Holding Someone Responsible
The September 23 issue of The New York Review of Books, published September 7, is a must read. In four separate essays camouflaged as book reviews an intelligence expert, an experienced diplomat, one of Washington's most experienced political reporters, and noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. assess what went wrong with the Bush administration's foreign policy, who is to blame, why, and how grave mistakes continue to be committed with so little notice to the public.
Taken together, the essays spell out how wrong as a nation we are going when all of our institutions wilfully fail to address the question of who bears responsibility for failing to protect the nation. The attack of 9-11, the Iraq War, the Abu Graib torture scandal, the near hopelessness of post-war governance of Iraq, and the Bush administration's plan, once again, to expand destabilizing nuclear weapons technology are among the largest issues of our day. Yet, they continue to unfold in a climate where critical information is withheld by the White House from the joint Presidential-Congressional commission investigating 9-11; the Commission itself self-consciously refrains from naming names or addressing issues of personal responsibility until after the November election; the legitimacy of the U.S. puppet regime in Iraq is undermined by rank corruption, cronyism, ignorance among the Neocons; and the news media continues to be complicit in keeping all of this, and other dangerous and destabilizing initiatives, from the American public -- as if they had no right to know before Election Day.
The bitter irony, of course, is instead of bringing democracy to the Middle East, we are watching our own government and news media do their best to pervert the democratic ideal of an informed electorate right here at home.
1. Withholding Information
The lead article is by intelligence specialist Thomas Powers, who details how the 9-11 Commission and various other agencies felt pressure not to name names and fix responsibility for failing to prevent 9-11 and for creating the morass of post-war Iraq -- even as they uncovered unmistakable evidence that Bush Got It Wrong both before 9-11 and afterwards.
During the hearings conducted by the 9/11 Commission Condoleezza Rice and other witnesses for the administration frequently said that the CIA never gave them a warning they could act on -- a name, an address, an airline flight number, a city, a specific plan and time of attack. President Bush added that he would have moved heaven and earth to protect America if only someone had told him what needed to be done. But just how much detail did he really need? According to the 9/11 Commission's report, before September 11 the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) which the CIA delivered every morning to the White House included "more than 40" articles "related to Bin Laden."
In March 2001 Richard Clarke, chief of the counterterrorism staff in the National Security Council, advised Rice against reopening Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic passing in front of the White House, warning that al-Qaeda cells were operating inside the United States and truck bombs were among their weapons of choice. In May the chief of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, Cofer Black, warned Rice that the threat level was close to the level it had reached during the millennium, when major plots were thwarted in Jordan and in the United States, including one targeted on Los Angeles International Airport. On June 25, Clarke cited six separate reports of al-Qaeda plotting; three days later he added that terrorist activity "had reached a crescendo." At the same time the CIA was instructing all station chiefs to warn host governments around the world and to seek their help in disrupting terrorist cells. On June 30 an agency briefing was headlined "Bin Laden Planning High Profile Attacks."
So it went, day after day, week after week. By late July, George Tenet told the commission, the threat level could not "get any worse" -- "the system was blinking red." This appears to have been the case in both senses. The collection efforts of the CIA and other organizations were not only bombarded with signs and reports of threatening activity, but the warning system itself -- all those channels of communication intended to rouse the President and the White House staff to alarm and activity -- was "blinking red."
This gale-force wind of warning reached its highest level on August 6, when the PDB delivered to President Bush on vacation in Texas was headlined "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." For two years the White House fought to suppress the text of that warning and it is not hard to see why. It contains no addresses, dates, names of visa violators -- no "actionable intelligence," as Rice has frequently pleaded in the President's defense. But the stark fact of Osama bin Laden's desire to strike hard at the United States burns through unmistakably.
Hijacked planes, Osama's knowledge of the millennium attack planned for Los Angeles airport, his patient planning for years before operations are carried out, the existence of seventy FBI field investigations of al-Qaeda activity inside the United States, even a reminder of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center--it would be hard to imagine the system blinking red more vividly than it does in the PDB of August 6. One can imagine the terrible frustration of George Tenet over the following two years, criticized for "failing" to prevent the attacks on September 11, and forbidden by circumstance and loyalty to the President from bursting out with the obvious question -- what more did he need?
