(I first published this in April 2005 and am running it again on another anniversary of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville tragedies.
The article covered my lengthy investigation which revealed that for nearly a decade, until six weeks before 9/11, the CIA had a mole buried inside al Qaeda, holding a trusted position close to Osama bin Laden. When his reports stopped suddenly, the CIA assumed that he was killed. But before he died, he revealed 9/11 plans – which conveniently fit the secret pre-2001 election goals of Team Bush: Create a war in the Middle East and fight it.
Like much of the Bush presidency, what was controversial and smeared back then has been proven true with time, the work of other reporters and writers, and even half-hearted Congressional investigations. While 9-11 is a day that seared America, it is also a day that should haunt George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to their graves because they know, better than anyone else, that they had the information to prevent it.)
According to both the 9/11 Commission report and Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, in the summer of 2001 former CIA director George Tenet raced around Washington clanging “alarm bells” to anyone who would listen about a possible al Qaeda attack on the United States. The CIA and the National Security Agency, which conducts worldwide electronic surveillance, had been picking up increasingly loud “chatter” about a major operation that was coming to fruition.
Information streamed into Washington indicating that Osama bin Laden was planning something big. George W. Bush received the now-famous President’s Daily Brief (PDB) document in August from the CIA with the headline warning that bin Laden planned to strike at the US. It was deemed to be so critical that Tenet flew to the Crawford ranch to review it with the president.
What made the electronic information so terrifying was that, at the time, a tiny number of people inside the U.S. government knew the electronic surveillance was confirming something the agency had already learned through its most closely-guarded secret and most-valuable resource: According to several former US intelligence officers interviewed for this article, for much of the 1990s, a CIA mole recruited from the ranks of Mujahadeen fighters who had battled the Russians in Afghanistan was buried deep inside al Qaeda. Slowly, he moved up through the ranks until he held a position close to the terrorist organisation’s leadership including Osama bin Laden.
On very rare occasions, his coded reports were delivered personally to a CIA handler who had snuck into Afghanistan. But, most often, they were sent through a series of couriers via different routes which led eventually to a CIA safe house in Pakistan. They were loaded with invaluable and incredibly sensitive information. From there, the messages were encoded again and sent to Washington by diplomatic courier where they were translated and delivered straight to Tenet’s desk. Around the time that the PDB warning about bin Laden was delivered to the president, sources said that the mole went silent quite suddenly. Attempts to raise the agent proved futile and, eventually, the agency concluded that he was unmasked, most likely tortured and then killed if he did not die during interrogation.
The other possibility, discounted by most CIA sources interviewed, was that the mole simply had a change of heart about helping the Americans and “re-defected” back to bin Laden.
Rumours of the mole’s existence began circulating within national intelligence circles about the time that the 9/11 Commission report was released. At least three separate sources told essentially the same story about CIA’s infiltration of al Qaeda, and they – along with information from other sources -- enabled the piecing together of this article.
According to current and former CIA and national security officers interviewed, all of whom insisted on anonymity as a condition for speaking, from at least the mid-1990s, the mole provided quality information on al Qaeda terrorist attack targets, tactics, bank accounts, recruiting, the location of training camps scattered throughout Afghanistan and elsewhere, and odd bits of tittle-tattle that helps intelligence analysts paint a colourful picture of the target: Who’s who in al Qaeda, who’s on the way up, who is in disfavour, who had been beheaded for some real or perceived act of disloyalty? Did bin Laden still ride his beloved purebred Arabian horses every day with his sons? Was his third wife still infuriating him by sneaking cans of Coca Cola into the compound? What was going to happen to the commander of a training camp who had a fondness for sharing his tent at night with one or two teenage recruits?
“It’s entirely possible that the source gave Washington hard intelligence on at least some terrorist attacks,” including 9/11, a former CIA official said on the condition of anonymity. “The dilemma for Langley (Virginia, where the CIA is headquartered) was what to do about it.
“If they used the information, in some cases lives might have been saved,” this source added, such as in the USS Cole or the African embassy bombings, “but using it might have tipped Washington’s hand and bin Laden could have figured out that he had a traitor in his midst.”
Sacrificing lives to protect a secret is not new in intelligence circles, the military or the government. The US and British government have been doing so since at least World War I; the issue does not pose a moral dilemma to either intelligence chiefs or presidents; it doesn’t even cause any real unease. The most famous example of this occurred during World War II, when the British were intercepting and decoding all of Germany’s Enigma messages. Often, Churchill, Roosevelt and Eisenhower kept vital information learned through what was called the Ultra secret from field and naval commanders. The reason was practical in the extreme: If Allied forces suddenly changed a battle plan or moved around a coming German attack, eventually Berlin would have concluded that somebody was reading Hitler’s mail and changed the Enigma code. The lives of perhaps thousands of Allied soldiers, fliers and seamen were sacrificed to protect the greatest secret of the war. Yet there is a difference between knowingly causing the death of uniformed soldiers fighting a war in the field to protect a greater secret, and doing so when civilians at home are going about their daily business.
Because so few people in government were aware of the existence of the al Qaeda mole, it is not known whether Presidents Clinton and Bush, or their national security chiefs, had been told about him.
Typically, the details of intelligence sources are not given to presidents, who usually prefer not to know about them in any event. President Clinton, at least, “didn’t know a damn thing about spies inside al Qaeda,” according to a source who once occupied a position close to the highest levels of the government during the Clinton years.
But, according to one former CIA employee, “It is entirely likely that Tenet told Bush about the mole at the ranch meeting, if the president didn’t already know. Why else would he suddenly race off to Texas on a weekend? Not just to talk about what (Condaleeza) Rice told the 9/11 Commission was something that the administration thought of as an historical recounting of old information. It doesn’t make sense.”
A second former intelligence officer said he harboured the same suspicions after news of the Tenet trip and the contents of the PDB became known publicly. “The DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) simply doesn’t interrupt the president’s vacation to chat about a relatively innocuous, two or three page report unless there was something extremely sensitive the president needed to know that Tenet didn’t want on paper.”
