Daddy’s Boys

Guess who’s already calling around town in search of figures to be named to the “independent commission” to investigate intelligence failures in Iraq (and elsewhere), according to the New York Times? As Douglas Jehl and David E. Sanger report (“Commission to Decide Itself on Depth of Its Investigation,” 2/3/04), “Mr. Bush, the White House said, plans to appoint the members himself, though Vice President Cheney has been calling around Capitol Hill sounding out ideas.” The Great Sounder-Outer. I wonder what an idea Dick sounds out sounds like?


A name, a name… what’s in a name? In the rigged crapshoot that’s the commission to be, two curious and fascinating names have already floated by. The planned nine-member panel, White House officials said, “would include current and former officials with experience in intelligence matters.” Among the names Washington Post reporters Dana Milbank and Dana Priest mention (“Intelligence Panel Will Cast Net Beyond Iraq,” 2/3/04) is that of former CIA director James Woolsey. He would certainly be a fabulous addition to any merry band of pranksters this administration put together.


As Paul Woodward, editor of the always interesting War in Context website comments, “If James Woolsey — a man who before the war merrily tried to popularize the slogan, ‘Give war a chance’ — is included in this commission it will be exposed as an utter charade.” Woolsey, who also popularized the idea — post-the-Afghan but pre-the-Iraqi war — that we were already enmeshed in “World War IV” (CNN, 4/3/03) and rushed off on a bizarre series of semi-private intelligence adventures for members of the administration, won’t make the cut, I suspect. But just seeing his name surface adds a bit of zest to this black (or is it bleak) comedy.


Among those being considered for the commission are Robert Gates, CIA director under Daddy Bush; William Perry, former Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton and a hard-line “realist”; former CIA director William H. Webster; and the CIA’s David A. Kay, who started this ball rolling by pronouncing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq DOA, but then gave the president a helping hand by focusing everyone on the intelligence agencies not the administration, and broke bread with uncurious George only two days ago. Among this gallery of clinkers, probably the single most important name to surface, on Monday on the front page of the New York Times no less — a name I’ve been waiting a while to see — was Brent Scowcroft. Sanger of the Times wrote (“Bush to Establish Panel to Examine U.S. Intelligence,” 2/2/04):


“Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said Sunday that they were talking to ‘very distinguished statesmen and women [none of the lists I've yet seen mention a woman], who have served their country and who have been users of intelligence, or served in a gathering capacity.’ Among those who have been consulted, officials say, is Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser under Mr. Bush’s father. Mr Scowcroft was a harsh critic of the process by which the current president decided to go to war.”


If Scowcroft, who co-authored a book with the elder Bush and is considered his alter ego in the world, has now surfaced as a major consultant of Bush the Younger, then a triumvirate of Daddy’s Boys — family fixer James Baker, supposedly off to alleviate Iraqi indebtedness, Robert Blackwill, now sitting somewhere in the White House helping Condoleezza Rice coordinate Iraq policy, and Scowcroft — are all back in town. Since Baker’s recent high-profile travels around the world on the debt-relief question, he seems to have mysteriously dropped from sight.


In this Oedipus wrecks of an administration, the psychological tug-of-war between son and father has gotten far too little attention in our media. Whatever’s been going on in the Bush family has surely been weirder than anybody’s been willing to let on. Now, it seems that Daddy’s Boys are in town to save the day for Daddy’s Boy (Who Wanted to Be Someone Else). Your guess is as good as mine, but with George’s numbers dropping under the Florida 50% mark for the first time in poll after poll, with Kerry suddenly eating the President alive in the same polls (and other Democratic candidates looking ever more competitive), with Iraq a seemingly unstaunchable wound, with the economy a disaster-in-the-making, and job growth more or less nonexistent, and the budget over the top of who knows what, and 2004 looking bleaker by the second, something, as Sherlock Holmes would say, is afoot. I would say, hold onto your hat, Dick Cheney.


(Here, by the way, are the latest results from the Quinnipiac poll, typical of the rest: “In possible 2004 presidential matchups, Kerry beats Bush 51 – 43 percent, compared to a 49 – 45 percent Bush lead January 26. Bush beats all other Democrats: 49 – 44 percent over Dean, down from 54 – 38 percent January 26; 47 – 45 percent over Edwards, down from 50 – 42 percent; 48 – 45 percent over Clark, down from 51 – 41 percent.”)