But like the Senate Intelligence Committee, the 9/11 Commission stops there. Perhaps holding presidents accountable is more than any commission or Senate committee can fairly be asked to do; perhaps only the electorate can properly hold a president accountable. We shall see.
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[T]he failure to act before September 11 and the unnecessary war with Iraq cannot fairly be blamed on intelligence organizations or anyone else. The White House is the problem, not for the first time. Iraq is President Bush's war. He insisted on it, and nothing can save us from the same again until we find the will to hold the President responsible.
2. Personal Responsibility
Long-time political reporter Elizabeth Drew next reviews the 9-11 Commission Report and describes in detail how the White House sought to prevent the Commission from Pinning the Blame where it belongs:
The administration fought the commission at nearly every turn -- at first denying it sufficient funds, then opposing an extension of time, refusing it documents, trying to prevent Condoleezza Rice from testifying in public... .
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The biggest obstacle the administration placed before the commissioners was CIA Director George Tenet's refusal to let them interview detainees directly, including key figures in the September 11 plot-- despite the strong objections of some of the commissioners. They were forbidden to talk to, among others, the plot's mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (called KSM in the report), who had been captured in Pakistan. The report observed that assessing the truth of statements by such witnesses was "challenging":
"Our access to them has been limited to the review of intelligence reports based on communications received from the locations where the actual interrogations take place. We submitted questions for use in the interrogations, but had no control over whether, when, or how questions of particular interest would be asked. Nor were we allowed to talk to the interrogators so that we could better judge the credibility of the detainees and clarify ambiguities in the reporting. We were told that our requests might disrupt the sensitive interrogation process."
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The strongest objection lodged by the administration was to the staff report (Number 17) about how the administration performed on the morning of September 11, which clearly suggested that Dick Cheney decided on his own, without first clearing it with the President, that the hijacked planes should be shot down. Neither the staff report nor the final report explicitly charges Bush and Cheney with lying about this when they told the commission that Cheney had first gotten permission from the President to give the order; but the implication that they were doing so is clear.
3. Neocon Corruption
Longtime diplomat and former Ambassador Peter Galbraith shares his professional as well as personal insights into how and why the Bush administration Bungled the Transition after the invasion of Iraq.
As I write, nearly two months after the handover, Allawi's government faces a Shiite rebellion that extends from Basra to Baghdad, and has included extreme fighting in and around the Imam Ali shrine in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Thanks to an April agreement between the US military and Falluja's Baathist leaders, the city has become a safe haven for terrorists. Other Sunni Arab cities -- Mosul, Samarra, and Baquba -- are full of armed insurgents while residents of Baghdad live in a capital beset by violent crime, terrorism, and the insurgency. All things considered, Allawi's chances now appear to be highly uncertain.
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The main problem for Allawi is that he lacks both the political constituency and the material resources to translate his tough line into effective action.
Galbraith has assembled a number of proofs for how much of the disastrous post-invasion planning is traceable to "cronyism" of the Bush Administration:
The Bush administration's recruitment of staff for the CPA is one of the great scandals of the American occupation, although it has so far received little attention from the press. Republican political connections counted for far more than professional competence, relevant international experience, or knowledge of Iraq.
A number of examples, some familiar to many of us and others not, follow:
In May, The Washington Post ran an account of three young people recruited for service in the CPA by e-mail, without interviews, security clearances, or relevant experience. They ended up responsible for spending Iraq's budget; because they knew little about the country or about financial procedures, they did so slowly. The failure to spend money was of course the source of enormous frustration to jobless Iraqis and undoubtedly produced recruits for the insurgency. According to the Post, the threesome, who included the daughter of a prominent conservative activist, had never applied to go to Iraq and could not figure out how they were selected. Finally they realized that the one thing they had in common was that they had applied for jobs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which had kept their resumes on file.
