I don’t really want to remember those several months after 9-11. The memories upset my stomach. Those months of soaring Bush ratings, the ubiquitous intimidating sight of U.S. flags, the official exhortations to be afraid and suspicious, the endless indulgence in national self-righteousness and self-pity, the frighteningly successful effort to impose a highly simplistic worldview on a clueless population. The PATRIOT Act, passed overwhelmingly by a Congress that never read it, which savaged the Constitution. The anthrax scare, widely blamed on Iraq as the administration began its relentless campaign to target that country following the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The reports about a new Information Awareness Office that seemed to take a page out of the Stasi handbook.
There were also reports about government plans to seed the media with propaganda helpful to the newly announced and vaguely conceptualized “War on Terror” that Dick Cheney was saying would “not end in our lifetimes” and would involve many different targets. I can’t find examples of such reportage on line, but I recall how at the time objections were raised to the placement of government agents in the U.S. press. It was therefore announced that propaganda would only be placed in foreign presses. So many outrageous plans were being announced, then withdrawn over protest, during that period as the neocons accomplished their coup and the nation flirted with fascism. How absolutely mad it all seems now, or should seem.
Of course we learned subsequently (2005) that the Bush administration paid journalists such as Armstrong Williams to support its positions, and that a bogus journalist/male prostitute was oddly admitted to White House press conferences where he tossed softball questions at the president. The same year we learned that U.S.-authored propaganda was being planted in the Iraqi press. We’d been informed by the 9-11 Commission in July 2004 that all the detailed “intelligence” about Iraq’s WMD and al-Qaeda ties was “flawed” (or more honestly, disinformation). Some of us even learned from investigative reporter Larissa Alexandrovna in late 2005 that the Office of Special Plans planned “off book” missions from March 2003 that included an effort to plant WMD in Iraq to cover Bush’s embarrassment.
Skepticism about administration claims has mounted steadily, along with the understanding that here is a regime altogether comfortable with lies. I suspect it is a reflection of the Straussian philosophy of the neocons, who have been among the most boldfaced liars. If they suppose it in the “national interests” of the United States (which they conflate with those of Israel) to attack a country, they plan to do so. Part of the plan is to create a justification that will receive widespread acceptance. Thus, exploiting the immediate post-9-11 emotional atmosphere in the country, they built the case for Iraqi participation in the attacks and for Iraqi WMDs threatening New York City. Now they build a case for an attack on Iran by positing the existence of a nuclear weapons program the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have declared (in the National Intelligence Estimate of late 2007) does not exist, and insisting its intention is to inflict a “nuclear holocaust” on Israel.
The case for the Iraq War was falling apart by December 14, 2003, when the London Daily Telegraph published a dramatic scoop. Con Coughlin, executive foreign editor with a history of supporting neocon claims about Iraq, claimed to have a letter written to Saddam Hussein in July 2001 by his intelligence director Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Takriti. This document confirmed a number of administration assertions that had been discredited among a large section of thinking Americans. It placed the putative 9-11 mastermind Mohammed Atta in a Baghdad training camp founded by the Palestinian militant Abu Nidal:
“Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian national, came with Abu Ammer and we hosted him in Abu Nidal’s house at al-Dora under our direct supervision. We arranged a work program for him for three days with a team dedicated to working with him… He displayed extraordinary effort and showed a firm commitment to lead the team which will be responsible for attacking the targets that we have agreed to destroy.”
This reinforced Richard Perle’s statement to the Italian press in September 2002: “We have proof [that] Mohammed Atta met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad prior to September 11.” It lent some support to the false report that Atta had had contact with Iraqi intelligence in Prague in 2001, as alleged by Vice President Cheney on NBC’s Meet the Press on December 9, 2001. In referring in passing to a “Niger shipment” through Libya and Syria facilitated by al-Qaeda it even revived belief in a myth punctured by the IAEA (which had exposed the Niger documents as amateurish forgeries in early 2003) and by Joseph Wilson’s exposure of the administration’s use of the myth even after his own trip to Niger had debunked it thoroughly.
The letter’s authenticity was confirmed by Iyad Allawi, then a member of the Iraqi Governing Council little known to Americans. He’d been a Baathist thug, defecting to British intelligence in the 1970s, then becoming a CIA asset. His “Iraqi National Accord” had produced the bogus intelligence that Saddam Hussein’s regime could use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes against British troops in Cyprus. As noted by Salon’s Joe Conason, the Washington Post had reported on December 11, 2003 that Allawi had been “spending much of this week at CIA headquarters in Langley” planning the establishment of a new Iraqi “spy service.” (In May 2004 he was elected interim Prime Minister by the Governing Council, under U.S. pressure after months of wrangling. Due largely to a reputation for brutality and subservience to the Americans, his party did poorly in the January 2006 elections.)
