What makes George W. Bush and Dick Cheney such extraordinary threats to the future of American democracy is their readiness to tell half-truths and outright lies consistently without any apparent fear of accountability.
While other politicians might spin some facts in a policy debate or a tell a fib about a personal indiscretion, President Bush and Vice President Cheney act as if they have the power and the right to manufacture reality itself, often on matters of grave significance that bear on war and peace or the future of the nation.
Even in the face of growing public skepticism, Bush and Cheney continue to invent new lies and retell old ones, seemingly with the goal of at least keeping their gullible right-wing “base” behind the faux reality depicted on Fox News, the Rush Limbaugh radio show and other right-wing media outlets.
So, on April 5, Cheney showed no hesitancy in telling Limbaugh’s listeners both an old canard about how Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in league with al-Qaeda terrorists and a new one about how a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would “play right into the hands of al-Qaeda.”
Cheney surely knows that U.S. intelligence analysts have reached the opposite conclusions on both points – that there was no operational relationship between Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda; that terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was based in a section of northern Iraq outside Hussein’s control; and that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has been a boon to al-Qaeda that the terrorist group wants to extend, not end.
As one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants, known as “Atiyah,” wrote two years ago, “prolonging the war is in our interest.” The letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, and obtained by U.S. intelligence after Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, urged that Zarqawi’s jihadists in Iraq show patience and restraint in deepening their ties to Iraqi Sunni insurgents.
[To read the “prolonging the war” passage from the Atiyah letter at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, click here and then scroll down to the bottom of page 16 and the top of page 17.]
Other intelligence information has revealed that in 2004-05, al-Qaeda’s situation both in Iraq and along the Pakistani-Afghan border was precarious, with their hopes tied to a continuation of Bush’s blunderbuss strategies in order to deepen alienation between the Muslim world and the West. Al-Qaeda leaders feared that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would cause many young recruits to put down their guns and go home. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]
In late October 2004, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that bin Laden released a pre-election video with the intent of helping Bush gain a second term so his policies would continue. Bin Laden devoted most of his harangue to denouncing Bush in what looked like a Brer Rabbit ploy of “Don’t throw me in the briar patch” – when that was exactly where he wanted to go.
After bin Laden’s video dominated the news on the Friday before Election 2004, a meeting of senior CIA analysts began with deputy CIA director John McLaughlin observing that “bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” according to Ron Suskind’s book The One Percent Doctrine, which relies heavily on CIA insiders.
“Certainly,” CIA deputy associate director for intelligence Jami Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years,” according to Suskind’s account of the meeting.
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts drifted into silence, troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.
If helping Bush was bin Laden’s intent, the strategy appeared to work. According to two last-minute polls, Bush moved from a virtual dead heat with Sen. John Kerry to about a five percentage point lead and hung on to win by an official margin of less than three points. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Agrees Bin Laden Helped in ‘04”]
In April 2006, a National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, formalized some of the analysis about the benefit of the Iraq War to Islamic terrorism. The Iraq War had become a “cause celebre” that was “cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement,” the NIE said.
So, Cheney seems to have the intelligence upside down. The ones playing into al-Qaeda’s hands are those who favor an open-ended conflict in Iraq, not those who want to bring the war to a prompt conclusion.
Similarly, Cheney continues to spread the false claim that Zarqawi’s pre-war presence in Iraq indicated an al-Qaeda connection to Saddam Hussein’s regime. “This is al-Qaeda operating in Iraq” before the invasion, Cheney told Limbaugh’s listeners.
But the facts on Zarqawi have long since been established. Before the invasion, the Jordanian terrorist – who had not yet allied himself with al-Qaeda – was operating in Iraq’s northern territory where he was protected by the U.S.-British “no-fly zone” that prevented Hussein from launching military offensives.
Though the Bush administration has made much of Zarqawi slipping into Baghdad in 2002 to receive some medical treatment, U.S. intelligence has concluded that Hussein’s government did not know where Zarqawi was and indeed launched a manhunt aimed at arresting him.
“The [Hussein] regime did not have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates,” concluded a CIA report dated Oct. 25, 2005.
A September 2006 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee said Zarqawi used an alias while getting medical treatment and evaded capture by the Iraq Intelligence Service, which created a “special committee” to track him down.
Further, the Senate panel concluded that “no postwar information indicates that Iraq intended to use al-Qa’ida or any other terrorist group to strike the United States homeland before or during” the U.S. invasion.
The Senate report found, too, that Hussein’s regime had not developed any operational links to al-Qaeda. As explained by captured Iraqi officials after the invasion, the several contacts between Baghdad and al-Qaeda appeared to have been initiated by al-Qaeda and didn’t lead to any cooperation from Iraq.
