The GOP's despicable scheme to play dumb on Iraq: A history lesson for Rubio & Jeb

The same old lies about the war—that it was a result of "faulty intelligence"—need to be corrected once and for all

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 19, 2015 2:50PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jim Young/AP/Molly Riley/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Jim Young/AP/Molly Riley/Photo montage by Salon)

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post wrote a piece on Friday in which he pointed out that recent arguments over Iraq, as they have played out in the GOP presidential campaigns, have the potential to solidify yet yet another bogus narrative about that misbegotten war. Sargent notes that it's very much to the Republican Party's benefit (and frankly, Hillary Clinton's as well, to a somewhat lesser extent) to have everyone agree that if only the powers that be had known the intelligence was wrong, they simply wouldn't have invaded. "Hindsight is 20/20," and "the fog of war," and all that rot.

Sargent frames the issue this way:

The basic premise that this challenge to Jeb reinforces is that the Iraq War happened only because of bad intelligence. George W. Bush was misled by intelligence failures, and it still gives him a “sickening feeling.” In this framing, the question becomes: Will you admit that you were misled into supporting a war that everyone now agrees in hindsight was an unnecessary and tragic mistake?

That is worrying. And that's because it's yet another whitewash of a war that was whitewashed from the very beginning. It's being done quite cleverly. Here's one of the more recent Q &A's on this issue with Chris Wallace from Fox News and Marco Rubio. Wallace reiterated his colleague Megyn Kelly's question that had tripped up Jeb Bush earlier in the week: Was it a mistake to invade Iraq?

That sounds like a very tough interview, doesn't it? What a probing question! Was it a mistake? Oh my goodness, what will they say? If either of Rubio or Bush had decent political instincts they'd just say, "Yes, it was a mistake," and everyone would move on, shaking their heads about all that "faulty" intelligence and what a shame it all was.

And that raises the obvious question: Why has no interviewer asked if the intelligence was really "faulty," or if it was actually "fixed", as a very famous memo from the beginning of the war said it was. It was called the Downing St. Memo and it was dated July 2002. It was the minutes of a meeting between high-level intelligence, governmental and defense official of the British government, in which the head of MI6 reported on his recent visit to the U.S. He told his colleagues that " Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." He said that Bush had made up his mind to invade but the "case was thin."

Now it's true that the public didn't know this at the time. This memo wasn't published until 2005. But that puts a pretty large crimp in the argument that the "intelligence was faulty" and that poor old "W" was misled by the spooks. And really, it was just confirmation of what many, many people suspected long before the invasion. Regardless of whether or not we knew the WMD threat was real, we certainly knew that their "case was thin." One of the biggest scandals of the era came about because Dick Cheney was inflamed that anyone would question their bogus claims about Saddam trying to obtain nuclear material known as "yellow cake." When a man by the name of Joe Wilson had the temerity to question the official story in the New York Times, they outed his wife, a covert CIA agent.

Which brings up another aspect of the "intelligence failures" that can be laid right at Dick Cheney's feet.  He went on Meet the Press less than two months after the 9/11 attack and said this:

It's been pretty well confirmed that [9/11 hijacker Mohamed] Atta did go to Prague, and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in (the Czech Republic) last April, several months before the attack.

That was in December of 2001. Yet on September 21 of that year CIA director George Tenet had reported to Cheney:

"Our Prague office is skeptical about the report. It just doesn't add up."

From that point forward, even if they didn't say it so directly, the administration allowed the nation to believe that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in cahoots. By September of 2003, 70 percent of Americans believed it.

Then there was this important New Yorker scoop in 2003 by Seymour Hersh, about how the intelligence was "fixed."

In interviews with present and former intelligence officials, I was told that some senior Administration people, soon after coming to power, had bypassed the government’s customary procedures for vetting intelligence.