Of course, the bigger, unanswered question is not whether Tenet told Bush about the mole’s existence, but what the mole had told Washington about a forthcoming terrorist attack on American soil.
The Mole’s Origins
Throughout the 1980s, CIA had a history of involvement with bin Laden. During the Afghan war against the former Soviet Union, when bin Laden was a rising star among the Mujahadeen fighters in the mountains, Washington was providing covert aid to him: Guns, ammunition, money, training and, sometimes, Special Forces advisors who lived in the caves alongside bin Laden’s soldiers.
In the late 1980s, bin Laden’s stature as an anti-Soviet freedom fighter had risen so high in some circles in Washington that the CIA sponsored a fund raising and informational trip to the U.S. and Canada for him. Langley arranged visas, helped set up meetings in a number of cities for bin Laden, and paid for his ticket and hotels.
“He was quite charming and very articulate,” Eric Margolis, a Toronto Sun columnist who met bin Laden when he was in Mississauga, Ontario on one of his CIA-arranged stops, said on a television panel discussion not long after 9/11. Others who met bin Laden on the whistle stop tour said he was accompanied by an aide who also served as a translator, and the same pair of bulky and hovering but friendly Americans who were introduced variously as “Mike and Jeff,” “Allan and Frank” or “Bill and Edward.” Undoubtedly, they were his CIA baby sitters and lamp lighters: Fixers who made sure that nothing happened to their charge, and who guaranteed that the CIA knew what he was doing and saying throughout every minute of the trip.
Former and current CIA officers interviewed over the past seven months say it was likely that the mole was recruited during this period. “The company was pouring millions of dollars in cash and arms into Tora Bora,” said one former CIA station chief, “and there were Americans everywhere in the mountains alongside bin Laden’s fighters. Special Forces, spooks, a few mercenaries, free lance pilots, some journalists, and even some aid workers. I’m positive a few talent scouts were in and out of the mountains, as well. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to identify a few possibilities and approach them with an offer.”
“It would be surprising only if the CIA didn’t try recruiting some people during the Afghan fighting,” said another former agency employee, now retired and who ran similar missions in Latin America in the 1950s. “It needed insiders on the ground to keep us apprised of how things were going, provide hard intelligence … and he might be useful in the future.”
After the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan and bin Laden’s Mujahadeen fighters largely dispersed, the mole apparently returned home – most likely Saudi Arabia, according to sources – and “went to sleep” to use spy jargon for inactive sources who remain available for future service.
Awakening The Sleeper
Sometime around the middle of the first Clinton term, bin Laden was re-assembling his old Mujahadeen warriors in the Sudan and creating al Qaeda with a new target: The West generally and the US specifically. The training camps were established, and once the CIA got wind of what bin Laden was doing, reportedly it re-activated its agent, who was given the code name Omar.
Osama bin Laden’s camp was populated at the time almost entirely by men who had fought alongside him in the Afghan war. As a result, Omar fit right in. Because he had been in the Afghan mountains with bin Laden he was welcomed with open arms by his former comrades. He rose quickly in the fledgling terrorist organisation, partly because fighting in Afghanistan established his bona fides but also because he was bright and possessed a first rate university education: Purportedly, he had an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University in Evanston Illinois, and studied business and finance at the London School of Economics. Moreover, he spoke fluent English, and is said to have a basic understanding of French plus a smattering of passable German. At the time, there were few people in the camp who spoke anything besides Arabic which meant that Omar held a unique position being able to monitor Western newspapers – and websites when they became common – and passing along relevant information to bin Laden and his senior associates. Perhaps more important, thanks to his LSE education, he was able to explain how the Western banking system worked and, it is assumed, how to use and manipulate it to bin Laden’s advantage. More specifically, there is a belief in some intelligence circles that Omar was one of the key architects who created al Qaeda’s banking structure, which would have made him at least indirectly responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Still, despite his value, Omar caused some occasional concern in Langley.
“The trouble with a mole like the one we’re rumoured to have recruited,” a retired CIA operative explained, “is that while he’s being helpful to our side, he’s also helping the bad guys because that’s how he protects his cover.”
“You’re never quite sure where any mole’s real loyalty lies,” stated another former intelligence officer. “Is he sending us the real goods, or are we getting chicken feed and deliberately misleading information?”
If he was a bin Laden plant, then the information was no good and the American government was being misled. But if Omar was legitimate, then “he was the goose who kept laying a nest full of golden eggs” the same man joked.
“If he wasn’t for real, then (Omar) was the best con man to hit Washington since Warren Harding rolled into town with his poker playing buddies,” sneered a man who once held a position at the very highest levels of government.
Sources say that to preserve secrecy, only about a dozen people inside the CIA knew of his existence: Tenet, a translator and a very tiny handful of extremely senior analysts, retroactively dubbed “the wise men.” In fact, it appears as if Tenet was acting as the agent’s “case officer,” almost unheard of in the CIA. This meant that Tenet would be the first to see Omar’s incoming information, and would then send messages back to Omar, asking for specific bits of intelligence. Besides analysing incoming reports, the working group toiled constantly to verify the authenticity of the material they were receiving including looking for inconsistencies, contradictions and messages that were out of character from previous messages sent to Washington, or if the style of a new message differed from the mole’s style in previous messages.
“Looking for something out of character probably received the most attention, maybe more than what the message contained factually,” said one source familiar with the workings of moles in general. “It’s about the best way the company could see if a resource has been compromised and someone else is sending information.
“But from what I understand, the material was rated first class,” he continued, “and vetted as totally authentic. Omar was the real thing.”
Contrary to the movie image of spies speeding in their over-equipped luxury SUVs to meetings in posh restaurants while accompanied by beautiful women, the reality is much grimier and considerably more dangerous.
