Thursday, June 5, 2008

'Memo to Scott McClellan: Here's what happened'

By Warren P. Strobel & Jonathan S. Landay ∙ Nukes & Spooks ∙ May 29, 2008

Until now, we've resisted the temptation to post on former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's new book, which accuses the Bush White House of launching a propaganda campaign to sell the war in Iraq.

Why? It's not news. At least not to some of us who've covered the story from the start.

(Click here, here and here to get just a taste of what we mean).

Second, we find it a wee bit preposterous -- and we are being diplomatic here -- that a man who slavishly - no, robotically! -- defended President Bush's policies in Iraq and elsewhere is trying to "set the record straight" (and sell a few books) five years and more after the invasion, with U.S. troops still bravely fighting and dying to stabilize that country.

But the responses to McClellan from the Bush administration and media bigwigs, history-bending as they are, compel us to jump in. As we like to say around here, it's truth to power time, not just for the politicians but also for some folks in our own business.

Bush loyalists have responded in three ways:

1) Scott, how could you? This conveniently ignores the issue of what Bush did or didn't know and do about intelligence on Iraq, converting the story line into that of wounded leader and treasonous former aide. (That canard was the sole focus of a CBS news radio report Wednesday night).

2) Invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Okay. When do Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, et al *not* say that? Dog bites man.

3) It was an intelligence failure. The CIA gave us bad dope on WMD and, well, they're the experts. More on this in a second.

The news media have been, if anything, even more craven than the administration has been in defending its failure to investigate Bush's case for war in Iraq before the war.

Here's ABC News' Charles Gibson: "I think the questions were asked. It was just a drumbeat of support from the administration. It is not our job to debate them. It is our job to ask the questions.” And “I’m not sure we would have asked anything differently."

Really?

Or this from NBC's Brian Williams: “Sadly, we saw fellow Americans — in some cases floating past facedown (after Katrina). We knew what had just happened. We weren’t allowed that kind of proximity with the weapons inspectors [in Iraq]. I was in Kuwait for the buildup to the war, and, yes, we heard from the Pentagon, on my cell phone, the minute they heard us report something that they didn’t like. The tone of that time was quite extraordinary.” And this: "“It’s tough to go back, to put ourselves in the mind-set. It was post-9/11 America."

So the Pentagon tells the media what kind of reporting is in- and out-of-bounds?

Hogwash. Hogwash! HOGWASH.

We confess that here at McClatchy, which purchased Knight Ridder two years ago, we do have a dog in this fight. Our team - Joe Galloway, Clark Hoyt, Jon Landay, Renee Schoof, Warren Strobel, John Walcott, Tish Wells and many others - was, with a few exceptions, the only major news media organization that before the war consistently and aggressively challenged the White House's case for war, and its lack of planning for post-war Iraq.

Here are Bill Moyers and Michael Massing on the media's pre-war performance.

Enough self-aggrandizing trumpet-blowing. OK, Scott, What Happened?

Here's what happened, based entirely on our own reporting and publicly available documents:

* The Bush administration was gunning for Iraq within days of the 9/11 attacks, dispatching a former CIA director, on a flight authorized by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, to find evidence for a bizarre theory that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. (Note: See also Richard Clarke and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill on this point).

* Bush decided by February 2002, at the latest, that he was going to remove Saddam by hook or by crook. (Yes, we reported that at the time).

* White House officials, led by Dick Cheney, began making the case for war in August 2002, in speeches and reports that not only were wrong, but also went well beyond what the available intelligence said at that time, and contained outright fantasies and falsehoods. Indeed, some of that material was never vetted with the intelligence agencies before it was peddled to the public.Dissenters, or even those who voiced worry about where the policy was going, were ignored, excluded or punished. (Note: See Gen. Eric Shinseki, Paul O'Neill, Joseph Wilson and all of the State Department 's Arab specialists and much of its intelligence bureau).

* The Bush administration didn't even want to produce the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs that's justly received so much criticism since. The White House thought it was unneeded. It actually was demanded by Congress and slapped together in a matter of weeks before the congressional votes to authorize war on Iraq.

* The October 2002 NIE was flawed, no doubt. But it contained dissents questioning the extent of Saddam's WMD programs, dissents that were buried in the report. Doubts and dissents were then stripped from the publicly released, unclassified version of the NIE.

* The core of the administration's case for war was not just that Saddam was developing WMDs, but also that, unchecked, he might give them to terrorists to attack the United States. Remember smoking guns and mushroom clouds? Inconveniently, the CIA had determined just the opposite: Saddam would attack the United States only if he concluded a U.S. attack on him was unavoidable. He'd give WMD to Islamist terrorists only "as a last chance to exact revenge."

* The Bush administration relied heavily on an Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi, who had been found to be untrustworthy by the State Department and the CIA. Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress were given millions, and produced "defectors" whose tales of WMD sites and terrorist training were false, fanciful and bogus. But the information was fed directly to senior officials and included in official White House documents.

* The same INC-supplied "intelligence" used in the White House propaganda effort (you got that bit right, Scott) also was fed to dozens of U.S. and foreign news organizations.

* It all culminated in a speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 making the case against Saddam. Virtually every major allegation Powell made turned out later to be wrong. It would have been even worse had not Powell and his team thrown out even more shaky "intelligence" that Cheney's office repeatedly tried to stuff into the speech.

* The Bush administration tried to link Saddam to al Qaida and, by implication, to the 9/11 attacks. Officials repeatedly pushed the CIA for information on such links, and a separate intel shopwas set up under Defense Under Secretary Douglas Feith to find "proof" of such ties. Neither the CIA nor anyone else ever found anything resembling an operational relationship between Saddam and al Qaida.

* An exhaustive review of Saddam Hussein's regime's own documents, released in March 2008, found no operational relationship between Saddam and al Qaida.

* The Bush administration failed to plan for the rebuilding of postwar Iraq, as we were perhaps the first to report. The White House ignored stacks of intelligence reports, some now available in partially unclassified form, warning before the war about the possibilities for insurgency, ethnic warfare, social chaos and the like.

We could go on, but the rest, as they say, is history.

That's what happened.

-- Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay

"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

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