July 16, 2008

Latest Dan Fromkin blog

A War of Convenience?

Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; 1:11 PM

President Bush and Vice President Cheney could have reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in lots of ways. What they chose to do was launch a global war on terror -- potentially a war without end.

This decision now seems like a big mistake. In the name of the war on terror, we have invaded and occupied a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11, we have emboldened our enemies, we have lost and taken many lives, we have spent trillions of dollars, we have sacrificed civil liberties, and we have jettisoned our commitment to human dignity.

But was it an honest mistake? Did Bush and Vice President Cheney declare war because they believed it was the best way to guarantee the safety of the American people? Or did they do it in a premeditated -- and ultimately successful -- attempt to seize greater political power?

New Yorker writer Jane Mayer's new book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals," offers evidence of the latter. (See yesterday's column for an overview.)

In an online interview with Harpers blogger Scott Horton, Mayer sums up her findings this way: "After interviewing hundreds of sources in and around the Bush White House, I think it is clear that many of the legal steps taken by the so-called 'War Council' were less a 'New Paradigm,' as Alberto Gonzales dubbed it, than an old political wish list, consisting of grievances that Cheney and his legal adviser, David Addington, had been compiling for decades. Cheney in particular had been chafing at the post-Watergate reforms, and had longed to restore the executive branch powers Nixon had assumed, constituting what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called 'the Imperial Presidency.'

"Before September 11, 2001, these extreme political positions would not have stood a change of being instituted -- they would never have survived democratic scrutiny. But by September 12, 2001, President Bush and Vice President Cheney were extraordinarily empowered. Political opposition evaporated as critics feared being labeled anti-patriotic or worse."

Andrew J. Bacevich called attention to this point in his review of Mayer's book in The Washington Post on Sunday: "Mayer recognizes . . . the intimate relationship between the global war on terror and Addington's new paradigm. The entire rationale of the latter derived from the former: no war, no new paradigm. Hence, the rush to declare that after Sept. 11, 2001, everything had changed. The insistence that the gloves had to come off, that the so-called law enforcement approach to dealing with terrorism had failed definitively, that only conflict on a global scale could keep America safe: These provided the weapons that Addington's War Council wielded to mount its assault on the Constitution -- all of course justified as necessary to keep Americans safe.

"Matthew Waxman, who in 2001 was serving as special assistant to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, told Mayer that the decision to frame the U.S. response to 9/11 as a war was taken with 'little or no detailed deliberation about long-term consequences.' Yet the decision was a momentous one, he continues, setting the United States on 'a course not only for our international response, but also in our domestic constitutional relations.'

"Little deliberation occurred because none was deemed necessary. As Mayer makes clear, the White House seized upon the prospect of open-ended war with alacrity. And why not? In the near term at least, going to war almost invariably works to the benefit of the executive branch. War elicits deference from Congress and the courts. As a wartime commander-in-chief, the president wields greater clout. In this particular case, war also helped deflect demands for accountability: Despite what Mayer describes as 'the worst intelligence failure in the nation's history,' the aftermath of 9/11 saw not a single senior official fired."

Frank Rich picked up on that last point in his Sunday New York Times opinion column: "In [Mayer's] telling, a major incentive for Mr. Cheney's descent into the dark side was to cover up for the Bush White House's failure to heed the Qaeda threat in 2001. Jack Cloonan, a special agent for the F.B.I.'s Osama bin Laden unit until 2002, told Ms. Mayer that Sept. 11 was 'all preventable.' By March 2000, according to the C.I.A.'s inspector general, '50 or 60 individuals' in the agency knew that two Al Qaeda suspects -- soon to be hijackers -- were in America. But there was no urgency at the top. Thomas Pickard, the acting F.B.I. director in the summer of 2001, told Ms. Mayer that when he expressed his fears about the Qaeda threat to Mr. Ashcroft, the attorney general snapped, 'I don't want to hear about that anymore!'"

And in an opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post, former CIA analyst Glenn L. Carle wrote that we as a nation have allowed the specter of the terrorist threat "to distort our lives and take our treasure.