The CIA’s mole in bin Laden’s organisation faced an especially hazardous situation. Bin Laden had informers everywhere inside his camps and compounds in the Sudan and, later, Afghanistan, where the Taliban also was watching everyone, all of the time.
“The only thing I can compare it to is operating in Moscow during the worst of the cold war,” explained a one-time CIA agent with extensive experience working behind the old Iron Curtain. “It could take three days to actually get to an arranged meeting with someone and a week to leave or pick-up a message in a dead letter drop. You had to be absolutely certain that you’d shaken the KGB, which wasn’t easy.
“What made it especially nerve-racking is that the one thing you knew for sure is that you never knew for certain” if the KGB had been shaken off the trail, he said.
It was likely much the same situation for Omar. It was extremely difficult and complex communicating with Omar when bin Laden was living a protected life in the safe harbour of the Sudan. When bin Laden was forced to move to the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, manoeuvring for Omar must have become hair-raising. For the most part, radio, telephone and e-mails were not used, largely because they aren’t terribly secure. In fact, the company has had a general bias against using radios dating back to the days when James Jesus Angelton was calling most of the day-to-day shots in the CIA. Besides, the Taliban prohibited radios. They constantly patrolled dense city streets and dusty rural trails looking for signals. Thus, using even a secret radio capable of condensing message signals into very short bursts, called “squirts,” put Omar at extreme risk. The penalty for being caught with any kind of radio was public stoning.
The CIA doesn’t like using e-mail, except in emergencies, because even the most secure e-mail route is relatively easy to hack. In fact, the National Security Agency has a division devoted to trying to hack into sensitive government communications channels used by the White House, Pentagon, State Dept., FBI and other agencies on the theory that if the best known hackers in the world can break through, so can an unknown, equally talented and motivated, hacker.
(Apparently, the answer to the perennial question “who spies on the spies?” is: More spies.)
So, the only alternative available to Omar was communicating by hand, coded messages being taken by a succession of couriers from one dead letter drop to another until the last courier dropped the message off at a CIA safe house, called “the tent,” somewhere in Western Pakistan. Insiders say it had to have been an exceedingly complex operation.
“Security had to be the upper-most concern,” a source says. “The route was likely set up in a way that couriers did not know each other, let alone meet, and none of them ever had contact with the source.”
Thus was born a cumbersome process of moving information between Omar in Afghanistan and DCI Tenet in Washington.
“Omar would write a coded message and leave it in a prearranged spot, maybe wedged between two stones in the side of a building or in the mountains,” the individual surmised. “Then, he would leave a signal for the courier that there was a message to collect. It might have been some twigs laid in a certain pattern on the ground, maybe a small mark scratched out, perhaps a dead bird laid on the ground in a certain way.”
Seeing the signal, the courier would collect the message and carry it to the next drop-off point where the process would be repeated several times before a message eventually made it to the tent. “As a result, it could take a week or longer for a message to travel from bin Laden’s camp to Langley,” a CIA officer speculated. “Sending a message back to him might take even longer.”
To ensure safety, it is likely that several alternative routes were established, with different sets of couriers. But while the arrangement provided security at one level, it created potential problems at another.
“It must have been an unusually large operation,” a CIA insider stated. “That means there was a significant risk that someone along the line would be captured, tortured, turned around or compromised, and killed.”
But, clearly, the quality of the information being delivered was worth the effort and the risk.
Who Knew What, When?
Although considerable, the CIA considered the risk extremely worthwhile and the information invaluable as it ran Omar as a spy for a number of years.
Yet among all of the information gleaned from its resource, the most significant, unanswered question is what had he told Tenet – and what did Tenet tell Pres. Bush – about the coming attacks by Sept. 10, the day before the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit. Did the mole tip off the CIA, and is that why Tenet made his mad dash for Texas with the PDB in August?
It has been reported elsewhere that Osama bin Laden said that he was involved in some of the planning for 9/11. It was bin Laden, for example, who vetoed a plan involving crashing 10 or more planes into buildings all over the United States simultaneously as being too complicated. It has also been reported elsewhere that bin Laden also approved the final plan (although not specific targets), the men who were to carry it out and even suggested a few candidates to Mohammed Atta to be co-highjackers, the lead highjacker and the field man responsible for overseeing the operation.
More to the point, bin Laden did this around the time of George Tenet’s weekend visit with Pres. Bush at the ranch in Texas.
Also, since it was bin Laden who personally approved sending money to the US to fund the operation, Omar undoubtedly provided information crucial to understanding how al Qaeda financed field operations. At least one published report traces the money from Atta’s Florida bank account back through a series of European and Middle Eastern banks to a financial institution in Dubai, a bank account which was controlled by the man who killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. According to the French journalist Bernard-Henri Levy, that man also happened to be working for the Pakistani security services at the time he was helping bin Laden move money to Florida and Atta’s bank account, as well as when he ordered and helped carry out Pearl’s assassination. Despite mounting pressure from Washington to arrest him, Islamabad resisted for a long time although when it finally did capture Pearl’s killer it was hailed as a “breakthrough” in the war on terrorism despite the fact that both governments knew for a long time where he lived. After all, the paymaster-cum-assassin was on the Pakistani security service’s payroll for years.
Given the relatively senior position Omar occupied in bin Laden’s organisation, it is likely that he knew and tipped off his CIA handlers about the coming attack.
“It’s unlikely that he knew a date or specific targets,” explained one person who is familiar with how moles operate, primarily because bin Laden did not know, “but he sure as hell knew that multiple planes were going to be crashed into several buildings, sometime in September.”
“If he didn’t,” reasoned another former intelligence official, “then whatever money the CIA was paying him was buying fuck all. That’s why you work so hard to recruit and nurture a mole. You hold their hands, listen to their marital woes, educate their children if need be and wait so long for them to be in a position to help: To give you just this kind of critical information two or 10 or 20 years from now.”
