Our True Intelligence Failure

In the late 19th-century folk classics of Joel Chandler Harris, there is an episode where the wily Brer Rabbit, his main character, is caught by Brer Fox. He’s stuck to a “Tar Baby,” (the racism of this and virtually everything else in the late 19th century is palpable) and Brer Fox is going to eat him up. So Brer Rabbit repeatedly says, “Do anything. Roast me. Skin me. Eat me. Just don’t throw me in that briar patch.” After much importuning, the sadistic Brer Fox throws him in the briar patch and, of course, Brer Rabbit gets away.

We are now witnessing a replay, with the Bush administration as Brer Rabbit, the stunning lack of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as the Tar Baby, and an odd coalition of Democratic politicians and the last forlorn remnants of the middle-of-the-road mainstream press, usually referred to by conservative ideologues as “the liberal media.”

Within weeks of David Kay’s report that the Iraq Survey Group that no WMD had been found (and after many administration attempts to spin the report, using phrases like “weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities), the issue started to snowball and, just as it was gaining momentum, it was massively diverted into the question of “intelligence failures.” On January 24, Jane Harman, senior Democrat in the House Intelligence Committee said that Kay’s report showed massive intelligence failures. In Britain, the release of the Hutton report on January 28, which absolved Tony Blair for lying about WMD and blamed the BBC for reporting on the lies, shifted the focus across the Atlantic to intelligence failures as well.

And now George W. Bush is right in the middle of the briar patch: a “bipartisan commission,” appointed by himself, that will investigate those intelligence failures.

And where, in all of this, is that ugly little three-letter word lie (no, not oil that’s a different article)?

The archipelago of lies about WMD is now too massive for mortal mind to comprehend, but let’s attempt a synoptic review.

First, a little background. Remember David Kay’s comment that having UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors on the ground in Iraq in the 1990’s was like “crack cocaine” for the CIA i.e., an extremely powerful source for finding out about Iraq’s WMD, especially when combined with other U.S. intelligence sources and with the U.S. monitoring equipment that inspectors were induced to place, illegally, in sites they visited? Well, the inspectors were withdrawn at Bill Clinton’s behest in December 1998 in order to carry out the Desert Fox bombing campaign.

Although it was claimed that Desert Fox was because of lack of Iraqi cooperation with inspections, this is untrue. In fact, the UNSCOM report on the inspections that was sent to the Security Council bears no resemblance to the preface that Richard Butler wrote, in consultation with the White House. Looking at the targeting decisions in Desert Fox, as Kenneth Pollack did in The Threatening Storm, it’s clear that Desert Fox was a “regime change” operation. It was also clear to analysts that once the inspectors were withdrawn they wouldn’t be let back in.

No intelligence failure there; just a deliberate decision to sacrifice the best means of ensuring that Iraq didn’t rearm to the policy of “regime change” (yes, it was the Clinton administration that inaugurated this policy with regard to Iraq).

Now, on to what Howard Dean would call the “red meat;” that is, if he actually said any of this stuff.

Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s son-in-law, defected to Jordan briefly in August 1995. He spoke with U.N. inspectors and revealed enough that the regime then led them to a huge trove of documents about Iraq’s WMD programs. These revelations were routinely trotted out by the Bush administration as proof that inspections would not reveal WMD and that the testimony of defectors was the best evidence. Of course, UNSCOM got Iraq to admit to having had a biological weapons program (although not to success in weaponization) in July 1995, so if the admission was prompted by Kamel’s defection in August, Stephen Hawking should be alerted.

More important, however, is this fact: in 1995, Kamel told inspectors, “I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed.” All that remained, he said, was technical documentation and production molds. This testimony was deliberately covered up for eight years, and only exposed in a Newsweek article by John Barry on March 3, 2003.

Kamel was no paragon of honesty, although, given the fact that he wanted to tear down Saddam’s regime at the time, this statement would count as an admission against interest and should therefore be given weight anyway. Still, the point is that part of his testimony was used and the rest concealed. This, of course, is a lie that certain weapons inspectors, the Clinton administration, and, in part, the media, shared with the Bush administration.

