Why Did We Invade Iraq?

This week (July 2011) Secretary of Defense Panetta was quoted in the Washington post,

The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked,” he told troops at Camp Victory, the largest U.S. military outpost in Baghdad. “And 3,000 Americans — 3,000 not just Americans, 3,000 human beings, innocent human beings — got killed because of al-Qaeda. And we’ve been fighting as a result of that.” [sic]

I don’t think Mr. Panetta is unreasonable in his statement, after 9/11 incredibly reasonable people were caught up in an angry stupor by the shock of the tragedy. However, Mr. Panetta made the unfortunate blunder of echoing the remarks from 2002, that al-Qaeda was somehow connected to Iraq.

We all have fatigue over the argument of why we invaded Iraq, me included. As an analyst at the CIA, I was on the team charged with analyzing and writing the intelligence to determine if there was a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda and 9/11. The 9/11 Commission report that extolled our long hours and determination to get it right, agreed that Iraq did not collaborate with al Qaeda to attack the United States.

What bothers me the most about the article, is this:

Pressed by reporters to elaborate, Panetta said: “I wasn’t saying, you know, the invasion — or going into the issues or the justification of that. It was more the fact that we really had to deal with al-Qaeda here; they developed a presence here and that tied in.” [sic] 

But in fact, al-Qaeda did not have a presence in Iraq in 2001. There were Islamic extremists sympathetic with al-Qaeda’s agenda, but that is a far cry from being part of central al-Qaeda who attacked the World Trade Center towers. The argument has been hashed over many times, should it matter that he had this gaffe? Yes, it does, for all of us. Not because Mr. Panetta said it, but because we all need to understand the nuances of information and intelligence before our government makes foreign policy decisions that will have a drastic impact, in this case, subjecting our nation to war. Facts matter and seem to have a short shelf life, spin appears to be infinite.

We have every right, as a country, to be hurt, angry and defensive when attacked like we were on 9/11. But losing sight of who attacked us and how they could do it again is frankly, inexcusable. Blame is shared among us, from politicians, to media, to the public for not sorting out the facts from fiction post-invastion.  Yet many chose to believe that we were going after the enemy by entering Iraq, taking our eye off the ball. Painting revenge with such a broad brush is dangerous and counterproductive. Being bogged down in two wars with the nearly impossible task of reconstruction is more than unfortunate, it’s costing lives.  We also helped a fairly unknown punk turn into one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.

Mr. Panetta is a smart man, he understands the nuances of intelligence and why facts are important. What concerns me the most, is that to this day, we don’t seem to get the story straight on why we invaded Iraq, and it matters, it really does matter.