Piecing together what was is known to be facts, what is speculated about by reliable insiders on what type of al Qaeda secrets were learned through the mole, the way moles are run by the agency and the remarkable coincidence of the timing between the Tenet-Bush meeting in Crawford and what was coming in from Afghanistan, several hypothesis can be constructed.
1. The coming attack. It is viewed by insiders as entirely likely that the CIA director told Pres. Bush during that August weekend meeting that al Qaeda was planning an immediate attack using commercial airplanes as guided missiles. Tenet might not have been able to give the president specific targets or a date, but he did have a name: Mohammad Atta. More telling, there was sufficient information available to beef up airport and cockpit security, and do a much closer job of screening passengers as they boarded flights.
All of this could have been done without signalling to al Qaeda that the US had penetrated its innermost circles. For example, the government knew of Atta and at least some of the others involved in the plot by sometime in late August; the government knew that Atta and the others were inside the country. Their names could have been sent to every airline flying into the U.S., and especially the large domestic carriers, including those that had “American” writ large on the side of the fuselage given bin Laden’s hatred of all things American.
“No one would have noticed a thing,” said a former CIA insider. “Just one more name on a list.”
2. A manhunt. Had the CIA given the name of Zacharais Moussaoui to the FBI, chances are that the request from the Minneapolis field office to get a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer would have been granted. The 9/11 Commission report severely reprimanded all of the nation’s intelligence agencies for not sharing more information, more quickly. But even with stone walls between competing bureaucracies slowing the flow of information to the speed of thick, black strap molasses in cold weather, the president could have – and should have – told the CIA director to get whatever information he had over to the FBI, and quickly.
“If the president couldn’t or wouldn’t direct that action be taken, than either he is totally useless or the various agencies are really good at playing bureaucratic turf games,” said a retired CIA employee. “It sounds like there was some of each going on in August 2001.
Bush also could have directed Tenet to provide information to INS officers. Without revealing to anyone why it was being done, a nationwide manhunt could have been launched for Atta and the others known to Washington as being inside the US. After 9/11, it turned out that most of the highjackers had violated their visas, and could have been detained and deported. At least one of the 19 highjackers, Atta, was probably in violation of US banking laws. If anyone had even noticed the arrests, the action could have been positioned as a routine immigration round-up, thus not tipping off anyone in Afghanistan or elsewhere that an insider was funnelling information to Washington.
3. Picking likely targets. If someone told an ordinary citizen of average intelligence that terrorists planned to highjack airplanes and fly them into buildings, it probably wouldn’t take them very long to come up with a likely list of targets a terrorist would want to hit that could shake the world as well as the United States: The World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Capitol and White House, perhaps the Sears Tower or the Standard Oil building in Chicago, the Bank of America building in San Francisco, CIA headquarters. The list isn’t all that long. From there, it would be relatively easy to figure out when during the day such an attack would be likely to cause the greatest harm, both to life and property as well as to the psyche of the city where the devastating attack took place.
Why was none of this done?
The reports from both the 9/11 Commission and the Silberman Commission blamed problems of terrorist attacks on US soil and the “dead wrong” assessment of WMDs in Iraq on a combination of locked-in conventional wisdom, bureaucratic turf wars, thick silo walls between government departments and agencies, and a handful of other reasons. Yet the 9/11 Commission was unequivocal in stating that it was within the government’s power to have prevented the horrific attacks that mild, sunny morning in September, 2001.
But with the existence of a mole inside al Qaeda increasingly likely, then there is a much more serious, insidious and sinister possibility: That George W. Bush knew at least a month before the attacks that they were going to occur, and chose to do nothing to stop them.
The question for Americans – especially those in Congress -- to ask is, “Why didn’t he?” Who stood to gain from the devastation and death? Who would benefit in the aftermath of the attacks? What long-term opportunities would open up, and for whom, by a successful al Qaeda attack on the United States?
A Preordained War
During the 2004 Democratic convention, PBS Newshour anchor Jim Lehrer was interviewing former president Jimmy Carter about George Bush, Iraq and the so-called “war on terrorism.” At one point, President Carter said something that brought Mr. Lehrer up short.
“Excuse me, Mr. President,” the veteran journalist interrupted. After a 30 year career, much of it covering Washington, Jim Lehrer was not easily nonplussed. Yet disbelief was visible on his face and disquiet echoed in his voice. “Did I hear you correctly, sir? Did you just say that you believe President Bush came into office planning to invade Iraq?”
“I know it to be a fact,” was the former president blunt retort, his face stern and his eyes steely. “This war has been planned since before January, 2001.”
I sat in my home, dumbfounded. I felt both enormous relief and astonishment: Relief that someone other than me finally was saying that the war was based on flimsy excuses and fabricated evidence, more than a year before the Downing Street Memo came to light; astonished that the confirmation was coming from a former President of the United States.
“Go ahead,” I almost screamed at the television, “ask the question, Jim. Ask the Goddamn question! ‘How do you know this is a fact, Mr. President?’”
But for some reason, Lehrer – a courtly and extremely polite reporter yet who possesses immense talent and experience – didn’t ask the obvious follow-up question that a cub reporter covering his first city hall assignment would know to ask.
I still don’t know why what was arguably the most crucial question of the first Bush term went unasked at the time, or why it wasn’t asked of Mr. Carter at all during the campaign. Surely someone in Kerry’s headquarters or the Democratic Party was monitoring network convention coverage that night and heard the interview. Somebody must have thought it might be a good idea to ask Mr. Carter how he came to know that the praetorian guard around Bush The Younger planned invading Iraq long before brother Jeb conveniently rigged the Florida election in 2000 so effectively that he made the old Cook County (Illinois) Democratic Party machine run by the original Dick Daley, one of the master politicians of the second half of the 20th century, look like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight by comparison.
