Lie by Lie: A Timeline of How We Got Into Iraq

Mushroom clouds, duct tape, Judy Miller, Curveball. Recalling how Americans were sold a bogus case for invasion.


Illustration: John Ueland

Illustration: John Ueland

At a congressional hearing examining the march to war in Iraq, Republican congressman Walter Jones posed “a very simple question” about the administration’s manipulation of intelligence: “How could the professionals see what was happening and nobody speak out?”

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, responded with an equally simple answer: “The vice president.”

But the blame for Iraq does not end with Cheney, Bush, or Rumsfeld. Nor is it limited to the intelligence operatives who sat silent as the administration cherry-picked its case for war, or with those, like Colin Powell or Hans Blix, who, in the name of loyalty or statesmanship, did not give full throat to their misgivings. It is also shared by far too many in the Fourth Estate, most notably the New York Times‘ Judith Miller. But let us not forget that it lies, inescapably, with we the American people, who, in our fear and rage over the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001, allowed ourselves to be suckered into the most audacious bait and switch of all time.

The first drafts of history are, by their nature, fragmentary. They arrive tragically late, and too often out of order. Back in 2006, we attempted to strip the history of the runup to the war to its bones, to reconstruct a skeleton that we thought might be key in resolving the open questions of the Bush era. As we prepare to leave Iraq, we present that timeline to you again. MotherJones.com offers a greatly expanded (if now technologically outdated) version of this timeline, one that is completely sourced to primary documents and initial news accounts. It was our hope to make this second draft of history as definitive as possible. So that we won’t be fooled again.—THE EDITORS

8/14/92 Defense Secretary Dick Cheney declares President Bush Sr. wise not to invade Baghdad and “get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.”
4/15/93 Saddam Hussein reportedly tries to assassinate Bush Sr.
1/26/98 Project for a New American Century (PNAC)—founded by Cheney, Scooter Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, Jeb Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, and other top neocons—demands President Clinton undertake the “removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
6/23/98 “The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes friendly to the United States.”—Halliburton CEO Cheney
8/7/98 Al Qaeda bombs US embassies in Africa, killing 220 and injuring some 4,000.
10/31/98 Clinton signs the Iraq Liberation Act. Regime change becomes official US policy.
Late 1998 Gen. Anthony Zinni, head of US Central Command, examines Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi’s military plan to overthrow Saddam with 1,000 men. He warns Congress it is “pie in the sky, a fairy tale.”
Nov 1999 Chalabi-connected Iraqi defector “Curveball”—a convicted sex offender and low-level engineer who became the sole source for much of the case that Saddam had WMD, particularly mobile weapons labs—enters Munich seeking a German visa. German intel officers describe his information as highly suspect. US agents never debrief Curveball or perform background check. Nonetheless, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA will pass raw intel on to senior policymakers. [Date the public knew: 11/20/05]
8/27/00 America must not act as “an imperialist power, willy-nilly moving into capitals in that part of the world, taking down governments.”—VP candidate Cheney
10/3/00 Debating Al Gore, George W. Bush says he’d commit troops only with an “exit strategy,” and he’d be “very careful about using our troops as nation builders.”
10/11/00 In a subsequent debate, Bush says: “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.”
10/12/00 Al Qaeda attacks USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, killing 17 and injuring 39.
11/6/00 Congress doubles funding for Iraqi opposition groups to more than $25 million; $18 million is earmarked for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which then pays defectors for anti-Iraq tales.
11/7/00 Election night: Indecision 2000 begins.
Nov 2000 Future Chief Justice John Roberts flies to Florida to advise Jeb Bush during recount.
12/12/00 Supreme Court hands presidency to George W. Bush.
Early 2001 Enron CEO Ken Lay named to Bush Energy Department transition team. Jack Abramoff appointed to Interior Department transition team.
1/30/01 Saddam’s removal is top item of Bush’s inaugural national security meeting. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill later recalls, “It was all about finding a way to do it. The president saying, ‘Go find me a way to do this.'” [Date the public knew: 1/10/04]
2/11/01 “Iraq is probably not a nuclear threat at the present time.”—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tells Fox News’ Tony Snow
2/14/01 Dick Cheney‘s energy task force begins secret meetings with oil company executives. [Date the public knew: 4/16/01]
2/16/01 Bush: “To send a clear signal to Saddam,” US and UK bomb targets near Baghdad.
2/24/01 Saddam “has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction.”—Secretary of State Colin Powell
2/26/01 Future Iraq Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III says: “The new administration seems to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism.” [Date the public knew: 4/29/04]
3/5/01 Pentagon produces document titled “Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts” for Cheney’s task force. Includes a map of areas for potential exploration. [Date the public knew: 7/17/03]
4/10/01 Lone CIA analyst known only as “Joe” tells top Bush brass that aluminum tubes bought by Iraq can only be for nuclear centrifuges. [Date the public knew: 8/10/03]
8/6/01

