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Beating Bush at 'Information War'

By Robert Parry
March 16, 2005

Some readers have asked why I started my book about the rise of the Bush dynasty with a chapter set between the two George Bush presidencies, with Bill Clinton explaining why he didn’t pursue investigations of his predecessor’s Cold War crimes. The short answer is that I saw that moment as pivotal to understanding today’s political crisis.

The failure of the Clinton Democrats to fight for an honest record of the Cold War – and to expose George H.W. Bush’s complicity in wrongdoing – opened the door for George W. Bush to enter the White House in 2001. If key documents had been declassified about just a few scandals, such as the Iraqgate arming of Saddam Hussein and the Iran-Contra Affair, that door almost certainly would have been shut for good.

But Bill Clinton saw history as less important than, say, his health-care program, which he thought (naively) might garner some Republican support if he let the elder George Bush off the hook. So, the American people were left with a misleading Cold War history; Clinton never got his bipartisanship; and the way was cleared for a comeback by the Bushes and their neoconservative allies.

Indirectly, the decision to avoid any truth-commission-style accountability after “winning” the Cold War also contributed to the quagmire in Iraq, a budgetary ocean of red ink again at high tide, and a population that wallows more and more in myths and misinformation.

‘Information Warfare’

It is a thesis of both my new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, and my earlier book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ that Clinton and the Democrats grievously misunderstood the modern concept of “information warfare” and how the Republicans were waging it at home.

The Republicans and especially the neoconservative intellectuals realized that control of information – or one might say replacing it with propaganda – was the key to solidifying their political power within the United States.

That’s why the conservatives have invested billions of dollars over the past quarter century in building their own potent media infrastructure, ranging from cable networks and major daily newspapers to AM talk radio and well-organized Internet bloggers. Besides writing their own historical narrative, the conservatives succeeded in throwing the mainstream press onto the defensive with endless charges of “liberal bias.”

The conservative success was compounded by the fact that while this media apparatus was under construction, American liberals largely sat on the sidelines, thinking that the mainstream news media would somehow respond or hoping that some metaphorical pendulum would swing back in their direction. Neither has happened.

Instead, the Republicans consolidated their dominance of the heartland “red states” where voters who listened to talk radio in their cars had little choice but to tune in rants about the evils of “librhuls” and “guvmint.”

Faced with this increasingly powerful Right-Wing Machine and lacking a comparable defense mechanism, national Democrats then tried to protect themselves by finessing issues and equivocating their positions, which, in turn, made them look like they didn’t know what they stood for.

Fighting Back

Only in recent months have liberals even begun to counter decades of conservative dominance of the AM radio dial with “progressive talk” radio, such as the Air America Radio network which is just one year old.

Though still vastly outgunned by Rush Limbaugh and his right-wing colleagues, “progressive talk” has scored some early successes in challenging conservative distortions, especially the arguments used to support Bush’s plans for partially privatizing Social Security.

For instance, Fox News’ Brit Hume and the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund were forced into humiliating retreats when they were caught making a false claim that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s had foreseen the need to adopt a plan like Bush’s. A year ago, the Right’s distortion of Roosevelt’s words would have likely become a “fact” for millions of Americans. [For details, see Al Franken Show’s blog for Feb. 9, 2005, and March, 14, 2005.]

The battle over information has other potential bright spots for Democrats.

Indeed, the war over “information warfare” could replace the increasingly bitter divisions within the Democratic Party over what strategy to pursue in Iraq. That intramural battle now pits a Washington-based leadership that fears challenging Bush on one side and a rank-and-file base that is much more combative, on the other.

Many national Democrats don’t want to get trashed as unpatriotic like Sen. Max Cleland did in 2002 and Sen. John Kerry did in 2004. On the other hand, the Democratic base is furious that Bush has avoided accountability for leading the nation into an unprovoked war that has killed 1,500 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Common Ground

Common ground over the need to demand accurate information from the government could replace some of the bitterness over the internal conflicts. The Democrats also might find many traditional Republicans agreeing on the need for telling the truth about what’s happening in Iraq and how the United States reached this point.

While the idea of getting a Bush-controlled government to throw open the records may seem daunting, there are reasons for hope. For instance, many documents relevant to the Iraqgate controversy – the Reagan-Bush administration’s secret arming of Hussein in the 1980s – were found in Iraqi government files after the U.S.-led invasion.

Some of these documents also have moved outside the strict control of the Bush administration, since they were shared with the United Nations’ investigation into the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal.

