Keeping Secrets

In the Age of Bush, information control has become the overriding White House obsession.

| Mon Feb. 9, 2004 3:00 AM EST

"President Bush's public support dropped sharply over the past month, especially among older voters, political independents and people in the Midwest, an Associated Press poll found... Bush's approval rating stood at 47 percent in the AP-Ipsos poll taken in early February, down from 56 percent approval just a month ago. Half, or 50 percent, said they disapproved in the latest poll... Bush's 47 percent approval rating is the same as his father's at this stage in his presidency 12 years ago before he lost to Bill Clinton."
- From The Associated Press

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Gee, older people (read: voters), political independents (read: swing voters), and people in the Midwest (read: battleground states) -- no wonder George is suddenly planning to go on the "offensive."

"'President Bush,' reads the lede of this new AP story, 'asked Congress to eliminate an $8.2 million research program on how to decontaminate buildings attacked by toxins - the same day a poison-laced letter shuttered Senate offices.'

"Oops. And just when the president was on such a roll.."
- From Joshua Marshall's Talkingpointsmemo.com

And to make the timing even worse, here's the strangest part of the ricin poisoning story in the Senate -- the White House experienced its own ricin incident. A vial of the toxin accompanied by a letter signed "Fallen Angel" from someone who claims to own a small trucking company was intercepted by the Secret Service on its way to the White House and then hushed up, according to Dan Eggan of the Washington Post:

"Six sources in law enforcement and public health said the Secret Service did not immediately inform the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service or other agencies about the White House letter when it was discovered. Three of those sources said the delay lasted 'weeks,' while a fourth recalled a lag of about nine days. Several said the delay was long enough that anyone exposed to the ricin would have begun to show symptoms."

When queried, press spokesman Scott McClellan offered the first of this week's series of increasingly lame White House responses on all sorts of contentious topics. "The information," he said, "was not released because 'it did not pose a public health risk.'... Some Senate aides criticized the Bush administration for not disclosing the White House letter sooner. 'This shows that their obsession for secrecy is more powerful than their regard for the safety of their colleagues on Capitol Hill,' one Democratic leadership aide said."

Let's keep in mind that these are people not exactly immune to leaping for the nearest microphone to announce terrorist threats and plots. So what was the problem? Wasn't ricin "evil" enough? Or didn't terror count unless committed by Islamic (or at least nonwhite) terrorists? So untidy to have home-grown types running around our own country doing these sorts of things. Given the success the FBI has had in solving the anthrax case, which quickly disappeared from the administration's public pronouncements and from the media once it didn't fit the Islamist storyline for scaring us all to death, someday the Anthrax killer(s), the Ricin mailer and other such folks might well be able to hold a reunion at a mall restaurant, possibly near a US weapons lab.

A Cheney APB:

A sharp-eyed reader, Ian, discovered the following small gem in a piece by former federal prosecutor and author Edward Lazarus at the Findlaw website. It threatens to turn what was previously understood as a duck-hunting folie à deux into what looks very much like a ménage à trois:

"The undisputed facts are these," writes Lazarus:

"Cheney sought Supreme Court review of the lower court decision, which would have required him to produce the documents the watchdog groups sought [about his energy task force]. While the Court was considering whether to grant the petition, Scalia dined with Cheney (and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) at a posh spot out on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

On December 15, 2003, the Supreme Court granted review in the Cheney case. Then, three weeks later, Scalia went on a very exclusive, 9-person, 5-day duck hunting trip with Cheney to a remote part of southern Louisiana. Both Scalia and Cheney were guests of the head of Diamond Services Corp, an oil services company, which ferried Scalia to the hunting grounds on its Gulfstream jet."

Yes, yes, we knew that behind heavy security (and no photos please) the Veep and his favorite extremist Supreme Court Justice were engaged in a male-bonding ritual over dead ducks, but now we have to add in a little tête-à-tête-à-tête on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- with Don Rumsfeld as the "trois" in the ménage? Well, that's news. (I wonder what they were dining on? Duck?)

