The Nonsense of Twisted Intelligence

In our last issue we recalled the famous Democratic slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid!” It originated in an outburst from James Carville, a former Clinton campaign aide nicknamed “the Ragin’ Cajun.” This campaign year we’re hearing a variation of that Clinton classic from the Democrats: “It’s the intelligence, stupid!”

Last month Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, now firmly set to be the Democrats’ challenger to President Bush in November, said as much, coloring it with his somewhat Bostonian accent. Speaking of the nonexistent—or bungled—warnings predating the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Kerry asked:

“Why is this administration stonewalling and resisting the investigation into what happened and why we had the greatest security failure in the history of this country?” In less Brahmin language, Kerry was picked up on an unobserved newsman’s microphone telling a group of hand-shaking Chicago factory workers that the Bush Republicans are “the most crooked—you know, lying—group I’ve ever seen.” Later, he said he was referring to the Republican “attack squad.”

The campaign is getting sharp-edged, even though it has seven months to go. The stupidly jobless economy may be a sweeping campaign issue, but Democrats are also coming down hard on the administration’s mishandling ofor its calculated distortion ofavailable intelligence, which failed to alert us to 9/11 and which was manipulated and used to justify the now year-old war on Iraq. As Kerry put it, the Bush administration has “a Grand Canyon credibility gap.”

“I think one of the most critical questions in front of the country is with respect to 9/11,” he said, and another is why the White House “is also resisting having an immediate investigation into the security failure with respect to the intelligence in Iraq.”

BACKING DOWN—That resistance is now in gradual retreat. Both the president and Vice President Dick Cheney have been sufficiently pressured by Democratic criticism to drop their earlier refusal to appear before the special commission studying the reasons for the absence of any government warning prior to the 9/11 attacks. Bush and Cheney have agreed that they will undergo an hour or so of closed-door questioning by the commission’s bipartisan chairman and co-chairman. The president also grudgingly agreed to give the commission some extra time, until July, to complete and publish its report.

Another study, by the Senate Intelligence Committee, is analyzing the whys and hows of the Bush administration’s justification of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, including the insistence that we were facing a dire threat from WMDs, Saddam Hussein’s missing weapons of mass destruction.

There is quite a list of other intelligence-related foreign policy issues that Washington has bungled. The mismanagement, or simply neglect, of the Israel-Palestine confrontation stays in the news, but the various non-stop crises and U.S. missteps in Latin America and the Caribbean do not. The U.S. is linked suspiciously to the collapse of the government in Haiti, a nation long ignored except for Washington’s paranoid fear of more boatloads of helpless Haitian refugees landing in Florida. They were and are unwelcome.

Haiti is getting media attention now not because Washington is offering some relief—1,400 U.S. Marines have landed to police the streetsbut because questions remain about the ouster and evacuation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The Congressional Black Caucus is demanding a House committee investigation of Aristide’s claim that he was “kidnapped” and ousted by U.S. forces for an unwilling flight to exile in Africa. Now he says he has come back, at least as far as nearby Jamaica.

As we go to press, one U.S. Marine on Haitian police duty, a force unpopular with the people, has been shot and wounded—the first American casualty there. If that force becomes as unwelcome as the allied forces policing Iraq, where more than 550 Americans have died on duty, there will be more probing foreign policy questions for the Bush administration.

Some are already surfacing in the wake of the proposal by Spain’s newly elected government to withdraw the 1,300-man Spanish military contingent in Iraq. On March 14 voters in Spain showed their strong disapproval of the Bush strategy in Iraq by ousting one of Europe’s most pro-U.S. governments. It was a popular reaction to the terrorist bombings of commuter trains in Madrid that killed 200.

A TENET TELL-ALL—Or sort of. Although he tried to be discreet in an appearance last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee, CIA director George Tenet said that he had privately intervened several times at the White House to correct public misstatements by Vice President Cheney and others.

Being polite about it, Tenet explained that “policy makers” assess risks, “and sometimes [their assessment] doesn’t uniquely comport with every word in an intelligence estimate.”

Now it turns out that some Pentagon conservativesfriends of Cheney who promoted the “shock and awe” forecast that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would be “a cakewalk”—competed secretly with the Central Intelligence Agency’s briefings of the White House staff to make their own case for war. The Wall Street Journal found a Cheney staffer who was willing to say that the Pentagon’s right-wing proponents “were not pleased with the information they were getting from the C.I.A.” and maneuvered to deliver their own briefings at the White House.

There is proof that these Defense Department goons secretly—and successfully—argued down the C.I.A.’s guidance to the White House, the guidance, that is, that Saddam Hussein had no provable connections with Osama bin Laden. Proof that President Bush was convinced otherwise came in a September 2002 speech by him claiming that “Iraq and Al Qaeda had high-level contacts that go back a decade.” Not true.

The neocons’ major conduit for passing on this misinformation ran through the vice president’s office, and Cheney believed it all. In a January 2003 speech Cheney said that the Hussein regime “aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda.”

Tenet told the Armed Services Committee that he was unaware for some time of the neocons’ delivery of their propaganda to the White House. He said he had to await published evidence of it to intervene. He told the committee that “my experience is that people come in and may present those kinds of briefings on their views of intelligence. . . . When I believed that someone was misconstruing intelligence, I said something about it.”

OTHERS SPEAK OUT—It got minimal press attention, but on C-Span the other day we heard a comprehensive critique both of the administration’s intelligence failures and of its attempts to obscure and cover up the consequences. All of that is being investigated by the special commissions studying the false claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction—WMDs—and examining what Washington knew, or could and should have known, about the 9/11 attacks.

