THE BLOG

Government Whistleblowers Rise Up: Turn the Spigot and Let the Memos Flow

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET
  • William E. Jackson Jr. Columnist, foreign policy expert, former U.S. Senate staffer and State Department/ACDA official

A counselor at an ethics seminar for White House staff: "If you follow our guidelines--instead of relying on your conscience--we can assure you your conduct will be beyond reproach." (Doonesbury of November 14)

On Veterans Day, President Bush gave a “I was wrong, but so were you” speech in which he suggested that those who accuse him and his advisers of misleading the country--in 2002-2003--about the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are undermining the war effort. Speaking at a time of growing doubts about his credibility and integrity, he was trying to counter grave charges that he had justified taking the United States to war by twisting or exaggerating pre-war intelligence. (Instead he would place the burden of responsibility for the uses of intelligence on the CIA.) Moreover, the Plamegate indictments had focused new attention on Vice President Cheney and his role in assembling the intelligence used to justify the invasion. With the ground moving out from under them, the White House has shifted to this argument, as described by Fred Kaplan in Slate: "Yes, we were wrong about some things, but everybody else was wrong, too, so get over it."

The Problem for the Media

How can a free press report on the uses and misuses of intelligence by the national security players in the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the CIA, when making policy and issuing public statements prior to the beginning of the war? Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, in Kristina Borjesson’s new book, “Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11,” observes that the problem with information about the war stemmed from its source, rather than what the media did with it. “Now, it's the PR that counts, not the policy. They can make any policy seem to be the right thing or the wrong thing, depending on what information they put out. They understand how we in the media work much better than we understand how they in the government work."

The fact is that, as hard as it may investigate, the press in our national security state often has to work with what is dropped on its doorstep. Recent cases illustrate the need for both: Dana Priest’s “CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons,” Washington Post, November 2 (disclosing that the CIA has been hiding and interrogating terror suspects at secret prisons in Eastern Europe); and Douglas Jehl’s “Report Warned Bush Team About Intelligence Doubts,” New York Times, November 6 (a top member of Al Qaeda in American custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush Administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Al Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons).


Bureaucrats as Enablers

The key enablers for the press in reporting a more reliable account of how the country was misled into regarding Saddam as an imminent threat to the United States must be “whistleblowers” in the national security bureaucracies—a level or two below the top. These men and women are in a position to feed the press a steady stream of memos--comparable to the Downing Street memos in Great Britain and the revelations of Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Secretary of State Powell’s chief of staff—that add to public documentation of the irresponsible manipulation of intelligence in propelling this country into war in 2003.

[See my “Foggy Bottom Memos: The Hemorrhaging of Iraq War Minutes," Huffington Post, August 23, 2005; and "British Documents: The Pentagon Papers of Our Time?," Editor&Publisher, June 19.]

In the British House of Commons, incidentally, Prime Minister Blair is facing a new inquiry into how he and his government led the country into the Iraq war, with the possibility that former cabinet ministers will join in an attempt to impeach him.

With the real prospect of withdrawal resolutions being debated in Congress, and the White House’s desperate stretch to re-write history in its favor, it is the right time to move the ball along by exposing the lies and half-truths designed to stampede the country into war against Iraq. Well-timed leaks from the bureaucracies, civilian and military, have the potential to guarantee that the new review by the Senate Intelligence Committee will expose malfeasance in office.

For examples, the suspect basis for Vice President Cheney’s assertions in 2002 that Saddam could acquire nuclear weapons "fairly soon;" and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's statement the same year that Iraq "has chemical and biological weapons.” Not to mention how inaccuracies and falsehoods became part of President Bush’s litanies in rationalizing the war.

Recent Press Analyses that Challenge the White House Spin on The Past

Along with Dana Milbank, Pincus recently wrote “Asterisks Dot White House's Iraq Argument,” Washington Post, November 12: “President Bush and his national security adviser have answered critics of the Iraq war in recent days with a two-pronged argument: that Congress saw the same intelligence the administration did before the war, and that independent commissions have determined that the Administration did not misrepresent the intelligence. Neither assertion is wholly accurate,” they concluded.

Bush and his aides had access to “much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the Administration to provide the material. " And the commissions cited by the White House were “not authorized to determine whether the Administration exaggerated or distorted those conclusions.”

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, briefing reporters last week, tried to counter "the notion that somehow this administration manipulated the intelligence." He claimed that those who had examined that issue, committees on Capitol Hill, and the Silberman-Robb Commission, had “concluded it did not happen."

However, Milbank and Pincus point out that the only committee investigating the matter in Congress, the Senate Intelligence Committee, has not yet completed (it will be next year before it does) an inquiry into whether officials mischaracterized intelligence by omitting caveats and dissenting opinions. And Judge Laurence H. Silberman, chairman of Bush's commission on weapons of mass destruction, said in releasing his report on March 31, 2005: "Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us were agreed that that was not part of our inquiry."

