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Podhoretz's Bad Faith Distorts Iraq's Prewar al Qaeda Links

Walter C. Uhler

January 2, 2006

F
or nearly two decades, from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, I purchased annual subscriptions to Commentary magazine, edited by Norman Podhoretz. Not that I fell for Podhoretz's neoconservative ideology, his inveterate anti-Sovietism, Israeli chauvinism or incessant rants about the "present danger." Indeed, five of my numerous scathing letters of dissent to the periodical were published (Feb. 1978, Dec. 1990, Dec.1993, Oct.1994 and Aug. 1996).

No, although I almost always could predict Podhoretz's (and Commentary's) line of argumentation before I read his (and its) articles, I read the magazine for the sake of my own intellectual integrity. And I only ceased subscribing and reading when I came to doubt the intellectual integrity of its editor and many of its writers.

Nudging me toward that break were the doubts about Podhoretz coming from highly respected thinkers and critics. For example, in March 1984, while participating in a George Orwell Symposium at Rosemont College (Pennsylvania), I had the opportunity to discuss Mr. Podhoretz's January 1983 Harper's article, "If Orwell were Alive Today," with Orwell scholar and biographer, Bernard Crick.

I suggested to Mr. Crick that Podhoretz appeared to embrace Orwell's fear that a long Soviet-American stalemate would cause the United States to increasingly emulate the "totalitarian" practices of its adversary, leading (as Orwell suggested in Nineteen Eighty-Four) to "the division of the world among two or three vast totalitarian empires unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by any internal rebellion." [Norman Podhoretz, "If Orwell were Alive Today," Harper's, March 1983, p. 35]

Podhoretz also implied that Orwell would have found a nuclear war preferable to the prospect of creeping Western totalitarianism. He did so by claiming that Orwell "thought that 'the worst possibility of all,' was that 'the fear inspired by the atomic bomb and other weapons yet to come will be so great that everyone will refrain from using them.'" Moreover, Podhoretz offered this "worst possibility" in the very same paragraph in which he discussed the intolerable nightmare of a worldwide totalitarian stalemate.

When I suggested to Mr. Crick that Podhoretz had used Orwell's words to express his own preference for early nuclear war over long-term totalitarian stalemate, Crick agreed. And then, without any prompting, Crick added that Podhoretz was "a thoroughly nasty person."

In an interview on October 23, 2002 in The Atlantic online, Christopher Hitchens added his studied opinion about Podhoretz's 1983 Harper's article. He observed that Podhoretz's article was: "Straight out of bad faith-chopping bits that don't support his case out of an excerpt. If he had done that in the academy he would have been fired."

For the purposes of this article, however, the most relevant observations about Podhoretz were made by Gore Vidal, in his article, "A Cheerful Response," published in the March 22, 1986, issue of The Nation. It was there that Mr. Vidal wrote: "Over the years, Poddy, like his employers, the AJC [American Jewish Committee], moved from those liberal positions traditionally occupied by American Jews (and me) to the far right of American politics. The reason for that is simple. In order to get Treasury money for Israel (last year five billion dollars), pro-Israel lobbyists must see to it that America's 'the Russians are coming' squads are in place so that they can continue to frighten the American people into spending enormous sums for 'defense,' which also means the support of Israel in its never-ending wars against just about everyone. To make sure that nearly two thirds of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon and Israel, it is necessary for the pro-Israel lobbyists to make common cause with the lunatic right."

Vidal noted that Podhoretz's "first loyalty would always be to Israel." Perhaps the devil in him also compelled Vidal to add: "Although there is nothing wrong with being a lobbyist for a foreign power, one is supposed to register with the Justice Department. Also, I should think that tact would require a certain forbearance when it comes to politics in the host country."

The question of "first loyalty to Israel" has been raised again, some nineteen years later, by both James Bamford (in A Pretext for War) and George Packer (in The Assassins' Gate). Both have decried the official machinations of two younger unregistered lobbyists for Israel, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser. Both were obsessed with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein -- in order to secure the realm for Israel -- long before they accepted employment in the administration of the malevolent Dick Cheney and the incurious, insouciant George W. Bush. Mr. Packer goes so far as to suggest that, for Mr. Feith and Mr. Wurmser, loyalty "to the security of Israel was probably the prime mover." [Packer, p. 32]

As Packer notes, "Feith, [Richard] Perle, and Wurmser…occupied key policy positions in the administration of George W. Bush, where they were shaping the imminent war to overthrow Saddam." [Ibid] While Mr. Perle publicly disparaged the Iraq intelligence coming out of the CIA, Feith established a rogue intelligence cell devoted to the sole objective of searching for links between Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime and international terrorists, especially al Qaeda.