A retired C.I.A. officer described for me some of the questions that would normally arise in vetting: “Does dramatic information turned up by an overseas spy square with his access, or does it exceed his plausible reach? How does the agent behave? Is he on time for meetings?” The vetting process is especially important when one is dealing with foreign-agent reports—sensitive intelligence that can trigger profound policy decisions. In theory, no request for action should be taken directly to higher authorities—a process known as “stovepiping”—without the information on which it is based having been subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

These are just three random examples of tons of documentation we have had for over a decade that the Bush administration lied, obfuscated, misled and fixed the intelligence in order to justify their decision to go to war. We know that the neocon claque around the pentagon and Dick Cheney had been agitating to go back to Iraq for a decade and had even written a manifesto in which they openly speculated that it would take a "Pearl Harbor" attack to push the nation to adopt their imperial worldview. We know that in the early hours after 9/11 they were seeking intelligence that would tie the attacks to Saddam Hussein, based on fringe conspiracy theories. We know all of this and much, much more.

So why in the world is the media once more abdicating their duty by allowing this fiction about how the Bush administration was "misled" or "mistaken" when we know they intended to use the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq and simply ginned up the rationale after the fact? And once again, it isn't just Fox News. It's the mainstream media. Here's John Dickerson of CBS News discussing this with Charlie Rose on "CBS This Morning":

Dickerson: The best way to answer that question is to do what Marco Rubio tried to do which is go back to the moment and say that President Bush was faced with a very difficult decision and he had to choose between two bad options. One was to do nothing and have Saddam Hussein coordinate with terrorists or do something to try to stop him. This again, I don't usually give advice to political candidates but in this case to try to take people back in time and that is what Marco Rubio tried to do. But his problem is that his answers are in tension when he looks back at the lessons learned.

Charlie Rose: What interesting about this John, as you know, is that Dick Cheney has no problem saying that even if we knew they did not have weapons of mass destruction we should have gone ahead. The president says "I regret very much that we had bad intelligence but sort of on balance it is good that Saddam is gone." I don't know why they have a hard time saying "if we did know there were no weapons of mass destruction there we wouldn't have gone in."

Knowing what we know, Dickerson is still claiming that the choice was between letting Saddam "coordinate with terrorists" or trying to stop him is particularly rich.

Rose also mentions that this is Hillary Clinton's position, so they should all adopt it, no harm no foul. The problem is that no member of the House or Senate can be held responsible for the stovepiped intelligence they saw. This is not the same as failing to question their judgment --- after all, 21 out of 50 Democratic Senators voted no. But if it was the bogus intelligence that convinced them, their responsibility is of a different magnitude altogether than the people who "fixed" that intelligence. In that regard, the buck stops with the president.

And the media was partly responsible for all of that. There's no need to rehash everything they did wrong, from hiring retired generals as "consultants" to push Pentagon propaganda on television to allowing themselves to be led around by the nose by their government sources. All you have to do is read the New York Times' belated mea culpa over their pre-war coverage to know where they went wrong:

Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.

In fact, in one of the most famous examples of government propaganda of that era, Dick Cheney's henchman Scooter Libby planted the "aluminum tubes" story in the New York Times, and then Cheney boldly went on "Meet the Press" to quote the article as if he'd just read it in the paper that morning over bacon and eggs. Again, they knew these tubes were not being used for nuclear weapons. Condi Rice's office had dismissed the claims more than a year before. But it was this claim that led to the doomsaying about smoking guns and mushroom clouds which John Dickerson doesn't seem to remember was utter nonsense.

The upshot of all this is that the GOP is working overtime to fit the Iraq debacle into their preferred narrative once and for all so they can move on and start ginning up the next military adventure. And the media, which has never fully accepted its responsibility in making that war possible, is either suffering from a severe memory lapse or sees it in its self-interest to help them do it.

The problem is that the American people do not seem inclined to go along. They, at least, have some memory of the epic disaster of the Iraq War and are not eager to repeat it. As of last year, 75 percent of Americans (including 63 percent of Republicansbelieve that war was not worth it. That's up from 66 percent in 2008. The last thing they want to hear is a bunch of excuses about how the Bush administration made a big boo-boo on account of bad information. Whether or not they know all the details, they do know that even George W. Bush isn't that incompetent.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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George W. Bush Iraq Jeb Bush Marco Rubio The Bush Administration The Republican Party Video