On vacation in Crawford, Bush receives a Presidential Daily Briefing warning, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” FBI highlights Al Qaeda activities consistent with hijacking preparations, as well as surveillance of federal buildings. [Date the public knew: 5/18/02]

CIA officer flies to Crawford to call Bush’s attention to document. Bush replies, “All right, you’ve covered your ass now.” [Date the public knew: 6/20/06]

8/10/01 Major air raid on Iraq.
8/17/01 Memo to CIA from Energy Department experts eviscerates “Joe’s” theory that aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq are for nuclear centrifuges. Memo given to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who later claims tubes are clear evidence of Iraqi nuke program. [Date the public knew: 5/1/04]
Sep 2001 Curveball granted German asylum, ceases cooperating. British spy agency MI6 has told CIA that “elements of [his] behavior strike us as typical of…fabricators.” [Date the public knew: 11/20/05]
9/10/01 NSA intercepts messages that say, “The match is about to begin” and “Tomorrow is zero hour.” Not translated until Sept. 12. [Date the public knew: 6/10/02]
9/11/01 Al Qaeda attacks. Minutes taken by a Rumsfeld aide five hours later: “Best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit SH [Saddam Hussein] @ same time. Not only UBL [Usama bin Laden].” [Date the public knew: 9/4/02]
9/12/01 According to counterterror czar Richard Clarke, “[Bush] told us, ‘I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this.'” Told evidence against Al Qaeda overwhelming, Bush asks for “any shred” Saddam was involved. [Date the public knew: 3/22/04]
9/17/01 Bush wants Osama “Dead or Alive.”
9/18/01 Anthrax attacks begin.
9/18/01 In a move a federal judge will later call “conscience-shocking,” EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman says area around Ground Zero is safe and encourages residents to return.
9/18/01 Chalabi meets with top DOD officials. [Date the public knew: 5/04]
9/19/01 Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, chaired by Richard Perle and featuring Henry Kissinger and Newt Gingrich, declares that Iraq should be invaded after Afghanistan. [Date the public knew: 10/12/01]
9/20/01 British PM Tony Blair advises Bush not to lose focus on Al Qaeda. Bush replies: “I agree with you, Tony. But when we have dealt with Afghanistan, we must come back to Iraq.” [Date the public knew: 5/1/04]
9/20/01 PNAC letter to Bush: “Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” [Date the public knew: 9/21/01]
9/21/01 Bush briefed by intel community that there is no evidence linking Saddam to 9/11. [Date the public knew: 11/22/05]
9/21/01 Justice Department lawyer John Yoo declares Fourth Amendment flexible, writing: “[T]he government may be justified in taking measures which in less troubled conditions could be seen as infringements of individual liberties.” [Date the public knew: 10/24/04]
9/25/01 Yoo forges doctrine of preemption, writing that Bush may use his war powers to act against groups or individuals, even if it would be “difficult to establish [that they] have been or may be implicated in attacks.” [Date the public knew: 3/22/02]
Oct 2001 Rumsfeld sets up own intelligence unit to look for Iraqi links to terrorism. [Date the public knew: 10/24/04]
Oct-Nov 2001 Prisoners rendered to Egypt and Jordan. After prolonged torture and subsequent years of imprisonment at Guantánamo, some of these same prisoners are found to have no terror connection and released. [Date the public knew: 6/27/06]
10/7/01 Afghanistan invaded.
10/8/01 Office of Homeland Security established.
10/11/01 Terror alert: Terrorists could attack unspecified targets in “next several days.”
10/25/01 Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act passes 98-1 in the Senate.
10/30/01 Head of Homeland Security Tom Ridge announces, “We believe the United States could very well be targeted this week.”
