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George W. Bush, it would seem, is the first president to have a completely unpredictable past.
The Bush Administration now finds itself committed to an effort to sell its “Surge” strategy in Iraq as a success and to secure sufficient support in Congress and in the public at large to continue that strategy. At the same time, a “rollout” is underway to lay the basis for a new war—a sustained aerial assault on Iran—if Bush should decide to take the course that his vice president is fervently advising. Both of these efforts are linked in a strange Orwellian sense–namely, both rest on conscious, carefully-prepared falsifications of history in order to sell a strategy for the future. What strikes me most about this is the fact that Bush continues to be able to peddle falsehoods as history because the media attends his remarks with great deference. Critical commentary is permitted, but it is relegated to the periphery, where it can do little damage.
Two very striking examples: in the last two weeks, we have seen reports that Bush “honestly believed” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as late as August 2006, and some suggestion that he still “believes” this today; and second, Bush has given accounts implying that the policy of his Administration was to maintain the Iraqi army following occupation, and he can’t understand why the army was disbanded.
Both of these statements are staggeringly dishonest—there is no room in either case to say it was a “misstatement” or “misunderstanding.” A conscious falsehood was being peddled. In the first case, this is done to make the decision to go to war seem more reasonable than it was; in the second case, to shove the blame for what many have come to regard as the most astoundingly stupid decision of the occupation period off and on to the shoulders of Jerry Bremer, a new whipping boy. Both statements have reverberated through the media.
Exposing the WMDs Fraud
The Downing Street papers were largely brushed aside by the American media after they broke in Britain, producing a massive public reassessment of the Iraq War. They recorded a number of high-level meetings between Bush, Blair, and their respective senior intelligence teams. They recorded, quite clearly, that a consensus had arisen in the intelligence community, shared in London and Langley, that the evidence for a case that Saddam had a WMD program that presented an imminent threat was insubstantial.
The American media finally woke up to this fact when a retired senior CIA officer, Tyler Drumheller, the chief of CIA clandestine operations in Europe, gave an interview to CBS News “60 Minutes.” Drumheller revealed that the CIA had secured documents from Naji Sabri, Saddam’s foreign minister, that established that Saddam had no WMDs and that he had terminated his WMD development program. “We continued to validate him the whole way through,” Drumheller said in the interview. “The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming, and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy, to justify the policy.”
Today, Sidney Blumenthal offers substantial further development and support to the “60 Minutes” segment. He has two further senior CIA officers corroborating the Drumheller account and furnishing additional detail.
Now two former senior CIA officers have confirmed Drumheller’s account to me and provided the background to the story of how the information that might have stopped the invasion of Iraq was twisted in order to justify it. They described what Tenet said to Bush about the lack of WMD, and how Bush responded, and noted that Tenet never shared Sabri’s intelligence with then Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to the former officers, the intelligence was also never shared with the senior military planning the invasion, which required U.S. soldiers to receive medical shots against the ill effects of WMD and to wear protective uniforms in the desert.
Instead, said the former officials, the information was distorted in a report written to fit the preconception that Saddam did have WMD programs. That false and restructured report was passed to Richard Dearlove, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who briefed Prime Minister Tony Blair on it as validation of the cause for war. Secretary of State Powell, in preparation for his presentation of evidence of Saddam’s WMD to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, spent days at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and had Tenet sit directly behind him as a sign of credibility. But Tenet, according to the sources, never told Powell about existing intelligence that there were no WMD, and Powell’s speech was later revealed to be a series of falsehoods.
Both the French intelligence service and the CIA paid Sabri hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least $200,000 in the case of the CIA) to give them documents on Saddam’s WMD programs. “The information detailed that Saddam may have wished to have a program, that his engineers had told him they could build a nuclear weapon within two years if they had fissile material, which they didn’t, and that they had no chemical or biological weapons,” one of the former CIA officers told me. On the eve of Sabri’s appearance at the United Nations in September 2002 to present Saddam’s case, the officer in charge of this operation met in New York with a “cutout” who had debriefed Sabri for the CIA. Then the officer flew to Washington, where he met with CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, who was “excited” about the report. Nonetheless, McLaughlin expressed his reservations. He said that Sabri’s information was at odds with “our best source.” That source was code-named “Curveball,” later exposed as a fabricator, con man and former Iraqi taxi driver posing as a chemical engineer.
The next day, Sept. 18, Tenet briefed Bush on Sabri. “Tenet told me he briefed the president personally,” said one of the former CIA officers. According to Tenet, Bush’s response was to call the information “the same old thing.” Bush insisted it was simply what Saddam wanted him to think. “The president had no interest in the intelligence,” said the CIA officer. The other officer said, “Bush didn’t give a fuck about the intelligence. He had his mind made up.”
This is consistent with many other episodes involving Bush and the intelligence community. He has a proclivity for making up his mind and simply disregarding any evidence that arrives that is inconsistent with the decision he has reached: the classic characteristics of a disastrously bad leader.
The Decision to Disband the Iraqi Army
Bush and his senior staff granted extraordinary access to Robert Draper who was clearly expected to deliver a flattering account of the internal operations of the Bush Administration. The Draper account is not critical in tone, but it captures much which, upon careful scrutiny, proves embarrassing to the Administration—particularly with respect to the rapidly evaporating “team spirit” in the White House as the second term set in. One of the most striking passages in Draper’s book is an account of a discussion with Bush in which the question of the decision to disband Saddam’s army comes up. Here’s the text:
“The policy was to keep the army intact; didn’t happen,” Bush tells Draper, who then asked Bush how he reacted to the decision, and Bush replies, “Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’… Hadley’s got notes on all of this stuff,” referring to Stephen Hadley, then-Assistant National Security Adviser.
“Policy to keep the army intact? What policy?” That pretty much sums up Paul Bremer’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. Bremer gives a detailed account of the history of the decision; he lists the key people who weighed in. He demonstrates that the decision came from the top, and that he implemented it.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Bremer’s account is correct. (His conclusion: “it was the right decision” is downright laughable. It was perhaps the stupidest of a great many moronic decisions that were made.) In fact, I have a State Department source who recounted who weighed in, when, and how the final call came, from the White House. It tallies perfectly with Bremer’s account.
However, the Bush White House has another view of the course of human history. The king can do no wrong. The king makes no mistakes. But the king is, on occasion, surrounded by false and disloyal advisors. It’s time to serve up one of those feckless advisors.
Is this in the end a battle over the past? No. It is a battle over the future. It may be a battle over the next war.
He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”