True, for many years Jimmy Carter was the Democratic Party’s pariah. The party and its politicians avoided him like a bad flu. But by 2004, Carter had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. He had spent more than 20 years earning hard-won admiration rather than lush director’s fees, had written more than a dozen thoughtful books, and was widely regarded around the world as one of America’s most highly-esteemed former presidents. In what was bound to be a tight and bitter election, one would think that somebody would pick up the phone and call The Carter Center in Atlanta to ask him what he knew on the chance that it might give John Kerry an edge in the campaign.
No one did, perhaps another small but telling sign why John Kerry lost the election when he could have had George Bush bouncing off the ropes in confused befuddlement. Maybe the Kerry camp and DNC really were staffed with “doofuses,” to use Matt Taibbi’s word in Spanking the Donkey, his scathingly funny and highly critical book about the election campaign.
Now, a number of sources say unequivocally that invading Iraq was planned by the nucleus of the Bush presidency long before the election.
What people interviewed since the 2004 election, and particularly in the past several months, stated is that the men who surrounded George Bush during the 2000 election and after the inauguration had decided on a war in the Middle East in about 1998. Donald Rumsfeld felt so strongly about a war with Iraq, and possibly Iran, that he and Paul Wolfowitz met with Sandy Berger, Pres. Clinton’s National Security Advisor, in the middle of Clinton’s second term to urge an invasion. Indeed, toppling Saddam Hussein was a foreign policy priority from the time a Bush presidential bid was envisioned. It was born in the bright, comfortably furnished sitting room of the Texas governor’s mansion at meetings convened by Karl Rove and attended variously by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condaleeza Rice and Alberto Gonzales, among others. Rove, already serving as Bush’s rabbi, mentor and tutor, was nudging his charge into seeing the world the way the neo-con’s wanted him to see it: As a dangerous place that could be saddled and corralled only by American military prowess – and by not being shy about using the armed forces of the world’s only superpower.
“By 1999, it was an open secret in Austin that the Bush people were looking for a reason to get rid of Saddam,” once he was elected, emphatically states one person who participated in a few of the pre-election foreign policy meetings. “Condi Rice fit right in because she had cut her eye teeth on the dynamics of American power during the cold war and easily saw a linkage between standing up to the Soviets – her field of expertise – and standing up to Iraq and Iran.”
Noted another source who knew Bush fairly well when he was in Texas, “George doesn’t have a curious mind, he doesn’t ask a lot of probing questions. He seems to be intimidated and accepts the opinions or views of people he thinks are smarter than him. It didn’t take a lot of effort by Rove to get Bush thinking along the lines that the neo-con’s needed from their front man.”
Bush’s smarts have been the subject of Washington gossip and late night TV jokes since his first inauguration. But whether he is quick or slow witted, it is generally acknowledged that President Bush definitely is not a deep thinker. This is not a new criticism, nor is it motivated by partisan politics. People who have known Bush for many years and outside of the political arena have been aware of it. For example, back in the days when he was the titular head of the Texas Rangers baseball club and attended the quarterly owner’s meetings convened by Major League Baseball, Bush often interjected comments that often missed the point of the discussion going on around him at the time. He became a private joke among a handful of other owners. During one of the future president’s irrelevant observations, one particularly high-profile owner of a much respected and successful club whispered to the man sitting next to him, “If it weren’t for George (Bush), Marge (Schott) would be the dumbest guy in baseball.” Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds at the time, was kicked out of baseball eventually for making repeated racist comments about black and Latino players.
Dumb, Naïve – Or Both?
So exactly, what did the president know and when did he know it? It is the great unanswered question of our time.
The answer appears to be very little, according to former campaign aides and White House staffers. A former aide who no longer works in the White House but still is employed in Washington as a lobbyist and insists on anonymity out of fear of losing his job, says, “Bush is a knave. He has no clue what Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld and Gonzales do in his name until they decide to tell him.”
Another former aide and political appointee who returned to private life in Texas around the time of the 2004 election, agrees. “I used to admire (Bush). But I gradually became disillusioned when I realised the ‘dumb’ jokes were true.” Then, correcting herself, she added, “It’s not so much dumb as it is that he just doesn’t have a curious mind so he doesn’t challenge what he’s told or reads. He doesn’t ask many tough questions. He simply accepts a lot of what he’s told by Cheney and Rove and Rumsfeld. He’s easily intimated by people who are smarter or quicker than him and in Washington, there are a lot of people that describes. Bush probably figures they’re being paid to think through the issues, and he accepts their conclusions.
“Not since Benjamin Harrison has the White House been lit by such a dim bulb,” this woman concluded. Like others interviewed for this article who remain active in national politics, this individual insisted on anonymity, fearful of vindictive retribution from what several people called ‘the Rove-Cheney-Mehlman political axis.”
So, if the administration rolled into town in January 2001 itching for a war, what was the reason? Besides believing that Bill Clinton was weak on foreign policy, too often caving in during delicate negotiations with foreign powers, and desperately wanting Bush to be the anti-Clinton, what was the motivating factor that had the men pulling Bush’s string riding into Washington itching for a fight with Iraq? After all, a war can destroy a presidency as easily as it can galvanise the country around a leader. Lyndon Johnson was the sorriest example, but even the elder President Bush learned a painful lesson about the potential negative impact that even a popular, quickly won war can have on a president’s political fortunes.
Because of the many unseemly ties between Bush and Cheney on the one hand, and the oil industry on the other, a common conclusion – especially on the left – is that Iraq was fought to gain control of a rich oil resource. Others have suggested that with OPEC thinking about switching oil pricing to Euros, which would have a devastating affect on the value of the American dollar, the real objective was to establish an American and dollar friendly regime in Baghdad. Both are plausible but, according to sources, a smokescreen.
“Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were deeply involved in Nixon’s attempt to create what came to be called the ‘Imperial Presidency,” says historian Jack Hagendorff. “They believed that the president could do whatever he felt necessary and that the constitutional powers granted the office were expansive, not limiting.”
