Matt Taibbi on the Journalist & Politician Cheerleaders for Iraq War, Then & Now

May 21, 2015
Web Exclusive


Matt Taibbi

award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. His most recent book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is now out in paperback.

In this web-only conversation with journalist Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, we turn to Iraq. He recently wrote a piece for Rolling Stone titled "Forget What We Know Now: We Knew Then Iraq War Was a Joke." Taibbi wrote the piece after Jeb Bush’s infamous interview on Fox News. Megyn Kelly asked Bush "knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?" Bush responded, "I would have." Jeb Bush later reversed his stance.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we bring you part two of our conversation with Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. We turn to Iraq.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Matt Taibbi recently wrote a piece headlined "Forget What We Know Now: We Knew Then the Iraq War Was a Joke." The piece looks at how the Iraq War has become a major issue in the 2016 presidential election. Earlier this week, a former top CIA official and intelligence briefer to President George W. Bush before the Iraq War acknowledged Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney falsely presented information to the public. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Michael Morell was asked about Cheney’s claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Was that true?

MICHAEL MORELL: We were saying—

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Can you answer that question? Was that true?

MICHAEL MORELL: No. That’s not true.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, why did you let him get away with it?

MICHAEL MORELL: Look, my job—my job, Chris, is to—

CHRIS MATTHEWS: You’re the briefer of the president on intelligence. You’re the top person to go in and tell him what’s going on. You see Cheney make this charge he’s got a nuclear bomb, and then they make subsequent charges he knew how to deliver it, he had the capability to deliver it, and nobody raised their hand and said, "No, that’s not what we told him."

MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris, wasn’t my job. Right? My job—

CHRIS MATTHEWS: To tell the truth.

MICHAEL MORELL: My job—no, as the briefer? As the briefer?


MICHAEL MORELL: As the briefer, my job is to carry CIA’s best information and best analysis to the president of the United States, make sure he understands it. Right? My job is to not watch what they’re saying on TV and say, "Yesterday"—

CHRIS MATTHEWS: You think TV’s a joke?


CHRIS MATTHEWS: You think it’s a joke that Cheney said it on TV?

MICHAEL MORELL: That’s not my job. That’s not my job.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Did you know he did that?

MICHAEL MORELL: No, I wasn’t paying attention. I was studying what was on my desk every morning.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: So you’re briefing the president on the reasons for war. They’re selling the war using your stuff, saying that you made that case when you didn’t. So they’re using your credibility to make the case for war dishonestly, as you just admitted.

MICHAEL MORELL: Look, I’m just telling you what—

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, you just admitted it.

MICHAEL MORELL: I’m just telling you what we said, Chris.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: They gave a false presentation of what you said to them.

MICHAEL MORELL: On some aspects.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mike Morell, who was a top briefer to [President George W. Bush], being questioned by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has said he would not have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq presided over by his brother, former President George W. Bush, reversing a stance Jeb Bush took just days earlier. Speaking at a town hall meeting in Tempe, Arizona, last week, Jeb Bush said he would not have invaded if he had known former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. His comments came three days after Jeb Bush told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly he would have authorized the war, despite that knowledge.

MEGYN KELLY: On the subject of Iraq, obviously very controversial, knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?

JEB BUSH: I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jeb Bush spent the rest of the week trying to walk back those remarks, first saying he misunderstood the question, then refusing to respond to hypotheticals.

JEB BUSH: So here’s the deal: If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions, "Knowing what we know now, what would you have done?" I would have not engaged—I would not have gone into Iraq. That’s not to say that the world is safer because Saddam Hussein is gone. It is significantly safer. That’s not to say that there was a courageous effort to bring about a surge that created stability in Iraq. All of that is true. And that’s not to say that the men and women that have served, in uniform, and many others that went to Iraq to serve, did so—they did so certainly honorably. But we’ve answered the question now. So now, going forward, what’s the role of America going forward? Are we going to pull back now and be defeatists and pessimistic? Or are we going to engage in a way that creates a more peaceful and secure world? That is what 2016 is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Last Wednesday, in Reno, Nevada, Jeb Bush was confronted by a 19-year-old college student, who argued today’s rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State resulted from Jeb Bush’s brother President George W. Bush’s decision to disband the Iraqi army, saying, "Your brother created ISIS."

