Stop! Please. Get beneath the hype over former
White House press secretary Scott McClellan's book, What
Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.
Don't miss the forest for the trees.
Not since John Dean told the truth about President Richard Nixon's crimes have
we had an account by a very close aide to a sitting president charging him with
crimes of the most serious kind.
McClellan writes that George W. Bush abandoned "candor and honesty"
to wage a "political campaign" that led the nation into an "unnecessary
The chief U.S. prosecutor of senior Nazi officials at the post-World War II
Nuremberg Trials, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, labeled such
action – more correctly termed a war of aggression – the "supreme international
In other words, President Bush used propaganda and deception to lead the United
States into what an earlier generation of American leaders judged not just a
war crime, but the "supreme" war crime.
And, in all this, Bush had an eager cast aiding and abetting – from careerists
in the U.S. intelligence community to the fawning corporate media (FCM) whom
McClellan referred to as "deferential, complicit enablers."
As for the role of intelligence, McClellan tells of "shading the truth."
In the effort to convince the world that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction,
the president used "innuendo and implication" and intentional ignoring
of intelligence to the contrary.
Water over the dam, you say? No way.
White House spinners are at it again – "fixing" the intelligence
around the policy, this time on Iran. The fixing is obvious, but don't expect
to hear about it from the FCM.
An exception is MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. His antiquated approach is to ask
relevant questions – like, for example, will the White House do an encore in
preparing us for an attack on Iran?
Interviewing McClellan Thursday evening, Olbermann earmarked time to discuss
Iran and asked, "So knowing what you know, if [White House spokeswoman]
Dana Perino starts making noises similar to what you heard from Ari Fleischer
in 2002 … would you be suspicious?"
"I would be," McClellan said.
Wait. Before taking this with a blasé shrug, consider the source.
Fixing In Fits and Starts
The worst-kept secret in Washington is that Bush
and Vice President Dick Cheney are looking for a pretext to order air and missile
attacks on Iran. But when and how will Dana Perino and the rest of the propaganda
machine market this one?
When to sell? If former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card's dictum regarding
"marketing" the war on Iraq holds sway – i.e., "From a marketing
point of view, you don't introduce new products in August" – the administration
has only two months, unless it opts for an "October Surprise" as a
more effective way to help achieve a Republican victory in November.
But a smooth rolling out of war on Iran has proven more troublesome – no thanks,
by the way, to the FCM, most of them still claiming they did just fine before
the war on Iraq.
Part of the problem has been the new marketers. With Andy Card, Karl Rove,
Dan Bartlett, and Tony Snow gone, it is amateur hour for White House spinners
as they start-stop and rotate rationales for striking Iran.
And how to sell? Less than a year ago the focus was twofold:
(1) What President Bush on Aug. 28 called "Tehran's murderous activities"
against our troops, including "240-millimeter rockets that have been manufactured
in Iran and that had been provided to Iraqi extremist groups by Iranian agents;"
(2) His ad-lib on Oct. 17: "We've got a leader in Iran who has announced
he wants to destroy Israel. … I take the threat of a nuclear Iran very seriously."
But where are those 240-millimeter rocket shells?
For some reason, Gen. David Petraeus cannot deliver the goods.
As recently as April 25, his nominal boss, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm.
Mike Mullen, invited the press to what was supposed to be a well-oiled show-and-tell
exercise "in a couple of weeks," to display a multitude of captured
weapons from Iran.
But the show did not go on; it had to be canceled when the weapons that had
been found proved not to be of Iranian origin.
Ironically, one major hurdle would be getting senior Iraqi officials to go
along with a hyped-up demonstration of weaponry from Iran.
Shortly after Mullen offered his invitation, the Iraqis announced that Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki had formed his own Cabinet committee to investigate
U.S. claims about Iranian weapons, and to attempt to "find tangible information
and not information based on speculation."
The other pretext is the hyped-up danger from Iran's nuclear program.
Here, the administration suffered acute embarrassment when a vestigial group
of honest intelligence analysts and supervisors had the temerity to serve up
an un-fixed intelligence National Intelligence Estimate last fall that showed
that Bush had been knowingly exaggerating the nuclear threat from Iran.
The declassified key findings of the NIE were released on Dec. 3. They included:
"We judge with high confidence that in the fall of 2003, Tehran halted
its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate to high confidence
that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."
"We assess with moderate confidence Tehran has not restarted its nuclear
weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends
to develop nuclear weapons."
"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is
less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.
Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to
international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on
the issue than we judged previously."
To Bush and Cheney's dismay, the findings had been shared with Congress and
could not be suppressed.
What followed was the ineffably inept performance one has come to expect from
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who claimed the Estimate "confirms
we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons [which]
remains a very serious problem."
And before leaving for his early January 2008 trip to the Middle East, the
president said part of his purpose was to make it "abundantly clear … that
we view Iran as a threat, and that the NIE in no way lessens that threat, but
in fact clarifies the threat."
Got that? Threat.
