By RAY McGOVERN
Former CIA Analyst
Why do I feel like the proverbial skunk at a Labor Day picnic? Sorry; but I thought you might want to know that this time next year there will probably be more skunks than we can handle. I fear our country is likely to be at war with Iran-and with the thousands of real terrorists Iran can field around the globe.
It is going to happen, folks, unless we put our lawn chairs away on Tuesday, take part in some serious grass-roots organizing, and take action to prevent a wider war-while we still can.
President George W. Bush’s speech Tuesday lays out the Bush/Cheney plan to attack Iran and how the intelligence is being “fixed around the policy,” as was the case before the attack on Iraq.
It’s not about putative Iranian “weapons of mass destruction”-not even ostensibly. It is about the requirement for a scapegoat for U.S. reverses in Iraq, and the White House’s felt need to create a casus belli by provoking Iran in such a way as to “justify” armed retaliation-eventually including air strikes on its nuclear-related facilities.
Bush’s Aug. 28 speech to the American Legion comes five years after a very similar presentation by Vice President Dick Cheney. Addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 26, 2002, Cheney set the meretricious terms of reference for war on Iraq.
Sitting on the same stage that evening was former CENTCOM commander Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was being honored at the VFW convention. Zinni later said he was shocked to hear a depiction of intelligence (Iraq has WMD and is amassing them to use against us) that did not square with what he knew. Although Zinni had retired two years before, his role as consultant had enabled him to stay up to date on key intelligence findings.
“There was no solid proof that Saddam had WMD…I heard a case being made to go to war,” Zinni told Meet the Press three and a half years later.
(Zinni is a straight shooter with considerable courage, and so the question lingers: why did he not go public? It is all too familiar a conundrum at senior levels; top officials can seldom find their voices. My hunch is that Zinni regrets letting himself be guided by a misplaced professional courtesy and/or slavish adherence to classification restrictions, when he might have prevented our country from starting the kind of war of aggression branded at Nuremberg the “supreme international crime.”)
Cheney: Dean of Preemption
Zinni was not the only one taken aback by Cheney’s words. Then-CIA director George Tenet says Cheney’s speech took him completely by surprise. In his memoir Tenet wrote, “I had the impression that the president wasn’t any more aware than we were of what his number-two was going to say to the VFW until he said it.”
Yet, it could have been anticipated. Just five weeks before, Tenet himself had told his British counterpart that the president had decided to make war on Iraq for regime change and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
When Bush’s senior advisers came back to town after Labor Day, 2002, the next five weeks (and by now, the next five years) were devoted to selling a new product-war on Iraq. The actual decision to attack Iraq, we now know, was made several months earlier but, as then-White House chief of staff Andy Card explained, no sensible salesperson would launch a major new product during the month of August-Cheney’s preemptive strike notwithstanding. Yes, that’s what Card called the coming war; a “new product.”
After assuring themselves that Tenet was a reliable salesman, Cheney and then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld dispatched him and the pliant Powell at State to play supporting roles in the advertising campaign: bogus yellowcake uranium from Niger, aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment, and mobile trailers for manufacturing biological warfare agent-the whole nine yards. The objective was to scare or intimidate Congress into voting for war, and, thanks largely to a robust cheering section in the corporate-controlled media, Congress did so on October 10 and 11, 2002.
This past week saw the president himself, with that same kind of support, pushing a new product-war with Iran. And in the process, he made clear how intelligence is being fixed to “justify” war this time around. The case is too clever by half, but it will be hard for Americans to understand that. Indeed, the Bush/Cheney team expects that the product will sell easily-the more so, since the administration has been able once again to enlist the usual cheerleaders in the media to “catapult the propaganda,” as Bush once put it.
Iran’s Nuclear Plans
It has been like waiting for Godot…the endless wait for the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear plans. That NIE turns out to be the quintessential dog that didn’t bark. The most recent published NIE on the subject was issued two and a half years ago and concluded that Iran could not have a nuclear weapon until “early- to mid-next decade.” That estimate followed a string of NIEs dating back to 1995, which kept predicting, with embarrassing consistency, that Iran was “within five years” of having a nuclear weapon.
The most recent NIE, published in early 2005, extended the timeline and provided still more margin for error. Basically, the timeline was moved 10 years out to 2015 but, in a fit of caution, the drafters settled on the words “early-to-mid next decade.” On Feb. 27, 2007 at his confirmation hearings to be Director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell repeated that formula verbatim.
