Ron Suskind, Gutter Journalist? or Dick Cheney, Ultimate Subversive?

Suskind’s book contains additional accusations against Cheney than have appeared in the Press. Nevertheless, the bigger scandal may be the idiocy of the US intelligence community and not how it was subverted by Dick Cheney.

I’ve just read Ron Suskind’s new book, The Way of the World. It’s gotten press for revelations that the U.S. and Britain, before the invasion of Iraq, had a high level source —Saddam’s intelligence chief Tahir Jalil Habbush — who explicitly said that Saddam had no WMD. Bush, Cheney, and Rice first cut off contact with the source, despite the desire of the intelligence agencies to use him for tactical advantage, and later had the CIA pay him $5 million, presumably for his silence.

Suskind has on-the-record sources—some of whom have now recanted somewhat —- who said that months after “Mission Accomplished,” the White House (presumably Cheney’s team) ordered a backdated letter be prepared under Habbush’s signature and released in Baghdad, to provide (false) evidence that the 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had trained in Iraq and that Al Qaeda was involved in facilitating Iraqi procurements (presumably of “yellowcake” uranium oxide) from Niger.

Tony Fratto, White House spokesman, who told Politico that the allegation was “absurd,” seems not to have said it didn’t happen, and certainly didn’t present any facts. Instead he attacked Suskind by saying that he makes his living via “gutter journalism.”

It’s clear that such a letter was released in Baghdad, and comparison of the letter with the FBI timeline of Atta’s movement established its falsehood, as Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball noted at the time. Since neither of these issues had any salience inside Iraq, it’s pretty clear that the letter was falsified for American consumption, and presumably at the bidding of US Intelligence. It does seem possible that DIA or others, and certainly not the named sources themselves, may have done the White House’s bidding, which would largely square the denials that have been offered with the substance of the charge.

What about the charge of gutter journalism and Suskind’s credibility? Suskind is probably not above using sensationalism to help sell books, but the irony is that this is not primarily a sensationalistic book, or even a book primarily about misfeasance by the Bush administration. It’s mostly a meditation about whether and how the United States could find a different, more human path, to deal with cultural clashes and terrorist threats, in contrast with the terrible toll on America’s moral leadership that has been exacted by the Bush administration. Approached via a series of overlapping stories, this meditation raises more questions than it answers.

But nevertheless the Habbush story is only one thread in a fabric of troubling accusations largely buried in the book:

• Habbush was not the only high-level source before the war who explained that Saddam had no WMD. Iraq’s foreign minister, Naji Sabri, gave a similar account, but this intelligence was given a misleading summary in New York and then given to British intelligence in an unsourced fashion that said the opposite of what Sabri actually said. Had the British known of Sabri as well as Habbush, they would have wanted to use them against each other to check information, and might not have gone along with Bush’s rush to war.

• The CIA station chief in Berlin, Joe Wippl, disobeyed standard CIA procedures in a variety of ways, to the degree of being ultimately removed by Langley, but along the way put the Germans up to denying the U.S. access to “Curveball,” the primary (and false) source for a continuing Iraqi Biological Weapons Program. Nevertheless (or because of this), Vice President Cheney’s office later recommended Wippl for the job of CIA Congressional Liaison, a job for which he was unqualified and from which he was eventually fired. Suskind hints that Cheney or his office was using Wippl to keep the CIA in the dark.

• Benazir Bhutto, shortly before her death, believed that her security could be assured if only Vice President Cheney would call General Musharraf and tell him that the United States would hold him responsible for Bhutto’s safety. (Cheney, it seems, refused entreaties to make such a call.) Thus Cheney undermined Condi Rice’s project to give Musharraf more legitimacy by sponsoring Bhutto’s return.

• In 2003 the Bush administration, for reasons that are not clear, deliberately shut down a promising channel of discussion with the Iranian regime, regarding Al Qaeda operatives in Iran, among other things.

It’s easy to see why the Bush/Cheney folks are afraid of Suskind, a Pullitzer-certified former Wall Street Journal reporter whose early journalistic work during the Bush administration profiled Karen Hughes and who then went on to write Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s view of the Bush Administration in The Price of Loyalty—including the assertion that the Bush administration was focused on a possible war with Iraq from its first National Security Council meeting, within 10 days of its inauguration.

At the Jump—comparing George Tenet’s memoir with Suskind’s account of Abu Zubaydah’s importance suggests that Suskind, while not infallible, has in the past managed to commit truth despite the difficulty of getting at official secrets. And comparing his account of the Curveball information with Tenet’s and with the Silberman-Robb commission report raises further questions.