At the direction of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, soon after the 9/11 attacks Feith set up the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group (PCEG), which he staffed with Wurmser and another neocon, Michael Maloof. According to Mr. Bamford, the PCEG was "little more than a pro-war propaganda cell" [p. 289] that channeled bogus intelligence directly to the Secretary of Defense and the Vice President.

Supporting Bamford's allegation is evidence that Maloof used Perle to request what would prove to be bogus intelligence from Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC). And we know that even after Maloof and Wurmser departed the PCEG, Feith's group devoted itself to challenging and undermining the Intelligence Community's (IC's) doubts about Saddam Hussein's links to al Qaeda.

The IC's post-9/11 doubts about such links were first expressed in CIA's President's Daily Brief (PDB) of September 21, 2001. The PDB asserted that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks on 9/11 and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties to al Qaeda.

Feith's PCEG was established in the wake of that PDB and — Surprise!— soon claimed to have found credible evidence of significant links connecting Iraq to al Qaeda. Moreover, Feith's PCEG presented its briefing slides to Wolfowitz in November 2001, Rumsfeld in the summer of 2002, George Tenet and the CIA in August 2002 and deputy national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, and Cheney's chief of staff (and now-indicted) "Scooter" Libby in September 2002.

Yet, the Intelligence Community never repudiated its doubts about alleged ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. It refused to buckle, even in the face of repeated questions by Cheney and overheated blustering by Wolfowitz. Moreover, the IC found Feith's PCEG briefing slides to be unpersuasive.

Why, then, was Cheney talking publicly about the links connecting 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed Atta, with Iraqi intelligence? After all, he certainly knew that investigations by the CIA and FBI had discredited such allegations. And why, then, was Rumsfeld talking about possessing "bulletproof" evidence linking Saddam and al Qaeda? After all, Rumsfeld knew quite well that the very persistence of doubts within the IC meant that the evidence was anything but "bulletproof." So who lied?

Cheney and Rummy's evidence came from Feith's "Gestapo office" (as Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to it). And so did the evidence that Scooter Libby attempted to foist on Powell prior to his now infamous February 5, 2003 speech before the Security Council of the United Nations.

Moreover, we now possess "bulletproof" evidence to convict Feith's PCEG of hyping its so-called intelligence about Iraq's ties to al Qaeda. What "bulletproof" evidence? First, consider what we now know about the paucity of that intelligence. According to the July 2004 "Report" of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI): "Despite four decades of intelligence reporting on Iraq, there was little useful intelligence collected that helped analysts determine the Iraqi regime's possible ties to al Qaeda."

Given that eye-opening conclusion, who would have faulted the intelligence professionals in the Intelligence Community for refusing to find significant links connecting Iraq to al Qaeda? Yet, Feith's PCEG used that very same "little useful intelligence" (supplemented, no doubt, by the bogus stories fed to it by Chalabi's programmed INC informants) to find significant links. Thus, the inescapable conclusion: Feith's PCEG "hyped" the links connecting Iraq to al Qaeda.

We also know that Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Libby and Cheney eagerly, uncritically and, thus, irresponsibly (if not dishonestly) promoted Feith's hyped intelligence before selling it to an unwitting American public. How do we know? We know, because they recommended Feith's "fixed" and "hyped" intelligence to each other while continuing to proclaim Iraq's ties to al Qaeda to the world — even after failing to browbeat support for those claims out of the IC.

"Browbeat?" According to the SCCI: "The CIA Ombudsman interviewed about two dozen analysts and managers involved in the preparation of the CIA's June 2002 document entitled 'Iraq and al-Qaeda: Interpreting a Murky Relationship'…The Ombudsman told the committee that he felt the 'hammering' by the Bush Administration on Iraq intelligence was harder than he had witnessed in his 32-year career with the agency. Several analysts he spoke with mentioned pressure and gave the sense that they felt the constant questions and pressure to reexamine issues were unreasonable."

"Fixed and hyped?" Of course "fixed." Simply recall the leaked SECRET "Downing Street Memo" of July 2002, which outlined secret discussions between British Prime Minster Tony Blair and his top cabinet officials about how "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

And of course, "hyped." Simply recall the SCCI's conclusion: "The Central Intelligence Agency reasonably assessed that there were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda throughout the 1990s, but that these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship." Consequently the PCEG's false allegations of significant ties HAD to be hyped.

