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March 22, 2004

 

'Five Lies' Lives On
by Christopher Scheer, Robert Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhry

Editor's Note from AlterNet.org: This is a modified excerpt from the new edition of The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq by Robert Scheer, Christopher Scheer, and Lakshmi Chaudhry. The new edition includes an up-to-the-minute epilogue analyzing the series of important developments that have shaped the debate over post-war Iraq, and more importantly, the missing weapons of mass destruction. To buy advance copies of the latest edition, visit FiveLies.com.

On Feb. 17, President Bush sought once again to extricate himself from the scandal that simply won't go away: the missing Iraqi WMD. "My administration looked at the intelligence and we saw a danger," he told thousands of U.S. soldiers at Fort Polk, LA. "Members of Congress looked at the same intelligence, and they saw a danger. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence and it saw a danger. We reached a reasonable conclusion that Saddam Hussein was a danger."

It's no surprise that the independent commission appointed by the president has been carefully instructed to only look into lapses in intelligence-gathering, and not at the ways in which the administration may have exaggerated or misused intelligence. Now that it has become clear that Saddam Hussein's fabled weapons programs simply "did not exist," as the outgoing chief weapons inspector David Kay put it, the White House is scrambling to cast its now exposed lies as the inevitable consequence of a massive intelligence failure. In other words, the flaw lay not in the "reasonable conclusion" of the administration, but the evidence it was based on.

Whatever the state of U.S. intelligence gathering, the Bush administration's sales pitch for the Iraq War relied on public displays of classified data to an unprecedented degree, a practice that has now come to haunt the White House. Scrutiny of the record since Bush assumed office shows a clear and disturbing pattern: the manipulation of intelligence data to fit the administration's preconceived theories to support a policy based on a political agenda rather than the facts at hand.

The practice, which far surpasses the usual political sleight-of-hand employed by previous administrations, was so pervasive as to alarm career intelligence analysts. "I believe the Bush administration did not provide an accurate picture to the American people of the military threat posed by Iraq. Most of it lies with the way senior officials misused the information they were provided," said Gregory Thielmann, a key whistleblower who was the former director of the State Departments Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) until September 2002. "This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude: 'We know the answers -- give us the intelligence to support those answers, '" he said.

Remember the OSP?

Where Donald Rumsfeld went for his Iraq intelligence was to something called the Office of Special Plans that he himself had formed as a sort of personal intelligence agency. The day-to-day intelligence operations were run by ex-Cheney aide and former Navy officer William Luti, reporting to Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith, a former Reagan official. According to the Guardian, "The ideologically driven network functioned like a shadow government, much of it off the official payroll and beyond congressional oversight. But it proved powerful enough to prevail in a struggle with the State Department and the CIA by establishing a justification for war."

The OSP amassed huge amounts of raw intelligence from "report officers" in the CIA's directorate of operations whose job it is to cull credible information from reports filed by agents around the world. Under pressure from Pentagon hawks, the officers became reluctant to discard any report, however farfetched, if it bolstered the administrations case for war.

John B. Judis and Spencer Ackerman revealed in a New Republic article published in June 2003 that there was "no consensus" within the U.S. intelligence community on the level of threat posed by Saddam. Judis and Ackerman reported, "The administration ignored, and even suppressed, disagreement within the intelligence agencies and pressured the CIA to reaffirm its preferred version of the Iraqi threat." Bush then would repeatedly deploy this misleading data to sell the war in his speeches.

A Pattern of Deception

There is no better example of the pattern of deception that has defined the administration's case for the war than its claim that Saddam Hussein possessed a well-established nuclear weapons program.

On Sept. 8, 2002, in a classic example of how easy it is for the White House to manipulate the media, and thus the public, the New York Times ran a story planted by the Bush administration. The front-page article, written by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon and headlined "U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts," informed Americans that, according to unnamed Bush officials, Iraq had repeatedly attempted to secretly purchase aluminum tubes "specially designed" for enriching uranium as part of a nuclear weapons program based on their "diameter, thickness, and other technical properties."

It was the ultimate advertorial: great placement, perfect message, excellent timing -- all basically controlled by the advertiser but looking as if it came from "neutral" sources. From its August launch through its acceptance by Congress in October, the Bush marketing campaign for the war was perfectly executed, and the tubes revelation was a classic example.

By the time the truth that the attempted purchases were neither secret nor likely intended for nuclear uses was tracked down and exposed by whistle-blowers, journalists, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, it wouldn't matter, having already served dutifully as a scary totem in Bush speech after Bush speech. When its power did flag, it would simply be replaced by another shaky fact put into the rotation and foisted upon a compliant media. This leak-and-retreat tactic proved astonishingly effective up to and through the war.

One key to a president exploiting shaky yet convenient intelligence data is to always maintain deniability. Aiding and abetting this is the array of different intelligence agencies that the president has reporting to him -- CIA, NSA, FBI and sub-agencies of State, Defense, and so on -- not to mention the information generated by allied nations' intelligence agencies that are passed along (more on that later). Combined, these agencies, each with its own strong institutional biases and rivalries, generates so much data that it is child's play for politicians (or reporters with good sources) to cherry-pick opinions that fit their policy platform (or story angle).