Finally, John McCain was a member of the Silberman-Robb commission. It might be worth asking him what he learned about the basis for his early cheerleading for an attack on Iraq –as detailed in today’s NYT.

Abu Zubaydah:

On his capture, the Bush administration trumpeted Abu Zubaydah as one of Al Qaeda’s key “plotters and planners.” Suskind, in “The One Percent Doctrine” argued that this was an exaggeration — that while Zubaydah was involved in logistics, he was not involved in planning (p. 95). Tenet in his memoir dismisses criticism that the administration had overstated his importance, saying “Baloney. Abu Zubaydah had been at the crossroads of many Al Qa’ida operations.” (p.243) Note that Tenet did not say that Zubaydah had in fact been involved in “plotting and planning.” Like Fratto’s assertion of the absurdity of Suskind’s forgery charge, this does not engage the substance of the way in which Suskind had said the administration had overstated his importance. In other words, Tenet should be read as not denying Suskind’s account.

Curveball:

In his memoir, George Tenet disputes those, notably Tyler Drumheller, chief of the European Division of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, who claimed that German concerns about Curveball’s veracity were repeatedly conveyed to the CIA analysts and even directly to George Tenet personally. Tenet essentially fingers Drumheller as having withheld information from the rest of the CIA and then lying about it to the Robb-Silberman commission. But Tenet is frankly mystified at how possible problems with Curveball and other sources came to be hidden from view within the estimating process. His best guess is that maybe people thought it didn’t matter to raise concerns since “the rush to Baghdad wasn’t going away. They would just be stepping in front of a moving train.” Tenet was ignorant of many elements of the Curveball record until confronted by the staff of the Silberman-Robb “Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.” For example, the Germans had held the CIA off in party by saying that Curveball was difficult to interview because he did not speak English, but in fact a Defense Department detailee working for the CIA Directorate of Operations had interviewed Curveball in May 2000, at which time he spoke excellent English.

The Silberman-Robb Commission Report examined the record in some detail, and found that CIA management allowed WMD analysts to judge Curveball’s authenticity based on the technical detail of his reports, effectively overruling DO concerns verbally conveyed (but not written into any sort of official record). The report concluded:

In sum, there was no “politicization” of the intelligence product on Iraq. Poor tradecraft, exacerbated by poor management, contributed to the erroneous assessments of Iraq’s WMD programs. These problems were further exacerbated by the reluctance of Intelligence Community management to foster and consider dissenting views. Finally, the Intelligence Community was unwilling to identify the errors underlying its intelligence assessments, admit those errors, and explain to consumers how those errors affected previous judgments.

Certainly it would be neater if subversion from the top rather than pervasive and systematic incompetence explained the result. Then the recipe for reform would be to just remove Cheney. Suskind’s hypothesis that Drumheller and Wippl and the New York CIA officer who reversed the meaning of Sabri’s interview were doing Cheney’s bidding, and not simply being risk averse and standing out of the way. Drumheller’s seeming misinformation and Wippl’s later reward at the hands of the Vice President’s office are certainly suspicious. Once Cheney is out of the way, it shouldn’t be too hard for investigators to go over the record with the relevant Germans and Americans to determine why the Germans withheld access to Curveball. But no functional system would be such easy prey for subversion, even by Cheney. As Tenet comes close to saying, a functioning system would immediately give all cleared analysts access to all relevant information about a source, and the CIA system did not do so.

In the end, Suskind’s method of going over individual stories with multiple sources fails to grapple with the whole of the relevant information—for example the detail on Iraq WMD intelligence in the Silverman-Robb report, or Tenet’s assertion that he had extra confidence in the existence of WMD because of some unnamed high-level source provided by an allied intelligence service. The Silberman-Robb commission,like the 911 commission, was packed with members or staff who took it as their mission to protect the Bush administration from political harm. (Senator John McCain and Walt Slocombe, part of the disastrous Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and an approver of the disastrous order to disband the Iraqi Army, were both Commission members). That is why the whole record needs to be reviewed again to get the full story. (It would be interesting to ask McCain what he learned from this–given he was so far out in front in leading the charge to invade Iraq based on its non-existent relationship to Al Qaeda and Anthrax.) In the meantime, it’s also clear that America’s system of intelligence and the relationship between intelligence producers, analysts, and consumers was completely broken.

The most recent episode where top policy-makers were apparently ignorant of a fairly substantial Russian mobilization to invade Georgia suggests that the problems have not been fixed.