'IN THE battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." So declared President George Bush on May 1, 2003, in a nationally televised address from the majestic splendour of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in front of a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished".
On May 14 in the rather less telegenic surroundings of the Australian House of Representatives, the Prime Minister, John Howard, formally advised Parliament that "the coalition's major combat operations in Iraq have been successfully concluded". The media generally shared the political leaders' euphoria.
On the day Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad, the US cable news network CNN played some variation of this symbolic event once every 7.5 minutes while Rupert Murdoch's Fox News network replayed it on average every 4.4 minutes.
Two months later Bush was still in macho mode, telling the Iraqi insurgents to bring it on. Four years and at least 100,000 fatalities later, the triumphalism looks hollow.
Now the news focus has naturally moved to the continuing killings and chaos in Iraq, but four years after the proclamation of victory, it is interesting to trace the path to war, and especially the claims that were made about Iraqi's weapons of mass destruction that justified the war.
Eventually no weapons or programs were found, despite the absolute certainty with which Howard, his Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, and other Australian, American and British leaders spoke of their threat.
In those four years a series of books and articles have illuminated the road to war and the problematic claims - sometimes fictions - on which it was based. Some, such as Michael Isikoff and David Corn's Hubris and Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold particularly illuminate the role of various small players - true believers, conmen, victims - whose contributions have largely remained publicly unknown.
Rocco Martino, an Italian who described himself as a security consultant, scrabbled around the fringes of the intelligence world until he got in touch with one of Italy's sources in the Niger embassy in Rome, later dubbed La Signora. Together they forged documents purporting to show that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq, and then tried to peddle these to contacts in the intelligence world. They found their way to the CIA and British intelligence.
Although US intelligence bureaucracies were sceptical, it was included in an intelligence briefing which the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, demanded be followed up.
The CIA sent a former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, who had served in Iraq and West Africa, in February 2002 to investigate. He realised the documents were fairly crude forgeries, with some wrong titles, wrong names and so forth. (A companion document was even less credible, alleging a secret meeting between rogue states and others to advance their anti-Western agenda.) In addition, the logistics of the large export operation were improbable and impossible to keep secret.
After interviewing relevant officials, Wilson concluded there was no basis to the claim. The State Department had reached the same conclusion, as had the US embassy in Niger. France, the former colonial power, still largely controlled Niger's uranium exports, and it also advised that no such transaction had occurred and could not have happened without its knowledge.
Despite this refutation of the claim that Iraq imported uranium from Niger, it could not be killed. It was included the following September in Britain's white paper on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It was included by Bush in his state of the union address in January 2003, despite four earlier explicit warnings by the CIA that it was problematic. Cheney, with the then secretary of state, Colin Powell, and other Administration figures had also used the claim. Howard used it in a speech to Parliament justifying military action against Iraq.
In mid-2003, thanks partly to the energetic efforts of Wilson, the US Government retracted the Niger claim. Downer, in an article in the Herald, made a similar retraction. As in the pattern of such reversals, Howard stressed the claim had been made in good faith and, anyway, was not central to the coalition's case for war.
Joe Turner, a CIA analyst, is perhaps the central bureaucratic player in the other main thread alleging Saddam had a nuclear weapons program. It was the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iraq, perhaps giving weapons to terrorists, that constituted what Downer and the then defence minister, Robert Hill, called the ultimate nightmare, the sum of all our fears.
To the extent that there was any intelligence basis for asserting Iraq had a nuclear program, beyond the false claims about uranium imports, it involved its importation of aluminium tubes. Western intelligence agencies, including Australia, had tracked these activities, and even intercepted one shipment in early 2001. There was dispute over the purpose of these tubes. Turner was the most persistent and vociferous advocate of the view that the tubes were for a gas centrifuge to enrich uranium; others said it was improbable as they would have needed extensive and expensive modifications to make them suitable.
After a debate inside government circles for the best part of a year, the State Department and the US Energy Department, the group with the strongest expertise on the subject, had concluded the tubes were not for a centrifuge program. British and Australian intelligence seem to have reached a similar view.
For whatever reason, Turner's view prevailed inside the CIA and several reports were sent to government leaders, without the knowledge of the technical experts in State and Energy, who thought the issue was closed. Political expedience trumped technical expertise.
Suddenly the issue burst into public view in early September 2002, the start of the US Administration's campaign to win a congressional resolution authorising action on Iraq. A leaked report appeared in The New York Times, and immediately was referred to on television by the then national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, Cheney and others as evidence of the Iraqi threat.
It was included in Bush's September 12 address to the United Nations. In Australian and US official rhetoric, the theme of aluminium tubes kept recurring over the next several months. After Iraq allowed access to UN weapons inspectors, from late 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency was able to see the tubes being used in hundreds of rockets, as Iraq had said. Turner still said they had to be for a centrifuge but the agency found him unconvincing.
On January 9 the agency reported the tubes were not suitable for a nuclear centrifuge. The New York Times, whose front-page report had begun the public career of this claim and which had carried many prominent references since, reported this on page 10.