In a rather scholarly speech by Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, appeared before an audience at a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Harman, 59, who has served five terms, is a Harvard-educated lawyer and has a moderate voting record that gives her some bipartisan respect. Her extended talk included criticisms of some “serious failures” in intelligence that, she said, had also occurred during the Clinton administration.

But on the attempt by the Bush White House to delay the WMD commission’s findings until after the election—until March 2005—Harman sounded ear-catchingly Kerryesque. She said that the White House attempts to stall the WMD report was “like the auto mechanic who says, ‘I’m sorry I can’t fix your brakes this week, but don’t worry because I made your horn louder.'”

Harman also provided public disclosure that, contrary to Bush administration justifications for the war in Iraq, defecting scientists there had long ago told U.S. intelligence agents that Iraq did not possess WMDs. She said the House Intelligence Committee’s review showed that “potential sources may have been dismissed because they were telling us something we didn’t want to believe: that Iraq had no active WMD programs.”

“It is clear to me that our senior leaders are in a deep state of denial,” Harman said, “but there are no discernible signs from the vice president or president acknowledging the obvious flaws in our intelligence system. The White House is unwilling to fix problems in an election year, and so it has kicked the can down the road until March 2005.”

“If the distinction between those who provide intelligence and those who promote policies becomes blurred,” she said, “we are all in trouble,” adding that relying on “questionable sources while refusing to work with proven better sources is a sad example of ideology overriding facts and contributing to the poor policy decisions.”

Harman proposed an investigation of the Pentagon’s “separate channel of intelligence information” passed on to the vice president, and also congressional consideration of a new office of Director of National Intelligence to oversee the C.I.A.-Pentagon and other intelligence conflicts. “It is too easy to throw our hands up and say that nothing will be done because it is an election year,” she said.

Hearing Harman’s speech on C-Span made us hunt down her March 5 speech on her website. You can find it at www.house.gov/harman. It is worth reading.

SHE SAW IT HAPPEN—A more sensational take on what went wrong in the area of intelligence is the disclosure by a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, a woman named Karen Kwiatkowski, of irregularities within a division of the Defense Department. Until her retirement last July she served in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), essentially a neoconservative clique that she now calls the Pentagon’s “den of iniquity.” She says it promulgated “suppression and distortion of intelligence analysis” and “promulgated what were, in fact, falsehoods to both Congress and the office of the president.” The lies were designed to take the country “into a war of executive choice, a war based on false pretenses.”

Kwiatkowski has written a stormy piece on what she calls the “Secretary of Defense-sponsored insanity,” which appears on the web magazine Salon (www.salon.com) under the headline: “The New Penatgon Papers.”

While serving at the OSP, she says, she observed a “neoconservative hijacking of our defense policy” that was used “to manufacture propaganda” for the invasion of Iraq. “We are told now that intelligence has failed America, and that President Bush is determined to get to the bottom of it,” she writes. But she thinks the commission investigating intelligence failures may not get around to examining the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans.

Among her named targets is Ahmad Chalabi, the Washington-supported president of the Iraqi National Congress and a member of the new Iraqi Governing Council. She calls him a source of questionable intelligence who has a “chummy relationship” with Vice President Cheney.

Now we learn from press reports that the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency—one of the combating bureaucracies that send the White House challenges to the C.I.A.’s findings—has paid Chalabi millions of dollars, at the rate of $340,000 a month, for dubious secret reports from Baghdad.
The war-making role of Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, the president’s National Security Advisor, among others, is now the subject of a book, Rise of the Vulcans, by James Mann, a veteran Washington reporter.

Vulcan, of course, was the Roman god of fire. From reviews—we haven’t had time to get through it yet—the targets of this 426-page exposé are all the fire breathers relied on by Bush “to an extraordinary extent” for “ideas and for information.”

There are two new books on the Iraq blame game. Disarming Iraq, by Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat who served as head of the U.N. weapons search in Iraq from 2000 until the U.S. invasion a year ago. Blix was ridiculed by Cheney, Rumsfeld and other Bush Vulcans for telling the U.N. a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that his searchers had “not found any prohibited items at any of the sites suggested by intelligence agencies.”

The President of Good and Evil, by Peter Singer, a Princeton professor of bioethics, makes another might-makes-right judgment, focused more on Bush himself, on his religiosity and his budgetary shortcuts of bold-sounding programs in foreign policy, education and the economy.

THE LIBRARY OF CONDEMNATION—It keeps growing. Thanks to a sweeping two-page assessment in the Sunday New York Times Book Review (January 25) listing eight books on “the effects of the war on terrorism on American freedom and privacy” we’d like to pass on some more stay-up-late titles.
The review, by Ethan Bronner, the Times‘s deputy foreign editor, describes books whose message “can be summed up in five single words: be worried, be very worried.” They bear down heavily on the USA Patriot Act. The list:

1. Casualty of War: The Bush Administration’s Assault on the Free Press. By David Dodge.

2. The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age. By Jeffrey Rosen.

3. The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror. By Christian Parenti.

4. Lost Liberties: Ashcroft and the Assault on Personal Freedom. Edited by Cynthia Brown.
5. The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance. By Nat Hentoff.

6. Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism. By David Cole.

7. The War on Our Freedoms: Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism. Edited by Richard Leone and Greg Anrig, Jr.

8. Terrorism, Freedom and Security: Winning Without War. By Philip Heymann.

The literature on the leading Democratic contender to replace George Bush is also beginning to grow. The historian Douglas Brinkley has written the first full biography of the still widely unknown John F. Kerry, the new JFK. It is entitled Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.

David Corn did a short but penetrating sketch of Kerry in the March 15 issue of The Nation.