In Bush, they found the perfect foil: A man of limited intelligence and even less curiosity who could be easily talked, prodded and coerced into doing what they wanted him to do.
The President’s inability to ask probing questions, coupled with his willingness to take at face value what people closest to him were saying, played into the natural reluctance of bureaucratic Washington to buck the prevailing political winds.
Both the 9/11 Commission and the Silberman Commission felt compelled to report that intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was shaded by what Judge Silberman called “conventional wisdom” that took root among analysts.
“[A]s to whether or not there was any policymaker effort to influence the intelligence, we found zip, nothing, nothing to support point made in the report,” according to Judge Silberman, a Republican appointee who led the second group examining 9/11. Co-chair Charles Robb, a former Democratic Senator, did add, however, “The intelligence community imposed pressure on itself. There was a conventional wisdom and there certainly was a feeling articulated by some that they did not want to go against the conventional wisdom.”
But where did the conventional wisdom originate?
According to a source who followed both commission’s investigations closely and who, before retiring and moving to California, had been a CIA station chief in several Middle Eastern and European countries as well as a ranking officer at Langley between foreign postings, pressure doesn’t have to be spoken.
“Think about it,” the man, who insisted on confidentiality, said after the report was released. “On Sunday, Vice President Cheney is on all of the network news shows going on and on about how we -- meaning the intelligence community and The White House -- know that Iraq is hiding WMDs and probably nuclear weapons. On Monday, Cheney shows up at CIA headquarters where he has an office set up for him and is briefed by senior analysts and (former CIA director) George Tenet and who knows who else. No one ever says a word about it, no one has to, but everyone in the room knows damn well what the Vice President wants to hear.
“I’ve been told by people who were present at some of those briefings,” the source explained, “that when Cheney was given reports that argued against the existence of WMDs, or was shown UN intelligence saying it appeared that WMDs had been destroyed years earlier, he discounted them. And not in a polite way. Nobody wants to have the Vice President of the United States swear at them twice.”
Above all else, CIA analysts are bureaucrats, and one thing bureaucrats know how to do well is protect their backsides. If Cowpuncher -- the Secret Service’s sometimes code name for Pres. Bush -- wanted intelligence proving the existence of WMDs, that’s what civil servants will deliver.
This general take on how things work in Langley was confirmed by another former CIA official. “The company is rife with examples where so-called faulty intelligence was used as a cover for times when the White House was only interested in the answers that matched its policy.
“So by presenting selective bits of intelligence, people around the Oval Office heard what they wanted to hear,” he added.
Indeed, when two analysts studying Iraq’s weapons programs did speak up, saying WMD information coming in was from a known fabricator, they suffered the worst punishment that can befall a bureaucrat: They were transferred and shunted aside, their careers destroyed for all practical purposes.
The Silberman report obliquely admits this and slaps at -- but not on -- the wrists of the president. It notes that the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) left readers with misleading impressions, and nuance was omitted completely from the picture being presented. Yet instead of wagging a finger where it should have been directed, the Silberman report scolded the intelligence community for “attention-grabbing (PDB) headlines and drumbeat of repetition… In ways both subtle and not so subtle, the daily reports seemed to be ‘selling’ intelligence in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested.”
“Oh, there was certainly pressure within the intelligence community,” Judge Silberman meekly conceded in a broadcast interview the evening that his report was released.
Where could that pressure originate if not from inside the Oval Office, or at least from people with immediate access to Pres. Bush? Only a foolhardy Las Vegas bookmaker would take odds that it came from anyone other than Vice President Dick Cheney.
Although he had left the CIA by the time Iraq was occupying everyone’s attention, a former station chief told us, “Unless it’s a case where the missiles are already on NORAD’s radar screen and heading for Washington, whenever you read one, one-sided intelligence report after another you know that the analysts have figured out for themselves that somebody, somewhere along Pennsylvania Ave. is keen to see a certain set of answers.”
Undoubtedly, the commission’s staff of lawyers asked direct questions, as they might have in court: Did anyone directly pressure you into shading the intelligence findings? Naturally, the answer was a universal “no”. If instead they had asked, “Did you ever hear or read the president’s or the vice president’s public statements about weapons of mass destruction being in Iraq?” they might have received a very different answer. Because then, at least two follow-up questions could be, “What did you think about what they were saying?” and “When you saw the vice president on television constantly talking about how certain the government was about Iraq weapons, how did you and your colleagues avoid having your own perceptions shaded as you look at the raw intelligence data that you’re studying?” Other similar questions would have resulted from the answers and perhaps lead the Commission to draw a very different conclusion.
People who conduct intelligence interrogations say that what someone does not tell them can be as informative as what is revealed during the interview. It’s called taking “back bearings,” and by using this well-tested process with the intelligence commission report it is possible to reconstruct what the White House did not want Congress or the public to know.
First, clearly the Bush Administration has not wanted to reveal how it used the intelligence it received, whether from the CIA or other governmental agencies. For example, it totally ignored Energy Department analysts who said that a raft of aluminium tubes could not be used for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, a necessary step in building nuclear weapons, so that Bush could tell Congress there was evidence Iraq was acquiring material to build an atomic bomb. It knowingly used fabricated evidence from sources the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency knew were liars and scoundrels, and held up the false facts to support its allegations of biological weapons. And it deliberately lied about the connections that the administration insisted existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. Intelligence from what few legitimate sources existed had to have revealed the truth about these points.
When a CIA source was asked about this, he stated unequivocally that “even if Bush was personally unaware of disparities between what he was saying and what was the truth, people high in the White House, the Pentagon and CIA did. That’s how intelligence flow works, especially in something as critical as going to war. It was their job to make sure the president knew, and they didn’t. Instead, they received medals, cabinet posts and promotions.”