A “final” draft of the follow-up NIE mentioned above had been completed in Feb. 2007, and McConnell no doubt was briefed on its findings prior to his testimony. The fact that this draft has been sent back for revision every other month since February speaks volumes. Judging from McConnell’s testimony, the conclusions of the NIE draft of February are probably not alarmist enough for Vice President Dick Cheney. (Shades of Iraq.)
According to one recent report, the target date for publication has now slipped to late fall. How these endless delays can be tolerated is testimony to the fecklessness of the “watchdog” intelligence committees in House and Senate.
As for Iran’s motivation if it plans to go down the path of producing nuclear weapons, newly appointed defense secretary Robert Gates was asked about that at his confirmation hearing in December. Just called from the wings to replace Donald Rumsfeld, Gates apparently had not yet read the relevant memo from Cheney’s office. It is a safe bet that the avuncular Cheney took Gates to the woodshed, after the nominee suggested that Iran’s motivation could be, “in the first instance,” deterrence:”
“While they [the Iranians] are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for a nuclear capability, I think they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons-Pakistan to the east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the Persian Gulf.”
Unwelcome News (to the White House)
There they go again-those bureaucrats at the International Atomic Energy Agency. On August 28, the very day Bush was playing up the dangers from Iran, the IAEA released a note of understanding between the IAEA and Iran on the key issue of inspection. The IAEA announced:
“The agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of the declared nuclear materials at the enrichment facilities in Iran and has therefore concluded that it remains in peaceful use.”
The IAEA deputy director said the plan just agreed to by the IAEA and Iran will enable the two to reach closure by December on the nuclear issues that the IAEA began investigating in 2003. Other IAEA officials now express confidence that they will be able to detect any military diversion or any uranium enrichment above a low grade, as long as the Iran-IAEA safeguard agreement remains intact.
Shades of the preliminary findings of the U.N. inspections-unprecedented in their intrusiveness-that were conducted in Iraq in early 2003 before the U.S. abruptly warned the U.N. in mid-March to pull out its inspectors, lest they find themselves among those to be shocked-and-awed.
Vice President Cheney can claim, as he did three days before the attack on Iraq, that the IAEA is simply “wrong.” But Cheney’s credibility has sunk to prehistoric levels; witness the fact that the president was told that this time he would have to take the lead in playing up various threats from Iran. And they gave him new words.
The President’s New Formulation
As I watched the president speak on Aug. 28, I was struck by the care he took in reading the exact words of a new, subjunctive-mood formulation regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions. He never looked up; this is what he said:
“Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.”
The cautious wording suggests to me that the White House finally has concluded that the “nuclear threat” from Iran is “a dog that won’t hunt,” as Lyndon Johnson would have put it. While, initial press reporting focused on the “nuclear holocaust” rhetorical flourish, the earlier part of the sentence is more significant, in my view. It is quite different from earlier Bush rhetoric charging categorically that Iran is “pursuing nuclear weapons,” including the following (erroneous) comment at a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in early August:
“This [Iran] is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon.”
The latest news from the IAEA is, for the White House, an unwelcome extra hurdle. And the president’s advisers presumably were aware of it well before Bush’s speech was finalized; it will be hard to spin. Administration officials would also worry about the possibility that some patriotic truth teller might make the press aware of the key judgments of the languishing draft of the latest NIE on Iran’s nuclear capability-or that a courageous officer or official of Gen. Anthony Zinni’s stature might feel conscience bound to try to head off another unnecessary war, by providing a more accurate, less alarmist assessment of the nuclear threat from Iran.
It is just too much of a stretch to suggest that Iran could be a nuclear threat to the United States within the next 17 months, and that’s all the time Bush and Cheney have got to honor their open pledge to our “ally” Israel to eliminate Iran’s nuclear potential. Besides, some American Jewish groups have become increasingly concerned over the likelihood of serious backlash if young Americans are seen to be fighting and dying to eliminate perceived threats to Israel (but not to the U.S.). Some of these groups have been quietly urging the White House to back off the nuclear-threat rationale for war on Iran.
The (Very) Bad News
Bush and Cheney have clearly decided to use alleged Iranian interference in Iraq as the preferred casus belli. And the charges, whether they have merit or not, have become much more bellicose. Thus, Bush on Aug. 28:
“Iran’s leaders…cannot escape responsibility for aiding attacks against coalition forces…The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops. I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.”