The appearance of what? I'm sorry, I didn't catch that...

And there's another detail in those two paragraphs that I hadn't quite grasped. The small Gulfstream jet that took the place of Air Force 2 for that landing on a small airstrip in southern Louisiana near that private hunting camp owned by a private oil-services company seems to have been the company's as well. This gives new meaning to "free ride." On the other hand, let's not be too harsh. If you're an oil-related company and an oil-related vice president, what's more sensible than to grease the wheels a little? The only question is whether, sooner or later, the Veep and his duck-hunting buddy -- and don't mistake me here, I think duck tastes delicious -- get caught in the slick. Could this, in other words, turn into a political Exxon Valdez

Here's how Lazarus sums matters up thus far:

"Now one of those same justices has closeted himself away for five days with the Vice-President he helped put in office -- while, at the same time, he is presiding over a case that may have a non-trivial impact on whether that Vice-President gets another term. Even worse, we have Scalia and Cheney being hosted by an energy baron while Scalia sits on a case that, at bottom, charges the Vice-President with being too cozy with the energy industry."

And he doesn't even mention Rumsfeld. Oh, and while we have Cheney up for discussion. Last week was one of those rare moments when our Veep must have thought he had stumbled through a Star Trek wormhole into a universe filled only with Romulans and Klingons. Thursday was particularly bad for him, as Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service reported in a piece in the Asia Times. So bad, in fact, that Lobe concludes: "What the albatross was to the ancient mariner, Cheney is fast becoming to George W Bush's re-election chances" -- and of course he mentions the fast-spreading rumor that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is on his way to the rescue.

Among Cheney's misfortunes was a report put out by Richard Sale, a veteran UPI intelligence reporter -- as yet picked up almost nowhere by our media -- that the FBI is digging ever upwards in Cheney's office re: the Plame outing case Cheney's Staff Focus of Probe:

"Federal law-enforcement officials said that they have developed hard evidence of possible criminal misconduct by two employees of Vice President Dick Cheney's office related to the unlawful exposure of a CIA officer's identity last year. The investigation, which is continuing, could lead to indictments, a Justice Department official said.

According to these sources, John Hannah and Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, were the two Cheney employees. 'We believe that Hannah was the major player in this,' one federal law-enforcement officer said. Calls to the vice president's office were not returned, nor did Hannah and Libby return calls."

Sale claims that the FBI is pressuring Hannah (a ten-year prison sentence lurks for an unlucky convictee in this case) to get to Libby -- and Libby, of course, is Cheney.

Juan Cole at his Informed Comment website explains in part:

"Libby and Hannah form part of a 13-man vice presidential advisory team, sort of a veep NSC [National Security Council], which helps underpin Cheney's dominance in the US foreign policy area. Hannah is a neoconservative and old cold warrior who is really more of a Soviet expert than a Middle East expert. But in the 90s he for a while headed up the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank that represents the interests of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). Hannah is said to have been behind Cheney's and consequently Bush's support for refusing to deal with Yasser Arafat. But he was also deeply involved in getting up the Iraq war...

It is possible that [CIA agent Valerie Plame's husband ex-ambassador Joseph] Wilson posed a special danger to Hannah, since Hannah was at the center of the "cherry-picking bad intelligence" effort that led Cheney to maintain that Saddam and Bin Laden were Siamese twins and that Iraq was floating in biological and chemical weapons and within 3-5 years of having an atomic bomb. (All of these positions, which Cheney has repeatedly alleged, are completely false and were known to be in 2002 by anyone not wearing ideological blinders). Hannah had fingers in all three rotten pies from which the worst intel came--Sharon's office in Israel, the Pentagon Office of Special Plans (for which Hannah served as a liaison to Cheney), and fraudster Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. Hannah had probably been the one who fed Cheney the Niger uranium story, triggering a Cheney request to the CIA to verify it and thence Joe Wilson's trip to Niamey in spring of 2002, where he found the story to be an absurd falsehood on the face of it."

