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Still Cherry-Picking the Facts on Iraq

Recent revelations about the Bush administration's selective use of prewar intelligence may have finally awakened the U.S. media, but the public is too distracted to notice.
 
 
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I pulled myself away from the television set recently, enthralled as I was by the ongoing Winter Olympics, and took the time to wade through the massive quantities of information building up in my in box (electronic and otherwise) about the world we live in outside of the sports arena.

One piece of information in particular caught my eye. The revelations made by retired CIA officer Paul Pillar in an article published in the March-April issue of the journal Foreign Affairs should come as a surprise to no one who has been following the disturbing case of Iraq and the missing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Mr. Pillar is a career intelligence officer with the CIA who served as the deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center and, most recently, as the national intelligence officer for Near East/Middle East affairs from 2000 to 2005. His essay offers sound analysis to back up his claim that the Bush administration had made the decision to invade Iraq independent of any viable intelligence analysis to sustain the allegation that Iraq possessed undeclared and hidden WMD capability. This capability allegedly not only violated international law but also constituted a threat to the United States and the international community that justified the use of force.

This, of course, is not a news flash, although Mr. Pillar has found his assertions suddenly newsworthy. I found myself puzzled as the collective American news media reacted with stunned fascination over the notion that the Bush administration would have "cherry picked" intelligence in order to justify its decision to invade Iraq.

Mr. Pillar's revelations only reinforced information previously available from such sources as the Downing Street Memo, circa July 2002, which noted that the Bush administration had made the decision to go to war with Iraq using WMD and the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida as the justification. The memo further noted that the case was a weak one, and that the Bush administration was busy fixing intelligence around policy in order to bolster its decision.

Of course, I and several other former intelligence officials had been saying the same thing for some time. But Mr. Pillar provided some sugar coating along with his bitter pill of accusation: The CIA, he noted, had believed that there were WMDs in Iraq, but that Iraq was containable, and war, therefore, was not a worthy policy objective.

It was stunning to read Mr. Pillar's critical finger-waving at the Bush administration for cooking the books, all the while defending the CIA's analytical processes, despite the fact that, in the final analysis, the CIA maintained that there were WMDs in Iraq. I guess Mr. Pillar's defense is that the CIA was wrong but not as wrong as the Bush administration. Mr. Pillar rightfully decries the politicization of the CIA's analytical processes, but for the most part limits the scope of his criticism to the Bush administration during the time period leading up to the invasion in March 2003.

Nowhere does Mr. Pillar mention the issue of regime change and the role played by the CIA in carrying out covert action at the instruction of the White House (both Democratic and Republican) to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Because he was the former national intelligence officer for Near East/Middle East affairs, I find this absence both disconcerting and disingenuous. By failing to give due credence to the impact and influence of the CIA's mission of regime change in Iraq on its analysis of Iraqi WMDs, Mr. Pillar continues to promulgate the myth that the CIA was honestly engaged in the business of trying to disarm Iraq. I may not have been the national intelligence officer, but I was plugged into the system well enough to know "Steve," who headed the CIA's Near East Division inside the Directorate of Operations, and helped plan and implement several abortive coup attempts in Iraq. I also knew "Don," who helped run the CIA's Counter Proliferation Center and was well aware of how the CIA interfered with and undermined several investigations and operations run by U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. If these operations had reached fruition, the myth of a noncompliant Iraq might have been undone, thereby putting at risk the CIA's primary tasking vis-a-vis Iraq: regime change.

I knew these men and their respective missions, as I knew of many others. Mr. Pillar also did, and his silence on these men and their tasking begs the question: Why? The only answer I can arrive at is that Paul Pillar, for all of his good intentions, strives to defend his own personal legacy and thus remains oblivious to the fact that the actions of professional intelligence officers such as himself have lead to the demise of the CIA as a legitimate tool for the national security of the United States. Paul Pillar is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Curiously, I find myself joined in criticizing Paul Pillar's recent writings by none other than my old nemesis, Stephen Hayes, a highly partisan commentator for the neoconservative flagship, The Weekly Standard . I cite Mr. Hayes not because I find any merit in what he writes about Mr. Pillar, but because the inconsistencies of Mr. Pillar's words open the door for Iraq war apologists like Mr. Hayes to muddy the waters when it comes to more clearly understanding the complete lack of justification that exists for America's invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

I criticize Paul Pillar for his curious defense of CIA analysis of Iraqi WMDs, which was fundamentally wrong, and his failure to acknowledge the existence of a CIA program, directed from the White House, to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and the impact that such a regime-change policy would have on the CIA's analysis of Iraqi WMDs within a process readily acknowledged by Mr. Pillar as being overly politicized. But Stephen Hayes bases his attack on Mr. Pillar's failure to factor in such foundational arguments such as Saddam's alleged assassination attempt against former President George H. W. Bush in April 1993 (allegations that led to the bombing of the Iraqi Intelligence Service Headquarters in June 1993), and the connection between Iraq and the Sudan concerning alleged chemical weapons cooperation, which led to similar bombings in the Sudan in August 1998.

