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Bush's Iraq Getaway

By Nat Parry
March 16, 2004

A year after the invasion of Iraq, it is increasingly clear that the pre-war “debate” was a stage-managed manipulation of the American people, aided and abetted by a U.S. press corps that was too timid to ask tough questions when it mattered most. Now, with about 560 U.S. soldiers dead along with uncounted thousands of Iraqis, the Bush administration has entered what might be called its “getaway” period.

The key now for George W. Bush is to manage a political escape from his mugging of a fundamental precept of democracy – an informed electorate – and still win a second term. To achieve that, Bush has employed some tried-and-true tactics, like hand-picking a presidential commission that will report on his use of intelligence after the November elections. But most importantly, he is still trusting that the U.S. news media is incapable of sustaining much scrutiny.

In that regard, Bush has reason for optimism. Even dramatic disclosures over the past few months have failed to attract or hold the attention of the U.S. press corps.

NSC Document

For instance, toward the end of a recent story in The New Yorker magazine, writer Jane Mayer reported the discovery of a National Security Council document dated Feb. 3, 2001 – only two weeks after Bush took office. It instructed NSC officials to cooperate with Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force, explaining that the task force was “melding” two previously unrelated areas of policy: “the review of operational policies towards rogue states” and “actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields.”

Before this disclosure, it was believed that Cheney’s secretive task force was focusing on ways to reduce environmental regulations and fend off the Kyoto protocol on global warming. But Mayer’s discovery suggests that the Bush administration in its first days recognized the linkage between ousting the likes of Saddam Hussein and securing oil reserves for future U.S. consumption. In other words, the Cheney task force appears to have had a military component to “capture” oil fields in “rogue states.” [For details on Mayer’s document, see The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 2004.]

The NSC document dovetails with statements by Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, who has described a similar early linkage between invading Iraq and controlling its vast oil reserves. In Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, O’Neill describes the first NSC meeting at the White House only a few days into Bush’s presidency. An invasion of Iraq was already on the agenda, O’Neill said. There was even a map for a post-war occupation, marking out how Iraq’s oil fields would be carved up.

O’Neill said even at that early date, the goal of invading Iraq was clear. The message from Bush was “find a way to do this,” according to O’Neill, who was forced out in December 2002. To this day, of course, the U.S. news media still joins the Bush administration in mocking as a conspiracy theory any suggestion that oil might have been a motive for the Iraq War.

Path to War

Bush’s path to war in Iraq opened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Though there was no credible evidence connecting Saddam Hussein to Sept. 11, Bush was able to use America’s united-we-stand sentiment to turn the public toward war anywhere as long as he claimed some link to the terror attacks that killed some 3,000 people.

Though Bush and his top advisers insisted that they weren’t charting an inevitable course to war with Iraq, the truth was otherwise. They immediately began paving the way for war by removing potential stumbling blocks.

In a little-noticed move in April 2002, the Bush administration maneuvered to oust Jose Bustani as head of the UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The ouster came as Bustani was trying to persuade Iraq to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which would have allowed the OPCW to inspect Iraqi facilities.

Assuming that Washington’s goal really was to prevent Iraq from manufacturing chemical or biological weapons, Bustani’s efforts should have been welcomed. At minimum, Bustani would have put Iraq on the spot. Possibly, the inspections could have freshened the stale U.S. intelligence about Iraq’s chemical weapons program.

Instead, the Bush administration denounced Bustani’s attempt as an “ill-considered initiative” and got him fired by threatening to withhold U.S. dues payments to the OPCW. On April 22, 2002, U.S. officials called an unprecedented special session of the OPCW to oust Bustani only a year after he had been unanimously reelected to another five-year term. OPCW’s member states agreed to sacrifice Bustani to avoid loss of the U.S. funds. [Christian Science Monitor, April 24, 2002]

With Bustani’s ouster, the Bush administration was free to build its case that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction without having to explain why UN inspectors weren’t finding any banned weapons.

Secretive Office

Over the next few months, active preparation for the war in Iraq moved into high gear, both with bellicose rhetoric in public and military planning behind the scenes. A secretive Pentagon office, named the Office of Special Plans, was created to finalize plans for invading Iraq and preparing for the post-war period, but that purpose was hidden from the American people who were still being assured that Bush wanted a peaceful resolution of the crisis with Iraq.

Even the name of the office was part of the deception. The Office of Special Plans “was given a nondescript name to purposefully hide the fact that although the administration was publicly emphasizing diplomacy at the United Nations, the Pentagon was actively engaged in war planning and postwar planning,” the Washington Post reported in an article citing senior Defense Department officials Douglas J. Feith and William J. Luti. [Washington Post, March 13, 2004]

In May 2002, Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski was among the career military officers pulled into the war planning at the Office of Special Plans.

