Chalmers Johnson on investigation as cover-up

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Well, it’s been an interesting few days, hasn’t it? The Bush administration seems in some disarray. Only yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell managed to make a startling admission to the paper of record in Washington:

“Asked whether he would have helped build the case for war had he known at the time, Mr Powell told the Washington Post: ‘I don’t know, because it was the stockpile that presented the final little piece that made it more of a real and present danger and threat to the region and to the world.’ He went on: ‘The absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus. It changes the answer you get.'”

Today, as the New York Times put it in the first paragraph of a piece headlined, Powell and White House Get Together on Iraq War, His Comments Weren’t the Official Line:

“The White House and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell scrambled on Tuesday to present a united front about the war in Iraq, a day after Mr. Powell said he was not sure if he would have recommended an invasion had he known Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiles of banned weapons.”

As it turns out, the White House was doing more scrambling than a quarterback with a no-show offensive line. Only a day ago, Bush press spokesman Scott McClellan was in pure stonewalling mode when pestered by reporters about Bush’s Vietnam-era “war” record. Yesterday, the White House and allied Republicans suddenly reversed field and ran the other way, as Mike Allen of the Washington Post reported:

“The White House, the Republican Party and the Bush-Cheney campaign mounted a choreographed defense yesterday of President Bush’s attendance record in the National Guard and denounced Democrats for raising questions about his service.

“The messages marked the first time that all the parts of Bush’s 2004 political machine have collaborated on a simultaneous line of attack, and reflected his advisers’ mounting concern about an issue that they hoped had been put to rest after his election in 2000.”

But there was some disagreement as to which goal line they were now scrambling toward and whether such a maneuver was advisable. “The decision to mount a counterattack yesterday was controversial within Bush’s organization, with some aides saying the action would just draw extra attention to the charges. But others said the issue is beginning to get news coverage and that the accusations should not go unanswered.”

How quickly the charge of dereliction of duty in the Vietnam era moved – this time around – from Michael Moore to Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe (who accused the President this week of being “AWOL” during his stint flying for the National Guard) to reporters, who suddenly felt emboldened to ask persistent questions on the subject, to the prime-time TV news. Talk about sea – or do I mean air – changes

Meanwhile, on the subject of not being on the same page with the White House (not to speak of the Secretary of State), and in his own Full Dickie — as in Dick Cheney — mode, our Secretary of Defense at a Congressional hearing yesterday let it all hang out. According to Washington Post reporter William Branigin, his testimony went, in part, like this:

“Rumsfeld put forward several ‘alternative views’ on why [no WMD] has been found in Iraq so far

“‘First is the theory that WMD may not have existed at the start of the war I suppose that’s possible, but not likely.’ He said other possibilities were that chemical or biological weapons did exist in Iraq, but were moved to one or more other countries; that the banned weapons were ‘dispersed and hidden throughout Iraq;’ that the country’s WMD was destroyed before the war; that Iraq had only small quantities of biological or chemical weapons with a ‘surge capability for a rapid buildup;’ and that the whole WMD program was ‘a charade by the Iraqis,’ with Hussein either fooling the world or being fooled himself by subordinates.

“Rumsfeld suggested that chemical or biological weapons could still be hidden in Iraq. ‘Think, it took us 10 months to find Saddam Hussein The reality is that the hole he was found hiding in was large enough to hold enough biological weapons to kill thousands of human beings.'”

Did someone mention an investigation of Iraqi “intelligence failures”? It seems that what we need instead is a corps of interpreters and possibly an asylum. Below, Chalmers Johnson, whose new book, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, is must reading for anyone who wants to understand our mess of a world today, offers a “modest” suggestion about what kind of investigation of “intelligence failures” might really make a difference — and it wouldn’t be a panel filled with former CIA directors and other intelligence producers and users — that is, with the interested parties themselves.

But perhaps what we need is an altogether larger investigation. After all, as Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation magazine, suggested in a fascinating review of the new Ron Suskind book on former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s revelations in the New York Times (of all places), diddling intelligence wasn’t just an Iraq phenomenon, it was a way of life in Bush’s Washington:

“‘The Price of Loyalty’ is filled with convincingly demonstrative anecdotes, in which the outcome is ruthlessly predetermined and the facts, such as they are, are marshaled deductively. There is the time that President Bush used phony figures to defend his tax cut in his first State of the Union address because the political team – in particular Karl Rove – had made an end run around Treasury economists, refusing to vet their calculations with experts.”

