Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Book Recommendation

I just read Hubris, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. It details the history of the selling of the war in Iraq, the subsequent efforts to search for WMD in Iraq, and the Wilson/Plame affair. It was really a page turner for me as it brought to mind so many of the arguments that I found compelling at the time related to WMD intelligence and how the back story showed that the presentation was misleading.

Apparently prior to 9-11 lots of people within the Bush administration, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, were absolutely enamored with this book by a gal named Laurie Mylroie, which details a kind of bizarre (and now totally discredited) conspiracy theory related to Saddam Hussein and his involvement in violence throughout the world. Supposedly Saddam is the center of Islamic terrorism. Wolfowitz seems to have had the book virtually memorized. He'd buy copies and hand them out to his staffers. With this as a back drop and in the wake of 9-11 Saddam was on the agenda and the White House wanted intelligence showing links to Al Qaeda, evidence of weapons programs, etc. The links were a foregone conclusion, largely due to Mylroie. All that remained was filling it in with the evidence.

But the evidence wasn't there. What to do? Do what was done in the 80's when you need a scary picture but the CIA won't give it to you. Create another Team B. The same people involved in creating Team B are in the Bush administration. The analysts aren't seeing how Iraq and Al Qaeda are linked, how Saddam is responsible for other terrorism throughout the world (as conspiracy theorist Laurie Mylroie can see). So once again Rumsfeld and company wanted to get their fingers on the raw intelligence so they could draw their own conclusions. This is what they did. Dismissing the CIA's findings they concocted their own complex relationship theories. What do you know? Saddam is really scary and should be overthrown violently.

The CIA and FBI were resistive. We don't really know that Atta met an Iraqi official in Prague. We don't really know about other supposed meetings either. But for people like Wolfowitz it was possible that they had met. After all the FBI can't account for Atta's whereabouts for one day in April. Maybe during that time he hopped a quick flight to Prague and then returned. I mean, it's possible. This was the kind of thinking that was driving the intelligence presentation. You can't rule it out, right? So that means we should assume it happened.

The picture that emerges is not one of the White House actually pressuring CIA analysts or others to give faulty data. It's more that they really believed Saddam was the locus of world wide terror. When they'd hear things from the CIA that fit that presentation it just resonated for them. When they heard things that contradicted it somehow it just didn't register.

Take the aluminum tubes. We were told that these were to be used as part of Saddam's nuclear program. In the opinion of the technical experts this wasn't true. They weren't sized properly for centrifuges. They couldn't withstand the forces required in a centrifuge. But a few elements within the CIA believed the technical experts were wrong. The White House just didn't hear the dissents.

Take the mobile biological weapons vans. Claims that Saddam had these were based on testimony from a guy referred to as "Curveball". He had been interviewed by German intelligence. He was believed by the Germans to be completely unreliable. He was likewise widely believed within the CIA to be a fraud and a drunk. The CIA repeatedly corrected the record. Somehow claims of these vans continued to be asserted by top White House officials, to the exasperation of the intelligence community. They ultimately ended up in Collin Powell's speech before the UN. Curveball would later admit that he lied and also claim that he watched in shock as his allegations were used to justify the war.

Ahmed Chalabi, who was judged to be unreliable by the CIA prior to the war, produced one supposed informant after another (including Curveball) that would make frightening claims about what Saddam was up to. One after the other would prove themselves unreliable, whether by failing lie detector tests or in other ways. Meanwhile the CIA would interview their own sources that would repeatedly assert that there was no WMD program in Iraq. These sources passed their lie detector tests. Somehow the White House and many others just couldn't hear them. That didn't fit the Mylroie paradigm.

Then of course we have the transparent fraud that was the Nigerian uranium procurement forgeries. I had said earlier that the the IAEA was able to discover their fraudulent nature after spending a few hours with Google. Likewise Joe Wilson traveled to Niger pro bono on behalf of the CIA and reported that there was no way this deal could have occurred. Still Bush would cite it in his State of the Union address, and Cheney would go on meet the press and say the IAEA was wrong and we believe Saddam has reconstituted his nuclear program.

One thing I take away from this book is this. They really believed this stuff. I don't think they were lying. What I think is that when people have an incentive to reach a certain conclusion, that's just a big part of things.

I was prompted to read it after watching this movie about Wilson and Plame called "Fair Game." The movie depicts Libby and Rove as extremely nefarious people that in a petty move set out to destroy Plame's career simply to get back at Wilson for his criticisms. I didn't quite understand this presentation because my understanding was that the leaker was Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State under Collin Powell, and that the disclosure was not underhanded. Wilson and Plame's suffering was real, but it wasn't due to a sinister plan from Rove and Libby. It was just an unfortunate mistake on the part of Armitage, who happened to be an opponent of the war in Iraq and would have no reason to discredit Wilson. He just was a bit of a gossip and spoke when he shouldn't have. I also didn't quite understand why Libby was even prosecuted given that the leaker was Armitage. I also tended to think the Libby prosecution wasn't really right and Bush's pardon was the right choice. But on the other hand I know not to trust Bush and his neocon pals, so I suspected there was more to it than I knew. I thought this book might explain some of these details, and it did. In fact the presentation in the movie seems pretty close, though it is missing some details.

With regards to Plame, it is true that Robert Novak exposed Plame based on information from Richard Armitage. Novak was able to get Rove to confirm the claim, and he published on that basis. But what I didn't know is that prior to Novak's column Rove and Libby were leaking this information to other sources in a concerted effort to destroy Wilson. Libby leaked it to Judith Miller (now rewarded for her outrageously false journalism that helped lead us to war in Iraq as a paid contributor to Fox News and Newsmax) as well as others, and Rove leaked it to Matt Cooper of Time and others. This was possibly a crime. When the prosecuting attorney questioned Rove and Libby it became clear that Libby had concocted a fake story to absolve himself of any responsibility. It seemed likely that Rove did as well. It turned out it was easier to prove that Libby had lied to the grand jury than it was to prove that Rove had done the same, so he was indicted and convicted. The prosecuting attorney didn't charge anybody for the crime of leaking Plame's identity because under the law it would only be a crime if the leakers knew Plame was a covert operative at the time, and that would have been very difficult to show. Seems to me Libby and Rove should have just admitted to being the source of the leak right away and they would have had no problem. In the end it looks like both of them are just ass holes. Lies to grand juries are also a big deal and Libby should of course serve his time, like normal people do when they are likewise convicted of crimes as serious as that. Bush decided that he wouldn't though. No surprise. Justice is for the weak.

1 comment:

MKR said...

The Bush presidency was certainly the nightmare reign of corrupt epistemology. (Actually, I wish that we had such a word as "epistemics," to signify the rules that people follow in their judgments, as against epistemology, the inquiry into the nature of knowledge.) This was the case in every branch of policy, but the fabrication of the case for invading Iraq was certainly the grossest and most disastrous instance.

The weird thing is that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had a tendency to issue epistemological maxims that were not bad at all. For instance: "There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns." I remember Jon Stewart making low-browed mockery of this utterance, as if it were meaningless verbiage, but it is in fact quite true and quite wise, regardless of what application Rumsfeld may have made of it. Another, but more ambiguous example: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." This is also quite correct--provided that the word "not" is understood to mean "not always" or "not necessarily." Unfortunately, I think Rumsfeld took it to mean "not ever," in which case the maxim is false and foolish.