The Real War

What led to so many post-9/11 fumbles? A group of intrepid authors gives us answers

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GORDON I was at Tora Bora at that point, in December '01. The desire to have a war plan for Iraq has already been telegraphed to [General] Tommy Franks at Centcom. Franks is actually struggling with Tora Bora, with his unhappiness with the results in Afghanistan, just as he is on the eve of returning for a very important meeting at Crawford with the President. I think they made a very quick decision that in principle Iraq was next on the agenda.

WRIGHT Al-Qaeda essentially was dead after December 2001. The war on terror, you know, had succeeded. [If we had] captured the leaders, I think people would've felt a sense of finality and might not have had that impulse to roll into Iraq. I'm not sure [the Administration] would have had the public support.

TIME Given the strategic importance of the Middle East, why hasn't U.S. intelligence about the region been better?

WRIGHT Because we haven't hired the people that have the skills to understand that region. There's an outright prejudice against people who natively speak Arabic, Pashtu, Dari. They are invited not to apply. The FBI says that there are 25 Arabic speakers [in the FBI], but they send them off to [class] for nine weeks, and at the end of that time they can order breakfast in Arabic. But they cannot interrogate a suspect. They don't know anything about the culture.

But this is completely unnecessary. We have a country that's full of immigrant groups that represent those areas. One thing that every American should be more aware of is, it's not the contact-lens solution that we surrender at the airport that makes [us] safer. It's the fact that our Muslim and Arab communities are much more integrated into American life than they are elsewhere, especially in Europe.

WOODWARD What is central is that before we went into Iraq in March of 2003, somebody should have just asked the basic questions, Do we know anything about this country? Do we have intelligence sources? Do we have open sources? The level of ignorance was pathetic.

RICKS A lot of people were saying that this is going to be harder than you think. But that advice was systematically excluded. It was aggressively not welcome in the inner circle.

GORDON I went through rather laboriously this Future of Iraq study by the State Department, which was on a CD. I thought it was an extremely thin document. I didn't think it was anything remotely like a plan for the postwar.

TIME On the eve of the war, which of you believed that we would go in and find no WMD? Two out of six. Why did you feel that way, Tom?

RICKS I thought that at most they would find some old mustard gas buried out in the '91 war that somebody had forgotten about. I remember asking the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs about a week before the invasion, "You don't know where the stuff is, do you?" And he said, "No, but I'm confident the Iraqis will tell us."

SUSKIND I was sitting with [former Treasury Secretary] Paul O'Neill on the balcony of his condominium at the Watergate a week before the invasion, and he said two things. One is, "Trust me, they haven't thought this through." And second is, "I don't believe there is any evidence, any objective sources to credit as evidence in terms of WMD."

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