The highly politicized environment of the CIA's analytical and operational branches as far back as 1993 resulted in analysis that was based upon supposition and hearsay more than sound assessment of fact. Mr. Hayes cites an alleged assassination attempt that has long since been shown to be a figment of the Kuwaiti government's mind. None of the data assembled by the U.S. intelligence community to link Saddam Hussein with the alleged Kuwaiti plot has stood the test of time. The plotters, the timing devices and the bomb itself have been shown to have no known link to the Iraqi Intelligence Services, not to mention Saddam Hussein. Today, with all of the potential plotters and organizers of the alleged assassination attempt in U.S. custody, one is struck by the silence of the CIA and American law enforcement when it comes to this case. One would think that bringing the perpetrators of an attempt of a former president's life to justice would be a top priority in this age of "global war on terror." And yet the silence is deafening, only reinforcing the reality that yet another allegation of wrongdoing on the part of Saddam Hussein has fallen by the wayside.

The same holds true regarding Mr. Hayes' assertions concerning Iraqi-Sudanese links in 1998. Not only has the U.S. government all but acknowledged the fact that the Shifa Plant, bombed in August 1998, had no connection with either Iraq or the manufacture of VX nerve agent, but like the situation regarding the alleged assassination attempt, the United States has in its possession all of the key players who would have been involved in any illicit cooperation with the Sudan, including Hayes' cited Emad al Ani, the Iraqi mastermind behind this plot. Once again the silence of the U.S. government on this matter speaks volumes, as does Mr. Hayes' hysteria in once again trotting out baseless allegations produced by the same politicized intelligence process that Mr. Pillar so eloquently decries.

As I reflect on the inconsistency of the Paul Pillars and the rantings of pseudojournalists like Stephen Hayes, I have to chuckle at the incongruous nature of another unfolding drama, that being the trial of Saddam Hussein. We Americans sit back and wave a scolding finger at the former Iraqi dictator, chiding him for the crime of brutally suppressing those who attempted to assassinate him in 1982 in the village of Dujail (an assassination attempt no one has said did not take place), all the while ignoring the fact that we bombed Iraq in June 1993 using as justification an alleged assassination attempt.

If the Kuwaiti government, with the help of some anti-Saddam elements in the U.S. government, cooks up a scheme where they fabricate an assassination attempt against a former president in an effort to keep American policy regarding Iraq "on track," there is not a flicker of concern from the hypermoralistic citizens of the United States. However, woe be it to the dictator who survives an attempt on his life from a village whose leadership had been infiltrated by agents of a nation with which he was at the time locked in a life-or-death struggle and then seeks accountability from those responsible.

This, it appears, is a crime of horrific proportions, so big that it currently stands as the only one Saddam Hussein has been tried for. It doesn't matter much to the "law and order" society in America that the pro-Iranian group, the Dawa Party, which planned and executed the failed assassination attempt in 1982, now occupies the highest position of power in Iraq (Ibrahim Jafari, the current Iraqi Prime Minister, was the president of Dawa) and is responsible for carrying out justice against Saddam. No conflict of interest here, or so it would seem for most Americans.

We, the people of the United States, despite our status as one of the most technologically advanced nations on the face of the earth, remain among the most ignorant about the world we live in. And yet we continue to hold forth that we have some sort of divine right of intervention, where a nation of some 300 million is self-empowered to dictate to billions of others the terms in which we all coexist on the planet. We seem shocked when things don't go as we envisioned (take Iraq, for example, where song and flowers were rapidly replaced by bombs and bullets), but in the end we have only ourselves to blame. Our ignorance of the world we live in seems to be only exceeded by our near total abrogation of our duties and responsibilities as citizens of the world's foremost representative democracy.

I recently spoke before a crowd of around 150 people at an event in Santa Fe, N.M. The topic was the intelligence failure in Iraq and the upcoming war with Iran. It was "Super Bowl Sunday." Santa Fe has a well-deserved reputation as a city with a conscience, populated by mostly progressive-leaning pragmatists who care about their community and the country as a whole. However, this mainstream element was sadly lacking from the audience, which consisted primarily of social activists who could for the most part have cared less about who won the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh did, beating Seattle in what was a mediocre game at best). For a city capable of mobilizing thousands in the cause of peace and justice, the fact that so many chose to spend their Sunday eating chips and drinking beer seated before a TV screen rather than engage in a community dialogue about issues of war and the future direction of our country speaks more to the fact that consumerism has once again trumped basic citizenship.

This is a trend that goes far beyond the environs of Santa Fe, reflecting instead a nationwide tendency to stick our collective heads in the sand, wallowing in fear and ignorance, while those we elect to higher office pursue policies that benefit a distinct minority to the detriment of the masses. Some day in the near future those who turned their back on citizenship in the name of consumerism will find that the latest Super Bowl commercial has been replaced by a TV screen screaming out the breaking news that America is once again at war. Unlike the current debacle in Iraq, where the pain and suffering is only felt by those who have lost a loved one, the Iran war will resonate across the country, wracking up a devastating tally both in terms of human and economic cost.

The American people will act with shock and horror, but by then it will be too late: Once again our fighting men and women who serve us in the armed forces will have been dispatched to a conflict not worthy of the loss of a single American life. Once again the American people will cover their shame concerning their collective failure of citizenship by proudly proclaiming their undying support for the troops, waving the American flag on the street corner and putting colorful magnetic "support the troops" stickers on their cars, all the while those who wear the uniform fight and die in another faraway country.

Such hypocrisy, underscored by the fact that when the American people had a chance to really do something for the troops, like come out on a Sunday night and engage in a public discussion about the Iranian crisis, they chose instead to watch a football game.

Scott Ritter served as chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 until his resignation in 1998. He is the recent author of " Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein " (Nation Books, 2005).