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The Arrogance of Power

by Tom Engelhardt Tuesday, Jul. 15, 2003 at 2:32 PM

We are now, I believe, at the beginning of a long-delayed Washington political drama.

Its foundations were well-laid by the neo-cons when they began turning their dreams of global domination into strategy and policy statements that poured from inside-the-Beltway think-tanks in the early 1990s. They were eager to return to power to complete the unfinished business of Reagan-era domestic policy by shredding the American social safety net and the unfinished business of the elder Bush's foreign policy by wiping out former ally Saddam Hussein and planting the American flag in the heart of Middle Eastern oil country. Once they took power, they planned to use it for exactly those ends. The assault of 9/11 was their opportunity (though I don't doubt it shook them up as well) and they went for it. Now we face the fallout. But, for the first time, so do they.

The Greeks called it "hubris" and knew that from it came a fall. In the Vietnam era, Senator J. William Fulbright came up with another term for it, with the American policy-makers of that moment in mind -- "the arrogance of power." If a hanging chad gave the Bush administration its hubristic opportunity, then a sixteen-word sentence in the President's State of the Union Message may prove its downfall. You know how, if you pull a strategically placed thread, a whole fabric can unravel? That sentence, putting forward a claim based on crudely forged documents, may turn out to be the thread.

On Friday, after the President and his National Security Adviser had threatened CIA director George Tenet with knives drawn ("Et tu, Condi?"), Tenet took "responsibility" for those sixteen words (it was on my watch!) and fell on his sword, which he had first carefully tried to blunt. In a surprisingly long mea culpa (only the first, I suspect, of various confessionals to come), Tenet managed both to take official responsibility for and acquit the CIA of responsibility for the claim that Saddam Hussein sought Niger "yellowcake." He managed to produce something like a defense of the CIA in the process, raising far more questions than he could answer even if he wanted to (which at this point he doesn't).

Meanwhile, on Saturday there was this fascinating little paragraph buried deep inside a David Sanger and James Risen piece in the New York Times (C.I.A. Chief Takes Blame in Assertion on Iraqi Uranium):

"There is evidence that there was concern in the C.I.A. about the credibility of the uranium information and that those doubts reached at least some White House officials months before the State of the Union address. Administration officials involved in drafting another speech Mr. Bush gave about Iraq, in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, said that at the C.I.A.'s behest, they had removed any mention of the central piece of intelligence about African uranium - a report about an effort by Iraq to obtain 'yellowcake,' which contains uranium ore, in Niger. No one has fully explained how, given that early October warning to the White House, a version of the same charge resurfaced in the early drafts of the State of the Union address just three months later, and stayed there, draft after draft."

By Sunday, Walter Pincus and Mike Allen of the Washington Post were reporting (CIA Got Uranium Reference Cut in October) that it was Tenet himself who, after arguing with White House officials, had pulled the Niger reference from the October speech.

"CIA Director George J. Tenet successfully intervened with White House officials to have a reference to Iraq seeking uranium from Niger removed from a presidential speech in October, three months before a less specific reference to the same intelligence appeared in the State of the Union address, according to senior administration officials.... The new disclosure suggests how eager the White House was in January to make Iraq's nuclear program a part of its case against Saddam Hussein even in the face of earlier objections by the CIA director. It also appears to raise questions about the administration's explanation of how the faulty allegations were included in the State of the Union speech."

So within a day, even as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was insisting "the president has moved on. And I think, frankly, much of the country has moved on, as well," the story was already unraveling into further mystery.

But as we prepare ourselves to be deluged by endless analyses of who knew what when and did what when re: the Niger uranium documents, let's not lose track of the most important point. These were crude forgeries, so crude that it evidently only took the International Atomic Energy Agency a few hours after receiving them to prove them fakes with the help of Google and without a bit of help from the massed intelligence networks of the Western world! The point is, if you believed these "documents" were real, then you're the perfect candidate for one of those Nigerian letters offering you a fortune if you'll just step in and briefly help someone in need.

Matt Biven's Nation magazine weblog, The Daily Outrage, gives a particularly vivid sense of just how crude these documents were. He writes:

"Here's a fun game: Imagine the Chinese government announces itself threatened by a secret American plot, and declares it is preparing preemptive military action against us. Making Beijing's case before the UN, President Hu Jintao waves around a set of documents laying out a complicated conspiracy. One of the documents purports to be from 'Prime Minister Richard Cheney of the Unionized States of America.' Another, dated October 2000, is signed by "Secretary of State James Baker." The Chinese would look absolutely deranged, relying on such obvious forgeries; the world would recoil in confusion and fear. Yet this is what our President did in his State of the Union address, when he cited similarly ludicrous forgeries as evidence Saddam was uranium-shopping in Niger.


Who created these forgeries? Why did they do so? How did they come into the hands of the U.S. government? How could they possibly have been relied upon when they got wrong the name of Niger's government, foreign minister and Constitution, and botched the President's signature? (Are we led by cynical liars -- or total incompetents?) That these basic questions go unanswered -- or even unaddressed -- is the best evidence yet that the White House was never interested in reality; only in war."

