Memories in America, trained by tv, are remarkably short even when they belong to otherwise intelligent reporters. Two recent articles – one by Sidney Blumenthal in Salon, the other by Fred Kaplan in Slate, both usually reliable – made it clear to me that we need to go back over some fundamental history of the Second Gulf War, key elements of which both seem to have forgotten or lost track of. We’ve covered this ground already but it was several years ago, so it bears repeating.
If you ask, “Why is it important to go through all this again? And why are these picayune details significant anyway?” The answer is, “Because we need to get it into our heads once and for all that conservatives are naive, gullible children, easily led over cliffs by anyone who feeds them what they want to hear.” The real story of the twisted intelligence that led to the SGW and idiotic decisions like de-Ba’athification isn’t just about arrogance, incompetence, and ignorance. It’s also – and crucially – about misplaced trust and a dangerously juvenile credulity that allows conservatives to believe demonstrably false ideas and foist them on the rest of us just because those ideas are appealingly melodramatic.
The WMD’s – Or Not
In his Salon piece, Blumenthal writes:
On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam’s inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail.
“Tenet told me he briefed the president personally,” said one of the former CIA officers. According to Tenet, Bush’s response was to call the information “the same old thing.” Bush insisted it was simply what Saddam wanted him to think. “The president had no interest in the intelligence,” said the CIA officer. The other officer said, “Bush didn’t give a fuck about the intelligence. He had his mind made up.”
Bush dismissed that intelligence because, Blumenthal explains, he had been convinced to rely instead on information from Doug Feith’s “secret” informant, known only as “Curveball”.
For two months, Drumheller fought against the use of Curveball, raising the red flag that he was likely a fraud, as he turned out to be. “Oh, my! I hope that’s not true,” said Deputy Director McLaughlin, according to Drumheller’s book “On the Brink,” published in 2006. When Curveball’s information was put into Bush’s Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address, McLaughlin and Tenet allowed it to pass into the speech. “From three Iraqi defectors,” Bush declared, “we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs … Saddam Hussein has not disclosed these facilities. He’s given no evidence that he has destroyed them.” In fact, there was only one Iraqi source — Curveball — and there were no labs.
Actually there was a second, confirming source, and possibly several more. The second was Ahmad Chalabi, embezzler and con-man extraordinaire, and the others were supposed Iraqi “defectors”. What they all had in common, the defectors and Curveball, was Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi, you see, was the guy who made them all available to Cheney and his private intel outfit, C-TEG (Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group).
To understand how this happened, we have to go back to the First Gulf War when now-DNI (Director of National Intelligence) Mike McConnell was one of Cheney’s closest aides. Chalabi scraped an acquaintance with McConnell, portraying himself as the leader of an exiled Iraqi dissident group called the Iraqi National Congress. He claimed that his INC had an army and a govt-in-exile formed and ready to take over control of the country if the US invaded Iraq.
Chalabi’s main talent is persuasion. In fact, the INC was a loose conglomeration of Iraqi exiles, some with govt or military experience, some outright crooks, who never numbered more than a few hundred and were centered around a core of fewer than a dozen “leaders”, of which Ahmad was the top. The idea that this exile group was ready to control the country at a moment’s notice was pure fantasy. Many of them hadn’t been in Iraq in decades (Chalabi hadn’t been there since 1958) and none of them had current contacts or any influence with anyone in a position to help them.
But con-man Chalabi impressed McConnell and sold him on the idea that the US could invade Iraq, remove Hussein, and immediately have in place the INC as a puppet govt friendly to America. McConnell introduced Ahmad to Cheney, who was likewise impressed, and Cheney privately pitched the invasion idea to Bush I.
Poppy wasn’t having any. His chief advisors – Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker – were realists, and they knew full well that invading Iraq and removing Saddam was a fool’s errand. They were strongly against it, and their description of the mess it would make was, as we now know, accurate to the last detail. Poppy passed on it, whereupon a firestorm erupted on the Right.