Cole, who seems to know, says Sale is still digging with more to come.

Oh, and while we're on Dick's bad-hair day: Just when the Pentagon seems to be opening multiple investigations into Halliburton's overcharging practices (admittedly a little like the big toe investigating strange acts by the little toe), a case of possible Halliburton bribery in Nigeria swam closer to the surface of our now-roiling media Gulf Stream -- and this was something that took place while Dick was still Halliburton's CEO. It's an investigation which could someday lead to an indictment in France, of all places. (No more of that canard, guy!) Lucky Congress put the "Hague Invasion Act" in place.

Here, by the way, was a letter to The New York Times re: Halliburton, which amused me greatly:

"To the Editor:

"There is an interesting juxtaposition of money lost and money found in today's news from Washington.

Would it be possible to apply the $27.4 million to be repaid by Halliburton for meals served to imaginary soldiers in Iraq, as well as the $6.3 million from Kellogg Brown & Root for kickbacks on service in Kuwait (news article, Feb. 3) to offset the cutbacks in meal service to actual poor children in the United States that will doubtless result from the $1.1 billion cuts in the budget at Health and Human Services (news article, Feb. 3)?

Or are we saving our spare change for the Hot Lunches on Mars Program?

Wendy Wolf
New York, Feb. 3, 2004"

Now, just think it all over for a minute: Cheney set up his own little vice-presidential version of the National Security Council in his office, while just down the way in the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld had set up the Office of Special Plans (OSP), a separate intelligence outfit created only to cherry-pick the sort of "intelligence" the Veep and his neocon buddies felt the squishy-soft CIA wouldn't deliver, "intelligence" that could then make its way via Cheney's office directly to the President's ear. Talk about developing parallel governmental structures. But, as it turns out, these may prove as shaky as London Bridge of the famed children's rhyme.

As any duck hunter must know, it never rains but it pours.

Throwing swine to Perles

Here's a quote to ponder from that neocon "Prince of Darkness" Richard Perle (Spoken on PBS's "White House Chronicle"): "If you look around the world, you'll be hard-pressed to find a democracy initiating an aggressive war."

I guess that's what happens when you look with blinders on -- or did he manage to miss our recent "preventive" war in Iraq, or is it that in his mind we no longer count as a democracy?

In any case, Jim Lobe caught the man twisting in the wind in an op-ed for Tompaine.com, 'Chutzpah, Thy Name Is Perle':

"'I have always thought our intelligence in the Gulf has been woefully inadequate,' Perle, former chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (DPB), confided to The New York Times after [David A.] Kay disclosed his findings. You would think from that remark that Perle had spent the run-up to the Iraq invasion warning Congress and the public that the intelligence community had hyped the WMD threat posed by Saddam Hussein...

But, if you thought that, of course, you would be dead wrong. No, Perle and his close associates -- such as Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney and former CIA director James Woolsey -- said quite the opposite: their single-minded message, repeated endlessly in op-ed columns, television interviews and Congressional testimony, was that the intelligence community was consistently underestimating the Iraqi threat in a deliberate effort to undermine the drive to war.

Their campaign now-and there is an orchestrated campaign underway, make no mistake-is to blame the CIA for exaggerating the Iraqi threat must rank right up there with parenticidal orphans."

Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector, who unlike Perle and his pals, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, David A. Kay, this administration, and much of our media, was on the mark before the war about the non-existence of Iraqi WMD, now writes on Alternet:

"Going beyond mere political ideology, the theocracy of evil encompasses a faith-based value system that embraces a simplistic 'good versus evil' opposition. If Saddam is evil, such thinking holds, then evil must be confronted, and such niceties as fact and fact-based logic no longer apply. As such, WMD became simply an enabling issue - something designed to focus the attention of the public while those in charge pursued the broader agenda of confronting evil...