So, Matt Taibbi, your piece in Rolling Stone, "Forget What We Know Now: We Knew Then the Iraq War Was a Joke." Talk about what’s happening now in this rewriting of history.

MATT TAIBBI: I just think, from a media standpoint, this whole debate just grinds so much, that all of these media outlets, that shamelessly trumpeted and cheerleaded for this war in 2002, 2003, and in some cases for years beyond that, are suddenly turning around and being sanctimonious and going after people like Jeb Bush, who, of course, should be gone after—I’m not saying that the politicians should be exempt from this kind of questioning—but, you know, people like Chris Matthews are giving people a hard time about their positions on Iraq. Where was MSNBC on Iraq back in the day? I mean, they were letting go of people like Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura for having, you know, unpatriotic positions on the Iraq War. Everybody was in on this thing, except for maybe this program and a few other scattered journalists. And so, for the national mainstream media to act like it’s somehow the arbiter of morality on this issue now with politicians, I think, is extremely hypocritical. And I think it also exposes a serious failing in our business, which is that getting things enormously wrong carries no consequences for pundits anymore whatsoever. I mean, you can be wrong for years on end, and you’ll still have that 780 words of space in The New York Times or whatever newspaper, year after year after year.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, maybe it explains why Hillary Clinton did what she did in 2002. I remember the night very clearly that she spoke on the Senate floor, ultimately in support of the Iraq War, when she voted, and kids were being dragged out of her Senate office in New York, students, because they were protesting the Iraq War. She was pressed on this when she was running for president. You know, President—now President Obama, then Senator Barack Obama, he was opposed to the Iraq War. She held onto her position to the very end.


AMY GOODMAN: I think she was shocked maybe because of what you’re saying: Even the media was on the side of the Iraq War, not raising the questions, but she saw that the public was on the side of Barack Obama, and that’s why, in the end, she was forced to change. But let’s go back to that night, when Hillary Clinton was making that vote for the invasion of Iraq.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Because bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely, and therefore war less likely, and because a good-faith effort by the United States, even if it fails, will bring more allies and legitimacy to our cause, I have concluded, after careful and serious consideration, that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our nation. If we were to defeat this resolution or pass it with only a few Democrats, I am concerned that those who want to pretend this problem will go way with delay will oppose any U.N. resolution calling for unrestricted inspections.

This is a very difficult vote. This is probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. Any vote that might lead to war should be hard. But I cast it with conviction.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Hillary Clinton in 2002. This past Tuesday, she was asked about that vote in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

HILLARY CLINTON: Look, I know that there have been a lot of questions about Iraq posed to candidates over the last weeks. I’ve made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple. And I have written about it in my book. I’ve talked about it in the past. And, you know, what we now see is a very different and very dangerous situation. The United States is doing what it can, but ultimately this has to be a struggle that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people are determined to win for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Hillary Clinton today, running for president in 2016. Matt Taibbi?

MATT TAIBBI: So, the problem that I have with all of this is this—again, a revisionist history, this idea that the mistake was that we were misled by this faulty intelligence, and were it not for the fruit of the poison tree, were it not for Judith Miller and a few people in the Bush administration who presented this case to us, we would never have made this decision, we would have gotten it right the first time around. But the reality is, a lot of the people who were looking at this issue saw through all of that. We didn’t need to even consider the intelligence that the Bush administration was trying to present. It was clearly a manufactured crisis. We were invading the wrong country. This wasn’t—you know, this wasn’t a difficult call. It wasn’t like Fermat’s theorem that we had to figure out. This was a pretty obvious manipulation by the Bush administration. And to pretend that, "Oh, yes, we were misled by this faulty intelligence," I think is going to become the new normal on both sides of the aisle.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what do you think, Matt? You’ve been a journalist now for years here. How do you explain the uniformity of the position taken by all these different media outlets, whom you cite in your article, on the position, the position that they took on the Iraq War in 2003?

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, because it’s safe, and everyone’s going to be covering their behinds on this whole thing. I mean, there are a few people who have stood up and said, "Boy, we really screwed that one up." I can think of a couple of pundits who actually did that. But for the most part, the position is going to be, "Yeah, we got it wrong back then. We were caught up in a patriotic fervor. We were—after 9/11, we all had a desire to do something, and this seemed like the right thing to do. And they were giving us this intelligence, and we believed it." You know, but, as journalists, it wasn’t our job to believe stuff. It was our job to examine what was going on. And basically nobody did that.