11/8/01 The New York Times and Frontline report that an Iraqi general witnessed the Iraqi military training Arab fighters to hijack airplanes. Mother Jones later reports general to be bogus Chalabi plant. [Date the public knew: 3/1/06]
11/11/01 Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, top Al Qaeda paramilitary trainer, captured in Pakistan.
11/21/01 Bush collars Rumsfeld physically and asks: “What have you got in terms of plans for Iraq? What is the status of the war plan? I want you to get on it. I want you to keep it secret.”—Bob Woodward. [Date the public knew: 4/18/04]
11/24/01 “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh captured.
11/26/01 Bush declares, “Saddam is evil.”
Late Nov 2001 Osama bin Laden, pinned down at Tora Bora, slips away.
12/2/01 Enron declares bankruptcy.
12/3/01 Terror alert.
12/9/01 Cheney on Meet the Press: “Well, the evidence is pretty conclusive that the Iraqis have indeed harbored terrorists.” Also claims 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with Iraqi spy in Prague, a claim he’ll repeat long after CIA and Czechs disavow.
12/12/01 Rumsfeld demands plan for war against Iraq. Gen. Tommy Franks proposes softening up Iraq: “I’m thinking in terms of spikes, Mr. Secretary. Spurts of activity followed by periods of inactivity.” [Date the public knew: 8/3/04]
12/22/01 Shoe bomber Richard Reid tries to blow up an AA flight from Paris to Miami.
12/28/01 Gen. Franks briefs Bush on Iraq war plans. [Date the public knew: 3/5/03]
Early 2002 Bush approves “The Program,” which permits NSA to surveil US citizens without a warrant, court approval, or signoff from the Justice Dept. [Date the public knew: 12/16/05]
Jan 2002 The FBI, which favors standard law enforcement interrogation practices, loses debate with CIA Director George Tenet, and Libi is transferred to CIA custody. Libi is then rendered to Egypt. “They duct-taped his mouth, cinched him up and sent him to Cairo,” an FBI agent told reporters. “At the airport the CIA case officer goes up to him and says, ‘You’re going to Cairo, you know. Before you get there, I am going to find your mother and I’m going to fuck her.'” [Date the public knew: 6/13/04] Under torture, Libi invents tale of Al Qaeda operatives receiving chemical weapons training from Iraq. “This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear,” a CIA source later tells ABC. [Date the public knew: 11/18/05]
1/9/02 Yoo memo to Pentagon brass declares that the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions, do not apply to the conflict in Afghanistan. [Date the public knew: 5/24/04]
1/11/02 William Howard Taft IV, the State Department’s chief legal adviser, responds to Yoo: “Your position is, at this point, erroneous in its substance and untenable in practice. Let’s talk.”
1/11/02 First 20 detainees arrive at Guantanamo.
1/22/02 Navy photo released showing detainees bound and hooded. Rumsfeld defends the detentions of “committed terrorists.”
1/23/02 Pakistani militants kidnap Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
1/25/02 White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales echoes Yoo: “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” [Date the public knew: 4/26/04]
1/27/02 Cheney calls Gitmo detainees “the worst of a very bad lot. They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of Americans.”
1/29/02 Bush delivers “Axis of Evil” State of the Union. Speechwriter David Frum later says phrase was the fruit of being asked: “Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?” [Date the public knew: 1/8/03]
Early Feb 2002 Daniel Pearl beheaded. [Date the public knew: 2/21/02]
Feb 2002 “I was asked by one of the senior commanders of Central Command to go into his office. We did, the door was closed, and he turned to me, and he said, ‘Senator, we have stopped fighting the war on terror in Afghanistan. We are moving military and intelligence personnel and resources out of Afghanistan to get ready for a future war in Iraq.'”—Sen. Bob Graham. [Date the public knew: 3/26/04]