The truth about what the U.S. intelligence community knew about Iraq's missing WMD is truly a Pandora's Box, with any disclosure sure to incite repercussions that would be damaging not only to those who promoted the war with Iraq, but those who supported this effort, helped hype the war in the media, or stood passively by while all of this occurred."

Former Clintonista Sidney Blumenthal recently commented in the British Guardian that there was no failure of intelligence:

"The truth is that much of the intelligence community did not fail, but presented correct assessments and warnings, that were overridden and suppressed. On virtually every single important claim made by the Bush administration in its case for war, there was serious dissension. Discordant views - not from individual analysts but from several intelligence agencies as a whole - were kept from the public as momentum was built for a congressional vote on the war resolution...

Precisely because of the qualms the administration encountered, it created a rogue intelligence operation, the Office of Special Plans, located within the Pentagon and under the control of neo-conservatives. The OSP roamed outside the ordinary inter-agency process, stamping its approval on stories from Iraqi exiles that the other agencies dismissed as lacking credibility, and feeding them to the president. At the same time, constant pressure was applied to the intelligence agencies to force their compliance. In one case, a senior intelligence officer who refused to buckle under was removed."

But of all the recent analyses of intelligence findings and the Iraqi war, Ray McGovern's most recent piece is by far the most devastating. The former CIA analyst who helped found VIPS (Veteran intelligence Professionals for Sanity) explores George Tenet's tortured, evasive speech on our intelligence "mistakes" and what to make of them. But most important, McGovern offers a timeline that makes quite clear what was missing before the decision to go to war was made -- a National Intelligence Estimate. That one wasn't conjured (not to say cooked) up until war had long been decided upon in secret tells you everything you need to know about the farce of the moment, about, in fact, any investigations of intelligence of any sort right now. McGovern concludes: "In 40 years of following such issues quite closely, I have never seen politicization of intelligence so cynical, so sustained, so consequential. And I was there for Vietnam."

Speaking of the President's "independent" commission...

Here's what the President said yesterday -- a dose of "explication" while introducing his panel to investigate WMD intelligence that even Abbott and Costello's famed Who's on First? routine couldn't match:

"Last week, our former chief weapons inspector, David Kay, reported that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons programs and activities in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and was a gathering threat to the world. Dr. Kay also stated that some prewar intelligence assessments by America and other nations about Iraq's weapon stockpiles have not been confirmed. We are determined to figure out why."

That "independent" panel is easy enough to deal with -- and in short order. No, ex-CIA director James (World-War-IV) Woolsey is not on it (not yet, anyway -- there are still two spaces to be filled). But yes, Judge Laurence H. Silberman, co-chair of the panel with former Democratic Senator Charles S. Robb, is a (right)wingnut. Talk about chucking a little red meat to your base! Woolsey only thought we were already fighting World War IV, while the good judge, buddy to Ken Starr, tried to launch World War IV himself -- against former President Clinton.

And yes, Senator McCain, the straight talker appointed by the President, talked straight to the press -- it took about 30 seconds -- assuring everyone in sight that not this president, or any president, would manipulate intelligence for his own ends. (But how about his cronies? How about the vice president?) And yes, Patricia Wald is a liberal; and Lloyd Cutler, an old insider Democratic warhorse. And yes, as ABC TV news reported last night, the committee is tasked with the more general subject of WMD intelligence, and only "secondarily" with Iraqi intelligence "failures." And yes, as ABC also noted, there's nothing in the fine print to assure us that the report, in whole or part, need be made public. But let's face it, none of this matters. Least of all to the President and his men (and one woman).

The only thing that matters to them, I suspect, is the date: March 2005. In political terms, March of next year is the equivalent of Endtime. Either George is reelected by then and no one gives a damn, or he isn't and who cares. But here's the irony -- this may well turn out to be the best of all possible solutions not for the President but for his opponents. The date -- an obvious attempt to avoid election year embarrassments -- is an issue to pound at without the least fear of some muddy, censored report appearing, no less a Lord Hutton-style whitewash. Well done, George!

