The Biggest, Most Evil Lie Ever Told

The biggest, most evil lie cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings and the American people somewhere around 4 trillion dollars:

Pg. 219 - 220 "Angler" by Barton Gellman

The vice president leaned over a coffee table, unrolling secret documents across the top. He had an audience of one. It was late September 2002, the same week David Addington flew to Gitmo. A different theater of war held Cheney's attention today. Dick Armey, the House majority leader, had strayed off message. Way off. Armey saw no need for a scrap with Saddam Hussein, and he did not mind saying so in public. Saddam was a tyrant and a clown, okay. But a menace to the United States of America? Come on. The White House pulled out all the stops to change Armey's mind. Bush invited him for a parlay in the Cabinet Room, flew him to Camp David, arranged a special briefing from George Tenet. Armey did not budge. He was Cheney's project now.

And so here sat the majority leader on a couch in room H-208, the vice president's borrowed Capitol hideaway. Cheney took a facing chair, coffee table between them, looking his old friend in the eye. They had been allies going on eighteen years, Armey following Cheney up the GOP ladder in the House. Cheney could still give a briefing with the best of them. He had that knack for reading upside down, turning a document so the other guy could see. Cheney laid out big maps and photographs, some of them more than three feet long. The vice president was ready to open the bag, let Armey in on secrets he had never heard before.

"I want to share with you some things, and I know when I'm done you will agree with me that this is the right course of action," Cheney said. It was a curious opening. "He didn't say 'agree with the president,'" Armey recalled. "He said 'agree with me.' I don't know why that stuck in my craw." Armey and Cheney were already cast as point and counterpoint. The vice president had been beating war drums since August 7. If someone did not stop Saddam, "it's the judgment of many of us that in the not-too-distant future he will acquire nuclear weapons," Cheney said. Armey chose the very next day to say Bush should let the Iraqi leader "rant and rave all he wants." Armey told reporters, "I don't believe that America will justifiably make an unprovoked attack on another nation."

This guy was no Mod Squad Republican. A tax-hating Texas good of boy, Armey favored armadillo boots and had earned a lifetime rating of 97 percent from the American Conservative Union. He was co-architect of the Republican Revolution of 1994, a pro-military Republican with a Republican commander in chief. He should have been an easy vote on Iraq. Instead, Armey had made himself one of Cheney's pivot points. Congress would decide on war authority, yes or no, in another two weeks. A lot of members were unsure, but no one liked to look weak in an election year. "You remember, at the time Congress was in a panic about this," Armey recalled. "Everybody was scared to be seen as the guy that didn't want to go cut somebody's throat." If Armey could oppose the war, he gave cover to every doubter in waiting. Look at it that way, and Armey became the center of gravity of the political opposition. Cheney had to neutralize him, end of story. "I was in a position, they feared, to stop the legislation," Armey said.

Cheney prepared carefully, a habit of decades. For a full hour he walked the majority leader through a blood-chilling narrative, the graphics produced on cue by a military aide. The vice president by then had dialed up his public rhetoric, warning not only that Saddam had an arsenal but that "the United States may well become the target." What he told Armey was worse. "The upshot of the briefing is, it's a gathering threat that's really more imminent than we want to portray to the public at large," Armey recalled.

In the privacy of his office, for this one crucial vote, Cheney leveled claims he had not made before and did not make again. Two of them crossed so far beyond the known universe of fact that they were simply without foundation.

The vice president brought the disquieting news that Iraq's "ability to miniaturize weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear," had been "substantially refined since the first Gulf War," Armey recalled. Cheney mentioned biological weapons, too, but the nuclear part made the biggest impression. "They were developing weapons, they were miniaturizing weapons, developing packages that could be moved even by ground personnel," Armey said. It was the suitcase-nuke scenario, the ultimate nightmare. Why had Armey not heard about this from Tenet? Well, because the CIA had not even entertained the hypothesis. U.S. intelligence got a lot of things wrong, but not that wrong. Several agencies assessed (incorrectly, it turned out) that Saddam's government was shopping for equipment to enrich uranium. None of them claimed to have evidence that Iraq was making progress on warhead design. Iraq produced partial schematics for two types of weapons in the 1980s, but "they didn't know how to build a bomb, period," said a government scientist with a central role in assessing the evidence before the war. Neither of the Iraqi designs would have fit a missile, let alone a suitcase, and neither of them would have worked as they were drawn. Four months before Cheney sat down with Armey, the Defense Intelligence Agency acknowledged that there was "no firm evidence of a current nuclear weapon design effort." (It cited no soft evidence, either.) The other intelligence agencies concurred.

According to Armey, Cheney also reported that al Qaeda was "working with Saddam Hussein and members of his family." What that meant, Cheney said, was that "we now know they have the ability to develop these weapons in a very portable fashion, and they have a delivery system in their relationship with organizations such as al Qaeda." Inside the government, Cheney and Scooter Libby were in a distinct minority of officialsóbacked by none of the fourteen U.S. intelligence officesówho maintained that Iraq and al Qaeda had operational links. But even the vice president did not claim to have evidence for what he told Armey: that Saddam had personal ties to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

Some of Cheney's talking points had more support, at least at the time. Cheney unrolled a full-scale photograph of an aluminum tube, three feet long and three inches in diameter. Intelligence officers had intercepted thousands on their way to Iraq. Cheney told Armey they were centrifuge rotors made of highly specialized aluminumóan alloy called 7075 T6, the strongest known. With that many centrifuges, Saddam could enrich enough uranium for a bomb in under a year. I got an aluminum tube looks just like that, Armey thought. Keep my fly rod in it. Seen irrigation pipe out west, looks like that, too. Armey did not say so. "I was trying to be respectful, without being openly cynical," he said. "I had to sort of take the vice president's word on what are these things I'm looking at. Because what do I know? I assumed that what he's telling me is verifiable intel."

