Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Problem With Bush And Cheney's "Faulty Intelligence" Defense

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 The Problem With Bush And Cheney's "Faulty Intelligence" Defense

by Kristina Borjesson

Weighed down by the detritus of their war-selling campaign, including the Plame affair, President Bush and Vice President Cheney came out swinging against charges that they misused pre-war intelligence. The intelligence was faulty, not manipulated, they say. "While it is perfectly legitimate to criticize my decisions or the conduct of the war," the president declared, "it is irresponsible to re-write the history of how the war began."

Re-writing history may be wrong, but reviewing it is instructive. The record shows that Bush and Cheney's claims that they were duped by bad intelligence are disingenuous. 

Upon arriving at the White House, they began an extensive campaign to get to Iraq.  They assembled an ad hoc bureaucracy for gathering and diffusing intelligence--true or faulty, it didn't matter--to sell the war. They paid Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (a group that the CIA had previously dismissed as an unreliable intelligence source) for faulty intelligence that served their agenda.  Another aspect of their campaign was pressuring and punishing those who disputed or refuted the intelligence. The Plame affair resulted from that.

Ron Suskind reported in his book, The Price of Loyalty, that ten days into the Bush administration's tenure, former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill attended a meeting where the president turned to Condi Rice and in what several observers understood was a scripted exchange said, "What's on the agenda?"  "How Iraq is destabilizing the region, Mr. President," she replied, after which then-CIA director George Tenet gave a presentation that raised the possibility of Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.  At the end of the meeting, the president assigned Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and General Henry H. Shelton to look at "military options."   A little less than year later, Rumsfeld expressed his desire to find evidence in the ruins of 9/11 that was "good enough to hit SH [Saddam Hussein]."

From there, members of the administration associated with Bush and Cheney's offices, oversaw an ad hoc bureaucracy comprised of several groups designed to gather, package and sell intelligence promoting the war. 

There was the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, run by Cheney's Middle East Advisor, David Wurmser.  According to intelligence expert and author James Bamford, this group was assigned to produce evidence for pretexts for attacking Iraq.  Knight Ridder's Jonathan Landay said that the group was tasked to look for links between Saddam and al Qaeda. This linking exercise resulted in a post-war memo that was released by the conservative Weekly Standard under the headline: "Case Closed: The U.S. Government's Secret Memo Detailing Cooperation Between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden."  The Defense Department and the CIA disowned the memo as a legitimate analysis. Nonetheless, Cheney called it the "best source of information" on the Saddam/bin Laden connection.

Then there was the Office of Special Plans [OSP] for advance war planning and media strategy.  Created by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, it was hidden away on the Pentagon's fifth floor. The OSP operated in secret. Retired Air Force Lieutenant Karen Kwiatkowski, who was on staff there, says, "We were instructed at a staff meeting that this office was not to be discussed or explained and if people in the Joint Staff, among others, asked, we were to offer no comment."  One of the OSP's tasks, according to Bamford, was to "target doubters and non-believers in the government, from the CIA to the Secretary of State. Those who wouldn't go along with the OSP's false information [courtesy of Ahmed Chalabi] or agenda, like CIA intelligence experts and General Anthony Zinni, former commander of Middle East Forces, were attacked and put on enemies lists."

The president, vice-president and Ahmed Chalabi weren't necessarily looking for good intelligence, just pro-war intelligence. Chalabi was the administration's pick to head up Iraq after the invasion.  Currently wanted in Jordan for embezzling millions of dollars from a bank, he has been serving as Iraq's oil minister. Chalabi is probably still the administration's top pick for running that country, because he has promised to protect U.S. interests and to make a peace deal with Israel. 

In 2002, when the Senate Appropriations Committee demanded to know why the State Department was paying Chalabi's INC for intelligence, the INC sent a letter saying that their information was going directly to William Luti in Rumsfeld's office and John Hannah in Cheney's office.  The Pentagon's Kwiatkowski confirmed that the OSP had a "very close relationship with Cheney's office" and told Knight Ridder's Jonathan Landay that staff members in Douglas Feith's office were giving talking points and position papers based on the INC's bogus information to conservative columnists and influential journalists. 

