The Left Hook! Archive


Thurs. July 24, 2003

Cheney Fires Back,

But He's Only Shooting Blanks

Vice President Dick Cheney went to the American Enterprise Institute today and delivered what was billed as the first major offensive in the administration's counter-attack against its critics on the matter of the Iraqi intelligence scandal. Those who may have expected a tough speech full of raw meat, however, were left wondering, "where's the beef?"

The speech began as a sort of greatest hits package of past administration rhetoric with regard to the War On Terrorism. Dull, repetetive, nonsense we've all heard a million times by now. The only noteworthy addition: gratuitous passages of praise for George Bush Jr..

"I have watched for more than a year now as President Bush kept the American people constantly informed of the dangers we face, and of his determination to confront those dangers. There was no need for anyone to speculate what the President was thinking; his words were clear, and straightforward, and understood by friend and enemy alike. When the moment arrived to make the tough call - when matters came to the point of choosing, and the safety of the American people was at stake--President Bush acted decisively, with resolve, and with courage."

Makes you wonder how we managed to survive for over two centuries before His Devine Leadership, eh? This was actually the first shot across the bow of the critics--the notion that Bush "kept the American people constantly informed of the dangers" they face is, of course, ludicrous, and is at the heart of the present Iraq scandal.

Cheney dug in: "[A]t a safe remove from the danger," he said, "some are now trying to cast doubt upon the decision to liberate Iraq." Nothing like accusing one's opponents of cowardice, eh?

"The ability to criticize is one of the great strengths of our democracy," the implication, of course, being that those ungrateful cowards who criticize the administration do so behind the safety it provides them.

"But those who do so have an obligation to answer this question: How could any responsible leader have ignored the Iraqi threat?"

And, here, Cheney goes right over a cliff into oblivion.

The premise of the Iraq scandal is that the administration manipulated the intelligence in such a way as to justify a war they'd already decided upon launching. What does Cheney use as his evidence for "the Iraqi threat" that was supposed to be so dire that no "responsible leader" could have ignored it? The very intelligence the administration stands accused of manipulating.

He runs through four examples, all drawn directly from the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq. The administration declassified selected portions of the NIE a few days ago. NIE is supposed to be, in Cheney's words, "the consensus judgments of the intelligence community, based upon the best information available about the Iraqi threat." This NIE, however, appears to be nothing more than the culmination of the relentless pressure by the higher-ups in the administration, particularly Cheney himself, to force the intelligence community to come up with information that would justify a war policy.

The first pieces of evidence that this may be the case were offered by Cheney's verbatim readings from the NIE, the ones intended to defend the administration:

"Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions. If left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."

"...all key aspects--the R&D, production, and weaponization--of Iraq's offensive [biological weapons] program are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War."

"Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; in the view of most agencies, Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program."

"In the NIE on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the community had 'high confidence' in the conclusion that 'Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to U.N. Resolutions.' The Intelligence Community also had high confidence in the judgment that--and I quote: 'Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.'"

In the aftermath of the war, we now know that none of these assertions panned out (the assertion that the bio-weapons program was "larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War" is particularly ludicrous). In light of this fact, we're left with only two possibilities--a massive intelligence failure or an intentional manipulation of the intelligence. Unsurprisingly, Cheney doesn't even acknowledge this central point. The actual evidence on the ground, in fact, isn't even mentioned. The Vice President chooses, instead, to bolster his examples (and, not coincidentally, to subtly pass the buck to the intelligence community) by telling his audience that "these judgments were not lightly arrived at--and all who were aware of them bore a heavy responsibility for the security of America." Cheney, in other words, is trying to hide behind the NIE. Here he is, putting it even more explicitly:

"Those charged with the security of this nation could not read such an assessment and pretend that it did not exist. Ignoring such information, or trying to wish it away, would be irresponsible in the extreme. And our President did not ignore that information--he faced it. He sought to eliminate the threat by peaceful, diplomatic means and, when all else failed, he acted forcefully to remove the danger."

