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The Roundtabler: Mike Isikoff on the new documentary 'Hubris: The Selling of the Iraq War'

by Mike Isikoff

As the Obama White House vigorously defends its policy of  drone strikes killing  suspected terrorists—including in some cases American citizens—it invokes the findings of secret intelligence showing the targets pose an “imminent” threat to the U.S.  

But there are ample reasons for perennial skepticism about such claims—and perhaps never more so than now as  the country approaches a sobering historic moment: the tenth anniversary of  President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

The war that began March 19, 2003 was justified to the country by alarming claims  about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al Qaeda terrorists— almost all of which turned out to be completely false. Many of these claims were asserted with absolute confidence by the most senior officials in the U.S. government—when privately, ranking U.S. military officers and intelligence professionals were registering dissents and voicing doubts. Hubris: The Selling of the Iraq War, a documentary special with Rachel Maddow that will air Monday night at 9pm EST on MSNBC and based on a book I co-authored with David Corn, provides new evidence those dissents were even more profound and widespread than anybody has until now known. 

In this excerpt from the film, the role of Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz in building the case against Saddam Hussein is explored. Hubris: Selling the Iraq War, hosted by Rachel Maddow, airs Monday, Feb 18, 9pm E.T./ 6pm P.T. on MSNBC.

"It was a shock, it was a total shock-- I couldn’t believe the vice president was saying this,”  Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, told me in an interview for the  documentary. Zinni, who had access to the most sensitive U.S. intelligence on Iraq, had been on the stage in Nashville, Tennessee, receiving an award from the Veteran of Foreign Wars on August 26, 2002 when he heard then Vice President Dick Cheney launch the opening salvo in the Bush administration’s public campaign to generate public support for an invasion. “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Cheney said that day. “There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.” Zinni, sitting right next to Cheney’s lecturn, says he “literally bolted” when the heard the vice president’s comments. “In doing work with the CIA on Iraq WMD [weapons of mass destruction], through all the briefings I heard at Langley, I never saw one piece of credible evidence that there was an ongoing program.” He recounts going to one of those CIA briefings and being struck at how thin the agency’s actual knowledge of Iraq weapons programs were. “What I was hearing [from Bush administration officials) and what I knew did not jive,” Zinni says.

Cheney, like most other senior Bush administration officials, declined to be interviewed for Hubris. But one who did was Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of the defense for policy under Donald Rumsfeld and an ardent defender of the Iraq War. Feith explains the strategic thinking that underlay the administration decision to invade. “The idea was to take actions after 9/11 that would so shock state supporters of terrorism around the world that we might be able to get them to change their policies and regarding support for terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,” he says in the film.

Vice President Dick Cheney tells The Veterans of Foreign Wars that there is "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein possesses WMD. Hubris: Selling the Iraq War, hosted by Rachel Maddow, airs Monday, Feb 18, 9pm E.T./ 6pm P.T. on MSNBC.

But documents declassified only in recent years make it clear Bush administration officials were never truly interested in changing Saddam’s policies: They wanted him gone and were determined to go to war to achieve that end. The very afternoon of the 9/11 attack, Rumsfeld met with top aides and asked for the “best info fast—good enough to hit Saddam Hussein,” the notes of that meeting state. By late November, Rumsfeld was meeting with Gen. Tommy Franks, Centcom commander, to plot the “decapitation” of the Iraqi government, according to the now declassified talking points from the session.

But the talking points suggest Rumsfeld and his team were grappling with a tricky issue: “How [to] start?” the war. In other words,  what would the pretext be? Various scenarios were outlined according to the talking points: “US discovers Saddam connection to Sept. 11 attack or to anthrax attacks?” reads one of them. Then there is another that would also soon get traction within the Bush administration:  “Dispute over WMD inspections?” read the talking points. “Start now thinking about inspection demands.”

Read today, the talking points make it clearer than ever that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others were determined to invade Iraq all along—and were looking for reasons to justify the war to the public and the world. Paul Pillar – then one of the CIA’s top terrorism analysts—says in the documentary that the 9/11 attacks “made it politically possible for the first time to persuade the American people to break a tradition of not launching offensive wars.” But to achieve the goal, secret intelligence was twisted, massaged, and wildly exaggerated. “It wasn't a matter of lying about this or lying about that,” Pillar says at another point. “But rather—through the artistry of speech writers and case presenters—conveying an impression to the American people  that certain things were true.” But those things weren't true.

Watch “Hubris: Selling the Iraq War,” Monday at 9pm EST on MSNBC– and see how it was done.

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Mike Isikoff is National Investigative Correspondent for NBC News and appeared last Sunday on the Meet the Press roundtable to discuss his exclusive story on the Obama administration's use of Drones.