Tenet may have been "responsible," but he hardly did it. The question is: who did? As the thoughtful Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo put it in his Friday blog:

"Now Tenet has come forward and said, essentially, that his agency did not stand firm enough in the face of the White House's insistence on using intelligence reports that almost everyone in the intelligence community believed were bogus. (Bear in mind that everything that is being said about Tenet applies equally to Powell.) Frankly, I think he's right. They didn't. No one resigned. No one went to the mat over this.


Maybe heads should roll at the Agency. Maybe it should be Tenet's.

But all of this begs the obvious and singularly important question: the charge is that CIA didn't push hard enough to keep bogus information out of the president's speech. Who was pushing on the other side? Who was pushing to keep the bogus information in? And why?"

One suggestion came in a June 30 piece on AlterNet by ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern: How about the Vice President? Cheney evidently personally visited CIA offices to put the pressure on. It was his question about the Iraqi-Niger connection that sent ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson winging Niger-wards to find an answer (which he duly delivered). It was he who was pushing the idea that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear program, undoubtedly on the thought that nothing could be more fearsome to Americans hesitating about a war in Iraq than Saddam and the bomb.

As The Washington Post piece cited above puts the matter:

"Administration sources said White House officials, particularly those in the office of Vice President Cheney, insisted on including Hussein's quest for a nuclear weapon as a prominent part of their public case for war in Iraq. Cheney had made the potential threat of Hussein having a nuclear weapon a central theme of his August 2002 speeches that began the public buildup toward war with Baghdad."

Oh, and here's a Watergate phrase I'd like to reintroduce: "damage control." The Bush administration has now assumed the first position in that classic Nixonian dance, "damage control." They've circled the presidential wagons; they're fingering someone; they're offering explanations so limited they're bound to collapse, and they're claiming they've now put the issue behind them. As E. J. Dionne recently suggested in The Washington Post, the sudden defensiveness of these previously offensive-minded officials has been striking:

"An administration rarely on the defensive since 9/11 found itself forced to explain and explain. When the president was asked in South Africa whether he regretted using false information in his State of the Union speech, he evaded the question and criticized 'attempts to rewrite history.' A bizarre response, because it was the White House that rewrote history by admitting that the president's earlier statement was now inoperative. Who would have imagined that foreign policy and terrorism might become the administration's weak point?"

The president has declared the Niger forgery matter "closed." Been there, done that -- a position that should hold for about thirty seconds, about as long as the administration explanations for this mess are likely to last. My advice to the Busheviks is this: Get your fallback positions ready; then get fallback positions for those fallback positions ready; then figure out who else to throw to the dogs; next batten down the hatches because there's finally blood in the water -- blood in the case of American politics these days being opinion polls which, for the first time since September 11th, show genuine signs of eroding support for this administration, extending to previously inviolable presidential performance ratings. Richard Morin and Claudia Deane report in The Washington Post:

"Public support for President Bush has dropped sharply amid growing concerns about mounting U.S. military casualties and doubts whether the war with Iraq was worth fighting, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Bush's overall job approval rating dropped to 59 percent, down nine points in the past 18 days. That decline exactly mirrored the slide in public support for Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, which now stands at 58 percent.

And for the first time, slightly more than half the country--52 percent--believes there has been an 'unacceptable' level of U.S. casualties in Iraq... [T]he latest survey findings suggest that the mix of euphoria and relief that followed America's quick victory in Iraq continues to dissipate, creating an uncertain and volatile political environment.... An overwhelming majority of Americans--80 percent--said they fear the United States will get bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping mission in Iraq..."

In a "Newsweek web exclusive" pungently entitled Quagmire for Bush?, Laura Fording has these figures from a new Newsweek poll:

"While 55 percent of those polled say they approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president, his ratings have fallen 6 points from the end of May, 16 points from mid-April when Baghdad first fell to American soldiers, and nearly 30 points from the weeks immediately following the September 11 attacks.

Americans are increasingly skeptical about the military operations in Iraq, as well. The number who say they are very confident that the United States can create a stable democratic Iraqi government is now just 15 percent; 39 percent are someone confident. Those numbers were 21 percent and 42 percent, respectively, at the beginning of May. In that same time frame, Bush's approval ratings with respect to Iraq have fallen to 53 percent from 69 percent."

And really, folks, all this has just begun. There's so much more to come. In England, where the press has been light years ahead of ours on the issue of flimsy justifications for war and where Tony Blair's postwar popularity has already plummeted, The Independent now reports a second dossier used to mobilize prewar support (the first is already fondly known in the English press as the "dodgy dossier") was at least in part googled up off the internet!

"Tony Blair's first Iraq weapons dossier used material culled from the internet to buttress the Government's case for war - exactly as the now-discredited second, so-called dodgy dossier did. The document, released last September, shows at least six separate items on Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction were lifted from reports up to 21 months old. The revelation will be acutely embarrassing to the Prime Minister who, only this week, defended the first dossier robustly, and insisted it supported the need for action.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has already criticised the second dossier, produced in February, in which intelligence was mixed with other material, including a student's PhD thesis. The plagiarised documents in the first dossier included mention of ballistic missiles, unmanned drones, nuclear programmes, 'dual use' of civil material, maps showing how British bases in Cyprus were within range of Iraqi missiles and Saddam's supposed plan for regional domination."