"The 'Global War on Terror' has conjured the image of terrorists behind every bush, the bushes themselves burning and an angry god inciting its faithful to religious war. We have been called to arms, built fences, and compromised our laws and the practices that define us as a nation. The administration has focused on pursuing terrorists and countering an imminent and terrifying threat. Thousands of Americans have died as a result, as have tens of thousands of foreigners. . .

"I spent 23 years in the CIA. I drafted or was involved in many of the government's most senior assessments of the threats facing our country. I have devoted years to understanding and combating the jihadist threat. . . .

"We do not face a global jihadist 'movement' but a series of disparate ethnic and religious conflicts involving Muslim populations, each of which remains fundamentally regional in nature and almost all of which long predate the existence of al-Qaeda.

"Osama bin Laden and his disciples are small men and secondary threats whose shadows are made large by our fears."

(See my July 25, 2007, column, Al Qaeda's Best Publicist.)

Carle writes: "This administration has heard what it has wished to hear, pressured the intelligence community to verify preconceptions, undermined or sidetracked opposing voices, and both instituted and been victim of procedures that guaranteed that the slightest terrorist threat reporting would receive disproportionate weight -- thereby comforting the administration's preconceptions and policy inclinations."

Louis Bayard writes for Salon: "'The Dark Side' is about how the war on terror became 'a war on American ideals,' and Mayer gives this story all the weight and sorrow it deserves. . . .

"Above all, [her book] underscores one of the least remarked aspects of our nation's counterterrorist policy: the degree to which it has been driven not by spies or generals but by pasty men in ties. . . .

"Almost from the moment America was attacked, Mayer writes, Cheney 'saw to it that some of the sharpest and best-trained lawyers in the country, working in secret in the White House and the United States Department of Justice, came up with legal justifications for a vast expansion of the government's power in waging war on terror. As part of that process, for the first time in history, the United States sanctioned government officials to physically and psychologically torment U.S.-held captives, making torture the official law of the land in all but name.' . . .

"[T]he bureaucratic colossus who bestrides this narrow world is David Addington, Cheney's general counsel and a figure of Robespierrian purity. 'Tall and bespectacled,' with 'the look of an irascible sea captain,' Addington jealously guards the paper flow to Cheney and, ultimately, to Bush -- even as he shouts down all opposition. No one stands to his right, and no one challenges him without risk of career suicide. 'We're going to push and push and push,' he tells one colleague, 'until some larger force makes us stop.' . . .

"Cheney and Addington, for their part, got what they had been waiting for half their lives -- the chance to shift power back to the executive branch. By arguing that the president needed free rein to fight al-Qaida, they were able to expand domestic wiretapping, neutralize Congress, and undo many of the restraints that Watergate had put in place three decades earlier. Their ultimate goal, as Rep. Jane Harman put it, was 'restoring the Nixon presidency.'"

Tim Rutten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Mayer does a superb job of describing how the trauma of 9/11 all but unhinged Bush and Cheney and predisposed the chief executive to embrace the ready-made unitary executive theory of presidential power, which the vice president and his chief aide, David Addington, had come to Washington prepared to promote. In the opinion of the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, 'the Bush administration's extralegal counterterrorism program presented the most dramatic, sustained and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history.'"

Craig Seligman writes for Bloomberg about how Mayer traces the nation's torture policies directly back to Cheney, Addington, former secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo.

"Wrapping themselves in the flag, repeating the mantra 'security' and attacking anyone who questioned this insanity as soft on terrorism, they succeeded in disgracing their country before the world, and now they deserve to be called what they are: traitors. In a just world they would be prosecuted and convicted."

Bush's Dubious Claims

I've called for more skepticism in the face of Bush's assertions that "enhanced" CIA interrogations have saved lives.

In the Harper's interview noted above, Mayers has more to say on that subject: "President Bush has repeatedly defended the need to use 'enhanced interrogations' in order to get life-saving intelligence, and has pointed to Abu Zubayda's case as an example. I went over the claims in this case carefully, and found them highly dubious. Bush claimed three breakthroughs from coercive tactics used on Abu Zubayda.

"First, he said, Abu Zubayda told the CIA that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the terrorist behind the 9/11 plot. But, if one reads the 9/11 Commission's detailed report on what information had reached the CIA prior to the 9/11 attacks, it is clear that the CIA already had this information.

