Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
Republicans and conservatives say the darnest things.
First, Ann Coulter. Don't think I am obsessing over here just because this is my second mention of her in two weeks. (Click here to see the first.) I don't recall having written about her madness before these latest strikes. But it was hard to resist returning to the subject after reading an account of a lecture she delivered to the impressionable minds of Northwestern University. She took the predictable potshots at liberals. And then she proclaimed that the war on terror is a "religious war." She explained, in a way:
"This is a religious war, not against Islam but for Christianity, for a Christian nation. When this nation was founded, there was nothing like it. Our founders said there is a God and we are all equal before God. The ideal of equality and tolerance is like nothing that has ever existed in the world before. That, too, is a Christian value. The concept of equality, especially when it comes to gender equality, was not invented by Gloria Steinem. It was invented by Jesus Christ. As long as people look long enough, they will always come to Christianity."
Are equality and tolerance historical Christian values? (Note she does not bother to use the more PR-friendly and inclusive phrase "Judeo-Christian values.") Ask the victims of the Inquisition or the Crusades. America's Christian founders may have preached equality, but they hardly practiced it. See slavery. Did the "ideal of equality and tolerance" only appear with the birth of the United States? Check out the preceding Age of Enlightenment. (Locke celebrated a state of nature in which people were happy, tolerant, free and equal.) And Jesus invented feminism? Then why did the "Christian nation" of the United States deny women the right to vote? Why has the Catholic Church refused to ordain female priests? Why do certain fundamentalist Christians insist that women submit to their husbands?
And where currently is this tolerance that Coulter speaks of? Her Christian supremacist comrades--such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell--blast away at Islam and other religions. General William Boykin, a top Pentagon official, derided Islam while giving talks before evangelical Christians. And when George W. Bush last week commented that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, fundamentalist Christians howled in protest. The Reverend Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and a frequent visitor to the White House, said, ""The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them." How's that for tolerance?
Robertson has even accused Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists of representing "the spirit of the Antichrist" and repeatedly called Hinduism "devil worship." And Coulter showed little tolerance when she wrote of anti-American Muslims in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."
Plenty of Christian leaders, of course, are tolerant and equality-minded. Some support a gay bishop. (And some of my best friends are Christians!) But the history of Christianity shows that this religion has created a big tent that can accommodate mass-murdering bigots and courageous freedom-loving champions of equality. It is foolish, ahistorical, and wrong for Coulter to assert that Christianity equals equality and tolerance. After all, is she a fan of liberation theology?
One should not get too exercised about Coulter's uninformed view of history. But her remarks represent the fervent desire of Christian supremacists to transform the war against al Qaeda into a titanic religious battle. Thank God most mainstream churches--including the one based in Rome--do not see it that way. Perhaps they have learned from the past.
Now, we turn to the GOP. Rather than theologize the war, the Republican National Party and its chairman Ed Gillespie have politicized it. There's nothing wrong with that. Bush's conduct of the war on terrorism and his actions in Iraq should be electoral issues. He should run on his record, and there would be nothing unfair about GOPers telling voters to vote Republican if they're satisfied with developments in Iraq and encouraged by Bush's handling of the terrorist threat. But that's not what the Republicans are doing. In its latest--and much-noticed--television ad, the Republican Party claims, "Some are now attacking the President for attacking the terrorists....Some call for us to retreat, putting our national security in the hands of others."
That's not true. Bush has not generally been criticized for going after the terrorists who attacked the United States. The critics have argued that the war on Iraq did not target al Qaeda. That's why ret. General Anthony Zinni, ret. General Wesley Clark, ret. General John Shalikashvili, Senator Bob Graham and other non-peace-movement types opposed it. Even now, as Bush and his aides claim the war on Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, his chief military commanders there say that U.S. troops are primarily fighting Ba'athist remnants, not al Qaeda terrorists and other jihadists who might have slipped into Iraq. And the major Bush opponents--such as the leading Democratic presidential candidates--do not call for "retreat" or to place U.S. national security "in the hands of others." They have urged that the United States partner up with other nations to deal with the mess in Iraq.
Gillespie and Coulter are just making things up--the past, the present, whatever. I wonder, if they were able to clear drafts of their ads and speeches with the world's most famous carpenter's son, what would Jesus do?
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
Every once in a while a reporter snags what I call a Naked Lunch moment. Naked Lunch is, of course, the title of the crazed and surreal novel by William Burroughs, the Beat-friendly author. Supposedly Burroughs' pal Jack Kerouac conjured up the name for Burroughs' disjointed manuscript, explaining that the title referred to the instant when a person can see exactly what is on the tip of his or her fork--that is, what is truly going on. (Remember, Kerouac was a be-bopping poet.)
Such a moment came when veteran Australian journalist John Pilger interviewed John Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control, for a documentary on the Iraq war that aired in England a few weeks ago.
Sitting with Bolton in a media room at Foggy Bottom, Pilger asked Bolton about civilian casualties in Iraq. Bolton replied, "I think Americans like most people are mostly concerned about their own country. I don't know how many Iraqi civilians were killed. But I can assure you that the number is the absolute minimum that is possible in modern warfare....One of the stunning things about the quick coalition victory was...how low Iraqi casualties were."
This was not a surprising response, nor was it the revelatory moment I teased above. Bolton is a hawk's hawk in the Bush administration. He is the agent conservateur in Colin Powell's State Department. He has led the administration's effort against the International Criminal Court. Last year, he single-handedly tried to revise U.S. nuclear policy by asserting that Washington no longer felt bound to state that it would not use nuclear weapons against nations that do not possess nuclear weapons. (A State Department spokesman quickly claimed that Bolton had not said what he had indeed said.) Bolton also claimed that Cuba was developing biological weapons--a charge that was not substantiated by any evidence and that was challenged by experts. In July, he was about to allege in congressional testimony that Syria posed a weapons-of-mass-destruction threat before the CIA and other agencies, who considered his threat assessment to be exaggerated, objected to his statement. When England, France and Germany recently tried to develop a carrot-and-stick approach in negotiating an end to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, Bolton huffed, "I don't do carrots."
His remarks to Pilger, then, were hardly surprising. He is a no-apologies ideologue. Pilger asked if 10,000 civilian casualties in Iraq would be a "quite high" amount. Bolton answered, "I think it is quite low if you look at the size of the military operation that was undertaken."
Then when the interview ended, Bolton, as he stood up and removed the microphone, asked Pilger, "Are you a Labour Party member?" As if that explained Pilger's questions about dead and injured civilians in Iraq. Clearly, Bolton had not been briefed. Pilger is an investigative reporter specializing in national security matters who has long been seen as a left-of-center crusader. A critic of his recently dubbed Pilger "the Eeyore of the left." One wonders who at the State Department let Pilger get this close to Bolton? (By the way, when Pilger interviewed Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, a Pentagon media official ordered Pilger to shut off his camera once Pilger began questioning Feith about civilian casualties.)
Replying to Bolton's jab, Pilger explained to him the current politics of Britain: "Well, Labour Party--they're the conservatives." Pilger meant "conservative" as in supporting Prime Minister Tony Blair's embrace of the war in Iraq.