Could this be where those nonexistent "unmanned drones" came from, the ones the President claimed Saddam might somehow transport to our coast and then send hundreds of miles inland to spray us with who knew what bio or chemical poisons? Now there's a prewar presidential claim that, though it was hardly less bizarre than insisting that Saddam had visited Roswell and communed with aliens, was never attended to, no less challenged (other than in one of these dispatches) and has now dropped from sight. Then, there were those dubious aluminum tubes; those "mobile CBW labs" (on which much more next week); those "links" to al Qaeda (suddenly coming under renewed scrutiny in the press thanks to those "retired" intelligence types)... but don't let me get started.

Much of this, including the Niger forgeries, wouldn't have stood up for a moment to serious press investigation before the war. Much of this, in fact, would have been downright comical if the President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense had just been doing stand-up routines and not leading us into war. Right now, the press is focusing on Niger yellowcake -- at least it's finally focused on something useful! -- but this is just the tip of the ludicrous-claim iceberg as Jim Lobe indicates in a fine summary piece from the Asia Times. Believe me, this administration has barely begun to defrost.

Out there in what the press likes to call "the intelligence community," as well as in the State Department, in various English intelligence agencies, not to speak of chancelleries and ministries around the world, there are unknown numbers of angry officials thinking about how to tell some of the stories we have yet to hear. And don't think, by the way, that Tenet's statement of responsibility won't be driving people in the intelligence "community" nuts right now. We could be at the edge of WMD-Gate -- a term I just saw used for the first time at in another pungently titled opinion piece, Just Call Him Old Stonewall):

"Before there was WMD-Gate, before we became experts on nonexistent uranium from Niger and the kinds of aluminum tubes needed to make nukes, our intelligence wizards faced a much simpler and scarier question: Could 9/11 have been prevented?"

So the "gates" have finally been opened. And in that context, let me announce a new yet-to-be-fully-staffed feature on the Tomdispatch landscape. I'm setting up a "Dept. of Calls for Resignation." Here's just a taste -- and so early, too, before the investigations even begin, before the calls for impeachment even come close to the mainstream.

H.D. S. Greenway, Vietnam-era journalist and now columnist for the Boston Globe, who largely supported the war in Iraq, has just called for the resignations of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz over the postwar mess (Give Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz the Boot). I consider that a first:

"In the lead-up to war, there were many voices from experienced experts and think tanks warning that the United States would need a substantial military police force to go in right after the troops. All were ignored, just as Robert McNamara ignored all advice about Indochina, only to say years later that he never knew.

Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz presided over what one diplomat calls a ''colossal miscalculation'' that may have more impact on this country than did the miscalculation at the Bay of Pigs four decades ago.... It is said that after the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy told Richard Bissell, the CIA man in charge of the project, that under a parliamentary system it would be he, Kennedy, who would have to resign. But since it was not, it was Bissell who would have to go. George W. Bush should make the same speech now to Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz."

In the meantime, some Democrats are finally beginning to call for accountability (talk about sharks, or at least catfish, in the water). Imagine where Sen. Kerry might be now if he had voted against the war back when. At least, he's starting to talk about "a pattern of deception by the administration." It's about time. The Associated Press reports that former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, whose antiwar position was admirable,

"demanded the resignation of any Bush administration official or federal government employee who failed to tell the president that claims about Iraq buying uranium from Africa were false.

'We do not know who these senior officials are, but the president should have been given that information,' Dean told a group of reporters outside a hospital in Derry, N.H. 'The individuals who misled the president know who they were and they should resign immediately.'

[He] added: 'The only other possibility, which is unthinkable, is that the president of the United States knew himself that this was a false fact and he put it in the State of the Union anyhow. I hope for the sake of this country that did not happen.'

"Asked whether he thought Vice President Dick Cheney should resign if he knew, Dean said, 'Anybody who misled Bush should leave office, whoever that may be.'"

So consider the unthinkable now thought -- and in print.

And all this without even considering the brutal situation in Iraq which is fuelling it. You might want to take a look at an interesting piece in Business Week by Stan Crock filled with oldie-but-goodie Vietnam-era options like "cut and run" and "escalation." Its title says it all about this administration's situation: Boxed In in Baghdad. This administration is just where they wanted to be. They just didn't quite imagine it this way. And what response do the neocons have? Well, how about Max Boot, one of our foremost imperial scribblers, writing in the Weekly Standard about the growing problems in occupied Iraq. His useful suggestion for future Iraqs is this: we should form a "colonial service" and a "colonial office" to do the job right. ("Of course, it cannot be called that. It needs an anodyne euphemism such as Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. But it should take its inspiration, if not its name, from the old British Colonial Office and India Office.") There's an inspiring thought.

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