The agency's chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, made his final prewar report to the UN in early March 2003, concluding it had no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq, that the Niger documents were not authentic, and that the aluminium tubes were for conventional rockets not a nuclear program.
The Western media, preoccupied with the countdown to war, largely ignored his announcement. In one of the few official responses, Cheney simply said: "I think Mr ElBaradei frankly is wrong", without bothering to address the evidence laid out by the agency.
Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi had been a major figure in al-Qaeda, and was picked up by Pakistani forces in December 2001 and handed over to the Americans. He was being interrogated in Afghanistan by the FBI, and his interrogator had made good rapport and was gaining excellent information from him about al-Qaeda.
Al-Libi denied any contact between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Then in a bureaucratic turf war, the CIA prevailed and al-Libi was taken out of the FBI's hands and flown to Egypt as part of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, a program that has been associated with widespread suspicions of torture.
Al-Libi now maintained that Iraq had given training in chemical and biological weapons to al-Qaeda. Some in the US intelligence community were sceptical, noting the lack of specificity in his claims, and suspicious that he was saying what his debriefers wanted to hear.
Bush included the training claim in a major speech in October 2002, and Rice, the then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney and Powell, all included it in public statements. Later al-Libi told the FBI that the claims were false: "They were killing me. I had to tell them something." Once removed from the danger of further torture, and after the war had begun, he retracted the claims, and the reversal was reported in The New York Times in July 2004. Eventually the CIA formally recalled all its reporting based on them. To my knowledge, none of the US leaders has ever publicly recanted their use of these claims.
Curveball was the name given to an Iraqi defector who was living in Germany and who was the major source for claims that Iraq had built a fleet of mobile biological labs. German intelligence would not allow the Americans to question him directly on the grounds that he was strongly anti-American. The official position of both intelligence agencies was that Curveball was reliable, but unofficially there was growing concern he had become unstable, was alcoholic and probably fabricating. He had defected to Germany in 1999, and after first saying he was in trouble for embezzlement, then said he worked on mobile weapons labs.
From January 2000 to September 2001, the US Defence Intelligence Agency disseminated almost 100 reports based on Curveball's claims, and the US Government was soon reporting the existence of mobile biological weapon agent production plants as established fact. Powell, much to the horror of some American officials, included Curveball's claims to great dramatic effect in his major speech to the UN in February 2003.
After the invasion, the discovery of two of these vehicles was hailed as a breakthrough. Bush proclaimed the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, and Downer crowed in Parliament that although "it is disappointing for the Opposition to hear this, it is true". But the trailers proved to be for launching hydrogen balloons for weather forecasting, as the Iraqis had said.
In December 2003, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, who had at first been a strong believer that Iraq had such weapons, but eventually concluded the opposite, reported back to George Tenet, the CIA director, on Curveball. He said his team's investigations had shown Curveball was a liar; that he had been last in his class, not first; that he was a low-level trainee engineer, not a project director; that he had been sacked in 1995, and from then on drove a taxi. The Survey Group reported that the idea that he was an informer caused great laughter among the Iraqis who knew him. No doubt Powell also sees the humour in it all.
John Rendon is the head of the Rendon Group, and describes himself as an information warrior and a perception manager. But the line between perception management and reality creation is often thin. When Kuwait was liberated in 1991, the crowds waved hand-held flags of America and other allied countries, making great television. The flags had been distributed by Rendon.
The Rendon Group is not a shoestring operation. An article in Rolling Stone in November 2005 says the company made nearly $US100 million in the five years after the first gulf war, while between 2002 and 2004 its US Defence Department contracts totalled between $US50 million and $US100 million.
Moreover, sums of money at least as large were paid by the Americans over the years to the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi, an Iraqi Shiite who had been exiled since his teens and was wanted in Jordan for allegedly embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars, was the neo-cons' choice to be the next president of Iraq.
Chalabi is a very controversial figure in American politics, with the CIA and State Department both regarding him as a fraud. Moreover, his role in false stories in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion has become very controversial. What fewer people know is that the Iraqi National Congress, including its name, was the creation of Rendon, as part of the anti-Saddam contract he received following the first Gulf War.
In the deliberations on Iraq, Rendon was a regular participant in White House strategy sessions on managing the politics of the war. Few details of his perception management activities have emerged, but one documented case is revealing.
In Pattaya, Thailand, in December 2001, the CIA administered a lie detector test to an Iraqi defector, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri. Al-Haideri told a dramatic tale that he had helped Saddam's men secretly bury tonnes of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in sites around Baghdad.
But the polygraph suggested he had made up the entire story. Nevertheless as the CIA official was flying back to America, Al-Haideri's story was making front-page news in The New York Times, and became the first big post-September 11 news offensive against Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The allegations were repeated in media and provided more embroidery for official rhetoric against Saddam, his public claims appearing in various government documents while the CIA's finding of his lack of credibility remained confidential. After the war al-Haideri was returned to Baghdad and unable to identify any of the sites he had alleged.
With a nod to Oscar Wilde: one error might be unfortunate, two carelessness, but a whole series of them shows a flawed and reckless political process.
Rod Tiffen is professor of government and international relations at the University of Sydney.