"...and the home of the brave." Over the past year, a significant amount of reporting has amassed in the press on the atmosphere from which the October NIE emerged, reporting which puts Cheney's efforts to hide the administratrion behind the assessment in a very different light than the one he offered today. Your humble editor and others here at LeftHook! have written a good deal about the administration's manipulation of intelligence on Iraq. Tonight, I took a little jaunt through some of the basic reporting on the matter from the past. Some excerpts:

Here's one from October 8, 2002. This is from a Knight Ridder story by Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay:

"While President Bush marshals congressional and international support for invading Iraq, a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats in his own government privately have deep misgivings about the administration's double-time march toward war.

"These officials charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses -- including distorting his links to the al-Qaida terrorist network--have overstated the amount of international support for attacking Iraq and have downplayed the potential repercussions of a new war in the Middle East.

"They charge that the administration squelches dissenting views and that intelligence analysts are under intense pressure to produce reports supporting the White House's argument that Saddam poses such an immediate threat to the United States that pre-emptive military action is necessary.

"'Analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books,' said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"A dozen other officials echoed his views in interviews.

"No one who was interviewed disagreed.

Here's another from October 11, this one a Los Angeles Times story by staff writers Greg Miller and Bob Drogin:

"Senior Bush administration officials are pressuring CIA analysts to tailor their assessments of the Iraqi threat to help build a case against Saddam Hussein, intelligence and congressional sources said.

"In what sources described as an escalating 'war,' top officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere have bombarded CIA analysts with criticism and calls for revisions on such key questions as whether Iraq has ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, sources said.

"The sources stressed that CIA analysts—who are supposed to be impartial—are fighting to resist the pressure. But they said analysts are increasingly resentful of what they perceive as efforts to contaminate the intelligence process.

"'Analysts feel more politicized and more pushed than many of them can ever remember,' said an intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"'The guys at the Pentagon shriek on issues such as the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. There has been a lot of pressure to write on this constantly, and to not let it drop.'"

"The pressure has intensified in the weeks leading up to this week's debate in Congress on a resolution granting President Bush permission to pursue a military invasion of Iraq."

A little later, Drogin and Miller tell us:

"...intelligence sources say the pressure on CIA analysts has been unrelenting in recent months, much of it coming from Iraq hawks including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his top deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz.

"CIA officials who brief Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz on Iraq routinely return to the agency with a long list of complaints and demands for new analysis or shifts in emphasis, sources said.

"'There is a lot of unhappiness with the analysis,' usually because it is seen as not hard-line enough, one intelligence official said.

"Another government official said CIA briefers 'are constantly sent back by the senior people at Defense and other places to get more, get more, get more to make their case.'"

Cheney, as it turned out, was one of the major administration figures putting the heat on the intelligence community. Writing in the Washington Post (June 5, 2003), Walter Pincus and Dana Priest revealed that:

"Vice President Cheney and his most senior aide made multiple trips to the CIA over the past year to question analysts studying
Iraq's weapons programs and alleged links to al Qaeda, creating an environment in which some analysts felt they were being
pressured to make their assessments fit with the Bush administration's policy objectives, according to senior intelligence

"With Cheney taking the lead in the administration last August in advocating military action against Iraq by claiming it had
weapons of mass destruction, the visits by the vice president and his chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, 'sent signals,
intended or otherwise, that a certain output was desired from here,' one senior agency official said yesterday."

"While visits to CIA headquarters by a vice president are not unprecedented," wrote Pincus and Priest, "they are unusual, according to intelligence officials. The exact number of trips by Cheney to the CIA could not be learned, but one agency official described them as 'multiple.' They were taken in addition to Cheney's regular attendance at President Bush's morning intelligence briefings and the special briefings the vice president receives when he is at an undisclosed location for security reasons."

A little later:

"Government sources said CIA analysts were not the only ones who felt pressure from their superiors to support public statements by Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and others about the threat posed by Hussein.

