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Michael Isikoff is a reporter for Newsweek and co-author of Hubris: the Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of t he Iraq War. Hubris describes the build-up to the Iraq War and details the manipulation of intelligence, the failure of Congressional leaders and the media, as well as detailing Richard Armitage’s central role in the Valerie Plame leak.
Michael Isikoff joined the Washington Post in 1981, where he covered the Justice Department, the Iran-Contra Affair, and Latin American drug operations. Isikoff joined Newsweek as an Investigative Correspondent in June 1994 and has written extensively on the U.S. government’s war on terrorism, the Abu Ghraib scandal, campaign-finance and congressional ethics abuses, presidential politics, the Enron scandal and other national issues. Isikoff’s June 2002 Newsweek cover story on U.S. intelligence failures that preceded the 9-11 terror attacks, along with a series of related articles, was honored with the Investigative Reporters and Editors top prize for investigative reporting in magazine journalism. He is also the co-author of the weekly online Web column “Terror Watch,” which won the 2005 award from the Society of Professional Journalists for best investigative reporting online. Michael Isikoff is the author of “Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story,” a book that chronicled his own reporting of the Lewinsky story.
KEVIN ZEESE: Your book leads to the conclusion that the people involved in developing intelligence — even those at the top of the chain in the White House — should have known that the intelligence was false, exaggerated and cherry picked to reach the result wanted by the administration, i.e. to provide justification for the invasion and regime change in Iraq. Is that how you meant the reader to react to your review?
Michael Isikoff: I really think the facts speak for themselves at this point. It is unquestionably true that the Bush administration took the country to war on what has turned out to be thoroughly false, and in some cases, fraudulent intelligence. What we do in Hubris is show precisely how that happened and demonstrate, rather conclusively I think, that there were ample grounds to doubt many of the most dramatic claims-that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear program, for example, or had ties to Al Qaeda. In civil cases, somebody can be successfully sued not just for knowing they sell you a false bill of goods; but if they “should have known.” That’s, at a minimum, what happened here– negligence in the commission of a fraud.
KZ: Your book also leads to the conclusion that people in the chain of intelligence were afraid of telling the truth and the administration pressured those analysts whose findings were inconsistent with the conclusion that was desired by the administration, e.g. the aluminum tubes supposedly for nuclear weapons. And, in other cases they seemed to miss obvious indications that intelligence was wrong, e.g. the Niger documents. And in still other cases when key claims were doubted by senior intelligence officials they were suppressed and ignored, e.g. Wilson on Iraqi nuclear program and on Saddam being an immediate threat. It seems like the administration manipulated and cowered the intelligence community. Is this an accurate reading? How did they do this? And, how do we prevent this in the future?
MI: There were far more doubts and dissents expressed within the CIA, the State Department, the Energy Department, even the Pentagon about many elements of the administration’s case than has been publicly understood. We interview many of those dissenters who spoke to us for the first time and expressed their own anguish about what happened. Listening to some of them was quite poignant. Paul Pillar, for example, the senior CIA officer who participated in the drafting of a misleading CIA “white paper” about Iraqi WMD is anguished to this day about his role, telling us how he wishes he had mustered up the courage to tell administration officials, “Hell no! I’m not going to do that.” But policymakers didn’t want to hear what he and others had to say anyway– indeed they actively suppressed the dissents-because it was clear very early on what the president and vice president wanted to hear.
KZ: How often to Cheney visit the CIA and what was the purpose of those visits?
MI: He visited on multiple occasions and, as we write in the book when we reconstruct one of these visits, thoroughly intimidated agency analysts, making it quite clear what he believed the intelligence really showed-even though he was flat wrong.
KZ: How did the media fail to get it right during the build-up to war?
MI: That is a complex question, but we spend some time showing exactly how some news organizations, particularly the New York Times and its then star reporter Judy Miller, recycled the claims of fabricators and con men in order to build the case for war. Some news organizations, on the other hand, did question elements of the administration’s case. In April, 2002, I wrote a story in Newsweek debunking the false claim that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. I showed that both the FBI and the CIA had by then concluded that the visit probably never took place. Yet Cheney continued to repeat the allegation anyway for more than a year after that. Stories that challenged the administration’s arguments never got the traction they should have.