How convenient: two birds with one stone. Someone to blame for U.S. reverses in Iraq, and “justification” to confront the ostensible source of the problem-“deadeners” having been changed to Iran. Vice President Cheney has reportedly been pushing for military retaliation against Iran if the U.S. finds hard evidence of Iranian complicity in supporting the “insurgents” in Iraq.
President Bush obliged on Aug. 28:
“Recently, coalition forces seized 240-millimeter rockets that had been manufactured in Iran this year and that had been provided to Iraqi extremist groups by Iranian agents. The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased in the last few months…”
Recent U.S. actions, like arresting Iranian officials in Iraq-eight were abruptly kidnapped and held briefly in Baghdad on Aug. 28, the day Bush addressed the American Legion-suggest an intention to provoke Iran into some kind of action that would justify U.S. “retaliation.” The evolving rhetoric suggests that the most likely immediate targets at this point would be training facilities inside Iran-some twenty targets that are within range of U.S. cruise missiles already in place.
Iranian retaliation would be inevitable, and escalation very likely. It strikes me as shamelessly ironic that the likes of our current ambassador at the U.N., Zalmay Khalilizad, one of the architects of U.S. policy toward the area, are now warning publicly that the current upheaval in the Middle East could bring another world war.
The Public Buildup
Col. Pat Lang (USA, ret.), as usual, puts it succinctly:
“Careful attention to the content of the chatter on the 24/7 news channels reveals a willingness to accept the idea that it is not possible to resolve differences with Iran through diplomacy. Network anchors are increasingly accepting or voicing such views. Are we supposed to believe that this is serendipitous?”
And not only that. It is as if Scooter Libby were back writing lead editorials for the Washington Post, the Pravda of this administration. The Post’s lead editorial on Aug. 21 regurgitated the allegations that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is “supplying the weapons that are killing a growing number of American soldiers in Iraq;” that it is “waging war against the United States and trying to kill as many American soldiers as possible.” Designating Iran a “specially designated global terrorist” organization, said the Post, “seems to be the least the United States should be doing, giving the soaring number of Iranian-sponsored bomb attacks in Iraq.”
As for the news side of the Post, which is widely perceived as a bit freer from White House influence, its writers are hardly immune. For example, they know how many times the draft National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program has been sent back for redrafting…and they know why. Have they been told not to write the story?
For good measure, the indomitable arch-neocon James Woolsey has again entered the fray. He was trotted out on August 14 to tell Lou Dobbs that the US may have no choice but to bomb Iran in order to halt its nuclear weapons program. Woolsey, who has described himself as the “anchor of the Presbyterian wing of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs,” knows what will scare. To Dobbs: “I’m afraid within, well, at worst, a few months; at best, a few years; they [Iran] could have the bomb.”
As for what Bush is telling his counterparts among our allies, reporting on his recent meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy are disquieting, to say the least. Reports circulating in European foreign ministries indicate that Sarkozy came away convinced that Bush “is serious about bombing Iran’s secret nuclear facilities,” according to well-connected journalist Arnauld De Borchgrave.
It Is Up To US
Air strikes on Iran seem inevitable, unless grassroots America can arrange a backbone transplant for Congress. The House needs to begin impeachment proceedings without delay. Why? Well, there’s the Constitution of the United States, for one thing. For another, the initiation of impeachment proceedings might well give our senior military leaders pause. Do they really want to precipitate a wider war and risk destroying much of what is left of our armed forces for the likes of Bush and Cheney? Is another star on the shoulder worth THAT?
The deterioration of the U.S. position in Iraq; the perceived need for a scapegoat; the knee-jerk deference given to Israel’s myopic and ultimately self-defeating security policy; and the fact that time is running out for the Bush/Cheney administration to end Iran’s nuclear program-together make for a very volatile mix.
So, on Tuesday let’s put away the lawn chairs and roll up our sleeves. Let’s remember all that has already happened since Labor Day five years ago.
There is very little time to exercise our rights as citizens and stop this madness. At a similarly critical juncture, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was typically direct. I find his words a challenge to us today:
“There is such a thing as being too late…. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with lost opportunity…. Over the bleached bones of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.'”
Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst from 1963 to 1990 and Robert Gates’ branch chief in the early 1970s. McGovern now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: [email protected]