By now Bolton was walking away from Pilger, looking like he much desired a fast separation. With a mischievous (or, some might say, wicked) smile on his face, Bolton shot back, "You're a Communist Party member?"
That was the Kodak moment, and it was captured by Pilger's camera operator. On Planet Bolton, if you inquire too forcefully about civilian casualties, you must be a commie. The Cold War might be over. But at least one senior Bush aide is keeping its spirit alive.
Pilger's documentary, as far as I can tell, has not aired in the United States. I've only seen the scenes involving Bolton and Feith. So I cannot vouch for the entire film. But in a flash, Pilger captured on tape a brief but telling exchange. Call it Bolton unplugged, and it's mean and ugly.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's website: www.bushlies.com.
Sometimes the small stuff distracts from the big. At a recent press conference, George W. Bush suggested the White House had nothing to do with the "Mission Accomplished" banner that was hung on the USS Abraham Lincoln for his triumphant May 1 speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq. Journalists quickly checked, and it turned out the White House had produced the banner. Bush-bashers decried his remark as a shameless lie that sought to shift blame to crewmembers, and White House defenders dismissed the matter as trivial. But during the same press conference, Bush tossed out other truth-challenged statements that were arguably more important than the banner business. But they have drawn little notice.
Bush claimed that he was the first president to advocate a Palestinian state. No, Bill Clinton had done so. (From a January 7, 2001 Clinton speech: "There can be no genuine resolution to the [Middle East] conflict without a sovereign, viable Palestinian state that accommodates Israel's security requirements and demographic realities.") And when a reporter asked how Bush could make up the $23 billion gap between the $33 billion pledged for Iraq reconstruction and the estimated $56 billion pricetag for rebuilding, he said "Iraqi oil revenues...coupled with private investments should make up the difference." Yet Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, has noted that in the near-term oil industry revenues will cover only the industry's costs. That is, there will be no oil revenues available to pay for reconstruction. More importantly, in response to a pointed question about the MIA WMDs--"Can you explain…whether you were surprised those weapons haven't turned up, why they haven't turned up, and whether you feel that your administration's credibility has been affected in any way by that?"--Bush countered, "We took action based upon good, solid intelligence."
Good, solid intelligence--that sounds like a subjective evaluation. But a statement of opinion can be deceptive if it is sufficiently divorced from facts. And a series of postwar findings indicate that Bush was not being truthful when he characterized the prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as "good" and "solid."
Since the major combat concluded, several official and credible sources have publicly noted that the prewar intelligence on Iraq and its supposed WMDs was neither strong nor reliable.
* In interviews with reporters in July, Richard Kerr, a former CIA deputy director conducting a review of the CIA's prewar intelligence, said that intelligence had been somewhat ambiguous. He noted that US intelligence analysts had been forced to rely upon information from the early and mid 1990s and had possessed little hard evidence to evaluate after 1998 (when UN inspectors left Iraq). The material that did come in following that, he said, was mostly "circumstantial or "inferential." It was "less specific and detailed" than in previous years. Kerr maintained that the CIA analysts had attached the "appropriate caveats" to this "scattered" and less-than-definitive intelligence.
* In late September, Representative Porter Goss, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, and Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the panel, sent a letter to CIA chief George Tenet that criticized the prewar intelligence for relying on outdated, "circumstantial" and "fragmentary" information, noting that the intelligence contained "too many uncertainties." This conclusion was based on the committee's review of 19 volumes of classified prewar intelligence. Goss, a former CIA case officer, and Harman maintained the committee's review had found "significant deficiencies" in the intelligence community's collection of intelligence after 1998. They cited a "lack of specific intelligence" on Iraq's WMDs and the alleged tie between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. The CIA challenged this assessment. In early November, Goss reiterated that there had been fundamental shortcomings in the prewar intelligence, but he nonetheless defended the administration prewar warnings about Iraq's WMDs. Still, he could offer but a lukewarm endorsement of the intelligence agencies, commenting that they "did the best they could with what they had."
* When David Kay, the chief WMD-hunter in Iraq, testified before Congress on October 2, he said that the intelligence community from 1991 to 2003 had a tough time gathering accurate information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "The result," he said, "was that our understanding of the status of Iraq's WMD program was always bounded by large uncertainties and had to be heavily caveated."
* In late October, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said that the prewar intelligence had sometimes been "sloppy" and inconclusive. Bush, he complained, had been "ill-served by the intelligence community." His committee is continuing its review of the prewar intelligence, but Roberts has been opposing Democratic efforts to examine whether Bush mischaracterized the intelligence in his prewar statements.
So if a former deputy CIA chief, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee, the chief weapons hunter (who works for the CIA and the Pentagon), and the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee each say that the prewar intelligence on Iraq was loaded with doubt, and if most of this group also maintain that it was based on uncertain information, how can Bush call this material "good, solid intelligence"? Who's not being honest? Of course, Bush has a strong motive to hype the intelligence. If Kerr, Kay, Harman and Roberts are correct, then there are three options: Bush misread the intelligence, he ignored the intelligence (in whole or in part), or the intelligence was misrepresented to him (and he has taken no steps to punish those who did so). Any of these scenarios would be painful for Bush to admit. Yet each would be a far more significant act than fudging the truth about a PR stunt.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
Don't read this if you like Ann Coulter.
Don't read this if you want to believe Ann Coulter gets her facts straight.
The other night I was enlisted to appear on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the controversy over the CBS miniseries on Ronald and Nancy Reagan. On the other side was Coulter, the over-the-top-and-over-the-edge conservative author whose latest book literally brands all liberals as treasonous. Conservatives and Republicans have howled that the Reagan movie was a travesty, complaining it portrays Reagan as out of it in the White House and callous toward AIDS victims. On air, I noted that since the movie, as far as I could tell, does not detail how Reagan had cozied up to the apartheid regime of South Africa, the murderous dictator of Chile, and the death-squad-enabling government of El Salvador, it indeed has a problem with accuracy. But the miniseries' true sin seems to be its schlockiness. The available clips make it look like Dynasty meets Mommie Dearest set in the White House.
Coulter started more restrained than usual, though she predictably bashed Hollywood liberals for trying to undermine the historical standing of a president they despised by resorting to trashy revisionism. Perhaps she even had a point. Who could tell what the producers were aiming at? But then she jumped the tracks. She claimed that the movie Patton was made by Holly-libs with "hatred in their hearts" for George S. Patton, the brilliant but erratic World War II general. These filmmakers "intended to make Patton look terrible," she maintained, but because they produced an accurate work, the movie ended up making "Patton look great and people loved him."
Was Patton a left-wing Hollywood conspiracy that backfired? Host Chris Matthews immediately challenged her in his subtle fashion: "You are dead wrong." He pushed her for proof, and she replied, "That is why George C. Scott turned down his Academy Award for playing Patton." Coulter was suggesting that Scott had spurned his Oscar because the filmmakers plan to destroy Patton's image by portraying the general "as negatively as possible" had gone awry.
Matthews wasn't buying. "Who told you that, who told you that?" he shouted. Her Oracle-like response: "It is well known." She added, "Why did you think he turned down the award, Chris? You never looked that up? It never occurred to you?"