And how about the much-famed aluminum tubes, which formed the heart of Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003, presentation to the Security Council? His claims, repeated by numerous other officials before and after, were that the tubes must be for use in centrifuges for uranium isotope separation, not, as the Iraqis claimed, for artillery. In an August 9 Washington Post article by Walter Pincus and Barton Gellman, one can find that most U.S. experts were unequivocal that the tubes were not suitable for centrifuges. In his presentation, Powell adduced the fact that some of the tubes had an anodized coating as evidence that they were intended for centrifuges; in fact, experts said, the coating would have had to be removed for such use.

Also in that speech, Powell claimed that Iraq had produced four tons of VX nerve gas true, but he left out the fact that most of that had been destroyed under U.N. supervision and that the rest had probably degraded into uselessness since 1991. He also mentioned “classified” documents found in an Iraqi nuclear scientist’s home that provided “dramatic confirmation” that vital information was being concealed; in fact, IAEA inspectors said the documents were irrelevant some administrative, and some from the 1980’s. These and other facts were detailed in an August Associated Press article by Charles Hanley.

Dick Cheney, who has lied more, and more consistently, than anyone else, said on March 16, 2003, “We believe he [Saddam] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.” If by “we” he meant himself and his own personal psychic astrologer, perhaps it was a true statement; but no analyst had ever said anything of the kind. In fact, since nuclear weapons activities give off radiation, they are very easily detected, and inspectors had been doing on-site visits for four months at the time he made this claim.

George W. Bush has done Cheney one better, twice claiming that the United States went to war because Saddam wouldn’t let inspectors in; the media has treated this as not really a lie because it’s so obviously untrue. He also told us about the famed attempts to buy uranium from Niger, a claim that was based on a crude forgery that, an IAEA inspector said, could be debunked in a few hours on Google (among the errors: the wrong name for the Nigerien Foreign Minister). He also told us, in a speech on October 7, 2002, that there was evidence that there were plans for Iraq’s”unmanned aerial vehicles,” which “could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons,” to be used in “missions targeting the United States.” Experts in Air Force intelligence scoffed at the idea of those vehicles being able to dispense biological agents in a damaging way, but more important, the maximum range of the vehicles is 400 miles; perhaps the State Department’s geography experts could have told Bush about the Atlantic Ocean.

And once can go on and on. The exercise gets boring after a while. In addition to all the details, administration officials had a consistent pattern of stating as absolute fact things that were at best the vaguest of conjectures. As was reported by the U.N. in 1999, there were discrepancies when inspectors tried to reconcile Iraq’s known purchases of chemical agents and biological growth media with the amount that could be documented as used or destroyed; this could have stemmed simply from loss of documents due to two wars and years of sanctions. These were always presented as hard U.N. claims that Iraq had, for example, “100 to 500 tons” of chemical weapons agents.

There was also deliberate manipulation of the truth without outright lying. For example, Powell said that Iraq was importing magnets “of the same weight” as those used for centrifuges; in fact, IAEA inspectors had examined all the magnets and concluded they were unsuitable for use in centrifuges. He said they had “sources” that said Saddam had given orders to his field commanders to use the chemical weapons that Iraq clearly didn’t have (and hadn’t used in the Gulf War when they did have them), without saying anything about the credibility of such sources or the doubts involved.

Bush said, in his famous 16 words, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” This depends, as Bill Clinton might say, on the meaning of the word “learned.” If by “learned,” you mean “been told” without any idea of the truth or falsehood of the claim, then this wasn’t a lie. And what about use of the term “Africa?” Apparently, he couldn’t then tell us which of over 50 countries Iraq was trying to buy uranium from, but we were really supposed to believe they had hard evidence.

And through it all, there was the constantly repeated implication that they had far more evidence, they just couldn’t reveal it for “national security” reasons.