I thought at the time that this Habbush letter had to be bogus. On December 19, 2003, I wrote a Counterpunch column with a lengthy title pointing to its implausibility: “The Neocons’ Dream Memo, Featuring: the Latter-Day Hitler, Saddam Hussein; His Intelligence Chief, Habbush al-Takriti; Palestinian Terrorist, Abu Nidal; 9-11 Mastermind, Mohammed Atta; and a Mysterious Shipment to Iraq from Niger.” I concluded that column as follows:
“If I were Paul Wolfowitz, or Abram Shulsky (Leo Strauss disciple, Machiavelli scholar, and chief disinformation operative in the office of Special Plans), or Douglas Feith, or Richard Perle, and I were just dreaming up what might be the perfect ‘find’ to validate my actions to date (questioned, as they have been, by numerous recently retired intelligence operatives in the U.S., Britain, and Australia), I would think: Hmmm. . . We’ll find a document addressed to Saddam, from someone currently without access to the press, reporting on the Chief Hijacker’s welcomed presence in Iraq just before the 9-11 attacks. (Never mind the FBI and CIA place Atta in Florida at the time.) Saddam’s intelligence chief would be the best source to cite for this information. We’ll connect [Habbush] al-Takriti, and Atta, with Palestinian terrorism (thus continuing our effort to link Afghanistan/al-Qaeda with Iraq and Syria and Iran and the PLO, and Evil generally). The Abu Nidal connection is especially good because Adu Nidal is dead and won’t pose a problem. Let’s float the report through an Iraqi operative [Allawi], not too well known, and use a British paper for the initial revelation. Then use Fox and see if CNN will buy it.”
Four and a half years later, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ron Suskind has just published a book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, in which he purports to reveal the origins of the neocons’ dream memo:
“In the fall of 2003, after the world learned there were no WMD — as Habbush had foretold — the White House ordered the CIA to carry out a deception. The mission: create a handwritten letter, dated July, 2001, from Habbush to Saddam saying that Atta trained in Iraq before the attacks and the Saddam was buying yellow cake for Niger with help from a ‘small team from the al Qaeda organization’.”
Suskind indicates that Habbush, still the Jack of Diamonds in Bush’s deck of wanted men, and with a $1 million bounty on his head, was actually in a safe house in Jordan at this time, having been whisked out of Iraq during the invasion and paid generous hush-money. He cooperated by copying the bogus letter in his own handwriting.
“The mission was carried out, the letter was created, popped up in Baghdad, and roiled the global news cycles in December, 2003 (conning even venerable journalists with Tom Brokaw). The mission is a statutory violation of the charter of CIA, and amendments added in 1991, prohibiting CIA from conducting disinformation campaigns on U.S. soil.”
But maybe the legal issues are not so clear. Suskind indicates that the order to produce the forgery was conveyed to CIA staff by then-CIA director George Tenet. Former CIA officer and intelligence analyst Phil Giraldi, however, writes in the American Conservative that “Dick Cheney. . .was behind the forgery,” and because he “hated and mistrusted the Agency. . .would not have used it for such a sensitive assignment. Instead, he went to Doug Feith’s Office of Special Plans and asked them to do the job. . . It was Feith’s office that produced the letter and then surfaced it to the media in Iraq. Unlike the Agency, the Pentagon had no restrictions on it regarding the production of false information to mislead the public [emphasis added]. Indeed, one might argue that Doug Feith’s office specialized in such activity.”
This is—or ought to be—explosive stuff, even if the public is already jaded by the sheer magnitude of the exposures of administration lies. The failure of the Congress to impeach Bush and Cheney in the face of overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing has perhaps numbed the public capacity for indignation. I mean, why get all upset about some forged documents designed to justify war when the Congress (which once impeached Bill Clinton for fibbing about consensual sex), refuses to act against this administration but rather empowers it to wage imperialist wars, gut the Constitution, and spy on the people?
Still, while the original Habbush letter story failed, as Bill O’Reilly admitted grumpily on Fox News, “to gain traction,” this story about deliberate forgery by an administration covering up its earlier lies, a sham document following upon the early Niger forgeries whose authors are still not known, produced in violation of U.S. statutes—this might, if mainstream press news editors will allow it, indeed gain traction.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org