“I was ‘volunteered’ to enter what would be a well-appointed den of iniquity,” Kwiatkowski wrote about her experiences. “The education I would receive there was like an M. Night Shyamalan movie – intense fascinating and frightening. While the people were very much alive, I saw a dead philosophy – Cold War anti-communism and neo-imperialism – walking the corridors of the Pentagon. It wore the clothing of counter-terrorism and spoke the language of a holy war between good and evil.”

Kwiatkowski said Bush’s political appointees overwhelmed the judgments of career specialists. “This seizure of the reins of U.S. Middle East policy was directly visible to many of us working in the Near East South Asia policy office, and yet there seemed to be little any of us could do about it,” she wrote.

Beyond the loss of control to neo-conservative ideologues, Kwiatkowski and her fellow officers were troubled by how the American people were being manipulated. “Many of us in the Pentagon, conservatives and liberals alike, felt that this agenda, whatever its flaws or merits, had never been openly presented to the American people,” she wrote. “Instead, the public story line was a fear-peddling and confusing set of messages, designed to take Congress and the country into a war of executive choice, a war based on false pretenses.”

Kwiatkowski went public with her observations after retiring from the Air Force last July. [For an account of her experiences, see Salon.com’s “The New Pentagon Papers.” Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski also writes a biweekly column for MilitaryWeek.com.]

War Talk

By the late summer and early fall of 2002, the administration’s war talk was heating up. Bush and his subordinates were frightening the American people with images of “mushroom clouds” from Iraqi nuclear bombs that allegedly could be passed on to al-Qaeda terrorists. A more immediate threat, the Bush administration asserted, came from Iraq’s deadly chemical and biological toxins that also could be made available to terrorists to inflict horrendous death and destruction on U.S. cities.

To test these claims, some skeptics called for a new inspection program for Iraq. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the idea of inspections as a “sham.”

In the months before the 2002 congressional elections, Bush demanded from Congress authority to use force if necessary to protect against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Bush, of course, continued to insist that he hadn’t made up his mind about whether to go to war. To secure congressional approval, the administration also agreed to seek the UN’s support. Some senators, including John Kerry, said they voted for the resolution so they wouldn’t undercut Bush’s ability to gain a UN consensus.

But Bush no more intended an honest give-and-take with the UN than he did with the Congress and the American people. The only game in town was how to maneuver the UN and everyone else into acquiescing to the preordained U.S. plan to invade Iraq.

To bring the UN’s Security Council into line, Bush whipped his political base into a frenzy, directing their fury particularly against the French and Germans for objecting to the rush to war. European diplomats were depicted as weasels. French wine was poured into gutters. In diners around the United States as well as on Air Force One, breakfast menus were rewritten to change French toast to “Freedom Toast.”

When Iraq agreed to accept the return of UN return inspectors for unfettered searches of suspected Iraqi weapons sites, Bush and his allies turned the heat up on Han Blix and his inspection team. Rather than conclude that the absence of any WMD findings might suggest that there was no WMD to find, Team Bush heaped ridicule and contempt on the inspectors for coming up empty-handed.

The flavor of this vitriol was captured in a TV routine by right-wing comic Dennis Miller who likened Blix and his inspectors to the cartoon characters in Scooby Doo, racing around pointlessly in their vans. Meanwhile, right-wing news outlets carried accusations that Blix was incompetent, corrupt and possibly sympathetic to Saddam Hussein.

Spying

It was during this time frame that the Bush administration asked the British government to assist in a spying operation against UN officials in New York.

While the motive for the spying remains unclear, the operation would fit the overall pattern of putting political pressure on UN officials, not just obtaining intelligence about their discoveries and their policy positions. By enlisting the British, the Bush administration also may have been circumventing rules that restrict U.S. intelligence agencies spying inside the United States.

The spying was first revealed via a leak by British government translator Katharine Gun to the London Observer newspaper in early March 2003. Gun leaked a U.S. National Security Council memo, which described a "surge" in spying at the UN aimed "against" delegations from swing countries on the UN Security Council.

Gun was charged with violation of the British state secrecy laws, though the case was dropped in February 2004 when Tony Blair’s government apparently concluded that the prosecution would require the disclosure of an internal debate about the legality of joining Bush's invasion of Iraq.