U.S. conservatives have made a cause celebre out of alleged U.N. corruption in the oil-for-food program, which supposedly aided Hussein’s weapons programs. So far, conservatives have focused only on the latter half of the 1990s (when, ironically, it’s now clear that Iraq wasn’t building weapons of mass destruction).

But I’ve been told by sources with access to the documents that they also shed light on the secret dealings of the Reagan-Bush administration in funneling war materiel to Hussein in the 1980s – when Iraq was building chemical and biological weapons. A full examination of the documents could answer many important historical questions and resolve whether George H.W. Bush was lying when he denied that such a secret arms program existed.

Full disclosure of historical documents about U.S. relations with Iran also might reveal whether former President Bush was lying again when he denied any significant role in covert contacts with that Islamic fundamentalist regime from 1980 to 1986, the period covering the mysteries known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

Hazy History

Today, that U.S. history remains lost in the haze of contradictory accounts.

For instance, the “official” version of Iraqgate is that those suspicions of secret arms deals were a “conspiracy theory” and that Reagan-Bush officials were innocent of facilitating shipments of weapons and WMD-related materiel to Iraq. That “official” story was embraced by both former President Bush and Clinton’s Justice Department.

In a report issued in January 1995, Clinton’s investigators, led by John M. Hogan, an assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, cleared the Reagan-Bush team of Iraqgate suspicions. Hogan’s investigators declared that they “did not find evidence that U.S. agencies or officials illegally armed Iraq.”

But Hogan’s review noted, curiously, that the CIA had withheld an unknown number of documents that were contained in “sensitive compartments” that were denied to the investigators. Remarkably, Hogan then concluded that those withheld “sensitive compartments” must not have contained anything very important.

While Hogan’s analysis remains the “official” version, a number of ex-government officials have since acknowledged that the Iraqgate “conspiracy theory” was, in fact, true. For instance, former CIA officer Melissa Boyle Mahle, a Middle East expert, stated flatly in her new book, Denial and Deception, that in the mid-1980s, “the United States was already deeply involved in providing weapons and other military support to Iraq.”

Teicher Affidavit

Even a decade ago – indeed, just two weeks after Hogan delivered his exculpatory report – incriminating evidence began popping up. In late January 1995, in connection with a criminal case in Miami, former Reagan-Bush national security official Howard Teicher submitted a sworn affidavit confirming many Iraqgate allegations of secret arms sales.

The Teicher affidavit was the first public account by a Reagan insider that the covert U.S.-Iraq relationship had included arranging third-country shipments of weapons to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Teicher traced the U.S. tilt to Iraq to a turning point in the Iran-Iraq War in 1982 when Iran gained the offensive and fears swept through the U.S. government that Iran’s army might slice through Iraq to the oil fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

“In the Spring of 1982, Iraq teetered on the brink of losing its war with Iran,” Teicher wrote. “The Iranians discovered a gap in the Iraqi defenses along the Iran-Iraq border between Baghdad to the north and Basra to the south. Iran positioned a massive invasion force directly across from the gap in the Iraqi defenses. An Iranian breakthrough at the spot would have cutoff Baghdad from Basra and would have resulted in Iraq’s defeat. … In June 1982, President Reagan decided that the United States could not afford to allow Iraq to lose the war to Iran.”

Teicher wrote that he helped draft a secret national security decision directive that Reagan signed to authorize covert U.S. assistance to Hussein’s military. “The NSDD, including even its identifying number, is classified,” Teicher wrote.

The effort to arm the Iraqis was “spearheaded” by CIA Director William Casey and involved his deputy, Robert Gates, according to Teicher’s affidavit. “The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq,” Teicher wrote.

In 1984, Teicher went to Iraq with Reagan's special envoy Donald Rumsfeld to convey a secret Israeli offer to assist Iraq after Israel had concluded that Iran was becoming a greater danger, according to the affidavit.

“I traveled with Rumsfeld to Baghdad and was present at the meeting in which Rumsfeld told Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz about Israel’s offer of assistance,” Teicher wrote. “Aziz refused even to accept the Israelis’ letter to Hussein offering assistance because Aziz told us that he would be executed on the spot by Hussein if he did so.”

Bush Role

Another key player in Reagan’s Iraq tilt was then-Vice President Bush, according to Teicher’s affidavit.

“In 1986, President Reagan sent a secret message to Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and bombing of Iran,” Teicher wrote. “This message was delivered by Vice President Bush who communicated it to Egyptian President Mubarak, who in turn passed the message to Saddam Hussein.