Matthews retorted, "Because he said he wasn't going to a meat parade, because he didn't believe in award ceremonies." And Matthews was right. Following the show, I took Coulter's advice and did look it up. I found a 1999 obituary of Scott that noted he had stunned Hollywood in 1971 for being the first person ever to refuse an Academy Award. He had explained his action by slamming such awards as "demeaning" and he had dismissed the Oscar ceremony as a "two-hour meat parade." (Matthews receives extra points for getting this quote correct.) Coulter had twisted this well-documented episode into yet more proof that liberals--especially those in Hollywood--are conspiratorial traitors.
After I described this exchange to someone who once worked with her, he said, "That's Ann. She lives in her own world and she just makes things up." This interlude concerned a small matter. (Who knew we would be debating one of my favorite movies?) But this minor dustup provided evidence to support a serious charge. As Matthews remarked while wrapping up the segment, "Facts mean nothing to you, Ann." If so, why continue to have her on?
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
As the Bush White House juggles two political grenades--the Wilson leak and the MIA WMDs--there are two questions: can Bush and his gang prevent detonations, and can the Democrats make it difficult for Bush to defuse these controversies and escape without offering full explanations?
Within the political-media community of Washington, a consensus is emerging: the Wilson leak story has lost steam. That's to be expected. The burst of attention that occurred several weeks ago followed the surprising disclosure that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak in a July 14 Robert Novak column that identified the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson as a CIA operative working in the field of weapons counterproliferation. Wilson had criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policy--particularly its use of the allegation that Iraq had been uranium shopping in Iraq--and the leak, attributed by Novak to two "senior administration officials," appeared to have been meant to punish or discredit Wilson. It may have violated a federal law against naming covert government officers.
Once the initial shock passed--the CIA and the White House in a catfight!--the story shifted to a process matter: the conduct of the investigation. A dozen or so FBI agents are gumshoeing away, examining documents, holding interviews. This is not the traditional stuff of front-page headlines. The investigation has become a part of the routine agenda of Washington. As such, it is no longer fodder for the talking-head echo chamber of the cable news networks. And the White House has done a good job of turning down the volume. There have been no articles about Bush aides hiring lawyers. (I've asked around and so far have only heard that Novak has retained an attorney.) And there have been no stories about worry or paranoia at the White House.
Several Washington reporters to whom I have spoken recently have asked, what can the Democrats do to keep the Wilson leak story alive? This sort of question--common in the capital--is a reflection of the structural bias of the press corps. It is easy for reporters to cover an issue if the Ds and the Rs are tussling over it. But if there is no conflict or no holy-shit new developments, reporters move on. So the responsibility for keeping a story oxygenated often falls to the political opposition, not the media.
The Democrats are trying in the Wilson affair. Senator Chuck Schumer has been criticizing the Justice Department investigation--particularly the investigators' decisions to grant the White House a 12-hour delay before White House officials had to turn over requested documents. And on October 24, other Democratic senators held a faux hearing in a room in the Capitol. At this event, Senator Tom Daschle, the minority leader, and several of his Democratic colleagues questioned three former CIA officials about the Wilson business. It was a panel discussion set up to look like a hearing. "Testifying" before the senators were Vincent Cannistraro, a onetime senior official at the CIA Counterterrorism Center, Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst who went through training with Valerie Wilson (nee Plame), and James Marcinkowski, a former CIA clandestine officer.
The remarks from the panelists were sharp and passionate. They each decried the leak, criticized Bush's lackadaisical response to it, and blasted the Bush allies who have downplayed the significance of the leak and politicized the issue by attacking Joseph Wilson. The three men demolished much of the spin that has been coming from Republican circles. "Anyone who would care to try to portray this action as merely negligent, as opposed to deliberate, should also be prepared to explain how anyone so completely inept as to divulge this information by accident ever became a ‘senior official' in any organization, let alone an organization running the country," Marcinkowski remarked in his prepared statement. "What sickens me," said Johnson, "is the partisan nature that the White House has allowed [the leak controversy] to take on." Johnson noted that he had written his remarks with two other CIA veterans who had trained with Valerie Wilson--Michael Grimaldi and Brent Cavan--and that he and his co-authors were Republicans who had voted for Bush and contributed money to his presidential campaign.
Cannistraro told the senators he had heard from current CIA officials that before the war there was "a pattern of pressure" from the Bush White House aimed at pressing the CIA to produce intelligence that backed the case for invading Iraq. He pointed to visits to CIA headquarters made by Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff Lewis Libby, who met with "desk-level" analysts. The analysts, Cannistraro said, maintained there was no intelligence to support the allegation that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium in Africa, and Cheney responded by telling them they were not looking hard enough. "This is the first time in 27 years I have ever heard of a vice president sitting down with desk analysts and…pushing them to find support for something he believes," Cannistraro said. "That is pressure."
The session drew only a modest amount of reporters; C-SPAN broadcast it live. Daschle and his comrades fully expressed their outrage over the leak and its possible harm to national security, and they voiced concern that the Bush administration had attempted to muscle CIA analysts. But they failed to drive home the point that they had organized this event because Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, had refused to hold a real hearing along these lines.
This panel discussion was an attempt to sustain the Wilson leak story. But the Democrats committed a strategic blunder by failing to use the opportunity to present a wider definition of the leak scandal and by not insisting that a congressional inquiry supplement the ongoing criminal investigation.
The Justice Department probe is focused on a narrow question: did anyone break a law in leaking Valerie Wilson's name and occupation to Novak? Leak investigations are notoriously difficult and often wind up a bust. And due to the intricacies of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, the leakers in this case, if they are tracked down by the feds, may be able to slip through the net. There are certainly leads for the investigators to follow. (A CIA officer now assigned to the National Security Council previously worked at the CIA with Valerie Wilson. Did he or she mention Valerie Wilson's CIA connection to others in the White House?) Still, even an on-the-level Justice Department investigation might not conclude with a prosecutable case. If that happens, there would be no further official activity and whatever information the Justice Department obtained could well remain secret. The findings of criminal investigations are supposed to stay confidential if no prosecution ensues. The Justice Department would not be compelled to produce a public report fingering suspected leakers or examining what the White House did or did not do in response to the leak.
But the original leak is not the only aspect of the controversy that deserves scrutiny. Nor is it the only potential vulnerability for the White House. There is evidence the White House sought to exploit the leak after it occurred. The official White House line, as served up by press secretary Scott McClellan, is that Bush and his aides did not respond to the leak because it was attributed to anonymous sources and the White House does not chase after anonymous leaks. The White House in the past has indeed reacted to anonymous leaks. But more importantly, the available information strongly indicates that once the leak happened White House officials, rather than ignoring it, sought to take advantage of it by calling other reporters and encouraging them to report further on Valerie Wilson. This was probably not illegal. But it was wrong and ugly. And the public ought to know if the Bush White House, instead of seeking the source of a possibly illegal leak that undermined national security, tried to benefit politically from it.
The post-Novak column activity--call it Phase II-- could involve more (and more senior) White House officials than the original leak. A Newsweek report suggested that White House aide Karl Rove might have participated in--or condoned--a post-leak campaign. And McClellan has tried hard to not answer questions about this part of the Wilson-leak affair.
