Right now our attention has to be focused as a priority on the biological and chemical domains. It is there that our presumptions about Iraq are the most significant... We have evidence of its [Iraq's] capability to produce VX and Yperite... The evidence suggests the possible possession of significant stocks of anthrax and botulism toxin, and possibly a production capability." (Dominique De Villepin, French foreign minister, Security Council, 2/5/03)
  • "I think all our governments believe that Iraq has produced weapons of mass destruction and that we have to assume...that they continue to have weapons of mass destruction." (Wolfgang Ischlinger, German ambassador to the UN, "NBC Today," 2/26/03)
  • A little more than a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the British BBC broadcast the following: "France, Germany and Russia have released an unprecedented joint declaration on the Iraq crisis, demanding more weapons inspectors and more technical assistance for them...' Nothing today justifies a war,' Mr. Chirac told a joint news conference with Mr. Putin... He said France did not have 'undisputed proof' that Iraq still held weapons of mass destruction.'" (2/11/03)
  • In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Russia declared, "Our common objective remains the full and effective disarmament of Iraq... We consider that this objective can be achieved by the peaceful means of inspections. We moreover observe that these inspections are producing increasingly encouraging results." (3/5/03)
  • Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, reported to the Security Council of the UN on March 7, 2002, after his inspectors had returned from Iraq. He said that they had found no evidence for resumption of a nuclear weapons program. The IAEA had dismantled Saddam Hussein's nuclear facilities after the Gulf War in the 1990s.
  • Hans Blix, head of the UN inspection teams searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, declared repeatedly to the Security Council before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that they had found no evidence of biological or chemical weapons stockpiles. Blix urged that the search continue. When a U.S. invasion was imminent, the UN inspectors left Iraq.

For discussion

1. Before the Iraq war began, why were so many people convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?

2. During that period before the war, why was it so difficult to confirm this belief with certainty?

3. What were the major sources of U.S. intelligence about Iraq during the months before the war? Why have people questioned the reliability of this intelligence?

4. Why did U.S. intelligence think it very unlikely that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11 or to Al Qaeda terrorists?

5. How would you interpret the report of the July 23, 2002 British cabinet meeting? Does it or does it not present convincing evidence to you that eight months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush and his administration had decided on that invasion? Why?

6. Before the Iraq invasion, United Nations inspectors had been in Iraq for some months. One group, inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency, were looking for evidence of a nuclear weapons program. The other group was searching for hidden biological or chemical weapons programs. What were their findings just before the invasion? What was the U.S. reaction? Why?

7. What conclusion do you reach about whether the U.S. was misled into the Iraq War? Why?

8. The majority of Americans supported the Iraq invasion. According to a number of polls, a majority of Americans now believe that the Iraq invasion was a mistake. Why do you suppose they have reached this conclusion?


For citizenship

The title question—was the U.S. misled into war—is the subject of a major public controversy. Perhaps the class would be interested in helping other students to understand its nature by organizing a schoolwide assembly on the subject with student and guest speakers representing differing points of view.

Suggest that students write their senators and representatives about their response to the question and reasons for it.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org