Thursday, June 22, 2006

End this Destructive Conflict and Bring Order to the Galaxy

I'm trying to scrape my jaw off the floor. This new book by journalist Ron Suskind, the One Percent Doctrine, along with Frontline's documentary The Dark Side, offer a stunning and surreal look at the Bush administration and offers some partial answers to why and how we really got to Iraq and the Endless War

Suskind's Bush is a familiar figure, a mixture of bluster and cluelessness. He loves being briefed by groups of men talking tough. "They all start talking like operators, no matter what's being reported. These are men who, on balance, never experienced the bracing effects ... of military action. The few who have, like Powell, and his deputy Rich Armitage, smooth over these disparities ... by joining in the tough talk that they know, from experience, is hollow at its core."

At one briefing in 2002, Suskind writes, Bruce Gephardt, deputy director of the FBI, told Bush that a group of men of "Middle Eastern descent" in Kansas had been discovered offering "cash for a large storage facility." "Middle Easterners in Kansas," said Bush. "We've got to get on this, immediately." Bush is reported to like barking orders, almost at a shout. The next day, he demanded a report. "Mr. President, the FBI has Kansas surrounded!" "That's what I like to hear," Bush replied. But it turned out that the men of Middle Eastern descent were operators of flea markets, not would-be terrorists. The diligent FBI had closed in on their accumulated piles of old clothing and Sinatra records

First, Suskind's book (which I will need to hunt down): the title refers to a comment by Dick Cheney, the chilling effect of which was to raise suspicion over evidence as the threshold for action: "if there's even a one percent chance [that al-Qaeda has a nuclear weapon due to its Pakistani nuclear connections] than we should treat it as a certainty, not in our analysis but our response." In other words, even a minor likelihood is justification for a pre-emptive strike.

That may be the most insightful moment, but it is hardly the most shocking. Likely the thing on most people's mind will be the revelation of a planned 2003 chemical weapons attack on the NYC subway system, discovered through a captured Saudi laptop on the highway to  Bahrain and mysteriously aborted by AQ no.2 al-Zawahiri.
Precisely, the mubtakkar ["invention" in Arabic, "the initiative" in Farsi] is a delivery system for a widely available combination of chemicals--sodium cyanide, which is used as rat poison and metal cleanser, and hydrogen, which is everywhere. The combination of the two creates hydrogen cyanide, a colorless, highly volatile liquid that is soluble and stable in water. It has a faint odor, like peach kernels or bitter almonds. When it is turned into gas and inhaled, it is lethal. For years, figuring out how to deliver this combination of chemicals as a gas has been something of a holy grail for terrorists.
Now some experienced technicians have complained that such a device is a dream, won't work etc. But when a CIA analyst made a working model from blueprints, this was substantially more realistic a threat:
At 5 p.m. in Tenet's conference room in early March, Leon waited until everyone was seated. He pulled from a bag a cylinder, about the size of a paint can, with two Mason jars in it. He placed it in the center of the large mahogany conference table, sat back down in his chair. People had heard various things about the recent discovery of a delivery system.

But seeing it was something else.

"Oh, s___," Tenet whispered after a moment.

We also find out there is a mole in al-Qaeda, something we can all hope provokes distrust there.
Call him Ali.

Ali was, not surprisingly, a complex character. He believed that bin Laden might have made a mistake in attacking America. This was not an uncommon sentiment among senior officials in the organization. It is, in fact, periodically a point of internal debate, according to sigint--signals intelligence--picked up in this period. Bin Laden's initial calculation was that either America wouldn't respond to the attacks or that its response would mean the U.S. Army would soon be sinking in an Afghan quagmire. That, of course, did not occur. U.S. forces--despite the mishap of letting bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and most of the organization's management escape--had managed to overthrow the Taliban and flush al-Qaeda from its refuge. The group was now dispersed. A few of its leaders and many foot soldiers were captured or dead. As with any organization, time passed and second-guessing began.

That provided an opening. The disgruntlement was enough to begin working a few potential informants. It was an operation of relationship building that reflected traditional European spycraft. Build common bonds. Show sympathy to the sources' concerns. Develop trust. While al-Qaeda recruits were ready for martyrdom, that was something its more senior officials seemed to have little taste for. As one CIA manager said, "Masterminds are too valuable for martyrdom." Whatever Ali's motivations, his reports--over the preceding six months--had been almost always correct, including information that led to several captures.

The opening anecdote concerns the President's reaction to the infamous PDB 'Bin Ladin Determined to Strike US": he sat through the CIA briefing and desiring to get back to his vacation said to the briefer, "Ok, you've covered your ass now." He asked no more questions.
Three months later, with bin Laden holed up in the Afghan mountain redoubt of Tora Bora, the CIA official managing the Afghanistan campaign, Henry A. Crumpton (now the State Department's counterterrorism chief), brought a detailed map to Bush and Cheney. White House accounts have long insisted that Bush had every reason to believe that Pakistan's army and pro-U.S. Afghan militias had bin Laden cornered and that there was no reason to commit large numbers of U.S. troops to get him. But Crumpton's message in the Oval Office, as told through Suskind, was blunt: The surrogate forces were "definitely not" up to the job, and "we're going to lose our prey if we're not careful."