Yet Phase II is not the main subject of the criminal inquiry underway. And that investigation is not geared toward uncovering what happened after the leak. This is more a matter for a congressional probe. But--no surprise--none has materialized, and the Democrats have not made a major push for such an investigation. This is a mistake on their part. Should the Justice Department investigation finish with no prosecutions, where will the Democrats be? At that point, they can try to revive their call for a special counsel. But that will look like desperation. And if they then start to holler about Phase II, they will be open to the charge they are beating a dead horse to make political hay.
In order to serve their political interests--as well as the public interest--the Democrats should now be demanding an investigation that covers Phase II. Such a probe could be conducted by either the congressional intelligence committees or the government affairs committees. With the Republicans in charge, the prospects for a bipartisan investigation are nil. But Democrats could lay down a marker and at least try to expand the boundaries of the Wilson-leak scandal. In the Senate intelligence committee, Jay Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat, does have the ability to initiate an inquiry if he can gather five signatures on a request. There are eight Democrats on the committee.
Rockefeller, though, has yet to show any interest in such an investigation. After the panel discussion with the three CIA alumni, I asked him whether the intelligence committee should examine Phase II of the Wilson leak. "How long do you want to do these things?" he replied. "We'd be here for three years." The Democrats clearly believe the Wilson-leak scandal can hurt Bush. But if they are relying on Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department to score political points for them, they may end up disappointed.
The Democrats have also been slow to react fully to the recent news that Senate intelligence committee, at the direction of Roberts, is preparing a blistering report on the prewar intelligence that will conclude, according to Roberts, that the intelligence on Iraq was "sloppy" and inconclusive. Roberts is arriving late to this conclusion. Others who have found that the prewar intelligence was full of uncertainty include David Kay, the chief weapons hunter; Porter Goss, the GOP chairman of the House intelligence committee; and Richard Kerr, a former deputy CIA chief who has been reviewing the prewar intelligence for the CIA.
The news story about Roberts' report--which he attempted to quasi-deny later--did prompt a dust-up between Rockefeller and Roberts. Rockefeller accused Roberts of rushing out a report that would protect the Bush administration by blaming the CIA for bad intelligence on Iraq's yet-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction. He noted that Roberts had blocked an inquiry into how Bush and his aides had used the prewar intelligence.
Had Bush misrepresented the intelligence? That has not been part of the committee investigation Roberts has been overseeing. And Rockefeller has threatened to use the five-member rule to order such a probe. He also complained that whenever CIA analysts were interviewed by the intelligence committee, representatives of the CIA's general counsel office or legislative affairs office sat in on the sessions. Under such conditions, these analysts probably would be less likely to reveal whether they had been pressured by the White House.
But Rockefeller is not known as a streetfighter. As The Washington Post noted, he "is under considerable pressure from the Senate Democratic leadership not to allow Roberts to focus only on intelligence bureaucrats while avoiding questions about whether Bush…and others exaggerated the threat from Iraq." He has to be pressed to do this? Rockefeller did strike a firm stance--at least in front of reporters--on forcing Roberts to widen the intelligence committee's inquiry to cover Bush's use of the intelligence. But he and other Democrats did not make the most of the revelations about the Senate intelligence committee's report.
If the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs and the supposed connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda was shoddy, there are two options. Either the CIA misled Bush, or Bush misled the nation. Bush and his aides told the public that there was no doubt that Iraq possessed significant amounts of biological and chemical weapons, and Bush claimed that Hussein was "dealing" with al Qaeda and at any moment could slip his WMDs to Osama bin Laden's murderous schemers. Was that what the intelligence definitively said or not? If Bush based his prewar assertions on intelligence that he assumed to be solid but that actually was sloppy, he should be damn mad and sending heads rolling at the CIA, including that of CIA chief George Tenet. If Bush misrepresented less-than-definitive intelligence to make the case for war appear stronger, then he should be apologizing to the nation. So Democrats ought to be asking,, was Bush ill-served by the CIA, or did he misuse its intelligence? Bush should either be beheading folks at Langley or acknowledging fault. But he is doing neither, and Democrats should be vigorously calling attention to that.
With the Wilson leak--Phase I and Phase II--and the increasing number of reports noting that the prewar intelligence was loaded with uncertainties, there are plenty of questions that Bush ought to answer. The Democrats need to pose them.
JUST RELEASED AND A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER: David Corn's new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
Thanks to USA Today, the public now knows some of what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld really thinks of the war of terrorism. And thanks to Rumsfeld, the public knows that Bush is spinning when he discusses the war on terrorism.
The newspaper obtained an October 16, 2003, memo Rumsfeld wrote to four senior aides, in which he asked, "Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror?" Rumsfeld also noted, "We are having mixed results with Al Qaida." The much-discussed memo was clearly intended to goose his top people--General Richard Myers, General Peter Pace, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith--to think boldly and imaginatively about the war at hand. But Rumsfeld observed, "Today, we lack the metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror." He wondered whether more terrorists are being produced on a daily basis than the number of terrorists being captured, killed, deterred or dissuaded by U.S. actions.
If Rumsfeld says there is no way to measure success or defeat in the campaign against terrorism, how can George W. Bush declare that he is winning the war? Yet while speaking on September 12 at Fort Stewart in Georgia, before soldiers and families of the Third Infantry Division, Bush said, "We're rolling back the terrorist threat, not on the fringes of its influence but at the heart of its power."
As Rumsfeld might put it, according to what metrics, Mr. President?
But the Rumsfeld memo is significant beyond its inadvertent truth-telling. Bush has repeatedly said that Iraq is "the central front" in the war on terrorism. Yet Rumsfeld's memo barely mentioned Iraq. Instead, Rumsfeld focused on combating terrorism at its roots, and he asked his aides to bring him ideas to counter the radical Islamic schools--the madrassas--that instruct students to hate the West. As he noted, "Does the U.S. need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists?" And he asked, "Should we create a private foundation to entice radical madrassas to a more moderate course?"
With these comments, Rumsfeld veered dangerously close to becoming one of those root-cause-symps who routinely are derided by hawks for arguing that the United States and other nations need to address the forces that fuel anti-Americanism overseas--in the Muslim world and elsewhere. The public disclosure of these views also made Rumsfeld's refusal to criticize Lt. General William Boykin appear all the more curious.
Boykin, the newly appointed deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, was recently caught by NBC News and The Los Angeles Times making comments that indicate he believes that Islam is a false religion--he called Allah "an idol"--and that he sees the war on terrorism as a spiritual conflict between "a Christian nation" and heathens.
In various press briefings, Rumsfeld has dodged addressing Boykin's remarks. At one point Rumsfeld said he had tried to watch a videotape of one of Boykin's church speeches, but he was unable to make out the words. (Boykin made most of his controversial statements from various church pulpits.) Wait a minute. The Pentagon can analyze communications intercepts and satellite imagery, but it cannot provide the defense secretary a clear rendition of a broadcast videotape?
Social conservatives have predictably rallied behind Boykin, trotting out the to-be-expected argument that the poor general is being assailed for his religious views. Now what if he had said something like, "According to my religious views, Judaism is a false religion"? Or, "my religion teaches that black people are inferior to white people"? Would Rumsfeld and Boykin's defenders have been as temperate in their response?