"Second, President Bush said that Abu Zubayda revealed that an American-born Al Qaeda figure was on his way to attack America. This is widely understood to be a reference to Jose Padilla. But numerous published accounts indicate that Abu Zubayda gave this information to interrogators prior to being physically coerced. So it's not accurate to describe it as an argument for coercion.

"Third, the President said Abu Zubayda gave up information leading to the capture of another top Al Qaeda terrorist, Ramsi Bin Al Shibh. But circumstantial evidence, as well as previously published accounts, suggest that Bin Al Shibh was more likely located by the United States as the result of an interview he gave to Al Jazeera.

"Meanwhile, although President Bush has argued that 'enhanced' interrogation had led to numerous breakthroughs he has never publicly acknowledged the false and fabricated intelligence it has yielded, too. One former top CIA official told me, 'Ninety percent of what we got was crap.'"

The British Plot

Bush has also spoken repeatedly about the disruption by British authorities of an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners with liquid explosives.

Here he is in a November speech: "Just last year, Osama bin Laden warned the American people, 'Operations are under preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once they are finished.' Seven months later, British authorities broke up the most ambitious known al Qaeda plot since the 9/11 attacks -- a plot to blow up passenger airplanes flying over the Atlantic toward the United States. Our intelligence community believes that this plot was just two or three weeks away from execution. If it had been carried out, it could have rivaled 9/11 in death and destruction."

But Elaine Sciolino writes in the New York Times: "Now, as the three-month trial of eight defendants draws to a close, prosecutors indeed have presented evidence of meticulous planning, with experiments on a new kind of bomb, research into plane schedules, videos threatening martyrdom, an apartment purchased for more than $270,000 in cash and a mysterious outsider with strong ties to Pakistan.

"But the testimony has shown little evidence that the suspects were prepared to strike immediately, or of any link to Al Qaeda -- potential vulnerabilities in the case that several defendants have tried to capitalize on in court.

"Three defendants pleaded guilty to intent to cause explosions, the judge announced Monday, in what was apparently an attempt to convince the jury that their intention was not to commit mass murder, as prosecutors alleged.

"Instead they said they had planned a series of small, nonfatal blasts -- a 'publicity stunt,' one defendant said -- to protest British and American foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East."

Guantanamo Watch

Charmaine Noronha writes for the Associated Press: "Lawyers for a Canadian prisoner at Guantanamo Bay released excerpts of videotaped interrogations Tuesday, providing a first-ever glimpse into the secretive world of questioning enemy combatants at the isolated U.S. prison in Cuba.

"The 10 minutes of video -- selected by Omar Khadr's Canadian lawyers from more than seven hours of footage recorded by a camera hidden in a vent -- shows a 16-year-old Khadr weeping, his face buried in his hands, during the 2003 interrogation that took place over four days.

"The video, created by U.S. government agents and originally marked as secret, provides insight into the effects of prolonged interrogation and detention on the Guantanamo prisoner. . . .

"Khadr also tells his interrogator that he was tortured while at the U.S. military detention center at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, where he was first detained after his arrest in 2002.

"Later on in the tape, a distraught Khadr is seen rocking, his face in his hands.

"'Help me,' he sobs repeatedly in despair."

No Torture Questions

At Bush's hastily scheduled press conference this morning -- his first in over two-and-a-half months -- not a single reporter asked him about torture. It's understandable that the primary focus was on the economy. But couldn't someone have at least asked whether he still maintains that the U.S. hasn't tortured detainees? And if he does, how he defines torture?

Bush on the Economy

The housing market is in crisis, oil is at record highs, the dollar is at record lows, the Dow is down, retail sales growth is weak, inflation is rearing its head, GM is cutting jobs and benefits -- but Bush took to the podium today for yet another round of economic cheerleading.

"The economy's growing, productivity is high, trade is up," said the same president who recently admitted that he had kept private his concerns about progress in Iraq in 2006 because he didn't want to demoralize the troops.

"I think the system basically is sound. I truly do," he said. "And I understand there's a lot of nervousness, but the economy's growing, productivity's high, trade's up, people are working -- it's not as good as we'd like. . . .

"All I can tell you is we grew, in the first quarter. . . .

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