After the Gun case collapsed, former British cabinet minister Clare Short said on BBC Radio that British spies had been instructed to carry out operations inside the UN, including against Secretary General Kofi Annan. Short, who had resigned her position as International Development Secretary to protest the war, said she saw transcripts of Annan’s conversations. [See Independent/UK, Feb. 26, 2004]

Blix said he also suspected that his home and office in New York were bugged in the weeks before the Iraq War. The chief weapons inspector said a Bush administration official confronted him with photos that could only have been obtained from inside the UN weapons inspection office. When Blix asked the official how he had obtained the photos, the official wouldn’t say. Blix suspected that his secure fax machine may have been penetrated to secure the photos.

Blix told the British Guardian newspaper that he was disturbed by the U.S. government spying on UN officials as if they were enemies or criminals. “Here it is between people who cooperate, and it is an unpleasant feeling,” Blix said. [Guardian, Feb. 28, 2004.]

A big story in London, the spy case drew only a world-weary yawn or a boys-will-be-boys wink in the U.S. press. The spy dispute attracted little U.S. press interest even though the alleged espionage occurred inside the United States and raised international concerns about the U.S. government abusing its role as host of the United Nations.

The nonchalant press response to Bush’s alleged spying also was in marked contrast to the sometimes breathless coverage of hazy spy accusations against minor individuals. In one of those cases, Army Capt. James Yee was originally arrested on suspicion of possible espionage at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but that case ultimately collapsed and now involves only minor infractions for mishandling documents. A similar press flurry has followed the arrest of Susan Lindauer, a former congressional aide and anti-war activist who was charged on March 11 with working with Iraqi intelligence.

Weapons Search

When spying and bullying failed to bring the UN’s Security Council to heel, Bush simply forced the UN inspectors to withdraw. In his book, Disarming Iraq, Blix writes that on March 16, 2003, he received blunt advice from a Bush administration official to withdraw the UN inspectors.

"Although the inspection organization was now operating at full strength and Iraq seemed determined to give it prompt access everywhere, the United States appeared as determined to replace our inspection force with an invasion army," Blix said.

On March 19-20, Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. He would later tell the American people that he was left no choice because Saddam Hussein had refused to cooperate with the UN inspections, an obvious lie that drew barely any critical commentary in the U.S. news media.

Within days of the invasion, as special U.S. weapons teams scoured the Iraqi countryside, it became clear that the “vast stockpiles” of chemical and biological weapons weren’t showing up. Despite repeated Bush administration claims that chemical weapons had been sent to the front for use against U.S. troops if they crossed the “red line” near Baghdad, those reports, too, turned out to be false.

After Baghdad fell and Iraqi scientists were captured, they continued saying what they had said before the war: that Iraq had gotten rid of its chemical and biological weapons in the 1990s.

Still, for months, Bush and other senior officials, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, continued to cling to their predictions that banned weapons would be found. Bush and Powell leapt at the discovery of a couple of trailers as proof of illicit weapons, but the trailers turned out to be used for making hydrogen to fill weather balloons for artillery units.

Amid the humiliation of the failed WMD hunt, there were some calls for holding Bush and his advisers accountable. But a Washington political establishment that demanded severe punishment of President Clinton for lying about sex with Monica Lewinsky shunned the notion that Bush should face a similar fate for lying about the reasons for war.

Stacked Deck

The scattered demands for accountability produced little in the way of tangible results. In November 2003, bills were introduced in Congress that would have established an independent commission to investigate how intelligence was used to justify the war. But the bills attracted few sponsors and have languished in committee.

Instead, Bush created his own presidential commission to look into the WMD issue. Established by executive order, the commission is “subject to the authority of the President” and lacks subpoena power. Its members were hand-picked by Bush. Its mandate is so constrained that a finding of Bush’s innocence is essentially pre-determined. [For details, see Bush's Executive Order.]

Most of the issues the commission will examine regard the intelligence community’s capabilities to assess and deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and “other related threats of the 21st Century.” Rather than concentrate only on Iraq, Bush said he wants the commission to look at the broader issue of nuclear proliferation, including North Korea, Iran and Libya. That way, he said, the claims about Iraq's WMD can be seen "in a broader context."

Bush also stacked the commission's membership. Instead of appointing people who were critical of the case for war, such as former CIA analyst Ray McGovern or former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, Bush selected a mix of centrists and right-wing ideologues, none of whom vocally questioned the Iraq intelligence before the war.

Bush named former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb and Republican Judge Laurence Silberman as co-chairs of the commission, giving it the veneer of bipartisanship and independence.

But Robb is widely regarded as a make-no-waves Democrat with few analytical strengths. A Capitol Hill newspaper, The Hill, reported that Robb assured Bush that he would not support examining the administration’s use of intelligence in the build-up to the war. The administration also warned Robb that he would lose his position if he consulted with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle before the announcement. [The Hill, March 4, 2003.]