Writing in The Washington Times, conservative commentator Tony Blankley noted, "Whether or not American officials chose to call this a religious war, it is unambiguously clear that our enemy, bin Laden and the other terrorists, are motivated by Islamic religious fanaticism.....It shouldn't be a firing offense for the occasional American general to return the compliment." In other words, in this war (religious or not), the United States is entitled to be as extremist and intolerant as its murderous foes. Blankley fondly recounted that when Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met on a cruiser off the coast of Newfoundland on August 9, 1941, they sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers" with the assembled sailors. Does he suggest that Boykin lead the Pentagon masses in singing that same number? Perhaps Bush and Rumsfeld can provide back-up vocals.
Boykin's prominent role in the administration's war on terrorism is certainly an impediment to any effort to encourage fundamentalist Islamic institutions to become more moderate. Rumsfeld ended his memo with a wide-open question: "What else should we be considering?" Here's a no-brainer: how about not appointing a Christian jihadist to be one of the leaders of an endeavor that aims to persuade Islamicists that the West is not so bad? Or is that too far outside the box?
JUST RELEASED AND A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER: David Corn's new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
I'm no Bob Novak.
The conservative columnist, it seems, receives different treatment from the CIA than yours truly. After senior administration officials told him in July that former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife was a CIA officer working in the field of counterproliferation--this was the leak that launched the current scandal--he called the CIA for confirmation. According to Novak, a CIA official was "designated to talk" to him. This official, in Novak's telling, denied that Valerie Wilson (nee Plame) had "inspired" Joseph Wilson's selection for a mission to Niger to check out allegations that Iraq had been uranium-shopping there. But this CIA person informed Novak that Valerie Wilson had been asked to solicit her husband's help. The "designated" CIA official, Novak reports, asked that Novak not use Wilson/Plame's name, saying she probably would not be given another overseas assignment but that exposure could cause "difficulties" if she traveled abroad. Novak claims the official never stated that Wilson's wife or anyone else would be endangered. So he named her in a July 14 column and damaged her career and aided what might have been a White House attempt to punish or discredit Joseph Wilson--an effort that possibly undermined national security and possibly violated federal law.
Compare this to my experience with the CIA. After I learned from reliable sources the identity of a current National Security Council staffer who once worked with Valerie Wilson at the CIA in weapons counterproliferation, I wondered whether I should make the name of this person public, and I contacted the CIA.
This NSC staffer might--I emphasize, might--play a role in the Wilson leak scandal. I know of no reason to suspect he or she is one of the leakers. (A recent Newsweek story referred to this NSCer, but it did not name the staffer.) But perhaps this individual--whom I was told is a CIA officer assigned to the NSC--mentioned Valerie Wilson's CIA connection to one or more White House colleagues during the period in which Joseph Wilson was causing the White House discomfort. (Wilson primarily did that by publicly disclosing that the Niger allegation was probably not true and by charging that the White House had reason to be suspicious of the claim.) Consequently, investigators probing the Wilson leak ought to ask this NSC officer--if they have not already done so--whether he or she talked about Valerie Wilson with anyone in the White House? If the Justice Department investigators can figure out how individuals in the White House came to know about Wilson's wife (if they did), then the gumshoes might be able to find a trail leading to the leakers.
I tried reaching this individual and could not get past the NSC receptionist, who referred me to NSC press spokesman Sean McCormack. He returned my call once, missed me, and then did not return subsequent calls.
I thought it would certainly be newsworthy to point out a White House officer who particularly deserved to be questioned by the Justice Department investigators. But I worried: would doing so out another CIA officer who has engaged in counterproliferation work? Over the years, I've generally been a critic of the CIA, but I do want the agency to be successful in this mission. And I do not aim to needlessly jeopardize anyone's career. In my 1994 book on the CIA--Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusades--I named many a CIA person, but most were retired and had no objection to being identified. In one instance, a former CIA man who lived in a developing nation maintained that if he were fingered as a former CIA undercover officer his family might be targeted. I kept his name out of the book.
So should I ID this CIA person working at the White House? As Novak did, I called the CIA. I spoke to Mark Mansfield, a longtime CIA spokesperson. I informed him that I had learned about this CIA officer and mentioned the individual's name. I asked if the CIA would confirm the person's employment at the CIA and whether the agency wanted to make a case for not revealing his or her name. He said he would get back to me--and nothing more. Several hours later, he called. He had no "designated" official for me to speak with. "We generally don't comment upon employment," he said. But did he not want to argue against naming this person. Any guidance, off the record? I asked. No, he said. "As a general point," Mansfield added, "we always prefer that CIA employees--whether they are undercover or overt--not be identified publicly because it can limit opportunities to travel overseas and can have unintended consequences."
That was hardly a forceful argument. No pleading. No melodramatic warnings that I would be endangering one person's career and ruining operations around the world. In a way, this echoed the weak pushback Novak claims he received when he contacted the CIA about Valerie Wilson. Still, Novak reports, the CIA did talk to him about Valerie Wilson's position at the CIA and her (apparently small) role in the Niger business. That was more help than I received. I suppose the CIA officials who discussed my request might have figured that if they had asked me not to identify this NSC officer they would be confirming his CIA employment. So they left me in the cold--with my conscience.
It was, though, not a tough call. I have decried the Wilson leak and lambasted the White House for engineering it, doing nothing about it, or trying to exploit it (or all of the above). So I'm not going to drop a dime on this NSC staffer--not yet. Let's see how the investigation goes--to the extent the public can discern what is happening. I am assuming that the feds are aware of this person. If not, they should contact me. I'm dying to tell somebody.
JUST RELEASED AND A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER: David Corn's new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
The spin is not holding. Facing two controversies--the Wilson leak (click here if you have somehow managed to miss this story) and the still-MIA WMDs--the White House has been tossing out explanations and rhetoric that cannot withstand scrutiny.
Let's start with the Wilson leak. In the issue coming out October 6, Newsweek will be reporting that after Bob Novak published a July 14 column containing the leak attributed to "senior adminsitration officials" that identified former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as an undercover CIA operative, White House officials were touting the Novak story, according to NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell. Apparently, these officials were encouraging reporters to recycle or pursue the story about Wilson's wife. The newsmagazine also notes that, according to a source close to Wilson, shortly after the leak occurred Bush's senior aide Karl Rove told Hardball host Chris Matthews that Wilson's wife was "fair game." Matthews told Newsweek that he would not discuss off-the-record conversations. (He told me the same weeks ago when I made a similar inquiry about this chat with Rove.) An anonymous source described as familiar with the exchange--presumably Rove or someone designated to speak for him--maintained that Rove had only said to Matthews it was reasonable to discuss whether Wilson's wife had been involved in his mission to Niger. (In February 2002, Wilson had been asked by the CIA to visit Niger to check out allegations Iraq had been shopping for uranium there; he did so and reported back that the charge was probably untrue. In July, he publicly challenged the White House's use of this claim and earned the administration's wrath.)
These disclosures do not reveal who were the original leakers. (The Justice Department, at the CIA's request, started out investigating the White House; it has widened its probe to include the State Department and the Defense Department.) But these new details are significant and undercut the White House line on the leak. At a White House press briefing, Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary, repeatedly said that Bush and his White House took no action after the Novak column was published on July 14 because the leak was attributed only to anonymous sources. "Are we supposed to chase down every anonymous report in the newspaper?" McClellan remarked.