In the meantime, the urge to get the now-embarrassing question of “intelligence” off the table until 2005 has moved to the top of the administration agenda. As we watch this farce unfold, let’s keep in mind what we learned from former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill the other week. In this administration’s first National Security Council meetings in February 2001, the subject of al Qaeda wasn’t even on the table, but the taking down of Saddam Hussein and war in Iraq was. From the beginning, the issue was never “intelligence.” The people who took power that January had been writing and lobbying on the subject of toppling Saddam’s Iraq and transforming the Middle East since the early 1990s and already thought they had intelligence enough with plenty to spare. What was at stake was never more or better or more accurate intelligence, but finding an opening, the right moment that would sweep Congress and the American people up in war fever. They weren’t waiting for information about, say, an “imminent” threat; they were waiting for the necessary excuse to mobilize a nation around a desired war. Thank you, Osama bin Laden.


It’s now well known that, within a day of the 9/11 attacks our Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was calling for preparations for a future war against Iraq. Only afterwards did Rumsfeld and the rest of the crew go looking for “intelligence” — and not any intelligence, nor intelligence from anyone, however knowledgeable. Mostly they fell like so many swooning suitors into the lying arms (if arms can lie) of Ahmed Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles and defectors, themselves desperately out of touch with the situation in Iraq, or out to make a buck, get a (well-funded) life, or take over a country.


It’s also well known that when the Bush men ran into intelligence — in either sense of the word — that contradicted their scheme of things, they hustled it out of the room at top speed. When Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, for instance, suggested to a congressional committee that it might take several hundred thousand troops to occupy Iraq, he was, if not drummed out of the service, then more or less laughed off the administration premises by Paul Wolfowitz et al. Christopher Dickey of Newsweek makes the point cogently in a recent piece (“Tinker, Tailor, Jurist, Spy,” MSNBC web exclusive, 1/30/04):


“Such estimates, said Wolfowitz, were wildly ‘off the mark,’ and a figure of 100,000 was closer to the Pentagon’s expectations. Well, the number of U.S. troops has been kept fairly close to that promised level of 100,000. (Those Pentagon bureaucrats do have iron wills.) But there’s no question that many more troops were needed, and badly. ‘A safe and secure environment’ still doesn’t exist in Iraq, and from the start ‘the normal responsibilities’ of occupiers simply have not been met. The borders were not secured. The cities were abandoned to looters. (To this day, Baghdad is without electricity for hours at a time.) More than 500 Americans are dead, most of them killed during the occupation. The monetary costs are upward of $1 billion a week and the chances of Iraqi or foreign forces effectively easing that burden are distant and slight.”


When Larry Lindsey, then the President’s chief economic adviser, suggested that it might take up to a couple of hundred billion dollars to run an occupation (Don Rumsfeld was then suggesting under $50 billion) — neither came faintly close, of course — he landed on his ear in the street. Don’t you just love it?


In the “intelligence community,” significant figures questioned everything. Take, for instance, Greg Thielmann, before the war director of the Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research who recently commented (Charles M. Sennott and Farah Stockman, “‘Drawing their own picture’”, Boston Globe, 2/1/04):


“‘[David A.] Kay says we all got it wrong. Well, that’s not the case…The White House was not interested in information other than that which substantiated its case.’ After 25 years in government service, Thielmann, 53, said he chose early retirement last fall, in part because of his frustration with the Bush administration. ‘They took every piece of information, and all the way up the line, it was made less qualified and more alarming. That is why the American people were so misled about the nature of the Iraqi threat.’”


As Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis put the matter on Feb. 1 (“A scandal greater than Watergate”):


“Now, the White House is trying to blame the Central Intelligence Agency for the Iraq fiasco. CIA director George Tenet may have wronged his agency and the nation by not going public to debunk White House war propaganda over Iraq. But active and retired CIA officers kept warning the public and media (including this writer) that intelligence on Iraq had been deeply manipulated and politicized by a cabal of pro-war neo-conservative ideologues in the Pentagon and the vice president’s office.


“They were ignored.”


Of course, if you really want to know what the neocons and hardliners in the Pentagon and the vice president’s office thought of planning, no less intelligence, just consider how they left the State Department’s multimillion-dollar postwar planning in the dust in their rush into Baghdad (and hundreds of State Department Arabists, who actually knew the language and a great deal about Iraq itself, idling in Washington) while they hustled into downtown Baghdad with no plans of their own — other than to save the oil ministry, establish permanent bases in-country, strip the economy, hand what was left of the nation over to Chalabi, and then turn their armed attention on Syria and Iran. They didn’t even bring translators and laptops, as far as I can tell, when they settled into what has come to be known as the Green Zone in the capital. What they had in tow (or soon imported to rectify matters) were a bunch of 90-day wonders, neocon kids planning to get a little hands-on experience before returning to Washington to work for the President’s election campaign. The resulting disaster of an occupation administration in Baghdad is — so I’ve heard — sometimes referred to as “neocon kindergarten.”


Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek recently compared what the U.N. inspectors in Iraq knew to what American intelligence agencies didn’t (“We Had Good Intel — the U.N.’s,” 2/9/04):


“Why were the inspectors right and the administration wrong? Partly this has to do with political pressure. The CIA had been battered for 30 years by accusations from the right that it was soft on the Soviets, soft on the Chinese and most recently soft on Saddam. (Never mind that in almost every case, the agency was more accurate in its assessments than its neoconservative accusers. It lost the political battle.) The U.N. inspectors could actually make their assessments without fear. (Some in the administration did try to scare them. ‘We will not hesitate to discredit you,’ Vice President Cheney said to [Hans] Blix before he began his job.) More important, the inspectors were actually there on the ground and the American government was not. Some reports suggest that the United States did not have a single credible informant in Iraq before the war.”


When the administration got its intelligence from the CIA, undoubtedly somewhat tailored to the needs of the war party, but still to their eyes a glass disappointingly only half-full, Rumsfeld set up his own intelligence outfit, the Office of Special Plans (OSP), run by Douglas Feith out of the Pentagon, to come up with the necessary “intelligence” to do the job, while the vice president repeatedly traveled to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia to pressure the agency for better results (as the indefatigable Jim Lobe points out in “Bush barking up the CIA’s tree,” Asia Times, 2/3/04).


It would, of course, be ridiculous to go back now to consider “intelligence failures” in isolation from administration actions, though some of those failures are quite hilarious. Take the Iraqi UAVs, light observation planes that were supposed to be capable of spraying the East Coast of the U.S. (hundreds of miles inland, no less) with deadly toxins. The President actually discussed these fearsome planes on television with a straight face before the war and just about no one in the media, no less the Democratic Party, bothered to challenge him on the subject. Democratic Senator Nelson of Florida even claims to this day to have taken this threat so seriously that he voted for George’s thrilling war.


According to the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus, who recently reviewed the UAV story, which at the time barely saw the light of day in our media (“A Flawed Argument In the Case for War,” 2/1/04), the senator came down in favor of “a resolution authorizing force against Iraq precisely because of the administration’s UAV evidence. ‘I was told,’ Nelson said, ‘not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard.’”


The planes, of course, turned out to be observation planes, largely made out of Popsicle sticks. But the honest truth was that you didn’t have to have any intelligence agency behind you, just a modicum of intelligence, or simple commonsense, to know that this was a ludicrous idea. (And I wrote exactly that before the Iraq War was ever launched.) I’m sorry, but how were these deadly planes to get from Iraq to the East Coast of the United States in order to become an imminent danger? On tramp steamers, I suppose.


Actually, as far as I’m concerned, the wrong trait is being investigated. There should be a genuinely independent commission to investigate not “intelligence” but “arrogance.” I’ve long said that this administration has been staffed by utopian (or, depending on your druthers, dystopian) dreamers intent on remaking a recalcitrant world in their own image. (It’s what Marxists were always accused of.) They were going to control the planet. What was a little cherry-picked intelligence from the perspective of transforming the world? Now, of course, “intelligence” matters, and we’re going to act as if all this is serious, but hey, I’m planning to be amused.


Two articles worth reading: Jim Lobe (in the piece mentioned above) discusses the “lie-saver” David A Kay threw the President and how, by embracing this commission, George and his advisers are attempting to sweep their string of foreign policy catastrophes under the carpet. And James Carroll, in his Feb. 3 Boston Globe column, has a somewhat different take on how the administration is using the debate over intelligence.


My only comment: Maybe the administration can manage to sweep the “intelligence failures” of Iraq under the Washington rug for a while, but it’s amazing how much is already under there. There’s the 9/11 commission, still being stonewalled in various ways; there’s the Valerie Plame outing investigation; there are those old Cheney energy meetings being stonewalled straight up to the Supreme Court; various incipient Halliburton scandals; and I’m sure each of you can think of more of the same; not to speak of all sorts of barely contained angers, resentments and animosities in the intelligence agencies and the military, in the State Department and the bureaucracy. Sooner or later — my guess is well before November 4 — that rug’s just not going to cover the mess any longer.


[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]


Leave a comment