So You Call This Breaking News?
By FRANK RICH
IF your head hurts from listening to the Washington furor over the latest National Intelligence Estimate, by all means tune it out. The entire debate is meaningless except as a damning election-year indicator of just how madly our leaders are fiddling while Iraq burns.
The supposedly shocking key finding in the N.I.E. — that the Iraq war is a boon to terrorism — isn’t remotely news. It first turned up in a classified C.I.A. report leaked to the press in June 2005. It’s also long been visible to the naked eye. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted before any revelations from the N.I.E., found that nearly half the country believes that the Iraq war is increasing the terrorist threat against America and only 12 percent thinks the war is decreasing that threat. Americans don’t have to pore over leaked intelligence documents to learn this. They just have to turn on the television.
Tonight on “60 Minutes,” Bob Woodward will spill another supposedly shocking intelligence finding revealed in his new book: a secret government prediction that the insurgency will grow worse next year. Who’d have thunk it? Given that the insurgency is growing worse every day right now — last week suicide bombings hit a record high in Baghdad — the real surprise would be if the government predicted an armistice. A poll released last week by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that about 6 in 10 Iraqis approved of attacks on American forces. Tardy investigative reporting is hardly needed to figure out that the insurgency is thriving.
“The insurgents know what they are doing,” Mr. Woodward is to say on CBS, according to an advance excerpt. “They know the level of violence and how effective they are. Who doesn’t know? The American public.” He accuses the administration of keeping such information out of sight by stamping it “secret.” All this, too, apparently comes as eye-opening news to Mr. Woodward three and a half years into the war; his new book’s title, “State of Denial,” has a self-referential ring to it. But the American public does know the level of violence all too well, and it also knows how the administration tries to cover up its failures.
That’s why long ago a majority of that public judged the war a mistake and Mr. Bush a dissembler. It’s only the variations on the theme that change. When the president declared last month that “the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military is committed to keeping this country together,” reality was once more busily contradicting him. The Los Angeles Times reported that a third of that government wasn’t showing up to parliamentary sessions and that only 1,000 Iraqi soldiers answered the American call for 4,000 reinforcements in the do-or-die battle to secure Baghdad.
Against this ominous reality, the debate over the N.I.E. is but a sideshow: politics as usual on both sides. The president reluctantly declassified what had already been leaked, somehow hoping he could override the bad headlines with Pavlovian repetition of shopworn slogans. (He said America must “stay on the offense” four times in one speech on Friday alone.) Democrats are huffily demanding that the White House release more than a few scraps of the 30-page-plus N.I.E., a debating point with no payoff. The N.I.E. is already six months out of date, and Americans can guess most of it, classified or not. In this war at this late stage, the devil can be found everywhere, not merely in the details.
The facts of Iraq are not in dispute. But the truth is that facts don’t matter anyway to this administration, and that’s what makes this whole N.I.E. debate beside the point. From the start, honest information has never figured into the prosecution of this war. The White House doesn’t care about intelligence, good or bad, classified or unclassified, because it believes it knows best, regardless of what anyone else has to say. The debate over the latest N.I.E. or any yet to leak will not alter that fundamental and self-destructive operating principle. That’s the truly bad news.
This war has now gone on so long that we tend to forget the early history that foretold the present. Yet this is the history we must remember now more than ever, because it keeps repeating itself, with ever more tragic results. In the run-up to the war, it should be recalled, the administration did not even bother to commission an N.I.E., a summary of the latest findings from every American intelligence agency, on Iraq’s weapons.
Why not? The answer can be found in what remains the most revealing Iraq war document leaked to date: the Downing Street memo of July 23, 2002, written eight months before the invasion. In that secret report to the Blair government, the head of British intelligence reported on a trip to Washington, where he learned that the Bush administration was fixing the “intelligence and facts” around the predetermined policy of going to war in Iraq. If we were going to fix the intelligence anyway, there was no need for an N.I.E., except as window dressing, since it might expose the thinness of the administration’s case.
A prewar N.I.E. was hastily (and sloppily) assembled only because Congress demanded it. By the time it was delivered to the Capitol after much stalling, on Oct. 1, 2002, less than two weeks remained before the House and Senate would vote on the Iraq war resolution. “No more than six senators and only a handful of House members got beyond the five-page executive summary,” according to an article last spring in Foreign Affairs by Paul Pillar, the C.I.A. senior analyst for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005. In a White House press briefing after the war started, an official said Condi Rice hadn’t read it at all, leaving that menial duty to her retinue of “experts.”
When one senator who did read the whole N.I.E., the now retired Democrat Bob Graham of Florida, asked that a declassified version be made public so that Americans could reach their own verdicts on the war’s viability, he was rebuffed. Instead the administration released a glossy white paper that trumpeted the N.I.E.’s fictions (“All intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons”) but not its doubts about much-hyped evidence like aluminum tubes and uranium from Africa. The only time the president cared about the N.I.E., a document he never wanted, was when he thought it would be politically useful in fighting growing criticism in 2003 that he had manipulated prewar intelligence. Then he authorized his own cherry-picked leaks, which Scooter Libby fed to Mr. Woodward and Judith Miller of The Times. (Neither wrote about it at the time.)
As the insurgency continued to grow in the fall of 2003, the White House again showed scant interest in reality. The American military’s Central Command called for an N.I.E. instead. The existence of this second N.I.E. was only discovered in February of this year by Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder Newspapers. It found that the growing violence in Iraq was “fueled by local conditions — not foreign terrorists — and drew strength from deep grievances, including the presence of U.S. troops.” Yet the president ignored that accurate intelligence, refusing to raise troop levels and continuing to argue erroneously that the insurgency was mainly linked to Saddam and Al Qaeda. Three years later, he still makes that case rather than acknowledge that our troops are caught in the cross-fire of a civil war.
Having ignored the facts through each avoidable disaster, the White House won’t change its game plan now. Quite the contrary. Its main ambition seems to be to prop up its artificial reality no matter what the evidence to the contrary. Nowhere could this be better seen than in Ms. Rice’s bizarre behavior after the Bill Clinton-Chris Wallace slapdown on Fox News. Stung by the former president’s charge that the Bush administration did nothing about Al Qaeda in the eight months before 9/11, she couldn’t resist telling The New York Post that his statement was “flatly false.”
But proof of Ms. Rice’s assertion is as nonexistent as Saddam’s W.M.D. As 9/11 approached, both she and Mr. Bush blew off harbingers of the attacks (including a panicked C.I.A. briefer in Crawford, according to Ron Suskind’s “One Percent Doctrine”). The 9/11 commission report, which Ms. Rice cited as a corroborating source for her claims to The Post, in reality “found no indication of any further discussion” about the Qaeda threat among the president and his top aides between the arrival of that fateful Aug. 6 brief (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”) and Sept. 10.
That the secretary of state would rush to defend the indefensible shows where this administration’s priorities are: it’s now every man and woman in the White House for himself and herself in defending the fictions, even four-year-old fictions, that took us into the war and botched its execution. When they talk about staying the course, what they are really talking about is protecting their spin and their reputations. They’ll leave it to the 140,000-plus American troops staying the course in a quagmire to face the facts.