"Former and current intelligence officials said they felt a continual drumbeat, not only from Cheney and Libby, but also from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, [Undersecretary of Defense Douglas] Feith, and less so from CIA Director George J. Tenet, to find information or write reports in a way that would help the administration make the case that going into Iraq was urgent.

"'They were the browbeaters,' said a former defense intelligence official who attended some of the meetings in which Wolfowitz and others pressed for a different approach to the assessments they were receiving. 'In interagency meetings,' he said, 'Wolfowitz treated the analysts' work with contempt.'"[1]

Edward T. Pound and Bruce B. Auster, writing in the July 28th issue of U.S. News & World Report, quote a "senior administration official" on the matter of Iraq intelligence:

"Nearly every day, Cheney and Scooter hammered the agency on Iraq or terrorism. Over time, the agency got tired of fighting."

And this was the atmosphere that generated the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq behind which Cheney now seeks to hide the administration. Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball program (July 17), Robert Baer, who spent over 20 years working on the Middle East in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, described how intelligence is handled in such a situation:

"...if you put enough pressure on the CIA to bring up every piece of information that exists, you're [the CIA] obligated to. The CIA works for the National Security Council and the President, and if they say 'put your trash in there, we insist on it,' you don't have much choice."

A few nights later and on the same program, Baer expounded upon this, describing an incident in the 1980s in which the Reagan administration was looking for a pretext to attack Libya. He, then in the CIA, was dispatched to talk to a source who had made some claims about bad things Libya had allegedly done. Baer discovered that the source was a liar, his allegations untrustworthy. When he relayed this to his superiors, he was admonished and told that wasn't what the White House wanted. Instead, he was told to write down the source's allegations and pass them along, omitting his judgment of them or of the source. This, Baer says, is what seems to have happened in the case of Iraq, and the reporting to date certainly supports that contention. The NIE, then, could very well be a product of this process of collecting "garbage," rather than a genuine reflection of the opinions of those in the intelligence community.

Further and much more direct evidence of the dubious nature of the NIE came earlier this week when the White House, after lying about the matter for months[2], finally conceded that the CIA had warned about the unreliability of the Iraq-seeking-uranium-in-Africa story long before it was included in the January State of the Union address. These warnings came in October. Two of them were in writing--memos that are described as outlining, in extensive detail, multiple problems with the allegations. The third warning was telephoned in by no less than CIA director George Tenet himself. The importance of this is that these warnings came only days after the CIA had signed off on including the uranium-in-Africa story in the NIE, which strongly suggests the agency itself didn't even believe what it had produced.

This should serve as a warning to skeptics of the Bush administration. The intelligence alleged, by the administration, to be the basis for their war policy may not be what it appears.


[1] Pincus and Priest recount a MOST astonishing incident:

"In the winter of 2001-02, officials who worked with Wolfowitz sent the Defense Intelligence Agency a message: Get hold of Laurie Mylroie's book, which claimed Hussein was behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and see if you can prove it, one former defense official said.

"The DIA's Middle East analysts were familiar with the book, 'Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein's War Against America.' But they and others in the U.S. intelligence community were convinced that radical Islamic fundamentalists, not Iraq, were involved. 'The message was, why can't we prove this is right?' said the official.

"Retired Vice Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, directed his Middle East analysts to go through the book again, check all the allegations and see if they could be substantiated, said one current and one former intelligence official familiar with the request. The staff was unable to make the link."

Laurie Mylroie is a decidedly fringe figure, a notorious conspiracy theorist who, in the words of writer Dennis Hans "sees a tight Iraq-al Qaeda terror connection and the handiwork of Saddam in most every evil act in the world."

[2] The most most recent of these lies coming from the mouth of the "President" himself on July 14th:

"Subsequent to the [State of the Union] speech, the CIA had some doubts [about the uranium allegation], but when I gave... when they talked about the speech, y'know, they looked at the speech, it was cleared. Otherwise, I wouldn't have put it in the speech."

The State of the Union speech was in January--the CIA had debunked the allegations on three occasions, all of them months before that speech.

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