By contrast, Silberman, a former deputy attorney general in the Nixon and Ford administrations, is known in Washington as a vehemently ideological Republican who has dabbled as a behind-the-scenes political operative.

In fall 1980, Silberman represented the Reagan-Bush presidential campaign team as an unofficial “ambassador to Iran,” secretly meeting with a representative of Ayatollah Khomeini's radical Islamic government without President Jimmy Carter's knowledge. At the time, Iran was holding 52 Americans as hostage, a crisis that undermined Carter's re-election bid and paved the way for the start of the Reagan-Bush era. The hostages were released minutes after Ronald Reagan's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981. [For details about the case, see Consortiumnews.com's October Surprise X-Files series.]

Silberman, who had served as head of Reagan's transition team on intelligence, lost out on the CIA director's job to William Casey, who also was linked to the October Surprise allegations. As a consolation, Reagan appointed Silberman to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., the most powerful circuit court in the country.

As a federal judge, Silberman is perhaps best known for voting to overturn the Iran-contra conviction of Lt. Col. Oliver North. Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh said Silberman, a harsh critic of the special prosecutor law, seemed determined to block a thorough investigation of the arms-for-hostage scandal. As cases against Reagan-Bush officials progressed through the legal system, Silberman and other hard-line conservatives on the U.S. Appeals Court were “a powerful band of Republican appointees [who] waited like the strategic reserves of an embattled army,” Walsh wrote in his book Firewall.

After Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993, however, Silberman became a defender of special prosecutors. As Republican special prosecutor Kenneth Starr pursued allegations against Clinton, Silberman wrote a legal opinion striking down one of Clinton's motions. “Can it be said that the president of the United States has declared war on the United States?” Silberman wrote about Clinton.

Right-wing writer David Brock, who fashioned a lucrative career trashing Bill and Hillary Clinton, later recounted how Silberman had offered private advice about the anti-Clinton efforts. Brock described this shadowy advice after he renounced his work as a right-wing smear artist and wrote Blinded by the Right. [For more details on Silberman, see Salon, http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2004/02/10/silberman/index.html]

Because of his ideological bent, some observers felt Silberman’s job will be to ensure that the WMD commission is little more than a whitewash. NPR commentator Kevin Phillips said Silberman has engaged more in cover-ups of scandals than in efforts to uncover the truth.

Some Democrats at least find a silver lining in the appointment of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who they believe might give the commission a streak of independence. Indeed, McCain has demonstrated more toughness than either chairmen by pushing the White House to give the commission subpoena power, which is seen as the only way for the investigation to be effective. Plus, McCain wants to examine how the administration used intelligence to justify the invasion. [The Hill, March 4, 2003.]

It also appears that McCain might be rethinking his earlier conviction that Bush didn't misuse intelligence. While demonstrating more independence now, McCain acted, before the invasion, essentially as an administration surrogate, lending his credibility as a “maverick Republican” to the drive to war. On Fox News, on the eve of the invasion, Bill O’Reilly asked him, “If you were president, what would you have done differently in the run-up to this war?” McCain answered, “Nothing.”

The Robb-Silberman commission remains unlikely to expand its investigation into areas that cast doubt on Bush's sincerity. A full-scale probe would look at the possibility that the Iraq's alleged WMD was just a handy excuse for war, a way to work the American people into a war frenzy. The new evidence about war plans predating Sept. 11, 2001, would be examined as well as the reasons for a spying operation that apparently targeted UN officials searching for Iraq's WMD.

But even if any of these mysteries are examined, Bush has tried to make certain the findings won't affect his election chances in November. He has ordered the commission to report back in March 2005.

Political Getaway

Ironically, the WMD commission may demonstrate more than anything how far the U.S. political process has wandered from the Founding Fathers' concept of a constitutional system of checks and balances, including a free and vibrant press.

In little more than three years since Bush claimed the White House (after losing the popular vote and getting the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the counting of votes in Florida), the White House has assumed a remarkable degree of autocratic power. It is an authority unchecked by a Republican-controlled Congress, a conservative-dominated court system, and a news media that is split between a timid mainstream press and an activist conservative news media.

Whether the American people can exact some sort of accountability from Bush for the lies that led to war is another question. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, including families of both Sept. 11 victims and soldiers who have died in Iraq, are expected to take to the streets of New York during the Republican National Convention in early September, demanding answers. But the last meaningful chance for accountability may be in the November elections.

For Bush, keeping the facts hidden and his critics off-balance will be crucial for his chances in November. Given the Republican clout in Congress and the superficiality of the U.S. news media, a Bush presidential victory would effectively crush any hope for a timely accounting of the Iraq War and its many unanswered questions.

If Bush wins, the balloting might be more than just an election. It could be a political getaway.

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