I’m afraid what we really need is regime change. Tom

A Modest Proposal 
by Chalmers Johnson

So the Bush administration — under considerable pressure from people outraged that we invaded Iraq not only without U.N. approval but on false intelligence that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” — has now decided to investigate itself. For this important task it is proposing a panel of former CIA officials (Robert Gates, Richard Kerr), former Congressional members with “intelligence expertise” (Warren Rudman, Gary Hart), and David Kay, the weapons inspector whose recent report and change of heart have so discomfited the administration. Unsurprisingly, if this administration has its way, the investigation will not make public its results until well after the November election.

The whole exercise smacks of “cover-up” and is about as trustworthy as asking Enron executives to investigate themselves. A group of men, deeply protective of their former colleagues, friends, and Washington connections, will doubtless tell us in due course that U.S. intelligence on Iraq was “thin” (at the time of the war it had been two years since there had been a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq). The now-famous misinformation about “yellow cake” being purchased from Niger will be blamed on England’s MI6, the equivalent of our CIA. The real reasons why former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s first-hand report on Niger yellow cake was ignored and Wilson’s CIA wife subsequently outed will be conveniently forgotten. The real story of how and why the Bush administration went to war in Iraq will be lost in a miasma of words – and undoubtedly an endless commission report with endless appendices, some of which will surely be declared top secret and shielded from public view — and no one in particular will be blamed (much as Robert McNamara now blames “the fog of war” and not himself for the failures of American policy in Vietnam).

Let me propose that if the Bush administration really wants to find out what went wrong with our pre-war intelligence on Iraq, it should appoint a commission consisting of first-class investigative reporters, including first and foremost the New Yorker magazine’s Seymour Hersh and the Atlantic Monthly‘s James Fallows. These two journalists have, in fact, already told us in damning detail what really went on inside the Bush administration. In several of his New Yorker articles, but particularly “The Stovepipe” (published in the October 27, 2003 issue), Hersh describes the process whereby a pro-war cabal within the administration — Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and others — set out to cherry-pick the intelligence tidbits that supported their preconceived plans for war in Iraq.

In an equally well-documented Atlantic article in the January/February 2004 issue of that magazine, James Fallows explores why so much went so badly wrong after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Why the looting? Why the continuing guerrilla attacks? Why the failure to bring the mass of the population over to our side, even after the capture of Saddam Hussein? Fallows’s answer is that most of what went wrong had long been predicted by non-governmental organizations that tried to work with the Pentagon but whose advice was studiously ignored.

Perhaps the most amazing discovery Fallows made with regard to intelligence concerns Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who taught for years at the National War College and who compiled a “net assessment” of how Iraq would look after a successful U.S. attack. Not only did Gardiner’s predictions regarding the infrastructure prove devastatingly accurate, but his report was compiled entirely on the basis of information freely available on the Internet. No need at all for $30-plus billion worth of intelligence agencies. Of course, Gardiner’s warnings went unheeded in large part because the administration was already bent on war and uninterested in anyone else’s thoughts, let alone intelligence on the coming “post-war” era in Iraq.

In its desire to evade responsibility for its lying and reckless decisions, the administration is now trying, on the one hand, to place all blame on the Central Intelligence Agency while, on the other hand, protecting the CIA from the full brunt of such blame by carefully choosing an “old-boy” commission to absolve it. If we really want to know who skewed, manufactured, or otherwise diddled the data about Iraq (and who is doubtlessly still doing so), then we need some good reporters who can develop their own “deep throat” sources of information. Although journalists are not infallible, the best of them are incorruptible to the extent of being willing to be jailed in order to protect their sources. It is hard to imagine the administration’s commission getting that sort of data from bureaucrats who want to keep their jobs and protect their families from retaliation. Since the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court have become so dangerously collusive and disregarding of the American public’s interests, let’s see what the “4th estate” can do to save us.

Chalmers Johnson is most recently the author of The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic as well as Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.

Copyright C2004 Chalmers Johnson