According to Newsweek's well-connected reporter Michael Hirsh, Bush
all but disowned the NIE in conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
According to a senior U.S. official accompanying the president, Bush told the
Israelis that he couldn't control what the intelligence community says, but
that the Estimate's key judgments do not reflect his own views.
Bush reportedly had briefed Olmert in November on the Estimate's findings,
and he seemed almost apologetic about the findings.
After Bush departed Israel in January, a Newsweek reporter asked Olmert
if he felt reassured, to which Olmert replied, "I am very happy."
A Flexible Director of National Intelligence
Malleable Mike McConnell showed his true colors
shortly after the president got back from Israel.
Unable to withstand withering criticism from the likes of former Secretary
of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, and
the irrepressible former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, McConnell backpedaled.
In testimony to the Senate on Feb. 5 he confessed to careless wording in the
NIE due to time constraints, and even indicated he "probably would have
changed a thing or two."
He would now say, for example, that "maybe even the least significant
portion [of the Iranian nuclear program] was halted and there are other parts
Next at bat was the president himself in an interview on March 19 with the
U.S.-government-run Radio Farda broadcasting to Iran in Farsi.
Bush asserted that Iran has "declared it wants a nuclear weapon to destroy
people" and that it could be hiding a secret program. A White House cleanup
team conceded that Bush's statement about what Iran has "declared"
It was Defense Secretary Robert Gates' turn in April. Speaking at West Point,
Gates said he believes Iran is "hell bent" on acquiring nuclear weapons.
(Does it strike anyone that abandoning their weapons program in 2003 seems a
strange way of going about it?)
Gates added that he favored keeping the military option against Iran on the
The NY Times Jumps In
And on May 27, the New York Times misquoted
one of the key judgments of the NIE. More than a subtle distinction, the Times
indicated that the Estimate stated, "It was uncertain whether the weapons
work had resumed."
Speaking to the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP)
two days later, McConnell's deputy, Donald Kerr, took the same line, emphasizing
that "since the halted activities were part of an unannounced secret program
Iran attempted to hide, we do not know if it has been restarted."
(Emphasis in original)
This is the spin that the president, senior officials – and the New York
Times – have been putting on the NIE.
As noted above, the relevant NIE key judgment reads: "We assess with moderate
confidence Tehran has not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007…"
(Incidentally, that Kerr, as deputy to McConnell, would give a major address
to WINEP moves the intelligence community much too close to a partisanship with
this group, at least for this veteran intelligence officer's taste. Martin Indyk,
erstwhile research director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,
America's self-described "pro-Israel lobby," founded the institute.
AIPAC is listed as its parent organization.)
Rather than shadowboxing, making confessions when it seems opportune, and introducing
subtle changes of emphasis aimed at making the Estimate's judgments more politically
palatable, McConnell and Kerr should do their duty.
And that is to follow the long established intelligence community procedure
for updating an important NIE by ordering preparation of what is called a "Memorandum
to Holders" – in this case, holders of last fall's NIE on Iran.
This is an orderly, time-tested way to get the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies
that prepared the NIE on Iran to revisit it in a deliberate and rigorous way
and to indicate what, if anything, they believe needs to be changed.
At the release of the unclassified version of the NIE on Iran on Dec. 3, 2007,
Kerr issued a written statement explaining why the key judgments were being
"Since our understanding of Iran's capabilities has changed, we felt it
was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation
is available," he said.
Exactly right. So if the NIE's judgments are being challenged and/or are in
need of update, let Kerr or McConnell give the task to the dedicated professionals
responsible for drafting the NIE late last year.
And if McConnell should decide – or be told by the White House – not to, the
congressional oversight committees should awake from their stupor and require
a Memorandum for Holders.
It is certainly their prerogative, their duty, to do so.
Someone apparently needs to tell Director McConnell that it is not required
that the Israelis – or Kissinger, or Schlesinger, or Bolton – agree with the
Estimate's conclusions, however much the president would like all to be in sync
with the preferred line.
And, given the stakes, the new findings should not be rushed or done on the
Learning Curve Still Steep
McConnell (and Kerr, for that matter) are still
new to substantive intelligence analysis, and McConnell has admitted having
difficulty with the rigorous demands of the job. Frankly, I find it unsettling
that one of them briefs the president six mornings a week.
McConnell's lack of experience on issues other than technical intelligence
collection showed through in an especially troubling way on Feb. 27, 2007, as
he briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked McConnell why the Israelis sometimes have
a different view on Iran's nuclear program.
McConnell appeared quite puzzled, noting the closeness of the U.S.-Israeli
intelligence relationship and how U.S. intelligence officers discussed these
things with the Israelis. As I watched, I could not help feeling sorry for the
director of national intelligence – and for the rest of us, as well.
A pity that his predecessor, the more seasoned John Negroponte, did not take
time to tell McConnell what he told NPR's Robert Siegel before Negroponte
quit to go back to the State Department.
Asked by Siegel to explain why the Israelis have suggested a much shorter timeline
for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, Negroponte stated the obvious with bluntness
uncommon for a diplomat: "I think that sometimes what the Israelis will
do [is] give you the worst-case assessment."
Reprinted courtesy of Consortium