KZ: Further, congressional leaders from the president’s own party doubted the case for war and questioned top secret briefings. Indeed, the House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, a loyal, conservative Republican, directly doubted Vice President Dick Cheney and warned of a quagmire. How widespread were these concerns? How did the administration ignore these Allies?
MI: The Armey story is one of the most amazing ones we tell in the book. Here you have the House Majority Leader, the number two Republican in the House, a strong and loyal conservative who was convinced the war was a giant mistake. He even warns Bush that he will get stuck in a “quagmire” that will derail his domestic agenda for the rest of his presidency. When he gets briefed by Cheney, he thinks the intelligence is flimsy; had he been shown the same intel by Clinton or Gore, he tells us, he would have told them it was “bullshit.” But because he was pressured by Cheney to keep quiet, he went along-much to his later regret. Sadly, there were quite a few other members of Congress who went along despite their own doubts. We show how Bush consciously used the upcoming 2002 congressional elections to whipsaw the Democrats into backing his war resolution. (That, by the way, does not absolve leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, from going along by the way.)
KZ: Your book chronicles how we got into the Iraq quagmire but it does not explain why. You describe the hatred Bush seems to have for Saddam – but that does not seem to be a reason to go to war. Is the Iraq War an outgrowth of Jimmy Carter’s doctrine that the U.S. will use military force to ensure access to Middle East oil? Or, a continuation (on sterioids) of Clinton’s doctrine of regime change in Iraq? Author Antonia Juhasz, “The Bush Agenda” describes the invasion and occupation as a corporate takeover of Iraq? Of course, the U.S. could buy oil on the open market, but invading assures U.S. oil companies reaping the profit of oil sales and ensures access as oil availability shrinks. Why do you think we went to war with Iraq?
MI: There is no easy answer to the question of why we went to war. As we show, Bush really did have this personal and very visceral antipathy to Saddam. It was startling to hear, as our sources related to us, how the president would explode with expletive-ridden tirades when the issue of Saddam came up. . (I still find pretty eye-popping the scene where the president flips his middle finger just a few inches from Tom Daschle’s face when the subject of Saddam was raised.) But that is only part of the story. You have the machinations of the neoconservatives like Wolfowitz and Perle who had been promoting the idea of overthrowing Saddam for years. You had Cheney and Rumsfeld who wanted to reassert American strategic power. You had the whole post 9/11 emotional mood of the country. l personally don’t find the oil argument terribly persuasive-other than on the most basic level: we care a lot more about that part of the world because it sits on a huge chunk of the world’s oil supplies.
KZ: Now that the Democrats have control of the House and the Senate and all the investigatory powers that go with majority control, where do you suggest the Democrats investigate in relationship to Iraq, Iran and contracts relating to Iraq?
MI: There are tons to investigate. The question is how much willpower there will be in Congress to do so. If I were to make recommendations, I would tell them to start by reading the shocking story about Ibn Shaiykh al-Libi in Chapter 7 of our book. He was the alleged Al Qaeda guy who made up the story about Osama bin Laden sending operatives to Iraq for training in chemical and biological weapons because the CIA “rendered ” him to Egypt for brutal interrogations by the Egyptian security services. Al-Libi’s bogus, torture-induced story was repeated at great length by Secretary of State Powell at the Security Council. Yet after the war, when al-Libi was returned to U.S. custody, he recanted the whole thing, saying he only told his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear. Al-Libi has since disappeared. There have been some media reports that he has been rendered back to his native Libya, but the U.S. government will not say one word about what happened to him or the circumstances of his interrogations that produced his false claims. If I were conducting an oversight hearing, I would start with the al-Libi story because it merges two huge areas that need scrutiny: the use of intelligence in the run-up to war and the treatment of high value detainees in what may turn out to be clear violations of the Geneva Conventions.
There is, of course, much more. I would urge everybody to read Hubris and make up their own list.
KEVIN ZEESE is executive director of DemocracyRising.US.