Hussein was determined to keep the radical fundamentalist bin Laden at arm’s length, according to these accounts. Senior Iraq Intelligence Service official Faruq Hijazi told American debriefers that he was picked by Hussein to meet with bin Laden in 1995 because Hijazi was secular and unsympathetic to bin Laden’s fundamentalist message.
Hussein also instructed Hijazi “only to listen” and promise nothing. Bin Laden requested permission to open an office in Iraq, to receive Chinese sea mines, and to obtain military training – all of which Hussein rejected, Hijazi said, according to the Senate report.
Other al-Qaeda overtures met similar rebuffs from Hussein who disliked bin Laden, in part, because the Saudi exile had called Hussein an “unbeliever,” according to a senior Iraqi official interviewed after the invasion. Hussein also ordered another al-Qaeda operative, who snuck into Iraq, to be apprehended and expelled.
Even before the U.S.-led invasion – when the Bush administration was hyping Hussein’s alleged ties to al-Qaeda – then-CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that “there are several reported suggestions by al-Qa’ida to Iraq about joint terrorist ventures, but in no case can we establish that Iraq accepted or followed up on these suggestions.”
Despite this evidence and a broad consensus within the U.S. intelligence community, Cheney keeps alive his discredited claims about a pre-war al-Qaeda role under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Possibly, the Vice President believes that the right-wing media echo chamber is so influential that the sheer repetition of these falsehoods can solidify support for the administration’s position regardless of the facts.
Bush has operated with similar audacity in depicting a “history” of the Iraq War that is mythical, not factual. For instance, just four months after the invasion, Bush altered the pre-war reality in stating that he had no choice but to invade because Saddam Hussein had barred United Nations weapons inspectors.
“We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in,” Bush said at the end of a brief press conference at the White House on July 14, 2003. “After a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”
Yet, as everyone who watched the run-up to war knew, Hussein did let U.N. inspectors in to scour the countryside. Indeed, in early March 2003, U.N. inspectors were requesting more time for their work and noting that the Iraqis finally were filling in details about how they had destroyed earlier stockpiles of weapons. But Bush cut the inspections short and launched his invasion.
Then, months later, when U.S. forces also were unable to locate the suspected weapons of mass destruction, Bush simply altered the historical facts with his assertion that Hussein “chose war” by rejecting U.N. inspections.
In those heady days of Bush’s stratospheric poll numbers, no one in the major U.S. news media dared to challenge Bush’s falsehoods.
Although Bush’s poll numbers have fallen precipitously since then, U.S. journalists remain hesitant to question Bush’s honesty now when he continues to revise recent history to fit his political needs.
Bush’s latest revisionist history relates to his claim that his “surge” of higher troop levels in Iraq represented the will of the military commanders and that politicians shouldn’t override battlefield judgments.
The American people “don’t want politicians in Washington telling our generals how to fight a war,” Bush said at a press briefing on April 3, scolding congressional Democrats for seeking a gradual withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
But it was Bush in December and January who rebuffed the judgment of the Pentagon brass and U.S. field commanders when they opposed his plan for expanding the size of U.S. military contingent in Iraq.
During a classified briefing at the Pentagon in December, Bush reportedly made clear to the brass that he had no interest in finding a way out of Iraq. Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, described Bush’s message as “What I want to hear for you is how we’re going to win, not how we’re going to leave.”
Bush began warming to a “surge” strategy that was pushed by neoconservative scholar Frederick Kagan and Bush’s hard-line White House strategists. That was countered by a Pentagon leak revealing that the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed an escalation because they doubted it could achieve any lasting strategic objective.
Bush, who has always insisted that he listens to his generals on military matters such as troop levels, reacted to their resistance to the “surge” with a purge. He pushed out Gen. John Abizaid and Gen. George Casey, the two top field commanders, and promoted other officers who would bend to White House political demands.
In other words, Bush claiming he was abiding by his commanders’ advice on the “surge” would be like Richard Nixon saying he was only following the will of the Justice Department in firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre.”
To get Cox fired, Nixon first had to accept the resignations of the Attorney General and the deputy attorney general, before reaching the third-ranking official, Solicitor General Robert Bork, who removed Cox.
But not even Nixon would have dared invert factual reality so brazenly. Nixon had to confront a far more aggressive press corps than Bush does. Plus, Nixon couldn’t turn as readily to an ideologically compliant right-wing news media, which has been lavishly constructed in the past three decades partly in response to Nixon’s Watergate debacle. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Bush and Cheney apparently believe that today’s friendlier media environment still lets them do or say almost anything they want. But a democratic Republic cannot long endure when leaders substitute lies for 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.’