Mendacity Under Fire
"The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaeda," U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters last week, is "because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda."
This is what logicians call a tautology, or a "useless repetition," as the dictionary defines it, but it is also an indication of how the Bush administration is defending itself against a growing number of scandals and deceptions in which it finds itself enmeshed.
Repetition and blaming the media, an old standby, of which Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld are particularly fond dating back to their service under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford 30 years ago, are back in vogue.
Thus it was that Cheney, the most aggressive administration proponent of the theory that Saddam Hussein had not only been working hand in glove with Osama bin Laden for years, but that he was also behind the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York back in 1993, complained that New York Times coverage of the 9/11 Commission's finding that there was no such link was "outrageous" and probably "malicious."
And thus it was that Rumsfeld charged that media coverage of the abuses of detainees held by the U.S. in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere was not only wrong, but dangerous. "The implication that's out there is the United States government is engaging in torture as a matter of policy, and that's not true," he declared, despite the cascading leaks of Pentagon, Justice Department, and White House memoranda suggesting ways in which domestic and international bans on torture can be circumvented or ignored in the "war on terror."
And, in a distinct echo of the charges leveled by diehard hawks over the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam under the Nixon/Ford watch, he suggested that reporters and editors, "sitting in an air-conditioned room some place," not the military (and certainly not the policymakers) would be to blame if Washington lost in Iraq.
"This much is certain," he said Thursday. "Coalition forces cannot be defeated on the battlefield. The only way this effort could fail is if people were to be persuaded that the cause is lost, or that it's not worth the pain -- or if those who seem to measure progress in Iraq against a more perfect world convince others to throw in the towel."
The tactic on which the administration appears to have settled in dealing with what is clearly an unraveling of whatever shred of credibility it retains is simply to insist -- as it has for so long anyway -- that it never made any mistakes or exaggerated or misrepresented or lied about anything in any way, and to hope that, if it repeats itself sufficiently loudly and often, people will come to believe it.
"At this point, the White House position is just frankly bizarre," Daniel Benjamin, a senior counter-terrorism official in the Clinton White House, told the Los Angeles Times in response to Bush's declaration about Al Qaeda and Hussein. "They're just repeating themselves, rather than admit they were wrong."
Bush, of course, was responding to the finding by the bipartisan 9/11 commission that, while bin Laden "explored possible cooperation with Iraq" when he was based in Sudan through 1994, "Iraq apparently never responded," and no "collaborative relationship" was ever established.
Proceeding from his tautology, Bush insisted that "this administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda."
That rendition, of course, raises a host of questions, among them definitional -- does the existence of "numerous contacts" amount to a "relationship," particularly when one side fails to respond to the other?
"When I was 15 and kept asking Mary Beth for a date, and she would always politely refuse, I think I would have been hard put to describe that as a 'relationship' as much as I wanted to brag about one," noted one Congressional aide this week.
But, more important, the Bush's statement simply flies in the face of the record. Just before invading Iraq, for example, Bush himself asserted that Iraq had sent bomb-making and document-forgery experts to "work with al-Qaeda" and also "provided al-Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training" -- a relationship that goes far beyond mere "contacts."
And, although he denied that his administration had ever suggested Hussein connivance in the 9/11 attacks themselves, his March 19, 2003, letter to Congress officially informing it that hostilities had begun asserted that the war was permitted under legislation authorizing force against those who "planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."
Cheney, always the most aggressive in asserting a link between Hussein and both al-Qaeda and 9/11, repeatedly made similar charges and last fall endorsed the contents of an article in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard -- consisting largely excerpts of a classified document prepared by the Pentagon's shady Office of Special Plans (OSP) as "the best source of information" -- that concluded that "Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003." Under pressure from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon later issued a release describing the article's conclusions as "inaccurate."
Cheney, along with neo-conservative members of the Defense Policy Board, the Wall Street Journal editorial writers, and The Weekly Standard, also has been the administration's biggest champion of the single-sourced Czech intelligence report of a meeting in Prague between a senior Iraqi intelligence official and the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, five months before the attacks.
The meeting, according to the commission, which had access to contemporaneous video shots of Atta, his cell phone records, and the testimony of the Iraqi official who has been in U.S. custody since last July, never took place.
Yet Cheney said Thursday that he was still not convinced, suggesting cryptically that he may have access to intelligence the commission was not able to see. "That's never been proven," he said. "It's never been refuted."
Of course, Cheney's treatment of this issue gets us right into the epistemological puzzles in which Rumsfeld specializes -- that "there are known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns," which are those "we don't know we don't know" -- speculations that seemed increasingly appropriate in light of the latest revelations by Human Rights First that the U.S. is holding an unknown number of detainees in as many as a dozen facilities in the Middle East, South Asia, aboard naval vessels in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere whose existence has not been disclosed to either the International Committee of the Red Cross or to Congress.
Indeed, Rumsfeld's angry admonitions against the dangers of media coverage of torture and abuses in U.S.-run prisons came at a press conference in which he admitted that one Iraqi prisoner -- one of 13 so-called "ghost detainees" tracked by Human Rights Watch -- had been kept off prison rosters for some seven months, apparently to keep the Red Cross in the dark about whereabouts. If true, that would constitute a clear violation of Article 75 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, according to Deborah Pearlstein of Human Rights First. Rumsfeld assured reporters that the detainee in question had been treated "humanely" at all times.
Pressed by the White House, the Republican leadership in Congress, meanwhile, prevented Democratic lawmakers from issuing subpoenas for some of the administration's memoranda on its interrogation and detention policies and its contention, in at least two leaked memos, that the president can overrule international conventions, U.S. laws, and even the Constitution in his war-making powers as commander-in-chief.
Such unconstrained power is, of course, entirely consistent with the notion that a relationship between al-Qaeda and Hussein existed because the president says so.