He was arguing that a serious leak attributed to anonymous sources was still not serious enough to cause the president to ask, what the hell happened? And he made it seem as if the White House just ignored the matter. Not so. Mitchell's remark and even the Rove-friendly account of the Rove-Matthews conversation are evidence the White House tried to further the Plame story--that is, to exploit the leak for political gain. Rather than respond by trying to determine the source of a leak that possibly violated federal law and perhaps undermined national security ( The Washington Post reported that the leak also blew the cover of a CIA front company, "potentially expanding the damage caused by the original disclosure"), White House officials sought to take advantage of it. Spin that, McClellan.
Newsweek is also disclosing that a National Security Council staffer previously worked with Valerie Wilson (nee Plame) and was aware of her position at the CIA because he or she had worked closely with Wilson's wife at the Agency's counterproliferation division. McClellan has indicated in his press briefings that the White House did not--and has not--acted to ascertain the source of the leak. But shouldn't Bush or chief of staff Andrew Card (if Card is not one of the leakers) have asked this person whether he or she mentioned Valerie Wilson's occupation to anyone in the White House? (I believe I know the name of this person but since he or she may be working under cover I am not at this point going to publish it.)
McClellan has had a tough time providing straight answers. At the October 1 press briefing, he was asked what Bush did after the leak first appeared. He replied by saying that "some news reports" have noted that Valerie Wilson's CIA connection "may have been well-known within the DC community." That hardly seems so. Her neighbors did not know, and Wilson maintains their close friends did not know. No reporter that I have talked to--and I've spoken to many covering this story--had heard that.
During that briefing, reporters wondered if Bush approved of the Republican campaign to depict Wilson as a partisan zealot lacking credibility. McClellan sidestepped: "The President is focused on getting to the bottom of this." The next day, he was once more asked whether it was appropriate for Republicans to be attacking Wilson. "I answered that question yesterday," he said. One problem: he hadn't. He also maintained that Bush "has been the one speaking out front on this." Not quite. For over two months, Bush had said nothing about the leak. And on this day, Bush met with reporters for African news organizations and joked about the anti-Wilson leak. When asked what he thought about the detention in Kenya of three journalists who had refused to reveal sources, he said, "I'm against leaks." This prompted laughter, and Bush went on: "I would suggest all governments get to the bottom of every leak of classified information." Addressing the reporter who had asked the question, Bush echoed the phrase that McClellan had frequently used in his press briefings and quipped, "By the way, if you know anything, Martin, would you please bring it forward and help solve the problem?"
Perhaps Bush needed a good chuckle after reading--or being briefed on--the testimony that chief weapons hunter David Kay was presenting that day to Congress. In an interim report, Kay had noted that his Iraq Survey Group had found evidence of "WMD-related program activities," but no stocks of unconventional weapons. Kay also had an interesting observation about the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs: "Our understanding of the status of Iraq's WMD program was always bounded by large uncertainties and had to be heavily caveated."
Wait a minute. That was not what Bush and his compadres had said prior to the war. Flash back to Bush's get-out-of-town speech on March 17, two days before he launched the war. He maintained, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal" weapons of mass destruction. Yet Kay was saying there had been "large uncertainties" in the intelligence. How does that square with Bush's no-doubt claim? It doesn't.
Kay's testimony is more proof that Bush misrepresented the intelligence. Regular readers of this column will know that Kay's remark were preceded by similar statements from the House intelligence committee and former deputy CIA director, Richard Kerr, who has been reviewing the prewar intelligence. Both the committee (led by Representative Porter Goss, a Republican and former CIA officer) and Kerr have concluded the intelligence of Iraq's WMDs was based on circumstantial and inferential material and contained many uncertainties.
Prior to the invasion, administration officials consistently declared there was no question Iraq had these weapons. On December 5, 2002, for instance, Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, said, "the president of the United States and the secretary of defense would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true, and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it." But what had been that "solid_basis"? Intelligence "bounded by large uncertainties"?
Look at what Kay said about Iraq's nuclear weapons program:
"With regard to Iraq's nuclear program, the testimony we have obtained from Iraqi scientists and senior government officials should clear up any doubts about whether Saddam still wanted to obtain nuclear weapons. They have told [the Iraq Survey Group] that Saddam Husayn remained firmly committed to acquiring nuclear weapons. These officials assert that Saddam would have resumed nuclear weapons development at some future point….
"Despite evidence of Saddam's continued ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, to date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material….
"Saddam, at least as judged by those scientists and other insiders who worked in his military-industrial programs, had not given up his aspirations and intentions to continue to acquire weapons of mass destruction."
Compare this assessment to what Bush and Dick Cheney had said before the war. In his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush declared that Hussein was a threat because he had "an advanced nuclear weapons development program" in the 1990s. (Bush had failed to mention that the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported in 1998 that it had demolished this "advanced" program.) And Cheney on March 16 said, "we believe [Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." His aides later said Cheney had meant to say "nuclear weapons programs."
But, according to Kay, the evidence so far collected indicates only that Hussein maintained a desire to acquire nuclear weapons and had not developed a program to satisfy that yearning. Kay later added that it would have taken Iraq five to seven years to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. So what was the evidence for Bush's and Cheney's assertions that the program was already revved up? By the way, Kay says his team has found "no conclusive proof" Hussein tried to acquire uranium in Niger. In fact, he reported that one cooperating Iraqi scientist revealed to the ISG that another African nation had made an unsolicited offer to sell Iraq uranium but there is no indication Iraq accepted the offer.
Kay also reported, "Our efforts to collect and exploit intelligence on Iraq's chemical weapons program have thus far yielded little reliable information on post-1991 CW stocks and CW agent production, although we continue to receive and follow leads related to such stocks." But before the war, the Bush administration had said flat-out that Iraq possessed chemical weapons. Did it neglect to pass along to Kay the information upon which it based this claim? (Actually, the Defense Intelligence Agency in September 2002 concluded there was no "reliable information" on whether Iraq had produced or stockpiled chemical weapons, but that did not stop Bush and his aides from stating otherwise.)
How did Bush respond to Kay's interim findings? He proclaimed they proved that he had been correct all along. The "interim report," Bush remarked, "said that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program spanned more than two decades. That's what [Kay] said....He's saying Saddam Hussein was a threat, a serious danger."
Reality check: Bush had said that the main reason to go to war was because Hussein possessed "massive" stockpiles of unconventional weapons and at any moment could hand them off to al Qaeda (with whom Bush claimed Hussein was "dealing"--even though the evidence on that point was and continues to be, at best, sketchy). Now Bush is asserting that Hussein was a threat that could only be countered with invasion and occupations because he had weapons research programs that indeed violated United Nations resolutions but that had not produced any weapons. That's a much different argument. Bush, Cheney, McClellan, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and others continue to deny they overstated (or misrepresented) the case for war. But the evidence is incontrovertible, and it keeps on piling up.
