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January 18, 2006

The Empty Shirts, Courtiers, and 'Crazies'

by Ray McGovern

Individually, the new "dots" supplied by revelations about the Iraq war in James Risen's State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration are not very surprising. Collectively, though, they provide valuable insight into the peculiar way in which President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair prepared to launch an unprovoked war – shades of Germany and Anschluss Austria two generations ago. All that's needed: power-intoxicated leaders, court functionaries to serve them, and obedient military leaders accustomed to subordinating conscience to career requirements.

Risen's book throws new light on just how Bush and Blair led their countries into war. It is a case study of the pitfalls in marginalizing foreign policy bureaucracies in favor of sycophants one level down. That part of his book is as revealing as Risen's now-famous disclosures of illegal eavesdropping on Americans by the National Security Agency (NSA). Cumulatively, the "dots" furnished by Risen illuminate U.S.-U.K. plotting and planning in 2002 – a year that will live in infamy.

Tête-à-Tête With Tenet

Risen fills in gaps regarding the urgent visit to Washington by the British intelligence chief, Richard Dearlove, and the meeting he had with Tenet on July 20, 2002. We already knew from the famous "Downing Street Minutes" published by London's Sunday Times on May 1, 2005 – official minutes taken at a July 23, 2002, meeting of Blair's top advisers – that Dearlove brought back word from Washington that Bush had decided to remove Saddam Hussein by force, and that the war would be "justified" by cooking up intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction and warning that Iraq might give them to terrorists like the ones responsible for 9/11. While Tenet's name sat atop the list of usual suspects, we did not know for sure that it was he who provided this reassurance to the British until one of Risen's CIA sources, who took part in the discussions with Dearlove, filled in that particular gap.

Risen's revelations add weight to the "Downing Street Minutes." These remain a pearl of great price, since they provide the smoking gun – documentary evidence that President George W. Bush, with Blair's acquiescence, had decided by mid-2002 to effect "regime change" by force on false pretenses. The minutes of the July 23 meeting leave no doubt that the president had decided to attack Iraq, even while saying in public that war would come only as a "last resort."

Dearlove is quoted as saying that Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action "justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy [emphasis added]." But, I have often wondered, why did Dearlove begin that sentence with the conjunction "But?"

Pregnant Conjunctions

Reference to the "conjunction" of terrorism and WMD is transparent. By the time the Downing Street minutes hit the front page of the Sunday Times, it had long since been clear that, for whatever reason, Blair had bought into Bush's plan to invade Iraq; that the plan included conjuring up the specter of a "mushroom cloud" to deceive Congress and Parliament into approving war; and that this would be achieved by pretending that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and might give them to terrorists. That "conjunction" is clear.

But what about the conjunction "But?" The answer to that becomes clearer elsewhere in the minutes, which quote Foreign Secretary Jack Straw daring to warn that the case was "thin." According to the minutes, Straw said that:

"It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea, or Iran."

It was presumably at this point that Dearlove countered, "But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Sadly, as is now well known, in the summer and fall of 2002 that is precisely what was done, with the full cooperation of American and British intelligence and invaluable help from the likes of the archdeacon of con-men, Ahmed Chalabi, and his stenographer, Judith Miller of the New York Times.

Marginalization of the Bureaucracy

Risen's revelations in State of War throw further light on the marginalization of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his U.S. colleague, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell – and the institutions they headed – in the months leading up to the attack on Iraq. That they both had serious doubts about the justification for – indeed, the sanity of – launching war was clear even then to close observers.

Powell's misgivings became still more obvious in a book by BBC broadcaster James Naughtie published a year and a half ago. Naughtie quoted Powell describing the neoconservatives in control of policy toward Iraq as "f*cking crazies." (At a reporter's suggestion that Powell use this sobriquet as a title for his memoirs, the then-secretary of state laughed uncontrollably.)

"Crazies" (with or without the preceding adjective) is an epithet in use for over 25 years to refer to Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and other ideologues of the extreme Right, at a time when they were deliberately restricted to mid-level positions in the Reagan and Bush administrations so they could not cause major trouble. The words escaped Powell's mouth during a telephone conversation with his counterpart Jack Straw during the run-up to the war, according to Naughtie.

Who Else Heard Powell's Colorful Language?

Powell's ideologue colleagues, of course, were only too well aware that the disdain was mutual – and they could not have been unaware of the moniker "crazies." Now that we know the extent of NSA's warrantless monitoring of U.S. citizens, however, it seems altogether likely that conversations between Powell and Straw were among those intercepted – apparently unbeknownst to Powell, who insists he was told nothing of the widened tasks assigned to NSA by the president.

Although arch-ideologue and now U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton was then nominally subordinate to Powell while working at State, he was clearly Powell's ideological "minder." Bolton's requests (revealed at his confirmation hearings) for certain transcripts of NSA intercepts suggest he wanted to be able to bring hard copy to his neoconservative colleagues in the White House to provide documentary proof of Powell's treachery. Small wonder that the administration refused to provide copies of the NSA documents Bolton requested to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even though that eventually meant the Senate would not confirm Bolton as ambassador to the UN and that he would have to be given an interim appointment.

And small wonder that Powell's contract was not renewed.

Risen to the Occasion

Risen's book throws intriguing light on the intrigue. We know from other leaked British official documents that Jack Straw was something of a thorn in the side of Blair's more war-prone advisers, and was regarded as a general nuisance for raising picayune matters like whether the war might violate international law. Here is an excerpt from a memo he wrote to Blair on March 25, 2002 before Blair visited Bush at Crawford and came home committed to support war:

"There has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with UBL [Usama Bin Laden] and Al Qaida. Objectively, the threat from Iraq has not worsened as a result of 11 September … regime change per se is no justification for military action. … A legal justification is a necessary but far from sufficient precondition for military action. We have also to answer the big question – what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than in anything. … Iraq has had NO [emphasis in original] history of democracy so no one has this habit or experience."

Straw and Powell just would not "get with the program." Small wonder that Blair and Bush decided to circumvent their chief foreign policy advisers and resort to more unquestioning loyalists like their intelligence chiefs.

Risen makes very clear that Blair felt an urgent need for some kind of high-level, independent confirmation of what he was hearing on the telephone directly from Bush, and that both Straw and Powell were seen as flies in the ointment. CIA director Tenet, on the other hand, was very close to and loyal to the president. Better still, he enjoyed daily access to the president, had a perfect record for telling him what he wanted to hear, and knew the president's mind on Iraq. And the latter is what Blair wanted to know.

That explains Blair's urgent insistence that Dearlove sound out Tenet, in order to increase Blair's comfort level before he let himself get even more deeply involved in the Iraq adventure. And the garrulous Greek from Queens did not disappoint.

From the minutes recording Dearlove's July 23, 2002, report to Blair and his top 12 advisers, as well as from Risen's additional revelations, it is clear that "slam-dunk" Tenet gave the needed reassurances to Dearlove, with whom he spoke one-on-one for an hour-and-a-half on July 20, 2002. The message was this: Blair need not worry. Nor need he pay any heed to naysayers or foot-draggers like Straw and Powell. President Bush had decided for war, and the intelligence would be "fixed" to support that policy.

An earlier version of this appeared on Truthout.com.


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Ray McGovern's Bio

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.

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