- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, USMC
Best Defense guest columnist
Three months ago, the British Government released findings from the independent investigative committee charged with examining the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, known unofficially as the Chilcot Report. The British investigation meticulously examined its government’s public statements and actions crosschecking them with declassified information like intelligence reports and minutes of their high-level cabinet meetings. The British had enough courage to officially critique their own decisions leading up to this war. We need to do the same.
Unlike some investigative reports created by the U.S. Congress, the Chilcot Report contains an objective, thoughtful, and thorough accounting of British decision-making. The Iraq War is widely considered a strategic failure, with 4,806 American and coalition members deaths and 32,246 wounded, not to mention the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi fighters and civilians – a conservative number by any measure, and all at a monetary cost of over $3 Trillion. The American people are entitled to a similar exhaustive inquiry.
Let’s put this in context. The U.S. Congress has conducted seven investigations, held 33 hearings, and spent almost $7million examining every facet of the disaster in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed. Shouldn’t we spend at least as much to examine how this nation decided to go to war under what we now know were potentially false pretenses and assumptions?
While individual scholars have analyzed the decision-making events, the U.S. government itself has never commissioned any detailed analysis of the path that our government took leading up to the war. Given the lives lost, families destroyed, cultures in turmoil, and money expended, such a government-run analysis should be mandated. The 911 Commission report exhaustively investigated the lessons learned with that national security tragedy. However, the only “official” analysis of Iraq was the Iraq study group back in 2006 and it did not delve into the details of the initial decision to go to war. Instead, its focus was on the deteriorating security situation in Iraq at the time. After 13 years, it’s well beyond time for the U.S. to examine how and why the American people were duped into supporting this invasion and full-scale occupation of a sovereign state, an action squarely against historic American principles and international law.
One of the Chilcot Report’s most damning conclusions is that the British government knew how weak the intelligence used to justify the invasion in Iraq was, yet still pushed to proceed. In 2003, British Prime Minister Blair told his people it was “clear” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). As we learned later, Iraq had no WMDs – at least not any WMDs that could produce mass destruction (nuclear). We now know the British knew this from the beginning. The top secret declassified British intelligence assessments consistently indicated that it would “take Iraq at least five years following the end of sanctions to produce enough fissile material for a weapon,” assuming they would try to do so. Didn’t U.S. leadership know this as well? According to the Chilcot Report, British intelligence also assessed that Iraq did not have the capability to carry out chemical or biological terrorist attacks “beyond individual assassination attempts using poisons.” Did U.S. intelligence say the same thing? And if so, what made our leadership continually state in public that Iraq posed a WMD threat to anyone, let alone the U.S.?
Leading up to the invasion, President Bush and key members of his administration said repeatedly that the safety of American people depended on ending a direct threat from Iraq. His administration insinuated numerous times that Saddam Hussein had ties with al Qaeda and would transfer its WMDs to terrorists for use against America. But there was no link between Iraq and al Qaeda. As it turns out, British intelligence knew this back then, too. Five months prior to the invasion, the Brits assessed that Iraq had no role in the 9/11 attacks, and that it was “unlikely” Iraq was cooperating with Al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein had actually “refused to permit any al Qaeda presence in Iraq.” According to a declassified report, Iraq not only showed no “credible evidence of covert transfers of WMD‑related technology and expertise to terrorist groups,” but also had “very limited” capability to conduct effective terrorist attacks itself. Did the U.S. leadership know this as well? How could U.S. intelligence’s “slam dunk” evidence have been so different than that of our strongest allies? These are questions to which the American people deserve answers.
The decisions that led to America’s biggest strategic failure of the past half century should be reviewed and released in detail. The Iraq war as a political issue has died down in the current discourse, and U.S. leadership on both sides of the aisle seems content to keep the war buried. The American people and our elected leaders must have the courage to resist that temptation. It’s not that we owe the world an American Chilcot Report. But for those Americans who fought in that war, died or were injured, and for those who killed other people, our so-called “enemies” in Iraq, under glaringly false pretenses, this nation owes us a Chilcot Report.
Amy McGrath is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, and F/A-18 pilot. She flew numerous attack combat missions in Iraq in 2003. These are her personal views and do not reflect the official position of the USMC.