Neocons and ultraconservative wingnuts viciously attacked Poppy for his “cowardice” in refusing to invade Iraq, and PNAC – the Project for a New American Century – was born. The brainchild of the most influential neocons in and out of govt (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Abrams, et al), PNAC set itself up to provide the intellectual foundation of an invasion of Iraq as part of a much larger “vision” of America as an imperial power centered around its control of
oil the Middle East and its role as Israel’s ally.
Meanwhile, all during the Clinton years, Ahmad, through Cheney, was moving in high right-wing circles, mixing with neocons and pushing his proposal for the Iraq invasion and the installation by the US of the INC as Iraq’s new “democratic” govt. In a private meeting (there was probably more than one) sometime in ’93, he spoke to a select group at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the home of most of the PNAC neocons. Newt Gingrich was at that meeting.
It’s kind of hard to remember, now that Gingrich has devolved into a joke, but at the time he was one of the most powerful figures in Washington and on the verge of winning control of Congress with his silly “Contract with America” ploy. Gingrich was (and is) as arrogant as they come, and one of the many illusions he fosters about himself is the one where he’s a brilliant spymaster who, like Kim Philby, sees things others don’t and manipulates his enemies with finesse.
What he actually was (and is) was a wingnut conspiracy theorist who was already convinced that US intelligence agencies were pansies and establishment whores who only saw what they wanted to see and missed The Big Picture. Chalabi’s fairy tales about Saddam’s “secret nuclear facilities” and supposed plans to attack the US with nuclear weapons struck a chord in Gingrich’s James Bond-poisoned brain, and he pushed the CIA to take Ahmad seriously.
They responded by investigating Chalabi, discovering his in absentia conviction for embezzlement in Syria and tellingly unable to discover any confirmation whatever about his claims of an Iraqi nuclear program or biological weapons program (the only chemical weapons Saddam had were the ones we had sold him years before). They dismissed Ahmad as a fraud, a liar, and a crook. Newt was furious.
Enter one Laurie Mylroie. Mylroie was an expert on Iraq with a long resume – something none of the PNAC neocons pushing the invasion could claim to be or have – that included stints at Harvard and the Naval War College. As Peter Bergen explained in a 2003 profile of Mylroie published in the Washington Monthly, her career had been unexceptional until the WTC bombing in ’93.
Until this point, there was nothing controversial about Mylroie’s career. This would change with the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the first act of international terrorism within the United States, which would launch Mylroie on a quixotic quest to prove that Saddam’s regime was the most important source of terrorism directed against this country. She laid out her case in Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America, a book published by AEI in 2000 which makes it clear that Mylroie and the neocon hawks worked hand in glove to push her theory that Iraq was behind the ’93 Trade Center bombing. Its acknowledgements fulsomely thanked John Bolton and the staff of AEI for their assistance, while Richard Perle glowingly blurbed the book as “splendid and wholly convincing.” Lewis “Scooter” Libby, now Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, is thanked for his “generous and timely assistance.” And it appears that Paul Wolfowitz himself was instrumental in the genesis of Study of Revenge: His then-wife is credited with having “fundamentally shaped the book,” while of Wolfowitz, she says: “At critical times, he provided crucial support for a project that is inherently difficult.”
None of which was out of the ordinary, except for this: Mylroie became enamored of her theory that Saddam was the mastermind of a vast anti-U.S. terrorist conspiracy in the face of virtually all evidence and expert opinion to the contrary. In what amounts to the discovery of a unified field theory of terrorism, Mylroie believes that Saddam was not only behind the ’93 Trade Center attack, but also every anti-American terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma City to September 11 itself. She is, in short, a crackpot, which would not be significant if she were merely advising say, Lyndon LaRouche. But her neocon friends who went on to run the war in Iraq believed her theories, bringing her on as a consultant at the Pentagon, and they seem to continue to entertain her eccentric belief that Saddam is the fount of the entire shadow war against America.
They still believe it.