Second, back bearings reveal that there definitely was pressure on the grunts in Langley’s trenches to hew to the party line. The Silberman report writes it off as “institutional pressure” to conform to a conventional wisdom, which means no one can be blamed -- a favourite tactic of the Bush White House. But as anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy of any kind knows – military, government, corporate, social service – conventional wisdom does not originate in the ether. It is not circulated through the building by the heating system. It is spawned and spread from a raised eyebrow, by an ignored memo, from not being invited to a meeting. No one has to say anything, and no one does, because everyone knows what is expected of them.
Brilliance Is For Novels
“Careers are made in two ways at the CIA,” a former employee said. “You can be terribly brilliant or do something incredibly clever, which doesn’t happen very often outside of spy novels. Or, you can go along to get along. Keep your head down, your nose in your work.”
Going along in the CIA means rising up through civil service pay grades by being given increasingly important and visible assignments, foreign postings, running networks or heading up a section. As the two analysts learned who disagreed vehemently with the conventional wisdom that formed around Iraq, not going along means being assigned to some remote and forgotten corner of the massive building that houses the agency, never to be seen or heard of again. When weapon’s inspector Richard Kay returned from Iraq to report that Saddam had no WMDs, he was given a windowless office with a non-working telephone. Three days later, Kay resigned and went public.
Third, taking back bearings on the report is informative because it shows that the intelligence community as a whole is like a rudderless ship captained by someone who’s never been to sea. The report is replete with too many examples of how the left hand forgot to tell the right hand what it was doing, or learning. The DIA doesn’t speak to the CIA, and neither of them speaks to the FBI which is fine with the professional heirs of J. Edgar Hoover’s legacy because they have no interest or intention on sharing information, either.
“The biggest thing left unsaid,” a former intelligence officer states, “is that most if not all of the public statements by the administration on not just Iraq, but also Iranian and North Korean weapons plans are made up out of whole cloth. They have no idea what is going on in Tehran or Pyongyang. But it didn’t have to be that way.”
Without providing specifics, the source claims that sometime in the late summer or early fall of 2001 – before 9/11 – the Chinese intelligence service approached the CIA through a station chief in Southeast Asia, offering to cooperate with Langley on collecting and sharing intelligence on North Korea, a country which scares the bejeezus out of both Washington and Beijing. The U.S. possesses the spiffy electronic toys including satellites, sophisticated eavesdropping equipment and the ability to pluck e-mail and telephone signals from the air. The Chinese have agents on the ground through its embassy, spies posing as reporters for New China News Agency, agents working as employees of Chinese airlines flying into North Korea, and staff members of various trade agencies who doubled as intelligence gatherers. Working together, Beijing reasoned that the two services could get a much better picture of what was going on inside the world’s most tightly closed country that was keeping leaders in both China and the US awake nights. Reportedly, the Chinese offer went up through the CIA hierarchy and was vetoed by someone in the White House.
Why turn down an offer of cooperation that could produce lucrative results? One legitimate reason could be that Washington did not want to let the Chinese know exactly the quality of US electronic intelligence in 2001. More likely, given everything that has been learned since, a cooperative intelligence mission could turn up inconvenient facts that might undercut “conventional wisdoms” that Washington held about North Korea.
When the FBI admitted that its counterterrorism task force spied on groups planning protests at the 2004 political conventions, it was as if Tricky Dick Nixon had reached out from the grave. Nixon kept the FBI busy compiling files on perceived political enemies and now Bush was having the bureau do same thing. I know it’s a fact because I am both the reporter and a target in this tale.
Because of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Dept. of Justice was forced to turn over files containing 1,173 pages of surveillance reports on the ACLU, and another 2,383 pages on Greenpeace. Somehow, a department spokesman managed to keep a straight face when he said the large volume of reports on the two groups that regularly file lawsuits against Bush Administration policies was “innocuous” and most like done for administrative reasons.
The statement would have more credibility if the files had been uncovered in a rusty filing cabinet in some remote, off-site storage facility in rural Virginia. But the nearly 5,000 pages of documents were accumulated during surveillance conducted by the FBI’s anti-terrorism task force and kept close at hand in FBI headquarters. When legitimate and entirely peaceful political and legal groups attracts the rheumy eyed attention of G-man dedicated to fighting terrorism, one can only conclude one of three things.
1. Richard Nixon, the man who wouldn’t go away when he was alive, has risen from the grave yet again to gleefully direct Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and the political operatives in the White House on how to quell protests and frighten dissidents into silence.
2. The cross-dressing ghost of J. Edgar Hoover is prowling the FBI’s corridors, quietly reminding agents of the good old days of the 1950s and 1960s when the bureau had a free hand when it was as obsessed with domestic activists as it was with the KGB.
3. The long-denied but real purpose of the Patriot Act is to act as the initial shock wave that changes the basic fabric of American society and freedom because the administration has little, if any, respect for genuine “American values” (as opposed to the extreme Christian-centric values espoused by the theocratic right that get paraded as American values).
Since I don’t believe in reincarnation, I have to assume it is the third reason.
For example, in late November a group of Republican Congressional leaders met with Bush in the Oval Office to discuss unresolved issues surrounding renewal of the Patriot Act. The president was cautioned that some provisions of the act that treaded too close to impeding civil liberties were an anathema to conservatives in the House.
"I don't give a goddamn," Bush is quoted as retorting. "I'm the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way."
"Mr. President," one aide at the meeting said. "There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution."
"Stop throwing the Constitution in my face," Bush screamed back. "It's just a goddamned piece of paper!"
Four people present for the meeting that day – including one very shaken White House staff aide – all confirmed to me and to other news sources that the President of the United States called the Constitution "a goddamned piece of paper."
It seems obvious that the America that Bush & Co. wants to fashion more closely resembles, say, Singapore or even China than it does the US envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In Singapore as in China, citizens are free to go about their daily routine and are left alone by the government, especially if their routine involves making money, as long as they don’t meddle in opposition politics. In the US, now if someone speaks out, the NSA listens to their phone calls and monitors their e-mails, the FBI notes their license plate number and takes photos of them at marches and protests, and the Pentagon adds them to its growing data base. As a result, dangerous subversives such as Quakers, grandmothers and parents concerned about unscrupulous and misleading Army recruiting tactics, environmental groups and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, now have thick government files, no doubt stored in the same computers that hold the names and activities of real terrorists.