Of course, "fixed" and "hyped" meant nothing to Feith, his PCEG, Wolfie, Rummy, Libby, Cheney or even incurious, insouciant Bush - because every one of these arrogant zealots simply "knew" that Iraq had ties to al Qaeda. To hell with all of the Intelligence Community's caveats and doubts!

Even more damning, however, is the indisputable fact that the Intelligence Community got the matter of Iraq's ties to al Qaeda right, while reckless Wolfie, Rummy, Libby, Cheney and Bush all got it egregiously wrong. Thousands of innocents have died in Iraq, yet not one of these arrogant zealots has been brought to justice.

As Martin van Creveld, the noted professor of military history at Hebrew University, has concluded: "For misleading the American people, and launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. sent his legions into Germany and lost them, Bush deserves to be impeached and, once removed from office, put on trial along with the rest of the president's men. If convicted, they'll have plenty of time to mull over their sins."

But, guess who's written to call the CheneyRummyBush criminality in Iraq a "bold and noble enterprise." Yes, Norman Podhoretz. He has written an unfortunately scatterbrained article, "Who Is Lying About Iraq," in the December 2005 issue of Commentary.

I say "unfortunately," because my brief article cannot possibly cleanse the walls of every piece of scattershot dung flung by Podhoretz, presumably with the expectation that some of it would stick. Instead, I devote myself solely to what Podhoretz says or doesn't say about the Bush administration's treatment of intelligence about Iraq's ties to al Qaeda.

Consider that Podhoretz excoriated Senator Harry Reid's allegation that "the Bush White House manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to bolster its case for war in Iraq."

Podhoretz belittled Reid's assertion (which I have substantiated above, beyond a doubt); but, curiously, wrote nothing about the activities of the PCEG and its unregistered lobbyist, Feith. Yet, how could any serious examination of the Bush's administration's handling of intelligence concerning Iraq's ties to al Qaeda overlook the very rogue cell set up to search for such ties? Thus, we must ask, "Is Podhoretz incompetent, dishonest, or both?"

In addition, Podhoretz denied the pressure that the Bush administration exerted on the Intelligence Community. And he cited evidence from reports by the SCCI and the Robb-Silberman commission to prove his point. Yet, he failed to acknowledge that the SCCI's report was merely Phase One and dealt largely with the failures of the IC. He failed to mention that the SCCI's Phase Two will report on the Bush administration's politicization of intelligence. He also failed to mention that the Robb-Silberman commission was prohibited from examining the politicization of intelligence.

What's even worse, while citing both reports to deny the Bush administration's pressure on the IC, Podhoretz somehow missed that part of the SCCI report that contained the previously mentioned testimony about pressure from the CIA's Ombudsman. Thus, once again we must ask, "Is Podhoretz incompetent, dishonest or both?"

Finally, to defend the scoundrels in the Bush administration against charges of lying, Podhoretz "fixed" the very words of the post-invasion investigative panels - the words of the SCCI and the 9/11 Commission - to transform the extremely weak Iraq-al Qaeda links they found into more robust ties than either panel intended.

See for yourself: Podhoretz asserted that the SCCI "report explicitly concluded that al Qaeda did in fact have a cooperative, if informal, relationship with Iraqi agents working under Saddam. The report of the bipartisan 9/11 commission came to the same conclusion."

Now, compare Podhoretz's claim with actual SCCI conclusions: (1) "Despite four decades of intelligence reporting on Iraq, there was little useful intelligence collected that helped analysts determine the Iraqi regime's possible ties to al Qaeda" and (2) "The Central Intelligence Agency reasonably assessed that there were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda throughout the 1990s, but that these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship."

Also compare Podhoretz's claim with the actual 9/11 Commission statement: "To date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship."

Now, I ask you, Mr. Podhoretz, "How do you square your assertion of a "cooperative" relationship with the 9/11 Commission's denial of a "collaborative" operational relationship?

Never mind. I'm afraid I already know the answer. Although I can't vouch for Crick's allegation of "nasty," it appears that he, Vidal and Hitchens all accurately nailed a part of Podhoretz. When combined, they mean: "Any unregistered lobbyist who's willing to countenance a nuclear war to avert the mere prospect of totalitarianism seeping into the West -- as Podhoretz was -- certainly would not quibble about an illegal, immoral invasion that stands to benefit his Israel."

Consequently, neither would such a scoundrel quibble about engaging in "straight out of bad faith" (quoting Hitchens) fixing of the facts in order to quell the critics of what he believes to be CheneyRummyBush's "bold and noble enterprise."



Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).


waltuhler@aol.com


:: Article nr. 19182 sent on 03-jan-2006 01:47 ECT

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