In his speech of November 11, Bush asserted that "more than 100 Democrats in the House and the Senate, who had access to the same intelligence, voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power." NSC Adviser Steve Hadley claimed before the speech that "we all looked at the same intelligence" in determining that Saddam was an “enormous threat” to the U.S.

But, as the Post reporters noted, the President does not share his most sensitive intelligence, such as the President's Daily Brief, with lawmakers. Moreover, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) summarizing the intelligence community's consensus about the threat from Iraq was given to Congress shortly before the vote to authorize the use of force against that country; AND there were doubts within the intelligence community not included in the NIE. Even the doubts expressed in the NIE could not be used publicly by members of Congress because the classified information had not been cleared for release. For example, the NIE view that Hussein would not use weapons of mass destruction against the United States or turn them over to terrorists unless backed into
a corner was cleared for public use only a day before the Senate vote. Legislators were not aware until much later of the Energy Department's doubts that Iraq's aluminum tubes were designed for atomic centrifuges—or of the dissent about "mobile biological weapons labs" from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

The White House press office was so stung by the Milbank and Pincus analysis that it issued a response, entitled: "Setting the Record Straight: The Washington Post On Pre-War Intelligence." One example: Milbank and Pincus had written that "Bush does not share his most sensitive intelligence, such as the President's Daily Brief, with lawmakers." The White House responded that the Silberman-Robb commission -- a White House-appointed panel that investigated intelligence failures -- found that the PDBs were actually even more alarmist than other documents that had been made public. Some brief, some defense!

The Times Weighs In

In “A Reminder of How Debate Over Prewar Intelligence Continues to Shadow Bush,” New York Times, November 15, Richard Stevenson and Douglas Jehl noted the visit to Washington of Ahmad Chalabi, former leader of the INC and now a deputy prime minister, who before the war funneled untrustworthy information about Saddam's WMD to the Vice President's office: “His presence at such a sensitive moment was a reminder of how the debate over prewar intelligence continues to shadow President Bush more than three years after he began making the case in earnest for toppling Mr. Hussein and more than two years after it became clear that Iraq had no stockpiles of banned weapons.”

They reported that none of the investigations so far have directly addressed the broader question: whether individuals in the Administration presented that intelligence on the Iraqi threat in a way that overstated what the intelligence would support about the threat posed by Saddam's WMD and any links to terrorism. What President Bush left unaddressed was "the question of how his administration used that intelligence, which was full of caveats, subtleties and contradiction, to make the case for war.”

There is a critical distinction between flawed intelligence and the conscious manipulation of same. It is facile for Bush to claim—as in Alaska--that "investigations of the intelligence on Iraq have concluded that only one person manipulated evidence and misled the world, and that person was Saddam Hussein."

As did Milbank and Pincus, Stevenson and Jehl reported that, to date, the two major official inquiries -- by the Senate Intelligence Committee, in 2004, and the Robb-Silberman commission, in March 2005 -- have addressed only the prewar intelligence itself. But neither panel compared public statements by President Bush and his aides with the intelligence available at the time, or reviewed internal White House documents, including a draft of a speech to the United Nations Security Council later delivered in February 2003 by Secretary of State Colin Powell, for further evidence of how intelligence was deliberately misused. Two bipartisan panels have examined “the question of how the intelligence on Iraq's WMDs turned out so wrong. Both deliberately skirted the issue of why.”

President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said on November 15 that the arguments over how and why the war began are irrelevant: "We need to put this debate behind us.” But no debate could be more relevant now. As the war in Iraq enters yet another crucial phase—with elections in Iraq scheduled next month and Congress finally taking up the issue of whether to start pulling them out—the public needs to know whether the people running the Executive Branch can be trusted. The sad record is that they cannot be.


Time to Step Forward and Reveal the Truth about Official Deceptions

Alas, there is scant tradition in the American government—unlike the British parliamentary system—for civil servants and ministers to resign on principle and state their reasons. However, analyses like those of The Post and The Times could not be written without the assistance of career civilian and military officials, and a few political appointees, in the national security agencies. So I call upon patriotic government employees to think first of your country and how to pressure the Bush Administration to withdraw from the quagmire of Iraq. "Whistleblow" for the greater national interest.

Don’t let it be on your conscience that you stood by while more blood was spilled—because so much blood had already been spilled--in a losing venture. I know what I am suggesting. You do not owe loyalty to a White House regime that repeatedly, and with knowledge aforethought, has lied to Congress, the American people, and the world, in leading the United States into the greatest strategic blunder of our time.

Do not be afraid. SPEAK UP—or LEAK.

WEJJR

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