Also in those computers, I suspect, are journalists and others who have written about what goes on in the dark alleys where the administration acts to stifle and frighten dissenters.
Anyone with half a brain and a basic reading of how the Bush administration has operated since coming to office should not have been surprised by last week’s disclosures about spying on Americans exercising constitutional freedoms. My working assumption since at least 9/11 was that agencies occasionally were checking everyone’s e-mail and phone calls.
I didn’t realise how prescient I was.
A chilling, personal example of how far the United States has drifted from its tradition of liberal thought and democratic ideals – lower case ‘l’ and ‘d’ please, for the benefit of conservatives here by mistake, accident or because they’re assigned to keep a sharp eye on what The Others like me are saying – came when I was doing the reporting for for this article.
Before it was published, I e-mailed a link to the article to a close friend, a woman I’ve known for decades. She may be one of the few rational, moderate Republicans still walking around loose; the GOP probably missed purging her because it was distracted fabricating talking points for party apparatchiks worrying about the Alito nomination to the Supreme Court or damage control after the House acted on the McCain Amendment, or the Post and Times articles on Bush-approved illegal spying. Within hours of receiving the piece, she fired back a dark, cautionary e-mail, warning me “… as your friend, your well being is very important to me. The climate down here is changing rapidly and do you really want to be writing this … these days? It’s not very smart to be saying this kind of thing. If you wish, we can talk more about this (in person)” but not by phone or e-mail.
She concluded by chiding me to not forget that, “It’s not safe writing these things now and you don’t have the profile of a Michael Moore or Jon Stewart to protect you.”
Her comments were heartfelt, appreciated – and extremely unsettling.
Here was a highly educated, upper middle class white woman, the very embodiment of success, establishment and privilege that, until the theocratic right seized control has served as the backbone of the Republican Party since the days of Lincoln, cautioning a dear friend from a parallel background – except that I happened to be born into a family of equally reasonable, liberal Democrats – that it is no longer safe to criticize the government of the United States of America publicly, regardless of what the Constitution says about free speech. Even scarier is that she didn’t want to discuss the matter electronically, where private thoughts are plucked routinely from the air and scrutinized by Washington’s high-tech eavesdropping gadgetry in blatant violation of numerous federal laws while Congress looks the other way, pretending it doesn’t happen regularly and acting shocked when it was revealed.
In her quiet way, she was reminding me that writing critically about George Bush’s White House is as risky today as it was for Russians to write criticisms of Joseph Stalin’s Kremlin 70 years ago – or to criticize Richard Nixon 35 years ago.
In fact, not since my parents ended up on one of Nixon’s infamous enemies lists and had in their mail opened and taxes audited repeatedly, has anyone warned me about the perils of disagreeing publicly with the government. My parents irritated The White House in 1972 because my father had the temerity to be a delegate to a Democratic Party county convention in his home state that passed an anti-war resolution. Mother wrote several anti-Nixon and anti-war letters to the local newspaper. My crime in 2004 was reporting that the president’s pants are on fire because of his outrageous and repeated lying.
Some may claim that there is an element of paranoiac delusions in my thinking, but I don’t think so – and have the proof.
There is ample evidence of the lengths to which Bush storm troopers will go to intimidate into silence the ordinary, peace-minded soldiers fighting the war on freedom being waged by The White House with much more vigour than it employs pretending to fight the war on terror. The sad thing is, soldiers being blown up in Iraq have much less armour to protect them than the Bush Boys have wrapped around themselves in waging a war against the country’s own citizens.
Since I started the reporting for this article in 2004, my telephones have been tapped, my e-mails intercepted – sometimes in such a clumsy manner it was as if the U.S. government wanted me to know it was looking over my shoulder – and my snail mail was opened and read. The bank holding the mortgage on my home, and which happens to own banks in the US subject to Washington’s politically-appointed regulators, tried to foreclose based on fabricated allegations that I was not meeting some term of the loan; thanks to fast and deft footwork by my lawyers, the bank was check-mated. Files in my office were rifled on at least two occasions; again, in so deliberately clumsy a fashion I would know at a glance the files were being read.
Once I discovered that I’d become a target, I stopped trusting my own phone and e-mail. I started doing interviews using prepaid phone cards bought with cash in convenience stores, calling from phone booths selected at random in hotel lobbies, on the street or at shopping malls. I kept creating fictitious, new e-mail accounts when I had to write to a source, and switched e-mail boxes frequently. I stopped using my home computer for research, accessing the web from a half-dozen different internet cafes; I never worked out of the same café twice in a row.
After hearing about all of this, my psychiatrist did not conclude I had developed acute paranoia requiring medication and hospitalisation. Rather, he decided that it was marginally safer to keep my medical records at his home rather than in a bolted filing cabinet at his office. But he also jokingly said to me, “Don’t they know you’re not Daniel Ellsberg?” a wry reference to the man who leaked The Pentagon Papers about the phoney origins of the Viet Nam War to The New York Times during the Nixon presidency.
I am now doing additional reporting for a follow-up article and am tiptoeing much more carefully today. I use neither my own phone nor computer to do interviews or research. Notes are stored in a safe place away from my home or office. It makes reporting and writing cumbersome and difficult, but when I begin feeling frustrated I remind myself that the CIA has a station operating less than a mile from my home, in the American consulate.
I am also reminded of a line a wag I know adapted and purloined from novelist Robert Stone’s Children of the Light: “George Bush is the shit between the toes of the American eagle, just thick enough to make the body politic stumble.”
*Imagine....just imagine....if Barack Obama, standing next to the president of the former Soviet Union, had sold out his country as blatantly and as sham...