VP Cheney's shadow war with the CIA and the other 'invisibles' that actualize the WOT is in stark relief on the Frontline. They show a org chart of top officials, and then draw red lines under all of Cheney's people, showing his reach throughout the government. It depicts his dark co-presidency as conceived in the Ford administration but born in a bunker on 9/11, where he believed but has never acknowledged, that United 93 was shot down on his orders. Let us pause to reflect that yes he was in a precarious position and was clearly willing to do what it takes etc., but also that our Consitution does not define such powers for the Vice-President, such as direct command of the military. From the review at the NYT:
And several months later [Suskind] says, attendees at a meeting between Mr. Bush and the Saudis discovered after the fact that an important packet laying out the Saudis' views about the Israeli-Palestinian situation had been diverted to the vice president's office and never reached the president.
Suskind reveals the CIA nickname for Cheney: 'Edgar' after the famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, making W his puppet.
"Bush asked Cheney not to offer him advice in crowded rooms. Do that privately. Cheney did."
One reason for the mistrust from Cheney: he feels they failed to find the nascent nuclear program in Iraq during the first Gulf War, thus we can see under the 1% doctrine, Cheney felt certain they did, no matter what the CIA told him. A main ideological point uniting all of Cheney's cabal is their belief that military assets rather than intelligence assets should be utilized. The rise in prominence of the NSA could also be attributable to this viewpoint, since it is a part of the Defense department.

In both case, I actually feel sorry for the officers of the CIA and how their seemingly omnipotent organization has been robbed of its prerogatives by a new military intelligence apparatus run out of Rumsfeld's Defense. And this is in the midst of their greater tactical successes: since war in Afghanistan has not be planned for by the military, the CIA with Special Ops forces developed an immediate plan. So many of these smart people knew that Iraq was a giant mistake on several levels. Two reports shown in the docu show this contrast: the hastily-written and largely false 2003 NIE doctored through personal pressure by Cheney on CIA analysts and a copiously illustrated and far more realistic version prepared for internal use by the CIA. They knew Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, that it was all UBL: "It's Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the library" a CIA agent says in exasperation. Of course, we only get to see that now.
On Jan. 10, 2003, Stephen Hadley, then deputy national advisor, called Jami Miscik, deputy director of the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, from the office of Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, demanding that Miscik appear in Libby's office that afternoon. According to Suskind, Miscik told Tenet, "If I have to go back to hear their crap and rewrite this goddamn report ... I'm resigning, right now." So the report was not rewritten. As a result, U.S. intelligence sources could not be cited and the disinformation had to be attributed elsewhere.

After the presidential election, in mid-November 2004, Suskind writes, Cheney directly pressured Miscik to leak a distorted part of a CIA report to "prove" that the war in Iraq was quelling, not inciting, terrorism. Cheney intended to declassify it and have the CIA make it public. But Miscik knew that the report "concluded nothing of the sort," and refused to take part in leaking false information. She was told that the new CIA director, Porter Goss, had said, "Saying no to the vice president is the wrong answer." "Actually," she replied, "sometimes saying no to the vice president is what we get paid for." Within a few weeks, she was forced out. Soon much of the CIA's top echelon was purged for adhering to its residual professional standards.

"Voicing desire for a more traditional, transparent policy process," he writes, "prompted accusations of disloyalty," and "issues argued, often vociferously, at the level of deputies and principals rarely seemed to go upstream in their fullest form to the president's desk, and if they did, it was often after Bush seemed to have already made up his mind based on what was so often cited as his 'instinct' or 'gut.'

A similar red herring was 'the head of al-Zawahiri', which was acquired from a group of tribal chiefs in Afghanistan and shipped in a metal lockbox to Washington for analysis:
Bush, who was tracking the transaction, reportedly told a briefer -- "half in jest," Suskind writes -- that "if it turns out to be Zawahiri's head, I hope you'll bring it here." It turned out to be someone else's.

We also get to see how infighting between the CIA and the Army lead to senior officials lead to UBL's escape through Tora Bora to Pakistan. Curiously absent is the Nat'l Security Adviser, whose job is to bridge the gap here in advice to the president. Or, maybe not so much:
He depicts the former C.I.A. director as frequently being made by the White House "to take the fall" for his superiors, on matters including the administration's handling of prewar intelligence to the 16 disputed words in the president's State of the Union address, regarding Iraq's supposed efforts to obtain uranium from Africa. Because it was Mr. Tenet "who brought analysis up the chain from the C.I.A.," Mr. Suskind writes, he "was best positioned to assume blame. And Rice was adept at laying it on Tenet."

The president is unsurprisingly absent, to the point where Cheney withholding information from going upstream to his desk in order to give him plausible deniablity, even to his own prior statements:
"Keeping certain knowledge from Bush — much of it shrouded, as well, by classification — meant that the president, whose each word circles the globe, could advance various strategies by saying whatever was needed. He could essentially be 'deniable' about his own statements." ... "Under this strategic model, reading the entire N.I.E. would be problematic for Bush: it could hem in the president's rhetoric, a key weapon in the march to war. He would know too much"

Even the 2004 election is cast in newly revealing light:
On Oct. 29, 2004, Osama bin Laden released his "October surprise," an 18-minute tape attacking Bush. The CIA analyzed the tape and concluded that "bin Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection." That day, at a meeting at the CIA, acting director John McLaughlin remarked, "Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the president." Miscik presented analysis that bin Laden felt challenged by the rise of the thuggish Zarqawi, who called himself commander of al-Qaida in Iraq, and that bin Laden was refocusing attention through his tape on his cosmic and continuing one-on-one battle with Bush. "Certainly," she said, "he would want Bush to keep doing what he's doing for a few more years."

The most damning anecdote thus released relates to the hideous consequences of extraordinary rendition in conjunction with 1% doctrine overdrive: the sad story of the crazy AQ chauffeur Abu Zubaydah:
Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries "in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3" -- a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail "what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said." Dan Coleman, then the FBI's top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality."

Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics -- travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was "echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President," Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States." And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques.

[...] 

"I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?"* "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied. Bush "was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?" Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered." [Emphasis mine]

*this was  one criticism to the book already, that Bush wouldn't say something this 'cartoonish' but  would it be the dumbest thing he's said in public or private to date? Not even top twenty...

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