Then there was the White House Iraq Group, headed up by Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, and charged with selling the war to the public.  Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice and Scooter Libby were members of this group.  A computer disk leaked in 2002 showed that they were planning a fall media blitz featuring frightening images of mushroom clouds as well as biological and chemical weapons. The blitz began in August. Cheney talked to veterans groups about Iraq's imminent and actual possession of nuclear arms. He always made the nuclear weapons pitch towards the end of his speeches, to leave a lasting impression.  When Knight Ridder's Jonathan Landay heard about Cheney's August 26, 2002 speech at a VFW national convention, he called a government source he knew to be well-versed on the issue of Iraq's nuclear capabilities, and the source told Landay flat out: "The vice-president is lying."  Three days later, Cheney sold the same bogus message to veterans of the Korean War.  Days after that, Cheney and Rice went on television to talk about aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds, pointing to Judith Miller's Chalabi-sourced article entitled, "U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts." 

While Bush and Condi were hitting the airwaves with their "mushroom cloud" speeches, Israeli prime minister Sharon and his top aide, Ra'anan Gissin, were issuing similar dire warnings about Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities. The Associated Press reported on a briefing Gissin gave during which he said that Saddam gave Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission orders to speed up their work to make their weapons operational.  The AP's headline was: "Israel to U.S., Don't Delay Iraq Attack."  This was no coincidence.  According to the UK Guardian's Julian Borger, the Office of Special Plans had a mirror office in Israel. Douglas Feith was the liaison between OSP U.S. and OSP Israel. 

And then, there's the Niger story.  According to Bamford, Bush had intended to mention the story of Hussein seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger in a speech he gave on October 7, 2002 at the Cincinnati Museum.  The president didn't, though, because CIA director George Tenet, knowing it lacked credibility, forced the National Security Council to drop it from the president's speech.  Up until mid to late October 2002, Tenet's CIA was bucking the administration on at least some of the intelligence they wanted to use to sell the war. But then, Bamford observes, it seems the pressure on Tenet to get with the invasion program became too intense.  He stopped fighting and got on board to the point where he actually allowed himself to be quoted telling the president that there was a "slam dunk" case for WMDs.  Although the president knew the Niger story wasn't nailed down, he included it in his subsequent state of the union speech.  Tenet never said a word. The Plame affair is a result of Ambassador Joseph Wilson doing what Tenet would not do. 

Colin Powell didn't hold up under pressure either. In February 2001, he publicly stated: "Saddam has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction."  Karen Kwiatkowski confirmed that during the war-selling phase, this view posed a problem: "There was a lot of frustration with Powell, they said a lot of bad things about him at the office ¬Ö"

Sources close to Powell told Bamford that Cheney's chief-of-staff, Scooter Libby, drafted Powell's now-infamous UN speech.  While writing it, Libby was in constant communication with David Wurmser of the Policy Counterterrorism Group. Powell's people also told Bamford that the secretary of state knew that much of what was in the script was false. In the end, Powell's people were furious at Libby, but the secretary of state didn't have the courage to not deliver the speech. AP special correspondent Charles J. Hanley did a thorough job of identifying the false and misleading statements in Powell's speech.

Finally, there are all kinds of post-mortem reports examining the government's intelligence failures, but pre-war, the report that really mattered was the National Intelligence Estimate [NIE].  This report is produced by senior intelligence analysts and outside experts known as the National Intelligence Council. The president did not want an NIE done to assess Saddam's WMD capabilities, even though the standard protocol is to put one together before making a big policy decision like going to war. Knight Ridder's Warren Strobel reports that the administration only agreed to order one under duress.  Instead of taking the usual several months to craft this key report, it was completed in a record, eyebrow-raising three weeks.  Two versions were released: a classified version for policymakers and a public version. 

