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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

No Sex, But Plenty of Lies and Videotape

by John Atcheson

Beyond smearing a decorated war hero who disagrees with them, the Bush crowd is accusing the Democrats of rewriting history when they claim they were misled by the administration in the run-up to the Iraqi War. In the administration’s version of history, everyone had the same intelligence, and reached the same conclusions.

Here’s where Bush and friends get hoisted on their own petard. History was indeed rewritten, but it was the Bush administration that did it. Between 2001 and the fall of 2002, Iraq was transformed from little more than an irritant to the single biggest threat to democracy in existence. To see how dramatically the administration tried to spin intelligence and recreate history, we need only look at their own words, beginning in early 2001.

Here’s what Colin Powell had to say about Iraq in February of 2001:

"He [Hussein] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors."

Rumsfeld had this to say on Fox news on February 12, 2001:

"Iraq is probably not a nuclear threat at this time."

CIA Director George Tenet concluded in a report to Congress on February 7, 2001:

"We do not have any direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since Desert Fox to reconstitute its WMD programs."

Or listen to Condoleezza Rice on July 29, 2001:

"But in terms of Saddam Hussein being there, let's remember that his country is divided, in effect. He does not control the northern part of his country. We are able to keep arms from him. His military forces have not been rebuilt."

In little more than a year, this relatively sanguine assessment of Iraq and Hussein was replaced with hysterical renderings of mushroom clouds, immediate threats, and al Qaeda links. And no, it was not 911 that changed things. As Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill revealed, 911 provided an excuse to launch a war the administration had been spoiling for all along, but it was not the reason for the Iraq invasion.

So what changed? Not much. Basically, the administration stopped telling the truth and launched a sophisticated psyops (psychological operations, essentially propaganda) campaign directed at Congress and the American people. As with any psyops effort, they withheld information, distorted it, and when necessary created it. In short, they rewrote history and lied while doing it.

The key components to this effort were creation of the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, and the White House Iraqi Group. OSP provided cherry-picked and distorted intelligence; WHIG used it to conduct the propaganda campaign.

The case for war rested on two assertions. First, we "knew" Iraq had links to al Qaeda; and second, we "knew" they had WMDS and were likely to use them. Let’s examine each in turn to see who knew what and when they knew it.

The al Qaeda Link that Wasn’t

In trying to make the case for a link between al Qaeda and Hussein, the administration relied heavily on two stories. It’s now clear they knew the intelligence didn’t support either one, they knew it didn’t as early as February of 2002, and they hid that fact from Congress and the American people.

The first "proof" they used was the testimony of one Ibn al-Shaykh al Libi – a captured al Qaeda commander who claimed Iraq was training al Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons.

A Defense Intelligence Terrorism Summary (known as a DITSUM in governmentese) cast strong doubts on al Libi’s claims in February of 2002. Reportedly, al Libi flunked a lie detector test, and he has since admitted his testimony was false. A CIA memo in January of 2003 also debunked al Libi’s testimony, yet throughout 2002 and 2003 the administration continued to present what they knew to be unreliable fiction as fact with Congress, at the UN and in statements to the American people.

Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the OSP propaganda effort was set up shortly after the White House received the DITSUM undercutting their claims.

The administration’s only other bit of "intelligence" linking al Qaeda with Iraq was the purported meeting in Czechoslovakia between Mohammad Atta and "senior Iraqi officials." This was shown to be phony nearly as soon as it was reported. The FBI and the CIA had evidence that Atta was in Florida at the time the meeting was supposed to have taken place.

But Cheney and others in the administration continued to hawk the meeting as gospel. Interestingly, when the 911 Commission confirmed that the meeting never took place, Cheney – who now claims "we all had the same intelligence," sang a different tune. He said then, that he "probably" had more information than the 911 Commission.

The Bush administration used this "if you knew what we knew" theme throughout the run-up to the Iraqi war, but now, suddenly, we were all operating from the same song book. Well, if we do a quick logic check, there are only three possibilities here: either they were lying then, or they’re lying now, or they were lying then and they’re lying now.

The WMDs That Weren’t

Let’s start with chemical and biological weapons. The administration relied heavily on a source known as Curveball, an Iarqi expatriate who turned himself into German intelligence and was never directly interviewed by American intelligence. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the German intelligence agency, BDN, characterized Curveball as emotionally unstable, and told the US that his information was second hand, vague, and unreliable. Yet the administration presented Curveball as a reliable source, and presented his concoctions to Congress and the American people without caveats. While it’s true that the US was not alone in believing Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, prior to the 2002 psyops campaign, both the US and our allies heavily caveated their findings, and – more importantly – most believed Hussein would not use them for fear of reprisals. Indeed, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) prepared at Senator Bob Graham’s request, concluded that Hussein was unlikely to use any WMDs (unless he was attacked).