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The privatizing of Iraq's economy was handled at first by Thomas Foley, a top Bush fund-raiser, and then by Michael Fleisher, brother of President Bush's first press secretary.
James Haveman, "a political crony of Michigan's Republican former governor... ignored Iraq's private health care system (which meets half the country's needs) and wasted huge amounts of money by refusing to collect data on the existing clinics."
Politically connected corporations, such as Vice President Cheney's Halliburton, received "no bid" contracts and have been accused of bilking the government with tens of millions in overcharges. But don't expect politically embarrassing investigations. The CPA's inspector general is Stuart Bowen Jr., a longtime Bush aide, who came to the position from the Washington lobbying firm of Patten Boggs. Among the contracts he is supposed to monitor is one for URS, a client whose $30 million contract he helped obtain. * * *
The hiring of unqualified staff by the CPA, documented by the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post, helps to explain why the CPA (known to my Iraqi friends as "Cannot Provide Anything") accomplished so little.
Galbraith also examines the imprudence of denominating Iyad Allawi as the successor, in effect, to Paul Bremer.
Alawi is one of Iraq's least popular politicians, and is strongly opposed by some 61 percent of the population (a finding that seems to have carried no weight with the Bush administration, which both commissioned the poll and chose Allawi). The Iraqi forces available to implement his tough line are neither capable nor loyal, while the use of American troops further undermines his government's narrow base of support.
Galbraith sees in more recent Bush administration intiatives an attempt at fashioning an Iraq policy based on "realism" rather than ideology. "Unfortunately,"he adds, "it is having trouble defining and carrying out a realistic policy. As with its previous triumphalist policy, the problems with the new, realistic, policy come from ignorance of Iraq's history and society. Even if Iyad Allawi wanted to be a gentler version of Saddam Hussein, he could not succeed."
4. Media Complicity
For a longer view in the course of reviewing new books, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. assesses The Making of a Mess by neocons within the Bush administration -- and fixes a large share of the blame on the media.
The press and television in effect set the agenda for public opinion. They were reluctant to add to the low esteem in which they are held by questioning the presidential war. This reluctance aborted the national debate that should have taken place over changing the basis of our foreign policy from containment and deterrence to preventive war, and then over the waging of such a war against Iraq.
The press seems to have spontaneously decided that they would not give equal time to skeptics about the war. "Administration assertions were on the front page," said Thomas Ricks, The Washington Post's Pentagon correspondent. "Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday."Alarmist utterances by Cheney and Rumsfeld, now proven to be wrong, commanded the headlines and front pages; well-reasoned speeches by Senators Byrd and Kennedy opposing the rush to preventive war -- which, on factual grounds have proven correct -- were lucky to make page 18. Philanthropists had to pay the press to carry the texts of antiwar speeches.
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Revelations about Abu Ghraib and Supreme Court decisions rebuking our imperial president have led the American media belatedly to try to recover their integrity and do what a free press ought to do for the general welfare. But they are still too much accustomed to their acquiescent ways.
The continuing negligence of the press, Schlesinger writes, is evident in its effort to "play down criticism of the Bush foreign policy" as well as to ignore deeply disturbing news of the repeal of the ban on research and manufacture of "mini-nukes." Of all that has happened on Bush's watch, he adds, "reopening the nuclear door at a time when preventive war became part of US doctrine may have the gravest possible consequences for the human race." Yet no one in the press or media is paying attention and so, of course, the public remains in the dark.
Schlesinger makes no bones about his hope for reform in Washington. His reason, plainly, is that he loves his country and he abhors how the policies of Bush administration are making us a world pariah:
Never in American history has the United States been so unpopular abroad, regarded with so much hostility, so distrusted, feared, hated. Even before Abu Ghraib, Margaret Tutwiler, a veteran Republican who was in charge of public diplomacy at the State Department, testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee in February 2004, declared that America's standing abroad had deteriorated to such a degree that "it will take years of hard, focused work" to repair it. After Abu Ghraib, it may take decades.
The hard work of repair would surely be speeded up if there were a regime change in Washington in November