Knight Ridder's Jonathan Landay contrasted the public and classified versions in his February 9, 2004 article, "Doubts, Dissent Stripped from Public Iraq Assessments"

... For example, the public version declared that "most analysts assess Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program" and says, "if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon this decade."

But it fails to mention the dissenting view offered in the top-secret version by the State Department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, known as the INR.

That view said, in part, "The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.  Iraq may be doing so, but INR considers the available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment."

... What the comparison showed is that while the top-secret version delivered to Bush, his top lieutenants and Congress were heavily qualified with caveats about some of its most important conclusions about Iraq's illicit weapons programs, the caveats were omitted from the public version. 

The caveats included the phrases, "we judge that," "we assess that" and "we lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs."

These phrases, according to current and former intelligence officials, long have been used in intelligence reports to stress an absence of hard information and underscore that judgments are extrapolations or estimates.

Among the most striking differences between the versions were those over Iraq's development of small, unmanned aircraft, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles [UAV]. 

The public version said that Iraq's UAVs "especially if used for delivery of chemical and biological warfare [CBW] agents--could threaten Iraq's neighbors, U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, and the United States if brought close to, or into, the U.S. Homeland."

The classified version showed there was major disagreement on the issue from the agency with the greatest expertise on such aircraft, the Air Force.  The Air Force, "does not agree that Iraq is developing UAVs primarily intended to be delivery platforms for chemical and biological warfare CBW agents," it said.  "The small size of Iraq's new UAV strongly suggests a primary role of reconnaissance, although CBW delivery is an inherent capability."

... The public version contained the alarming warning that Iraq was capable of quickly developing biological warfare agents that could be delivered by "bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers, and covert operatives, including potentially against the U.S. Homeland." No such warning that Iraq's biological weapons would be delivered to the United States appeared in the classified version.

... Deleted from the public version was a line in the classified report that cast doubt on whether Saddam was prepared to support terrorist attacks on the United States, a danger that Bush and his top aides raised repeatedly in making their case for war.

"Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [Chemical Biological Weapons] against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington with a stronger case for making war," the top-secret report said. 

Also missing from the public report were judgments that Iraq would attempt "clandestine attacks" on the United States only if an American invasion threatened the survival of Saddam's regime or "possibly for revenge."

Landay concluded that: "As a result, the public was given a far more definitive assessment of Iraq's plans and capabilities than President Bush and other U.S. decision-makers received from their intelligence agencies." 

"There are laws that make it a crime for a public official to willfully or knowingly mislead or lie to Congress," observed Landay. "It's a high crime under the Constitution's impeachment clause to manipulate or deliberately misuse national security intelligence data.  And under federal criminal law, it's a felony to 'defraud the United States or any agency thereof, in any manner or for any purpose.'"  Knight Ridder's Warren Strobel mentioned that he and Landay had "looked at one other law that might have been broken, which is a law that says if Congress gives you money, you cannot turn around and use that money to lobby the U.S. government.  We found evidence that Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress [INC], which had provided false and exaggerated intelligence to the administration for making the case for war, may have broken that law.  But the INC was not charged with anything."

The entire history of the administration's pre-war activities can't be written here. But clearly the president and vice-president's "faulty intelligence" defense ignores the fact that they set up a bureaucratic machine that circumvented the federal government's intelligence agencies, bought and used bad and inconclusive intelligence to sell the war, and engaged in other highly questionable activities, some of which may one day rise to the level of serious crimes. 

©Kristina Borjesson


Kristina Borjesson is the author of the newly released FEET TO THE FIRE: The Media After 9/11, Top Journalists Speak Out, a BuzzFlash Premium.  This editorial is largely based on her interviews with national security and intelligence journalists in her book, including James Bamford and Knight Ridder's Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel.  Among the other journalists interviewed for the book were Ron Suskind, Walter Pincus, Barton Gellman, Paul Krugman, Peter Arnett, Helen Thomas, Tom Curley and Ted Koppel.


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