Or consider the case for a nuclear threat. In the 2002 run-up to Iraq, the administration had two primary pieces of "evidence" they used to convince Congress and the American people that Hussein posed a nuclear threat: the Niger yellow cake story and the aluminum tubes they claimed could be used as centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Neither Congress nor the American people knew that the Italians had warned us the Niger yellowcake story was phony, nor did they know that Ambassador Joe Wilson had cast doubt on the whole thing after his trip to Niger, until after the invasion. They were also unaware that CIA Director Tenet had warned Bush against using the story in a major speech on Iraq the President gave in Ohio in October 2002. When the President was warned by the CIA yet again that the intelligence did not support the yellowcake story prior to his 2003 State of the Union Address, Bush didn’t drop the Niger fabrication, his response was to keep the reference and attribute it to British intelligence, even though the Brits were using the same documents the CIA refused to endorse.

The Niger story was based on forged documents that were so crude that UN analysts were able to show they were fakes within a few hours of receiving them, using nothing more than a Google search.

The administration’s deceptions surrounding the aluminum tubes were even more egregious. For example, when a mid-level CIA analyst sought to send up a report raising doubts about whether the now infamous aluminum tubes could be used to enrich uranium, he was told by his superiors not to bother because the decision to invade had already been made.

In fact, it turns out that the notion that the tubes could be used to make centrifuges was being advanced primarily by one analyst, against the weight of most of the rest of the intelligence community and most of the nation’s nuclear experts. Indeed, the tubes were anodized – which would have fouled the uranium enrichment process – they were too small, Iraq was known to have blueprints for a superior centrifuge design that could not have used the tubes in question, and the Iraqis were known to use the tubes to make defensive missiles allowed under UN sanctions. Yet the unclassified version of the hastily prepared and barely vetted 2002 NIE, flipped the story and gave weight to the minority viewpoint, and reduced the many more qualified skeptic’s concerns to footnotes.

Despite the fact that they knew the data didn’t support their statements, Bush, Cheney and Rice hammered home the danger of a nuclear Iraq and characterized the intelligence as conclusive, using such phrases as "... we now know...", " ...there is no doubt ...", "we know where they are ... "it [Baghdad] could make a nuclear weapon within a year ..."

It Was a War of Choice, and It Was a Bad Choice

The problem with the administration’s argument that we all had the same intelligence is not simply that it’s not true – it’s that only Bush chose to go to war with that intelligence.

Let’s suppose, for the moment, that this particular lie was true and everybody did have the same intelligence.

Here’s the thing, and there’s no getting around it. Virtually no other country, nor anyone but the Bush chicken hawks, advocated an immediate preemptive invasion of Iraq. Not Clinton, not Blair, not Congress, nor any of our allies. That decision was Bush’s and Bush’s alone. Bush used the bully pulpit to bully Congress into it, and to instill fear in the American people. At the end of the day, the best that can be said about his decision to invade Iraq is that it was a war of choice, it was Bush’s choice to wage it, he went in precipitously and without a plan, and it has turned out to be one of the worst blunders in the history of America.

The plain fact is, he had at least two alternatives to war, and he had time to let them play out. With the UN inspectors in Iraq, Hussein could not have launched an attack without our having advance knowledge of it, even if he’d had WMDs.

On the one hand, Bush could have insisted that our intelligence agencies get better information before launching a war. Simple, and prudent.

Alternatively, he could have relied on deterrence, diplomacy and containment to keep Hussein in line, as we did with the far more dangerous Soviet Union for fifty plus years, as his father and Clinton did with Iraq, and as we are doing now with North Korea.

We now know that two of those efforts were successful, and the third is likely to be. The Soviet Union was defeated. As the 911 Commission and the Duefler report confirm, Iraq was deterred and contained. And North Korea appears to be heading toward a favorable outcome since we started using diplomacy.

But the President didn’t choose any of those options. He chose instead to immediately send our young men and women to war on the flimsiest of evidence, and that war – in execution and concept – has been the single greatest foreign policy disaster in the history of the nation. And he misled Congress and the American people in order to do it.

Now, in Bush’s latest draft of history, he claims we went to war to bring democracy to the Middle East. If that’s true, why didn’t he wait until we were ready? Are we to believe there was an emergency democratization crisis?

For all the talk of honoring our troops, we can do them no greater disservice than to send them into a war before every other alternative has been exhausted. And honoring our troops means giving them all they need to wage the war in terms of equipment, international and domestic support, and a plan for winning the peace, as well as waging the war. Mr. Bush had time for all of that, but he chose not to take that time, and he put our young soldiers at risk as a result.

The real rewrite of history is what the administration did to bring us to war – what’s happening now is simply what usually happens with history – the cobwebs of deceit are being swept aside as the clarifying lens of time and distance reveals the truth.
John Atcheson's writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, as well as in several policy journals. He is currently completing an eco-thriller novel; 'A Being Darkly Wise.'


No Sex, But Plenty of Lies and Videotape


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