Feb 2002 DIA intelligence summary notes that Libi’s “confession” lacks details and suggests that he is most likely telling interrogators what he thinks will “retain their interest.” Also states: “Saddam’s regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control.” [Date the public knew: 10/26/05]
2/7/02 Presidential directive defines Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees as “enemy combatants” exempt from prisoner-of-war protections.
2/12/02 With “profound sadness,” Ken Lay refuses to testify before Congress.
2/12/02 Attorney General John Ashcroft calls on “all Americans to be on the highest state of alert.”
2/13/02 Total Information Awareness program leaked.
2/26/02 Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson sent to Niger to check out claims Iraq buying uranium-rich yellowcake. [Date the public knew: 7/6/03]
March 2002 “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out.”—Bush to Rice and three senators. [Date the public knew: 12/8/03]
March 2002 As The New Yorker later reports: “Chalabi’s defector reports were now flowing from the Pentagon directly to the Vice President’s office, and then on to the President, with little prior evaluation by intelligence professionals.” [Date the public knew: 10/27/03]
3/5/02 Joe Wilson tells CIA there’s no indication that Iraq is buying yellowcake. [Date the public knew: 7/6/03]
3/8/02 First of Downing Street memos prepared by Tony Blair’s top national security aides. “There is no greater threat now than in recent years that Saddam will use WMD…Washington believes the legal basis for an attack on Iraq already exists…Regime change has no basis in international law.” [Date the public knew: 9/18/04]
3/12/02 Color-coded terror alert system introduced.
3/13/02 Bush on Osama: “I’ll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him.”
3/14/02 Downing Street memo: “Condi’s enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed…Bush has yet to find the answers to the big questions…what happens the morning after?” [Date the public knew: 9/18/04]
3/15/02 British intel reports that there’s only “sporadic and patchy” evidence of Iraqi WMD. “There is no intelligence on any [biological weapons] production facilities.” [Date the public knew: 9/18/04]
3/22/02 Downing Street memo: “US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Qaida is so far frankly unconvincing…We are still left with a problem of bringing public opinion to accept the imminence of a threat from Iraq…Regime change does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.” [Date the public knew: 9/18/04]
3/24/02 Saddam “is actively pursuing nuclear weapons at this time.”—Cheney on CNN
3/25/02 Downing Street memo: “There has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with Al Qaida…In the documents so far presented it has been hard to glean whether the threat from Iraq is so significantly different from that of Iran or North Korea as to justify action.” [Date the public knew: 9/18/04]
Late March 2002 Cheney tells Republican senators that the question is no longer if the US will invade Iraq but when. [Date the public knew: 5/5/02]
3/28/02 Pakistani forces capture Al Qaeda “operations chief ” Abu Zubaydah and CIA ferrets him away to underground interrogation facility in Thailand. Bush told he’s mentally unstable and really only Al Qaeda’s travel agent. [Date the public knew: 11/2/05]
4/4/02 Blair visits Bush in Crawford to discuss Iraq. Bush tells Britain’s ITV: “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go.”
4/8/02 Bush promotes “Operation TIPS” program to turn postal workers, bus drivers, meter readers, and even lobstermen into freelance government spies.
4/9/02 Bush calls Zubaydah one of “top operating officials of Al Qaeda, plotting…murder.” Later asks Tenet, “I said he was important; you’re not going to let me lose face on this are you?…Do some of those harsh methods really work?” Zubaydah is then tortured and speaks of all variety of plots. [Date the public knew: 6/20/06]
4/11/02 Hugo Chávez briefly removed from power in Venezuela in a US-endorsed coup.
May 2002