Whether Mylroie ever met Chalabi is unknown but not unlikely. After all, they were moving in the same neocon circles, and both were heavily connected with the denizens of AEI. What is know is that after Mylroie’s book was published in ’94, Ahmad “adjusted” his pitch to include her conspiracy theories. More, he offered to “prove” them by making INC “defectors” available to American intelligence for debriefing. The Company wasn’t interested, being rightfully suspicious of anybody coming with Chalabi’s imprimatur, but the PNAC gang was. Somebody – probably McConnell, possibly Feith – set up a series of meetings between Chalabi’s so-called defectors and influential neocons.
Gingrich may or may not have attended one of those meetings but at the very least he must have heard about them. In ’95 or ’96 he gave a series of seminars at AEI on the US intelligence services, arguing forcefully that our entire intel network was riddled with laziness and incompetence, consistently ignoring critical analyses like Mylroie’s. He hinted darkly that important sources were being dismissed out of hand by the intelligence establishment (most likely a reference to Chalabi’s defectors) and proposed that raw data should henceforth be shoveled directly to Congressional leaders without first being vetted or confirmed by the CIA, which was clearly untrustworthy.
In the audience for those seminars were Doug Feith and David Wurmser, who were so convinced by Gingrich’s presentation that they became camp followers. Feith was already connected with McConnell, who was in turn connected to Dick Cheney, so when Cheney moved into the VP’s office and decided to follow Newt’s advice and set up his own private intel service, Feith was a logical choice. Feith became head of the Office for Special Planning (OSP), and he brought in Wurmser and another Gingrich acolyte, Michael Maloof, to run a subsidiary of OSP called C-TEG.
C-TEG’s job was to wade through reams of raw data looking for evidence that Mylroie’s theories were true. They would bring what they considered to be the most damning of that evidence to Feith, who would then present it to Cheney. As I explained in my original post, none of these people had any intelligence training or experience whatever.
Gingrich has no experience in intelligence; neither has Feith; neither have Maloof and Wurmser, two more Gingrich accolytes. So how did they know all this “vital information” was being withheld by the IC? They “knew it” because they were all devotees of and True Believers in Laurie Mylroie’s conspiracy theory that Hussein was the Professor Moriarty of terrorism–that he was the planner, motivator, and funder of every Islamic terrorist group in the Middle East, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and AQ, and that he was even behind the bombing of the Murra Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Here’s Maloof showcasing a classic example of neocon naivete in action:
“We discovered tons of raw intelligence,” said Michael Maloof, one of the pair. “We were stunned that we couldn’t find any mention of it in the C.I.A.’s finished reports.”
Stunned. “Raw intelligence” consists of unconfirmed reports, unsubstantiated rumors, gossip, and outright lies told by informers to gain some desired advantage. It isn’t included in finished reports because most of it –as much as 95% – is plain, unadulterated garbage, inaccurate and meaningless. But Mr Malloof clearly didn’t know that. What’s worse, he didn’t care.
This was what came to be known as “stovepiping” – sending unconfirmed intel straight to the VP’s crew who, ignorant naifs that they were, assumed it was all accurate and swallowed it whole. But they didn’t stop there.
At some point after the creation of the OSP, Ahmad Chalabi re-enters the picture accompanied by a super-secret source later code-named Curveball. Curveball, carefully coached, confirms every one of Mylroie’s fantasies for an eager Feith, as well as Chalabi’s homespun invention of well-advanced nuclear and chemical weapons projects. Feith sells Curveball to Cheney, and Cheney sells him to everyone else, including a gullible Junior Bush, along with a deep and abiding distrust of George Tenet’s “incompetent” CIA.
So the invasion of Iraq came about not because a cynical collection of powerful people were cooking the intelligence to justify what they’d already decided to do, but because a naive, conspiracy-minded group of inexperienced and near-hysterical hicks were genuinely convinced that Mylroie was right and Saddam was the Professor Moriarty of Mid-East terrorism, the man behind all the attacks against the US, including 9/11, and the mastermind who was planning a nuclear strike in some secret bunker somewhere, a la Ernst Blofeld.
The lesson here is simple, though it’s not the one generally accepted:
Beware the ignorant but devoted and utterly sincere True Believer. S/he’s much more dangerous than the most corrupt cynic on earth.