As David Sanger reports in Saturday's Times, our President, reluctant to face the issue of the missing arguments for war or to appoint a panel that might delve into how we actually got into that war, finds himself suddenly harried as if by so many guerrillas and feeling uncomfortable indeed.

"People close to Mr. Bush say he has been frustrated that Mr. Kay's assessment rekindled all the arguments that dominated the news over the summer, when the White House had to pull back from the president's State of the Union claim of last year that Mr. Hussein had sought uranium in Africa.

Mr. Bush certainly was in no mood Friday to entertain many questions on the issue of intelligence. He announced the commission's formation in a five-minute statement. He barely introduced its co-chairmen... He left the room without taking questions. More to the point, Mr. Bush never explained whether the charter of the commission would extend beyond intelligence gathering to the politically crucial question of how the White House had used the intelligence it received. Democrats seized on the omission."

Lessons of proliferation

So, for a minute, let's try to sum up the present situation in a global context by first noting last week's public admission by Dr. A. Q. Khan, the "father" of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, that our ally in the war against terrorism, Pakistan, was practically radioactive in the field of global proliferation. Citing an imminent fear of weapons of mass destruction, of actual mushroom clouds rising over American cities, and of deadly toxins being sprayed from light observation planes over parts of the East coast, the Bush administration invaded a country without a significant nuclear program, no less an imminent bomb, and no stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, no less the ability to deliver them anywhere near the United States, and no provable or even likely links to al Qaeda.

In the meantime, our ally Pakistan, a country where it's likely Osama bin Laden has taken up residence, whose intelligence service more or less created Afghanistan's Taliban (and parts of which have until recently offered Taliban remnants continued support), was sending nuclear help, nuclear plans, nuclear parts, sometimes on military planes, to Libya, Iran, North Korea and who knows where else as part of what the head of the IAEA, Mohammed Elbaradei, has now termed a global nuclear "supermarket." Moreover, as Pervez Hoodbhoy pointed out in the Washington Post recently, "Khan widely and openly advertised his wares over the past decade" and his program was "squarely under army supervision." (Though only the "father" of the bomb confessed to an intent to proliferate, it's an open secret that the Pakistani military at the highest levels were involved in this.)

As with those drawings from my childhood which showed five-legged cows (in those days undoubtedly quite sane) sailing through clouds and asked you to find anything "wrong" in the scene, I ask: What's wrong with this global picture? As the following exchange from the White House indicates, spokesman Scott McClellan swears not a thing. Those five-legged cows (now stark, raving mad) were obviously meant to be exactly where we see them and nowhere else:

"QUESTION: I guess what I'm asking here is how long has the United States known of the nuclear weapons fire sale being run out of Pakistan and --

MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, like I said, there's a lot of -- there are a number of success stories in the intelligence community that often go unseen or unreported or are not reported until quite some time after the fact. You heard from Director Tenet --

QUESTION: Well, tell us.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- you heard from Director Tenet, in terms of what he said on Pakistan. And you've seen, by the actions of the government of Pakistan, that they are committed to stopping proliferation.

QUESTION: It just raises a question. The United States went to war against a leader that we said had these weapons, turned out not to. We're confronting North Korea over what we think are their weapons. Libya is an issue. And, yet, on Pakistan, it sounds as if we've known for a while that they were running this black market on nuclear weapons and haven't done anything.

MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, I don't think it raises the question you are asking. I think it shows that we're confronting threats around the world in a number of different ways. And weapons of mass destruction and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a high priority for this administration. That's one reason why the President is going to be announcing this commission, to do a broad assessment of our intelligence capabilities related to weapons of mass destruction."

But Iraq, remember -- we pointed out -- was unique, given Saddam Hussein's history and given the events of September 11th."

Saddam's history and the events of September 11th. At the White House, they remain part of the same drawing and nothing's wrong with the world. Ah life, ain't it great?

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.