The Real Intelligence Failure

In an effort to control this kind of chicanery, the intelligence agencies are often required to pool their insights and evidence into overview documents to see whether or not there is a consensus as to their reliability. Relevant experts may also be called in, especially in a case like this where highly technical expertise was essential to separating fact from fiction.

When the experts looked at the tubes later cited by the White House, however, questions immediately arose over whether they were appropriate for centrifuges used in a nuclear reactor. Working under a blanket of enormous pressure coming from the White House, and especially the vice president, to find damning things regarding Iraq and nuclear weapons, a full-blown row soon broke out within the alphabet soup of U.S. intelligence agencies over this obscure issue.

For their part, CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency believed the tubes were similar to those used in Iraq's previous attempt to build nukes, while the State Department's INR and the Department of Energy were adamant that they were in fact much more appropriate for artillery shells. The division was made explicit in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate report on Saddam's pursuit of WMD, as the State Department experts insisted a sharply worded dissent be included in the overall report, controlled by the top dog in the intelligence "community," the CIA.

While the NIE cited "compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program," the INR dissent (which was later dismissed by the White House as a footnote), stated explicitly "the tubes are not intended for use in Iraq's nuclear weapons program."

Meanwhile, British experts weighed in against the White House's interpretation and some CIA analysts also expressed doubts. The longer the tubes bounced around the intelligence community, the iffier it got as a piece of evidence affirming Iraq's threat to the world. Ultimately, however, the CIA, as the top intelligence agency, won out, forcing their analysis into the NIE, leading inevitably to the New York Times front-page headline trumpeting its scoop.

Role of the CIA

The CIA's complicity in this prototypical Bush bait and switch tactic can be clearly seen when looking back at the annual reports the agency delivered to Congress on the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In its 1997 report, Iraq only warranted three paragraphs, to the effect that Baghdad possessed dual-use equipment that could be used for biological or chemical programs. There was no mention of a nuclear weapons program. By 2002, however, the Iraq section was seven times as long, and warned that "all intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons" and the country could produce a nuclear bomb "within a year" if it got its hands on weapons-grade material. The CIA also reported as late as 2001 that enforcement of the UN arms embargo on Iraq was "generally successful" -- but this reference was dropped in the 2002 report sent to a White House that claimed the embargo wasn't working.

Why, then, had the reports become so shrill on the topic after Bush's inauguration, presenting the same intelligence with a completely different interpretation? After all, the CIA even had the same director under both Clinton and Bush.

"I'm afraid that the U.S. intelligence community, particularly the CIA . . . is sometimes quite sensitive to the political winds," Thielmann, formerly a senior intelligence official at the State Department, told Newsday.

Despite what David Kay may claim, a number of CIA officers clearly felt the brunt of the administration's desire for the "right" kind of intelligence. Vice President Cheney, in particular, made a number of personal trips to the agency's headquarters in Langley, VA, to meet with low-level analysts who were reviewing the raw intelligence on Iraq. As one CIA official told the South African Mail and Guardian, "[He] sent signals, intended or otherwise, that a certain output was desired from here."

Other visitors to CIA headquarters representing the White House included Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who joined the Pentagon as a "consultant" after 9/11. "That would freak people out," a former CIA official told the New Republic.

The Mythic Consensus

While the Bush administration now claims otherwise, there was no consensus whatsoever over Saddam's weapons capabilities. The New Republic's investigation revealed many of the tube skeptics still hopping mad, incited by the continued use of the centrifuge claim. One intelligence analyst, who was part of the internal multi-agency tubes investigation, angrily -- though anonymously -- told the magazine known for its hawkish stances, "You had senior American officials like Condoleezza Rice saying the only use of this aluminum really is uranium centrifuges. She said that on television. And that's just a lie."

And Rice hadn't stopped there. After saying on the Sept. 8, 2002 Late Edition that the tubes "are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs," she then went on to brandish the ultimate image of twentieth century terror: "The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Hussein] can acquire nuclear weapons, but we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

And contrary to the president's claims that the UN shared his interpretation of Saddam's capabilities, the International Atomic Energy Agency was blunt in its assessment of the tubes. On Jan. 24, ElBaradei told the Washington Post, "It may be technically possible that the tubes could be used to enrich uranium, but you'd have to believe that Iraq deliberately ordered the wrong stock and intended to spend a great deal of time and money reworking each piece." And on Mar. 7, the IAEA stated its analysis quite clearly in its formal report to the United Nations, just two weeks before the war to "disarm Saddam Hussein" began.

The truth is that the White House continued to be hell-bent on supersizing our fear in the lead up to the war, turning an admittedly scary world into a chamber of horrors. And it used every weapon in its arsenal -- from outright intimidation to skilful media manipulation -- to achieve its goal. Claiming that this well-oiled campaign was instead a well-intentioned error is just the latest in a very long list of Bush lies.


              
              
                 

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