So all they have is spin. Bush changes the terms. McClellan, Rumsfeld, Rice insist that before the war everybody knew that Iraq had WMDs. Everybody, that is, except the folks putting together the intelligence assessments chockfull of uncertainties. When it comes to the Wilson affair, the White House ducks and covers, claiming it had no reason to react to the original anonymous-source leak, even though its officials (at the least) considered the leak solid enough to talk up to other reporters. And instead of confronting the ugly (and perhaps criminal) implications of the leak, the White House's allies in Washington lash out at Wilson, in a vicious blame-the-victim offensive, while Mister Change-the-Tone has nothing to say publicly about this. What if Wilson is a Democratic partisan? That does not excuse what was done to his wife.
Leaking and lying--these are not actions easy to explain away. Drip, drip, drip--that's the sound often associated with Washington scandals. But now it may also be the sound of the truth catching up to the propagandists and perps of the Bush White House.
JUST RELEASED AND AN AMAZON.COM BESTSELLER: David Corn's new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
Scott McClellan, White House press secretary, falsely accused me of rigging the truth. But before we get to that, the news of the day: the Bush administration is responding ridiculously to reports that the CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether White House officials revealed the identity of an undercover CIA officer to punish or discredit an administration critic.
Regular readers of this column will remember that back in July conservative columnist Bob Novak wrote a piece in which he reported that two "senior administration officials" had told him that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (who had publicly challenged the White House's claim that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Niger), was employed by the CIA and worked on counter-proliferation matters. Novak printed her name. The leakers apparently were trying to suggest that Wilson--who had been sent by the CIA to check out the Niger allegations and who concluded that there was nothing to them--had not been chosen for the job on merit. Wilson said that he considered the leak--which blew his wife's cover and perhaps undermined national security--was a message from the White House to others who might speak out against it: don't cross us, or we'll come after you and your family.
To brag a bit, I was the first journalist to report that the Novak leak was evidence of a possible White House crime. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, it is a felony for an official who possesses classified information to reveal the identity of a covert officer. The punishment is up to ten years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $50,000. (This law was championed by George H.W. Bush, former CIA director and father of W.) This past weekend, MSNBC.com revealed that the CIA has requested that the Justice Department investigate the anti-Wilson leak. And The Washington Post, citing an unnamed senior administration official, reported that "two top White House officials" had called at least six Washington journalists in an effort to disclose the identity and secret occupation of Wilson's wife. That makes it seem as if there was a White House campaign targeting the Wilsons. (Wilson, by the way, is a winner of the new Ron Ridenhour Award, which is given in honor of the My Lai whistleblower and journalist.)
This is trouble for the White House. And that was evident today at McClellan's daily briefing for reporters. He was repeatedly asked what Bush intended to do to get to the bottom of this ugly episode. In essence, McClellan's answer was, nothing. Over and over, McClellan said the Justice Department, not the White House, was the "appropriate agency" to investigate. And he said that anyone with information on this matter should contact the Justice Department--not the president. But shouldn't the president be taking steps on his own? the reporters wondered. Every time that query was placed in front of McClellan, he batted it away with a stock reply, noting that the White House had no information beyond the media reports--which were based on anonymous sources--to "suggest White House involvement" in the Wilson leak. "Are we supposed to chase down every anonymous report in the newspaper?" McClellan asked. And several times, he challenged his inquisitors, "Do you have any specific information to bring to my attention suggesting White House involvement?"
This was a ruse. McClellan was claiming that the White House was not obligated to conduct an inquiry in response to allegations predicated on anonymous sources. But the CIA's request for an investigation indicated these allegations are serious and not merely the routine spin often attributed to anonymous sources in the media. After all, the anonymous quotes that appear in the papers each day rarely charge the White House with criminal behavior that possibly harmed national security. Isn't Bush--who promised to restore honesty and integrity to the White House--curious about whether his aides might have engaged in illegal and underhanded conduct? McClellan maintained that Bush takes the matter seriously. Just not seriously enough to order any action, such as questioning top White House aides.
McClellan did assert that the White House had determined that Bush uber-adviser Karl Rove, was not a party to the Wilson leak. But he declined to say how that had been learned or when he had spoken to Rove about this. McClellan further defended Rove by saying, "I've known Karl for a long time, and I didn't even need to go ask Karl because I know the kind of person that he is, and he is someone that is committed to the highest standards of conduct." ("Have you read any book about him lately?" one reporter replied, and McClellan did not take the bait.) When McClellan was asked if Bush was "convinced that there was no White House involvement" in the Wilson leak, he did not answer.
McClellan presented a poor case for why the Bush White House was refusing to look into the allegations, and the journalists got annoyed. Near the end of the briefing--after McClellan once more explained White House inaction by saying, "if there is specific information that you have to bring to our attention, please do so"--a frustrated reporter exclaimed, "You keep pointing the finger at us to step forward with information. I mean, you're asking us to come forward and reveal things, but you haven't asked the White House staff to."
This was a weird situation. Here was McClellan telling the press corps that he and the White House had absolutely no information of their own on the Wilson leak, yet several reporters--including Novak--know exactly who called them to pass on the information on Wilson's wife. These reporters, though, can only reveal the truth by ratting out a confidential source. As of yet, none of them have done so. In fact, several White House reporters with whom I spoke--who were not contacted by the leakers--had only guesses as to which White House aides might have orchestrated the Wilson leak. That is, the identity of the leakers has not yet become out-in-the-open scuttlebutt. But there are journalists--NBC's Andrea Mitchell appears to be one--who can say definitively whether the White House was behind the leak.
Shortly before McClellan hit the podium, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer called for a special counsel to handle the investigation. He argued that Attorney General John Ashcroft and his political appointees should not be trusted to oversee a probe of the White House. Asked about a special counsel, McClellan said there was no need, and he asserted the Justice Department could handle it. "Scott," one reporter said, "the statement you gave about why there shouldn't be a special prosecutor was almost word for word what the Clinton people said in 1994 about why there shouldn't be a special prosecutor in Whitewater. Why should it stand now if it didn't stand then?" McClellan answered: "I just reject that comparison." The reporters laughed.
Pity McClellan. He has a tough task--to depict the president as caring about the leak even though he is doing nothing about it. The White House could well end up being ensnared in this scandal. The early signs are that there was indeed a plot to get Wilson (and destroy the career of his wife). The news reports indicate that some administration officials--perhaps only one or two--are upset about this and are willing to talk to reporters. If they're willing to talk to reporters, they might be willing to speak to prosecutors. The CIA must be committed to pushing the issue, otherwise it would not have requested an inquiry that places the White House in the crosshairs. Before this, the CIA and the White House had engaged in tense scuffling concerning the uranium-from-Niger controversy. But Tenet's request for an investigation was the bureaucratic equivalent of going nuclear. Now the Justice Department is in the spotlight. Will it go ahead with an investigation that threatens the White House? And will its decisions in this case be regarded as credible and not influenced by politics? Schumer says that he is rounding up more Democrats to join his call for a special counsel. In the meantime, McClellan will have to keep on dancing.
Speaking of which. At one point at the press conference, the subject shifted to a letter recently sent to Tenet by the House intelligence committee reporting on the committee's review of the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs and ties to terrorists. The committee found that this intelligence--which Bush has said was a solid basis for going to war--was predicated on fragmentary, circumstantial and out-of-date information and contained "too many uncertainties." McClellan noted, "Let's look at what we knew. We knew, just like the United Nations Security Council and intelligence agencies across the world and previous administrations, that Saddam Hussein...had large, unaccounted for stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons....We knew all these facts. Then came September 11th."