“Similar strategic operational military advice was passed to Saddam Hussein through various meetings with European and Middle Eastern heads of state. I authored Bush’s talking points for the 1986 meeting with Mubarak and personally attended numerous meetings with European and Middle East heads of state where the strategic operational advice was communicated.”

Teicher’s affidavit represented a major break in the historical mystery of U.S. aid to Iraq. But it undermined the “official” history that the Clinton administration had just accepted and complicated a criminal arms-trafficking case that the Justice Department was prosecuting against Teledyne Industries and a salesman named Ed Johnson.

The defendants had allegedly sold explosive pellets to Chilean arms manufacturer Carlos Cardoen, who used them to manufacture cluster bombs for Iraq. The prosecutors took their fury out on Teicher, insisting that his affidavit was unreliable and threatening him with dire consequences for coming forward.

Yet, while deeming Teicher’s affidavit false, the Clinton administration also declared the document a state secret, classifying it and putting it under court seal. A few copies, however, had been distributed outside the court and the text was soon posted on the Internet, which was then just emerging as a force in modern media.

After officially suppressing the Teicher affidavit, the Justice Department prosecutors persuaded the judge presiding in the Teledyne-Johnson case to rule testimony about the Reagan-Bush policies to be irrelevant. Unable to mount its planned defense, Teledyne agreed to plead guilty and accept a $13 million fine. Johnson, the salesman who had earned a modest salary in the mid-$30,000 range, was convicted of illegal arms trafficking and given a prison term.

Another Dive

Establishment Democrats also took a dive on Reagan-Bush scandals involving Iran.

After Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush in November 1992, the Democrats lost interest in both the ongoing Iran-Contra investigation by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh and a congressional probe of secret contacts between Republicans and Iranians during the 1980 campaign, known as the “October Surprise” controversy. [For details, see Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

On Dec. 24, 1992, Bush struck his own decisive blow against any hope those mysteries would be solved by pardoning six Iran-Contra defendants and drawing only a muted Democratic protest.

Clinton wrote in his 2004 memoirs, My Life, that he “disagreed with the pardons and could have made more of them but didn’t.” Clinton cited several reasons for giving his predecessor a pass.

“I wanted the country to be more united, not more divided, even if that split would be to my political advantage,” Clinton wrote. “Finally, President Bush had given decades of service to our country, and I thought we should allow him to retire in peace, leaving the matter between him and his conscience.” [See Bill Clinton, My Life, p. 457]

Yet by worrying more about George H.W. Bush’s image than a truthful history, Clinton unwittingly paved the way for a restoration of the Bush political dynasty eight years later. Clinton also left the American people unprotected from the Reagan-Bush neoconservatives who marched back to power behind George W. Bush’s victory parade.

If the American people had understood how incompetent and deceitful the neoconservatives had been in the 1980s, that would have made the sale of the Iraq War in 2002-2003 a lot trickier.

Truth Commissions

It all could have been different if Clinton – the first president to take office after the Cold War – had invested some political capital in setting up truth commissions to give the American people the history of that half-century struggle, both the good and the bad.

If Clinton had released the Cold War secrets, the electorate would have been much better armed to assess how propaganda had come to permeate the relations between the U.S. government and its citizens.

Instead, the Bush administration and its conservative allies have been free to continue their sophisticated brand of “information warfare,” feeding the American people distortions, half-truths and outright lies to manipulate their fears and emotions. [For a sample of those tactics, see Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s Matrix.”]

But Bush’s hostility to what one White House adviser has dubbed the “reality-based community” also represents an opening for the Democrats, a way to bridge their own differences and to draw in Republicans who consider themselves foreign policy realists.

While Democrats may argue over whether U.S. troops should stay in Iraq or come home now, there should be little dispute that the American people are owed the truth about the history of U.S. relations with both Iraq and Iran.

In a larger sense, it is long overdue for the U.S. government to conduct a serious examination of all the secret chapters of the Cold War, especially the moral compromises that pervaded U.S. policies in Latin America and the Middle East.

Beyond political embarrassment for the Bush family and some former officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations, it’s hard to understand why those historical records are still being shielded from the American people, as I argued in my 1999 book, Lost History.

“There is a cynical old saying that the victors write the history,” I wrote. “But it is one of the ironies of the long Cold War that it is the American people – the supposed victors – who are seeing their own history sanitized and miswritten. Even as the archives of ex-communist nations are opened, even as truth commissions wring the painful reality out of ex-rightist regimes, the American people are the ones most thoroughly kept in the dark about the unsavory secrets of the past half century.”

It is still not too late – and indeed it may be just in time – for the restorative powers of truth to be given a chance to rejuvenate American democracy.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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