What Cheney told Armey was not a fact, but the CIA did promote it as a theory. A midlevel analyst named Joe Turner had come up with the idea that the tubes were centrifuge parts. He was an engineer working in export controls, not a scientist. A full year before Cheney briefed Armey, the Energy Department asked eminent nuclear physicists to evaluate the tubes. Houston G. Wood III, founder of the centrifuge department at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said he and his colleagues reported they could not imagine a way to use the tubes for uranium enrichment. Science discourages talk of the impossible, he said, but "I would like to see, if they're going to make that claim, that they have some explanation of how you do that. Because I don't see how you do it."

An alternative explanation for the tubes had been in hand since 1996, when UN inspectors discovered thousands of them on a rocket assembly line at the Nasr Company, a few miles north of Baghdad. Even so, six years later, Cheney had CIA support. The agency backed Turner to the hilt, commending him for outstanding service. The idea that Saddam wanted the tubes for artillery rockets. Turner said, was a transparent cover story. Nobody would use a specialized alloy for something so basic.

Cheney unrolled more big sheets, satellite photos of Tuwaitha, Ash Shaykhili, and other nuclear sites that UN inspectors destroyed between 1991 and 1995, after Iraq's defeat in the first Persian Gulf War. There were new roofs, new construction. Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear establishment. What does a roof tell you? Armey thought. Who knows what's under there?

Armey could not put his finger on it, but something felt wrong. "I remember leaving the meeting with a very deep sadness about my relationship with Dick Cheney," he said. "It's an intuition thing. I felt like, 'I think I just got a good BS'ing.' If you'll pardon the Texas vernacular, I felt like I deserved better from Cheney than being bullshitted by him. I reckon that's as plainspoken as I can put it.

Cheney barely mentioned to Armey the central point of his briefing three weeks earlier for the Gang of Fouróthe Senate majority and minority leaders, the Speaker of the House, and the House minority leader. Cheney had asked to see them on September 3, immediately after the Labor Day recess, with utmost urgency. There was alarming new intelligence about Iraq's unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. In the 1980s Iraq had tried to fit the drones with sprayers for biological agents. Now Iraq had another UAV program. (The Air Force Intelligence Agency, the U.S. government's main source of expertise on UAVs, assessed the purpose as reconnaissance, not biowar. Cheney did not mention that.) The really ominous part, the vice president said, was a recent discovery that Iraq had clandestinely acquired electronic maps of the eastern United States. Connect the dots: Saddam could put drone aircraft on a freighter, steam them across the Atlantic, and use the route-planning software to dispatch lethal microbes anywhere from Miami to Boston.

Cheney's briefings on the tubes, the roofs, and the drones were already controversial in September, subjects of dispute inside the intelligence world. Soon afterward, the U.S. government acquired powerful new evidence that the threats the vice president described did not exist. Cheney did not choose to correct the record. Armey and the Gang of Four did not learn until years later that important pillars of Cheney's argument had turned to sand.

The CIA theory of the aluminum tubes fell apart when UN inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002. At least one American, a Los Alamos employee named Frank Pabian, was on the team that reached the Nasr plant on November 18, the first of several visits to check the Iraqi rocket story. Sure enough, the inspectors found production lines and files recording the manufacture of thirteen thousand artillery rockets. Conventional weapons, nothing illegal. There were plenty of aluminum tubes on hand, but open-air storage corroded them. Thousands of half-built rockets, with motors and fins, sat crated at the assembly lines, awaiting new tubes. Inspectors also solved the mystery of the special aluminum alloy. Iraqi scientists had copied an Italian rocket called the iMedusa, which used identical tubesósame special alloy, same dimensions. Pabian brought back samples in December, Joe Turner stuck to his story, but it turned into that old barstool joke: Who you gonna believe, me or your own lying eyes? Same went for the new roofs on old buildings. UN inspectors, again with Americans among them, visited Tuwaitha and the other suspected nuclear sites on December 6, 7, 9, 10, and 11, 2002. They were under the roofs, walking around inside. No forbidden program. Around the same time, the report about Iraq's purchase of electronic U.S. maps was debunked at the source. The Australian Secret Intelligence Service notified the CIA that its initial information was wrong. It turned out that an Australian vendor, pitching the sale of unrelated equipment, offered to throw in commercial mapping software. Iraq declined.

By the end of 2002, nearly three months before the United States' invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration knew those things. Leaders in Congress did not. Faced with so much certainty, Armey lost faith in his doubts. The vice president had found his pivot point, nudged an obstacle, and tipped the result, just as he did on taxes and torture and global warming. Armey shut up about the war. Later, when he discovered the truth, Armey found it hard to swallow. "If I tell you something and it turns out I later find out, 'Gee, I wasn't right about that,' I think I have a responsibility to come back and tell you otherwise," he said. "Did Dick Cheney, a fellow who had been my trusted friendódid he purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue? I will go so far as to say I seriously feel that may be the case. I can't know that, but I am seriously concerned that might have been the case." He added, "Had I known or believed then what I believe I know now, I would have publicly opposed this resolution right to the bitter end, and I believe I might have stopped it from happening, and I believe have done a better service to my country had I done so. The Biggest, Most Evil Lie Ever Told