Wrong. And since I was there in the White House briefing room, I pointed out this was not the case, noting that Secretary of State Colin Powell had said in early 2001 that there were no stockpiles ("Hussein has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction"), that the Defense Intelligence Agency in September 2002 had concluded there was no "reliable information" on whether Iraq had chemical weapons stockpiles, and that the UN inspectors had not said there were WMD stockpiles. "Where are you getting your information?" I asked. Referring to the Powell statement, McClellan said, "That's not what he said....I think you're mischaracterizing Secretary Powell's comments." But it was what he said in 2001, I countered. McClellan then claimed "it was well documented by the United Nations Security Council that there were undocumented stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons." No, I said, and referred to Rolf Ekeus, the former executive chairman of the UN inspections in the 1990s. In a 2000 interview, Ekeus said, "There are no large quantities of weapons [in Iraq]. I don't think that Iraq is especially eager in the biological and chemical area to produce such weapons for storage. Iraq views those weapons as tactical assets instead of strategic assets, which would require long-term storage of those elements, which is difficult. Rather, Iraq has been aiming to keep the capability to start up production immediately should it need to."
McClellan did not counter facts with facts. Instead, he tossed out rhetoric: "America is safer, the world is better, the world is safer because Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime have been removed from power."
The facts are closing in on Bush and his crowd. And perhaps the law--that is, if Bush's comrades at the Justice Department are on the level. As Iraq continues to be a $170 billion headache, they have tied themselves to the mast of their prewar misrepresentations. As the Wilson leak threatens to become a primetime scandal, they are yielding no ground and hoping this inconvenience blows past. All in all, a precarious position for Bush. These are messes too severe to be straightened out by McClellan's heavy-handed, ludicrous spin.
JUST RELEASED: David Corn's new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers, due out September 30). For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
Did retired General Anthony Zinni really call George W. Bush's war in Iraq a "brain fart"? That seems to be the case. But first, some background.
On Thursday night, Zinni, the former commander of the U.S. Central Command, was interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline. And he was rather sharp in his assessment of George W. Bush's policy in Iraq. Before the war, Zinni, who had been an envoy for Bush in the Middle East, opposed a U.S. invasion of Iraq, arguing that Saddam Hussein did not pose an imminent threat. On Nightline, Zinni compared Bush's push for the war with the Gulf of Tonkin incident--an infamous episode in which President Lyndon Johnson misrepresented an attack on two U.S. Navy destroyers in order to win congressional approval of the war in Vietnam--and he challenged "the credibility behind" Bush's prewar assertions concerning Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and its association with anti-American terrorists. "I'm suggesting," Zinni said, "that either the [prewar] intelligence was so bad and flawed--and if that's the case, then somebody's head ought to roll for that--or the intelligence was exaggerated or twisted in a way to make a more convenient case to the American people." Zinni said he believed that Hussein had maintained "the framework for a weapons of mass destruction program that could be quickly activated once sanctions were lifted" and that such a program, while worrisome, did not immediately endanger the United States.
Zinni raised the issue that Bush might have purposefully misled the public and not shared with it the true reason for the war: "If there's a strategic decision for taking down Iraq, if it's the so-called neoconservative idea that taking apart Iraq and creating a model democracy, or whatever it is, will change the equation in the Middle East, then make the [public] case based on that strategic decision....I think it's a flawed--like the domino theory--it's a flawed strategic thought or concept....But if that's the reason for going in, that's the case the American people ought to hear. They ought to make their judgment and determine their support based on what the motivation is for the attack."
Zinni was, in a way, being polite. Earlier in the month, he addressed a forum sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association. There he let loose. Reflecting the views of high-ranking U.S. military officials who were dubious about launching a war against Iraq and skeptical about the occupation that would follow, Zinni accused the Bush crowd of having not been ready for the challenges to come after defeating the Iraqi army. "We're in danger of failing," he noted, because the Bush administration had not readied itself for what would follow the initial military engagement. "We fought one idiot here [in Iraq], just now," he said. "Ohio State beat Slippery Rock 62 to 0. No shit! You know! But we weren't ready for that team that came onto the field at the end of that three-week victory." He went on:
"Right now, in a place like Iraq, you're dealing with Jihadists that are coming in to raise hell, crime on the streets that's rampant, ex-Ba'athists that still running around, and the potential now for this country to fragment: Shi'ia on Shi'ia, Shi'ia on Sunni, Kurd on Turkomen. It's a powder keg. I just got back from Jordan. I talked to a number of Iraqis there. And what I hear scares me even more that what I read in the newspaper. Resources are needed, a strategy is needed, a plan. This is a different kind of conflict. War fighting is one element of it."
Zinni displayed little confidence in Bush and his aides. He said that their Iraq endeavor has landed the United States into the middle of assorted "culture wars" in the Middle East. "We don't understand that culture," he remarked. "I've spent the last 15 years of my life in this part of the world. And I'll tell you, every time I hear...one of the dilettantes back here speak about this region of the world, they don't have a clue. They don't understand what makes them tick. They don't understand where they are in their own history. They don't understand what our role is....We are great at dealing with the tactical problems--the killing and the breaking. We are lousy at solving the strategic problems; having a strategic plan, understanding about regional and global security and what it takes to weld that and to shape it and to move forward."
Do you think Zinni is angry over the war? He did get worked up as he ended his speech:
"We should be...extremely proud of what our people did out there....It kills me when I hear of the continuing casualties and the sacrifice that's being made. It also kills me when I hear someone say that, well, each one of those is a personal tragedy, but in the overall scheme of things, they're insignificant statistically." (Perhaps he had in mind the comment Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made in June, when he played down attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq by saying, "You've got to remember that if Washington, D.C., were the size of Baghdad, we would be having something like 215 murders a month; there's going to be violence in a big city.") Zinni continued: "When we put [our enlisted men and women] in harm's way, it had better count for something, It can't be because some policy wonk back here has a brain fart of an idea of a strategy that isn't thought out."
Brain fart? That's not quite a military term. But those are fighting words. And Zinni practically counseled his audience to rebel against the Bush administration. U.S. troops, he said, "should never be put on a battlefield without a strategic plan, not only for the fighting--our generals will take care of that--but for the aftermath and winning that war. Where are we, the American people, if we accept this, if we accept this level of sacrifice without that level of planning? Almost everyone in this room, of my contemporaries--our feelings and our sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and lies, and we saw the sacrifice. We swore never again would we do that. We swore never again would we allow it to happen. And I ask you, is it happening again? And you're going to have to answer that question, just like the American people are."
Brain fart. Garbage and lies. Never again. This was harsher rhetoric than Zinni deployed on Nightline, though his message was essentially the same. With such talk, he is in sync with Senator Ted Kennedy, who was blasted by Republicans for calling the war a "fraud." Note to Kennedy and other critics of the war: Fire away. If a Republican counter-attacks, you can always reply, at least I didn't say Bush is asking Americans to give their lives for a war based on mental flatulence.
COMING SOON: David Corn's new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers, due out September 30). For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.