In fact, the lies of the administration are too well established for there to be any doubt. Sometimes they lied outright; sometimes they came up with a claim and pressured intelligence analysts to sign off on them. As early as October 2002, Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA head of counterintelligence, said, “Basically, cooked information is working its way into high-level pronouncements.” Although the CIA didn’t have much of a way to gather useful intelligence on the ground (contrary to popular opinion, intelligence-gathering is not the primary function of the CIA the lion’s share of the budget goes to “operations”), there was plenty of intelligence from U.N. monitoring, both up to 1998 and from November 2002. There was no intelligence failure, period.

What’s happening to the press is very disturbing. Walter Pincus, who co-wrote the earlier mentioned article laying out the administration’s nuclear lies, more recently wrote, “even hawks who had backed the administration on Iraq said it is not credible for the administration to deny that there was an intelligence failure.” As pointed out by Joshua Micah Marshall, Jim Hoagland, a columnist for the Washington Post, recently wrote that the Administration is guilty of “credulity, not chicanery;” i.e., the administration was deceived by the CIA. Earlier, he wrote “Bush has until now relied little on the Langley agency for his information on Iraq. There is simply no way to reconcile what the CIA has said on the record and in leaks with the positions Bush has taken on Iraq.”

Journalists critical of Bush, like Pincus, and cheerleaders for Bush, like Hoagland, are coming together around a systematic rewriting of the selling of the Iraq war. They are being helped along by mainstream Democratic politicians, always happy to shoot themselves in the head whenever they get the chance; presidential frontrunner John Kerry has just called for the resignation of George Tenet, rather than the impeachment of George Bush.

And, at the end of the day, the result will be exactly what the administration wants. In Britain, there was no inquiry into Tony Blair’s lies (like the one about Saddam being able to launch biological and chemical weapons within 45 minutes, now abjured even by the original source); instead, the BBC was censured for reporting those lies. Heads are rolling, and the result the administration’s dishonesty will be a BBC that is less critical of dishonest administrations.

Here, there’s no BBC to put on the rack; the broadcast media is so supine that there’s no point in disciplining them. The Bush administration does, however, hate the idea of impartial analysts who just evaluate the facts and then report on them so that rightwing ideologues can decide what to do; they want rightwing ideologues reporting to them on the facts as well. And this is true even though the CIA is not exactly a group of bunny-huggers; overthrowing democratically elected governments, funding murdering thugs like the contras in Nicaragua and many of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, and generally causing havoc and mayhem is their business.

The formation of this new commission will become the next step in the mission of the administration to dismantle all institutions, inside and outside government, and reshape them in the image of the radical right. This is so even though many of the institutions they’re attacking are already conservative. They’ve almost finished the job with the broadcast media; “compassionate conservatism” is about doing the same with the institutions of the social safety net; they’ve done it with corporate lobbyists (see “Welcome to the Machine,” by Nicholas Confessore); they want to do it with the CIA and the military; and, scariest of all, they’re doing it with the very infrastructure of democracy, the counting of the vote.

Just as we have seen spectacular recantations by past insider critics of the Bush administration, like John DiIulio , Newsweek recently reported on a partial recantation by It’s not as if all of this evolving brouhaha was planned from the beginning by the administration so that they’d get to the point of a presidentially-appointed commission to reshape the CIA. It’s just that the administration knows its long-term plans and is confident in its ability to respond opportunistically to crises as they arise and to spin them in the right way, knowing, as it does, that its spin will be uncritically broadcast far and wide and drown out everything else.

The real intelligence failure is ours, in allowing all of this to happen. After months of the truth about the administration’s lies coming out, an October poll showed that 60% of the nation thought of Bush as “honest and trustworthy.” That’s an intelligence failure among the media, among the political opposition, and among all of us who watch passively as a very dark new world order is ushered in, not with a bang but a whimper.

RAHUL MAHAJAN is the publisher of Empire Notes and serves on the Administrative Committee of United for Peace and Justice, the nation’s largest antiwar coalition. His first book, “The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism,” has been called “mandatory reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the war on terrorism,” and his most recent book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” has been described as “essential for those who wish to continue to fight against empire.” He can be reached at rahul@empirenotes.org