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'Jack Bauer,' Bush & Rummy

By Robert Parry
April 15, 2006

Like the plot from this year’s TV terrorism drama “24,” suspicions over who’s at fault for a real-life string of U.S. military and political disasters have swirled around top administration officials before settling on the ultimate culprit: an arrogant, self-centered President who has put in motion dangerous forces that he can’t control.

This season’s “24” may not be an intentional case of art imitating life. But there are striking similarities between the fictional President Charles Logan and President George W. Bush – as well as in the dilemma the nation faces containing the damage caused by an in-over-his-head Chief Executive.

But there are differences, too. In the “24” plot, counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) turns over evidence to Defense Secretary James Heller  in a bid to thwart President Logan. In real America, a half dozen retired generals call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when the preponderance of blame should land on Bush.

The real-life generals fault Rumsfeld for invading Iraq without a coherent strategy for achieving a reasonable result, without sufficient force levels to secure the country, and without enough body armor and protective vehicles for U.S. troops to withstand the favorite insurgent tactic of using improvised explosive devices along roadways.

Some of the retired generals also say the stalemate in Iraq – and the anger it has stirred throughout the Middle East – have undermined the global war on terrorism.

“I do not believe Secretary Rumsfeld is the right person to fight that war based on his absolute failures in managing the war against Saddam (Hussein) in Iraq,” retired Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr. told the New York Times. [NYT, April 14, 2006]

In seeking Rumsfeld’s ouster, Swannack joined five other retired generals who all served in the Bush administration: Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, Maj. Gen. John Batiste, Maj. Gen. John Riggs, and Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni. So far, Bush has refused to consider replacing Rumsfeld.

The revolt of the generals also reveals broader fears about Bush’s proclivity to use the military to resolve tricky diplomatic problems. Bush, who like many of his top advisers avoided military service in Vietnam, tends to see the world in cinematic black-and-white – “good versus evil” – rather than in the subtler grays of real life.

In an essay in Time magazine, Gen. Newbold said the decision to invade Iraq, a country peripheral to the War on Terror,  “was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions – or bury the results.” [Time, dated April 15, 2006]

Iran Subtext

But beyond the retired generals’ disgust over how the Iraq War was waged, their extraordinary complaints have another unstated subtext – the Pentagon’s growing alarm over Bush’s rapidly advancing plans for attacking Iran. Those plans reportedly include an option for using tactical nuclear weapons.

As investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker, a number of senior U.S. officers are troubled by administration war planners who believe “bunker-busting” tactical nuclear weapons, known as B61-11s, are the only way to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities buried deep underground.

“Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap,” a former senior intelligence official told Hersh. “‘Decisive’ is the key word of the Air Force’s planning. It’s a tough decision. But we made it in Japan.”

This former official said the White House has refused to remove the nuclear option from the plans despite objections from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Whenever anybody tries to get it out, they’re shouted down,” the ex-official told Hersh. [New Yorker, dated April 17, 2006]

Indeed, the six retired generals may have demonstrated as much frankness as can be expected in seeking Rumfeld’s resignation. In Washington, political scapegoating is a time-honored tradition because demanding that the President take responsibility for national catastrophes is often viewed as too extreme or too disruptive.

So, instead of fingering Bush and other policy architects like Vice President Dick Cheney, the retired generals have pointed toward Rumsfeld for removal. Some pundits, such as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, have urged Bush to demonstrate bipartisanship by replacing Rumsfeld with a pro-war Democrat like Sen. Joe Lieberman or a centrist Republican like Sen. Chuck Hagel.

But that likelihood appears slim. Some longtime Washington observers believe Bush wouldn’t dare put an outsider at the Pentagon now because the newcomer would have to be briefed on too many secrets: about the Iraq War, the torture guidelines, the warrantless spying on Americans, and more.

An independent-minded person might blow the whistle. So, Bush may see little choice but to tough it out with his veteran team, hoping to withstand any challenges to his power and the secrecy that surrounds it.

Plame-gate

While fending off bloody setbacks in Iraq and weighing even greater risks in Iran, Bush also is facing investigations into his own actions.

Bush is implicated in what special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has deemed a “concerted” effort by the White House to “discredit, punish or seek revenge against” former Ambassador Joseph Wilson for criticizing Bush’s pre-war deceptions about Iraq seeking enriched uranium from Niger.

Bush has acknowledged that he declassified intelligence secrets in June 2003 so they could be leaked to chosen reporters for the purpose of discrediting Wilson. That initiative led to the public disclosure that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA officer who had been working undercover on projects to prevent the spread of unconventional weapons.

While Bush has not been directly implicated in leaking Plame’s identity, he did join the cover-up when the Plame case exploded into a scandal in September 2003. Though Bush knew a great deal about how the anti-Wilson scheme got started – since he was involved in starting it – he uttered misleading public statements to conceal the White House role.

“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. “I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true and get on about the business.”

At that moment, as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets on the Niger uranium issue and ordered those secrets to be given to reporters to undercut Wilson.

But Bush acted like he had no information that would be helpful to investigators. Bush played dumb in a performance that fans of “24” might have expected from the devious President Logan.

In fall 2003, Bush might still have felt he could get away with the deception because the Plame case was being handled by Attorney General John Ashcroft. But in late 2003, Ashcroft was forced to recuse himself because of his close White House ties. The investigation was turned over to Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago.

A few months later, as Fitzgerald intensified the investigation, Bush quietly hired a personal criminal attorney, James Sharp, who then accompanied the President to a 70-minute interview with Fitzgerald on June 24, 2004.

Though not under oath, Bush would have opened himself to charges of making false statements to a federal investigator and obstructing justice if he repeated the deceptive comments he made publicly in September 2003. Those crimes can be felonies and potentially impeachable offenses.

Full Truth

But if Bush told Fitzgerald the full truth in June 2004, the President would have to acknowledge that he made false and misleading statements several months earlier. Then, if Bush’s deposition had leaked before the November 2004 election, his campaign might have been swamped in the scandal of him lying to the American people.

So there was a possible motive for Bush to continue with his misleading comments. After the closed-door interview between Bush and Fitzgerald, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “No one wants to get to the bottom of this matter more than the President does.”

To this day, however, Bush has refused to divulge what he told Fitzgerald on the grounds that there’s an ongoing investigation, even though – as a witness – he is not bound by the demands of secrecy that apply to the prosecutor.

In the latter half of 2004, Fitzgerald concentrated on compelling the cooperation of key journalists who had received leaks about Plame’s identity. That strategy did not bear fruit until well after Bush had secured a second term through the closely fought Election 2004.

Almost a full year later, in October 2005, Fitzgerald indicted Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby on five counts of perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice – for allegedly lying about his role in leaking Plame’s identity to reporters.

Other details about Libby's grand jury testimony did not surface until April 2006, when Fitzgerald disclosed in a court filing that Libby claimed he met with those reporters only on orders from Bush and Cheney. That led to new questions about the roles of the President and Vice President.

If Fitzgerald ever decides that Bush and Cheney also broke the law, his options include referring them to the House Judiciary Committee for impeachment proceedings. Yet, despite the evidence that Bush sought to confuse investigators with his misleading public statements in 2003, Fitzgerald appears to be shying away from a constitutional crisis.

But it’s unclear what the next twists and turns in this political drama might be.

As in the fictional world of “24,” when presidential wrongdoing is indicated, most U.S. officials bend over backwards and look the other way, rather than accept the possibility that the President of the United States is a criminal and/or a threat to national security.

But President Bush appears to have one other clear advantage over President Logan. In real life, there’s no Jack Bauer digging out the truth.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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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