We’ve got the rebels in Iraq on the run!
So says a letter intercepted by U. S. Forces in Iraq in January (Dexter Filkins, New York Times, 02/08/04). It was taken during a raid on a "known" Al Qaeda safe house in Baghdad. U. S. authorities claim that the courier identified the author as Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a man they contend has ties to Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam. According to these U.S. authorities, the letter was intended for Al Qaeda, and proposes a joint attempt to provoke civil war between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia.
The letter confirms all of the fondest theories of the Bush administration about the war in Iraq.
First, it apparently dispels all doubt about an Al Qaeda-Iraq connection by virtue of its authorship (Zarqawi, Qaeda associate) and its destination (Qaeda’s "inner circle").
Second, the letter establishes that the insurgency is being carried out by alien jihadis who are planning dastardly deeds. These are not the peace-loving Iraqis who want nothing more than to benefit from American largesse and build the democracy that the Bush administration has planned for them. These are foreigners who want to attack the Shia so that they will counterattack and "awaken the sleepy Sunnis." Clearly, they do not seek Iraqi welfare, but only unending jihad.
Third, the letter shows that stalwart American efforts are succeeding in winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. "The memo says extremists are failing to enlist support inside the country, and have been unable to scare the Americans into leaving." Nation-building proceeds apace. The author says that if civil war does not come by June 30, the mystic date when the planets align and the Bush administration must restore Iraqi sovereignty or turn into a pumpkin, then all hope is lost. "We can pack up and leave and look for another land, just like what has happened in so many lands of jihad. Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases. By god, this is suffocation!"
Wow, what a gold mine!
This is the intelligence mother lode, isn’t it? I mean, if you were Karl Rove, you couldn’t design a better scenario to validate the administration’s slant on the war than this.
That’s a good reason to maintain a healthy skepticism.
In fact, there are a number of good reasons to take this story with a grain of salt (maybe a three- or four-pounder).
First, things haven’t been going so well for George and the prevari-cons lately. George’s approval rating is sinking like a stone, a majority of Americans believe he either lied or exaggerated the evidence that justified the war, the caucus scheme to hand over sovereignty is dead in the water, the Shia and the Kurds are getting restive, and there are rumors that the politicos at Chez Bush are looking for a way to jettison Darth Cheney. And lo and behold, now comes the Zarqawi letter to simultaneously confirm all the worst that the Bushies have been saying, and to reaffirm all of their most optimistic claims.
Isn’t it all a little too pat? To quote the Times again, "The writer contends that the American efforts to set up Iraqi security services have succeeded in depriving the insurgents of allies." This raises suspicions, first because it so resolutely conforms to the Bush party line, and second because it defies everything we know about the situation on the ground.
The truth is that setting up Iraqi security services has provided insurgents with targets rather than depriving them of allies. Shortly after the letter was made public, a group of fifty to seventy Iraqis (not outsiders) overran a station in Fallujah, killing about twenty Iraqi police. When confronted by disgruntled Iraqis, the police have often fled, sometimes by crawling out of rear windows. One of the major obstacles to creating an Iraqi security capacity has been desertion.
It would be so much more convenient for the Bush Administration if all of the post-war woes of Iraq could be blamed on outside agitators. But the facts are that Iraqis continue to be "disappeared" and to die at the hands of trigger happy American occupiers, that infrastructure and institutions have not been restored, that unemployment and squalor are prevalent, and that tensions are rising among the indigenous Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen.
Another reason to be skeptical is that this story was broken by the New York Times, and follows an all-too-familiar pattern. "The Times reporter Dexter Filkins in Baghdad, backed up by Douglas Jehl in D.C., broke the story exclusively," crowed William Safire (02/11/04).
Another "special" to the times. It has all the earmarks. Note the lack of citations of any specific CPA or Bush Administration contacts. Note the lack of any confirmation of the authenticity of this letter/CD from experts or authorities aside from "U.S. officials." Note the failure to consult third-party intelligence experts, authorities on Al Qaeda, authorities on wars of national liberation. Note the failure to provide any background on the validity of claims that Zarkawi actually could have written such a letter, is still in Iraq, or collaborated with Saddam Hussein. There is one disclaimer, two lines in a three-page piece: "Yet other interpretations may be possible, including that it was written by some other insurgent, but one who exaggerated his involvement."
This story comes solely from unnamed American government sources. In a follow-up story ("Al Qaeda Rebuffs Iraqi Terror Group," 02/21/04) the administration’s version of the facts is entirely unquestioned. And yet not one actual person who vouches for the truth of this version is identified. Who is it that stands behind the authenticity of this document? "Senior American officials," "some American intelligence analysts," "the officials," "one official cautioned," "according to American officials," "one senior American official said," "two military officials said." Safire confronts the issue by saying "the message’s authenticity was best attested by the amazed U.S. official who told Reuters ‘We couldn’t make this up if we tried.’" Why not? They’ve made up plenty of other stuff. I, for one, would be much more reassured if this amazed U.S. official had been willing to make his or her name a matter of record.
This is the Judith Miller method: cultivate a "highly placed inside source," take whatever this person says and report it verbatim on the front page above the fold. Hence the bogus story in the Times about the aluminum tubes imported by Iraq to enrich uranium. Hence the bogus story in the Times about the Iraqi scientist who revealed the locations where Saddam Hussein supposedly disposed of his chemical and biological weapons just before the war. If I hadn’t done an internet search on "Dexter Filkins," I would suspect that it is a pseudonym for "Judy Miller."
But the best reason to be skeptical of the Zarkawi Gambit is the record this administration has so assiduously established with respect to the truth. I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff you know, the apocryphal weapons of mass destruction. I’m talking about the absolute thoroughness of prevari-con lies, extending to the smallest detail, leaving no stone unturned. Lying is not episodic with the Bush Administration. It is policy.
Take for instance the plans of American nuclear energy plants that were discovered among Al Qaeda documents in Afghanistan. According to the Bush Administration, the phantom menace had designs to spew radioactivity across our purple mountains’ majesties and amber waves of grain. Except that it now turns out that the story about such plans being found was bogus. Come on, did the plans exist or didn’t they? How do you get that wrong?
Take for instance the other WsMD the Wagons of Mass Destruction. As recently as the World Economic Forum, Vice President Cheney spoke again of the mobile weapons laboratories. Once again, however, there is a veracity problem. It has been firmly established that the supposed mobile weapons laboratories work much better for pumping hydrogen into artillery balloons than for producing chemical and biological agents. After all these months, how do you get that wrong?
I’m no intelligence expert, and I haven’t cultivated any high-level inside sources. The Zarqawi letter may, against all odds, be genuine. But in the absence of an open and above-board discussion about the letter’s authenticity, it is best to disregard it entirely. Why? Because without independent confirmation, there is simply no reason to believe anything this administration says.
I’ll end with a quotation from the Christian Science Monitor (02/10/04).
"In [a Coalition Provisional Authority] briefing, Dan Senor, senior adviser to the CPA, suggested that the memo reveals increasing desperation on the part of the terrorists . . . [they] ‘recognize that as we politically empower the Iraqi people, the terrorists will be isolated and it will be harder and harder for them to operate.’
"The day after the briefing, Reuters reports that a car bomb killed more than 50 people at a police station south of Baghdad."
I would like to thank Chris Dodson for his correspondence on this topic. Mr. Dodson has been persistent in asking the New York Times to address issues about the Zarqawi letter that are raised in this essay. In spite of the Times’ recent journalistic difficulties, Mr. Dodson has yet to receive any concrete response from the paper’s "public editor."
GREG WEIHER is a political scientist and a freelance writer in Houston Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.