AMY GOODMAN: Look at Vice President Dick Cheney holding up The New York Times on that September morning of 2002 as he was alleging weapons of mass destruction. He said, "You don’t have to believe me. Believe The New York Times."


AMY GOODMAN: Holding up an article, front page, by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, that of course was based on unnamed sources that we probably can trace right back to the man who was holding up the newspaper.

MATT TAIBBI: Of course, yeah, it was a daisy chain, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And he says, "So don’t believe me. Believe them."


AMY GOODMAN: And it turns out, of course, that the—it was all a lie coming out of the Bush administration.

MATT TAIBBI: Right, right. But the whole thing—the whole argument was one dubious supposition piled on top of another. The intelligence was maybe the fifth or sixth element in the chain of faulty assumptions that they asked us to accept in order to go to war. And the idea that Judith Miller’s reporting was something that we could hang our hats on as the reason we went to war is absurd, beginning with the idea that Saddam Hussein had any kind of connection to al-Qaeda, which was implied at every turn by this government. You know, the Bush administration, these were some of the people—these are some of the greatest liars in the history of politics, and even they couldn’t come up with a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. And yet this was implied. Seventy percent of the country believed it. And the press unblinkingly allowed that kind of propaganda to be spread in their pages.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember—I think it was Kathy Kelly who went to Iraq before the invasion. She was ripped apart by the press in Baghdad, who surrounded her and said, "What do you think you’re doing?" You know, the very well-known nonviolent peace activist, who believed, with many other people, maybe they should put their bodies on the line to prevent an attack; as Americans, maybe they could stop the attack.

MATT TAIBBI: Right, right. Yeah, no, but that was considered traitorous to even go at that time. And then I think they were—it was—

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the very—this very same press today, how fast can we bomb the Middle East?

MATT TAIBBI: Right, yeah, exactly. And they’ll shift their attention to the next thing. And this—I think the problem is, is that what happened before Iraq was a massive failure in our business. Clearly, a lot of people—and I know a lot of people personally who didn’t believe in the Iraq War, who reported on a lot of these issues without protest. It was a huge failure in our business, and we didn’t go back and examine what went wrong, and we didn’t fix it. And what’s going to happen is it’s going to happen all over again the next time. Next time we want to go to war against somebody, there are going to be the same threats of if you don’t agree with us, you’re unpatriotic. There’s going to be the same march to war that we saw on all the cable stations. And we’re going to get ourselves in trouble all over again. I mean, don’t you think?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, except there is a very strong independent press. And—

MATT TAIBBI: That’s true, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s why we have to support it every step of the way.

MATT TAIBBI: That is true. That is why we have to support Democracy Now!, clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matt Taibbi, thanks so much for being with us. A recent article in Rolling Stone, "Forget What We Know Now: We Knew Then the Iraq War Was a Joke." I mean, after all, you could just look at President George W. Bush, who shared in the joke. Remember the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, when—that remarkable video that they played where he’s looking in the Oval Office under his desk, under his chairs, and saying—

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, for the WMD.

AMY GOODMAN: "Where are the WMD?" as U.S. soldiers were dying in Iraq.

MATT TAIBBI: Unbelievable. I mean, I feel guilty even laughing about that, but, I mean, that’s the mentality of—I mean, I think that they saw—I think that highlights what was really going on, is that they saw the Iraq War as a political thing, that this is how we’re going to get over with voters, this a move that is going to garner us support. They didn’t actually think about the consequences of what they were doing in any real way. And we let them get away with it.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, there was a buildup of sentiment against the war in the summer of 2002. Andrew Card, who I now see as being rolled out once again as a pundit, was the chief of staff of President George W. Bush, and he said, when asked why they weren’t making stronger arguments for the war that they were clearly going to engage in soon, in the summer, he said, "You don’t roll out a new product in August."

MATT TAIBBI: Right, right, right, exactly. It was a marketing campaign for them. They wanted to save it for the most politically advantageous time. And, you know, journalists should have been on the lookout for that. They should have seen right through it. I think in the old days, when journalists, as a whole, were more skeptical of people in power and didn’t like to see this kind of thing happen, I think that you wouldn’t have seen that kind of unanimity, certainly. It was shocking to see.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, "Forget What We Know Now: We Knew Then the Iraq War Was a Joke," we’ll link to it at I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Email icon redDaily News Digest