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Cooking the books (continued)


Made-to-order intelligence. The tailoring of intelligence reports to suit the White House’s war plans has been the subject of several excellent media investigations. One of the most comprehensive was by the legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, in the New Yorker of May 5. Hersh reported on the creation of the Office of Special Plans, within the Defense Department, to serve as a sort of shadow intelligence agency.

The office, created by Rumseld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, was dedicated to the proposition that everything coming out of the CIA and the State Department was wrong. Wrote Hersh: "Special Plans was created in order to find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true — that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States."

As described by Hersh, the Wolfowitz operation subsisted on wishful thinking and ties to dubious members of the Iraqi exile community — especially Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, hailed as a hero by the neocons but loathed as a scoundrel by the State Department.

Hersh quoted an anonymous "former intelligence official" as saying, "One of the reasons I left was my sense that they were using the intelligence from the CIA and other agencies only when it fit their agenda. They didn’t like the intelligence they were getting, and so they brought in people to write stuff. They were so crazed and so far out and so difficult to reason with — to the point of being bizarre. Dogmatic, as if they were on a mission from God." This source also told Hersh, "If it doesn’t fit their theory, they don’t want to accept it."

Hersh’s findings match up well with other reports. For instance, in their TNR piece, Judis and Ackerman wrote: "In the summer of 2002, Vice President Cheney made several visits to the CIA’s Langley headquarters, which were understood within the agency as an attempt to pressure the low-level specialists interpreting the raw intelligence. ‘That would freak people out,’ says one former CIA official. ‘It is supposed to be an ivory tower. And that kind of pressure would be enormous on these young guys.’"

More recent reports round out the alarming picture. A Sunday New York Times story by James Risen, David E. Sanger, and Thom Shanker shows just how "fragmentary and often inconclusive" was American intelligence gathering in Iraq, because it was so heavily dependent on the weapons-inspections process — which had come to an end in 1998. That, of course, didn't stop Bush from declaring in a speech delivered in Cincinnati last October 7 that Saddam "is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon," as well as holding meetings with "nuclear mujahedeen." But if anything, according a story by Walter Pincus in Monday's Washington Post, a National Intelligence Estimate distributed just five days before the president's Cincinnati speech demonstrated that, even if such threats existed, "the intelligence services were much more worried that Hussein might give weapons to al Qaeda terrorists if he were facing death or capture and his government was collapsing after a military attack by the US." As we all know now, the Bushies disregarded such concerns, as they did so much of what came out of the intelligence services and State Department.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has written several pieces documenting discontent within the intelligence community, especially that of a group of retirees called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Kristof has been taken to task by some conservatives for failing to report that VIPS has some undefined connection with, a left-wing Web site co-edited by Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn.

Yet VIPS "steering group" member Ray McGovern, a 27-year CIA veteran, came off as the soul of moderation in an interview with Salon last week. McGovern called on Cheney to resign for allegedly manipulating intelligence involving the Nigerien yellowcake, saying, "I can’t think of anywhere in government where honesty is more important than the intelligence business." But though McGovern disparaged current CIA director Tenet as a "careerist," he added that he revered some of Tenet’s predecessors — including one who served in the 1970s named George H.W. Bush.

Get Hans Blix! On April 15, 2002, Washington Post reporters Walter Pincus and Colum Lynch revealed that Wolfowitz had sicced the CIA on Hans Blix — who, at that point, had not even begun renewed inspections in Iraq — with the aim of proving that Blix was an accommodationist who couldn’t be trusted.

The CIA studied Blix’s previous performance in conducting inspections at Iraq’s nuclear power plants and submitted a report finding that his work was above reproach. Wrote Pincus and Lynch: "A former State Department official familiar with the report said Wolfowitz ‘hit the ceiling’ because it failed to provide sufficient ammunition to undermine Blix and, by association, the new U.N. weapons inspection program."

That account was disputed by "an administration official."

George Tenet, on and off the record. One of the most intriguing tidbits in the TNR piece involves Tenet’s appearances before the Senate Intelligence Committee last fall. In private, Tenet would play down the threat posed by Iraq; in public, he would endorse the administration’s wildest claims.

Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who then chaired the committee, and Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, were described as frustrated and disgusted by Tenet’s performance, not least because they could not tell their fellow senators the extent of Tenet’s disingenuousness: "While Graham and Durbin could complain that the administration’s and Tenet’s own statements contradicted the classified reports they had read, they could not say what was actually in those reports."

Get Joseph Wilson! The Nigerien-uranium story was kicked into overdrive by a July 6 op-ed piece in the New York Times by Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat who had been dispatched to investigate the yellowcake claims in February 2002.

Even aside from the questionable documents on which the claim was based — documents that Wilson did not see, but which, he noted, have widely been described as forged — Wilson said it would have been virtually impossible for Iraq to have gotten uranium out of Niger. The country’s two uranium mines, he wrote, are run by foreign businesses, which in turn are tightly regulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But Wilson added that his findings were ignored, and said, "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

The Bush White House did not wait long before striking back. In the July 16 issue of Time magazine, a piece headlined a war on wilson? reported that administration officials were whispering that Wilson had found more evidence of a Niger-Iraq connection than he had let on in his op-ed, and that he had actually been dispatched to Niger at the behest of his wife, Valerie Plame, "a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Time did not make clear the relevance of that latter claim. But David Corn, writing for the Nation’s Web site on July 16, did. Apparently Plame had been outed as a CIA agent by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, acting on a tip from "two senior administration officials" — and thus destroying her career.

Wilson told Corn, "Stories like this are not intended to intimidate me, since I’ve already told my story. But it’s pretty clear it is intended to intimidate others who might come forward. You need only look at the stories of intelligence analysts who say they have been pressured. They may have kids in college, they may be vulnerable to these types of smears."

THERE ARE TIMES when it can be difficult to figure out whether President Bush is dissembling or just has no idea of what the truth really is.

On July 15, Dana Priest and Dana Milbank reported a bizarre presidential utterance made the day before, in which Bush said that he decided to go to war with Iraq "after he gave Saddam Hussein ‘a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in.’" Inspectors, of course, were swarming across Iraq all last fall and winter, and left only to avoid getting killed by American bombs.

As Joe Conason asked on his Salon weblog, "What possessed the president to make an assertion that everyone on the planet knows to be untrue? And who is going to take the responsibility for this one?"

In his appearance before Congress last Thursday, Tony Blair — like Bush on numerous occasions — attempted to shift the rationale for the war from an imminent threat that Saddam might use his weapons to the humanitarian catastrophe that was Iraq under Saddam. "Let us say one thing: if we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive," Blair said.

Unlike Bush, Blair is eloquent and persuasive. But neither the British people nor the American people were told they were going to war to end Saddam’s horrendous human-rights abuses. They went to war because they were told that if they didn’t, they were in imminent danger of being infected, gassed, or nuked. It wasn’t true. And if Blair and Bush managed to convince themselves otherwise, it was only by ignoring the facts.

On July 16, NPR broadcast a report on the death of Private First Class Edward James Herrgott, a 20-year-old from Shakopee, Minnesota, who was shot by a sniper while on patrol in Baghdad.

Among those interviewed was his aunt Mary Kewatt. "President Bush declared combat over on May 1," she told reporter Mark Zdechlik. "Combat is not over. We don’t even know who’s firing at us right now, and all of our soldiers are at great risk right now of just being picked off as Jim was. And that’s a shame. And then President Bush made a comment a week ago and he said, ‘Bring it on.’ Well, they brought it on and my nephew’s dead."

Last Friday, the Associated Press reported the existence of a US intelligence report issued last fall stating that Iraq, "if left unchecked ... probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."

If left unchecked. Iraq wasn’t unchecked. Iraq was the most sanctioned-against, spied-upon, weapons-inspected country on the face of the earth. But George W. Bush was determined to bring it on, and he did. And a lot more young people like Edward Herrgott are going to die before this is over.

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Issue Date: July 25 - August 1, 2003
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