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The US Press Sell-out on Iraq War

By       Message Coleen Rowley       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink

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Scott Pelley, anchor of CBS Evening News

By late January-early February 2003, Americans were witnessing the Bush administration's final and intense push to launch a pre-emptive war on Iraq, based largely on (what are now well known as) two completely false pretexts: Iraq's possession of WMD and its connections to Al Qaeda terrorists.

My knowledge that Iraq's WMD was being exaggerated was merely what anyone could gain from close reading of public sources, including some in the mainstream press: the McClatchy news articles by Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel (who later won Pulitzers for their reporting) as well as a few buried articles in the Washington Post and Newsweek debunking the "evidence" being presented by Bush-Cheney-Powell-Rice-Rumsfeld et al.

However, due to the Minneapolis FBI's pre-9/11 investigation of an Al Qaeda operative, I was in a better position to know more than J.Q. Average Citizen about the non-existence of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Still, Bush administration officials knew how important it was to cleverly fabricate this connection.

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So, Vice President Dick Cheney would lie about 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta meeting with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague while FBI Director Robert Mueller would look down at his shoes, knowing the FBI had documentary proof that Atta was in the U.S. at the time (and not meeting Iraqi agents in Prague).

I also knew the FBI director was under enormous pressure to keep his mouth shut and go along with whatever senior administration officials wanted, to keep them from splitting the FBI in half. The FBI's pre-9/11 lapses were becoming well-known and its round-up of a thousand immigrants after 9/11 -- touted for PR purposes -- had turned into a fiasco. They were not terrorists, while other actions that would have made sense, like interviewing terror suspects already in custody about second-wave plots, were declined.

The incompetence and dissembling from these prior failures and mistakes had first shocked me but then I grew desensitized. Still, the false info being sold to the American public that the 9/11 attacks were connected to Iraq was a whopper with potentially grave consequences. By February 2003, the Bush administration had succeeded in misleading 76 percent of Americans to believe Saddam Hussein provided assistance to Al Qaeda.

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Media Turning Point 

Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation at the U.N. on Feb. 5, 2003, seemed to mark the point where the mainstream media fully succumbed to war fever and rallied behind Bush's invasion plans. What few knew was that, in addition to Powell's PR home-run, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's assistant Victoria Clarke had leaked her 300-page plan of "Embedding the Media in Iraq" to U.S. media chieftains. The Pentagon Pundit Program was also established to insert retired pro-war military officers as talking heads on the TV News programs.

I learned how badly biased the media already was when I tried to submit an Op-Ed to Time magazine, which had just featured me as one of its Persons of the Year for whistleblowing about the FBI's 9/11 failures.

However, in early February 2003, I quickly became persona non grata when I questioned the Bush administration's stated urgency for going to war. The word soon came back from the magazine's brass that the Iraq War was essentially a done deal. They had no interest in my Op-Ed.

A couple weeks later, I remembered a comment from the FBI director who expressed a willingness to accept critical information from me about problems and dangers. So on Feb. 26, 2003, I took a deep breath and sent an e-mail to FBI Director Robert Mueller. It contained all the points I could think of that the FBI director ought to be warning the President about. In a nutshell, I pointed out how wrong and counter-productive the launching of war on Iraq would be to our efforts to reduce terrorism.

A week passed without any response from Director Mueller. I was starting to panic as, according to news reports that first week of March, American troops were already in place, just waiting for orders from Bush to commence the attack.

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I could not watch another calamity unfold without trying to do something. So, I called up reporters at two newspapers, Philip Shenon at the New York Times and Greg Gordon at the Minneapolis Star Tribune (who now writes for McClatchy). They were interested and both newspapers subsequently published front-page stories about my warning to the FBI director on March 6, 2003.

Although I had technically broken FBI policy by not seeking FBI "pre-publication review" and approval for sharing my letter with news outlets, nothing in my letter was classified or secret by law. It certainly was the kind of thing more suitable for a letter of resignation and way over my lowly (GS-14) pay grade but no one at the higher ranks was doing anything! They all seemed muzzled.

The morning the articles were published, the FBI's "Office of Professional Responsibility" (the internal discipline unit) as well as Headquarters Legal Counsel and Press Office quickly engaged with my field office boss (the "Special Agent in Charge") to let me know I'd be facing disciplinary action for the unapproved media contact and publication.

Of course, the reason I had not sought "pre-publication review" was due to time sensitivity. I was aware of the FBI using its "pre-publication review" policy to delay releasing other agents' writings for years not due to legal reasons (secrecy of the info) but just as a way of controlling employees' speech when it could prove embarrassing to the FBI.

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Retired FBI Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel.

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