Friday, May 25, 2007

Pinpointing Crucial Moments in The History That Got Us Into The Iraq War

Congressional Quarterly reports:

Hearing horror stories about the manipulation of Iraq intelligence is like watching “The Exorcist” again and again: Each time you see something new and laugh at the parts that used to make your hair go up straight.

Patrick Lang told a hilarious story the other night, for example, about a job interview he had with Douglas Feith, a key architect of the invasion of Iraq.

It was at the beginning of the first Bush term. Lang had been in charge of the Middle East, South Asia and terrorism for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1990s. Later he ran the Pentagon’s worldwide spying operations.

In early 2001, his name was put forward as somebody who would be good at running the Pentagon’s office of special operations and low-intensity warfare, i.e., counterinsurgency. Lang had also been a Green Beret, with three tours in South Vietnam.

One of the people he had to impress was Feith, the Defense Department’s number three official and a leading player in the clique of neoconservatives who had taken over the government’s national security apparatus.

Lang went to see him, he recalled during a May 7 panel discussion at the University of the District of Columbia.

“He was sitting there munching a sandwich while he was talking to me,” Lang recalled, “ which I thought was remarkable in itself, but he also had these briefing papers — they always had briefing papers, you know — about me.

“He’s looking at this stuff, and he says, ‘I’ve heard of you. I heard of you.’

“He says, ‘Is it really true that you really know the Arabs this well, and that you speak Arabic this well? Is that really true? Is that really true?’

“And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s really true.’

‘That’s too bad,” Feith said.

The audience howled.

“That was the end of the interview,” Lang said. “I’m not quite sure what he meant, but you can work it out.”

Feith, of course, like the administration’s other Israel-connected hawks, didn’t want “Arabists” like Lang muddying the road to Baghdad, from where — according to the Bush administration theory — overthrowing Saddam Hussein would ignite mass demands for Western-style, pro-U.S. democracies across the entire Middle East.

Lang’s story is merely an illumination of what the Senate Intelligence Committee said in drier language May 25, that the White House was warned before invading Iraq that creating a stable democracy there “would be a long, difficult and probably turbulent process.”

Suddenly the Cassandras are everywhere. These days you can’t drop a Blackberry between Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle without it being stepped on by a former intelligence official with prepared testimony or a book proposal.

For those of us who have been around Washington for more than awhile, it’s unprecedented.

There were defections from the Johnson administration over Vietnam, more with the Nixon administration’s invasion of Cambodia — and of course there were Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which exposed a historical record of official deceit on Indochina.

But back then intelligence officials didn’t quit one day and the next day write real-time books exposing the machinations of current, or near-current, defense and intelligence leaders.

When one did in 1974 — dissident CIA executive Victor Marchetti, who wrote “The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence,” an expose of how the agency overthrew governments, etc. (with John Marks, a former State Department intelligence analyst), there was an uproar.

Today, there are fewer uproars than shrugs, weekend news blips. Even George Tenet’s memoir has already started falling down the rungs of The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.

One reason might be that readers don’t think he’s telling the truth — and too late, at that.

But another may be that the public has already concluded that, at least when it comes to the Middle East, the president and his men are — not to put too fine a point on it — dopes. Or worse.

As Colin Powell’s former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, appearing on the same panel with Lang, put it, “This is the most colossally inept and incompetent administration in American history.”

And Wilkerson spent more than three decades in the Army. Even coming from the right hand man to the Bush administration’s former secretary of State, however, who was at the center of every intelligence controversy related to Iraq, that’s hardly news anymore.

Still, with the added value of hindsight, their anecdotes still have a fresh punch.

Here’s Another From Lang
“I remember talking to [Paul] Wolfowitz, in his office, in the Pentagon, and telling him — this was after the propaganda build up had started, before the war. I said, ‘You know, these guys are not going to welcome you.’

“He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘For one thing, these guys detest foreigners, and the few who really like you are the least representative of the various breeds of people there. They’re going to fight you, then, if you occupy the place there’s going to be a massive insurgency.’”

“He said, ‘No, no, they’ll be glad to see us,’” Lang continued. “This will start the process of revolution around the Middle East that will transform everything.’

No, Lang told Wolfowitz, “that’s not gonna happen. It’s just an impossibility. They’re not like that. They don’t want to be us.”

Not everyone agrees with all of Lang’s views about the Arab world, but on this issue he was prescient, of course, as were almost all experts on the region outside of the neocon faithful.

How come we learned so much of this dispute only after the war?

Face Time
Wilkerson provides a damning clue.

In February 2003, Powell’s top aide relates, he “spent five of the most intimate days of my life, and five nights, without sleeping, as did my team, staring into . . . the face” of George Tenet, Tenet’s deputy John McLaughlin, and other top CIA officials working on Iraq, at the agency’s headquarters at Langley.

It was the eve of Powell’s now infamous speech at the United Nations detailing Iraq’s alleged biological, chemical and nuclear programs.

“One of the things Secretary Powell and I told Mr. Tenet and Mr. McLaughlin at the outset of our frenetic five or six days, trying to get ready for the U.N., was ‘multiple sources.’ We will not take anything and put it in this presentation, unless there are multiple, independently corroborated sources for the items we’re putting in the testimony,” Wilkerson said.

“That was the going-in position.”

Subsequently, he learned that there was but “a single source for the mobile biological laboratories; that his code name was Curveball; and that there were several very key dissents as to this individual’s testimony, during or before the preparation of the secretary of State.”

Curveball, an Iraqi refugee, turned out to be a liar.

“None of that, ladies and gentlemen, none of that was revealed to the secretary of State, or to me, or to any member of my team, by either John McLaughlin or George Tenet,” Wilkerson said.

Tenet says in his memoir that he never heard of any serious questions about Curveball.

As readers of this column know , however, Tenet’s chief of European operations, Tyler Drumheller, insists he sent a flurry of warnings about Curveball to Tenet’s deputies.

Both can’t be right.

“Either George Tenet is lying through his teeth, or Tyler Drumheller is lying through his teeth,” Wilkerson says, “with regard to one of the most important pillars of Secretary Powell’s presentation at the United Nations: the mobile biological laboratories.”

We’re waiting now for a third CIA official to come forth with an answer.

The other “pillar” for the invasion, of course, was Saddam Hussein’s alleged connection to al Qaeda.

Now everybody knows that, too, was bogus.

But in Wilkerson’s hands this “old news” seems fresh — like watching Tony Perkins creep up on Janet Leigh in “Psycho” again.

Wilkerson relates how he and Powell were dubious about the Saddam-al Qaeda link the White House was pushing, and were trimming back that section of Powell’s draft on the eve of the speech.

“All of a sudden, we were told that a high-level al Qaeda operative . . . had been interrogated and . . . revealed that there was major training going on by . . . Saddam Hussein’s people — of al Qaeda operatives in how to use chemical and biological weapons,” Wilkerson said.

“This was quite a revelation, and, as you can imagine, changed the secretary’s mind about how much he was going to include about contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq in his presentation.”

But that, too, it turned out, was phony.

“One definition of news,” a mentor told me long ago, “is what people have forgotten.”

If that’s so, then the horror stories of Iraq can be told again and again.

And here’s one reason why they should be: CIA veterans are leaving in droves.

The other night I was talking with a recently retired top CIA operations officer, a man who had been a station chief in several foreign capitals.

“This government — what have they done to themselves?” he vented.

“They took a fine intelligence service,” he said, “and managed to destroy it in two administrations.”

I’m probably way out of step, but to me that’s still news.