Mice and (Con) Men
By Dennis Hans
buildup to the invasion of Iraq revealed most of our national-security
bureaucrats and journalists to be mice, no match for the men
who marshaled all manner of questionable, false or even forged
evidence to make their case. The men led - make that "misled"
- and the mice, with few exceptions, cheered them on or cowered
in their holes.
Men who use devious means to pull the wool over other people's
eyes are a special variety of adult male, known as "con men."
This particular collection of con men, the D.C.-based Bush
Gang, included one woman, whose name, "Condi," should have
been a tip-off.
The targets of con men are known as "marks." The marks in
the "Imminent Iraqi Threat" con have another collective identity:
citizens. In present-day America, most citizens are too busy
working hard, raising families and enjoying their steadily
decreasing leisure minutes to devote much time to keeping
their leaders honest. For that they rely on a tiny subset
of the citizenry, called "journalists," to do that for them.
Journalists aren't the only people that ordinary citizens
count on to keep the national leadership honest. They also
rely on a representative from their district and two senators
from their state, as well as "whistleblowers" inside the administration
and the permanent federal bureaucracies, such as the Pentagon,
State Department, FBI and CIA.
These layers of vigilance are essential to a democracy,
as they prevent mass hoodwinking by determined con men, such
as the Bush Gang. It's a great system on paper, but it breaks
down if those in positions to be watchdogs and whistleblowers
lack the competence and courage to fulfill those functions.
Congress proved a less than formidable foe. For members
who couldn't quite see the danger that Iraq posed, the con
artists presented false evidence that Iraq had revived its
nuclear weapons program - hastening the day when madman Saddam
would possess the deadliest weapon of all. The Iraqis, the
Bush Gang said, had rebuilt their nuclear facilities, were
pursuing unenriched uranium from Niger, and had attempted
to import aluminum tubes whose most likely purpose was uranium
Each claim was known by the Gang to be a lie, an overstatement
or an unconfirmed possibility. Yet in reports and testimony
to Congress prior to the vote authorizing the use of force
against Iraq, the con artists made each look far more solid
than it was. And in televised statements to the citizenry,
both before and after the October vote, the con artists eliminated
the ambiguity and presented this stuff as established fact.
The "Ignorance Is Bliss" Con
The con artists knew that a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval
from the intelligence community would carry great weight with
Congress, so they brought CIA director George Tenet into their
inner circle. He became one of the Bush Gang's most effective
overstaters, in part because most members of Congress held
him in high esteem. They saw him in particular - and intelligence
analysts in general - as dispassionate, honest experts who
would level with Congress even when their considered judgment
undercut the White House position.
The case of the aluminum tubes posed a unique problem for
Tenet and the Bush Gang in the summer of 2002. They were eager
to push the nuclear-purpose angle, but the experts who knew
the most believed the least. The purpose of the tubes could
not be answered definitively at that time because of a variety
of factors, including the absence of inspectors in Iraq. The
analysts best positioned to render a preliminary judgment
were nuclear scientists, and they weren't buying the nuclear
explanation that was being pushed by CIA analysts. As Time
magazine's Michael Duffy reported
June 1, 2003, "Seasoned experts at the Energy Department's
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California disagreed
[with the CIA], but their view - the most expert government
interpretation available - was either ignored or overruled."
The Department of Energy (DOE) scientists argued that the
tubes were not directly suitable for enriching uranium and
that, even if modified, were of poorer quality and reliability
than tubes or rotors made of other metals that Iraq had experimented
with in the late 1980s. Why would Iraq use a part that was
so poorly designed it required modification, would dramatically
slow down the enrichment process, and in the end might not
even work? And if the tubes were for enrichment, rather than
for the conventional artillery rockets for which they were
a perfect match in every technical aspect, why hadn't the
Iraqis been pursuing centrifuge components of far greater
import than aluminum tubes, such as end caps, bearings and
David Albright, a former nuclear-arms inspector and a cautious,
competent commentator, reviewed the internal debate in an
published a week before the start of the war. He also explained
why he grew increasingly troubled by the fallout from the
"My reaction at the time was that the disagreement reflected
the typical in-fighting between US experts that often afflicts
the intelligence community. I was frankly surprised when the
administration latched onto one side of this debate in September
2002. My surprise became concern when I was told that this
dispute had not been mediated by a competent, impartial technical
committee, as it should have been according to accepted practice.
I became dismayed when a knowledgeable government scientist
told me that the administration could say anything it wanted
about the tubes while government scientists who disagreed
were expected to remain quiet."
Why would the con artists sidestep the "accepted practice"
of seeking to establish the most likely explanation for the
attempt to purchase aluminum tubes? Because the likely outcome
of mediation by a "competent technical committee" wouldn't
help the Bush Gang "sell" the Imminent Iraqi Threat. Better
to go with a vote of the entire intelligence community, and
better to take the necessary steps prior to the vote to ensure
that most analysts weren't fully exposed to the expert DOE
The con artists, in essence, wanted to keep the great majority
of the intelligence community barefoot and pregnant. So long
as this great majority remained technically ignorant, they
would cast their vote for the nuclear-purpose theory, and
that's just what they did. But how many analysts would have
switched their vote if the DOE analysis had been widely disseminated
and debated? How many more would have switched if it had been
widely known that there had been no Iraqi effort to procure
uranium from Niger? Or that those allegedly rebuilt and bustling
WMD facilities were in fact decaying dumps? Or that defector
claims related to ongoing nuclear activity were unproven,
disproven or blatant lies?
Every half-truth, distortion and lie an analyst believed
made it more likely he or she would believe the next unproven
claim that fit the puzzle. That is how the con artists won
over the intelligence community, which then delivered information
along the following lines to Congress as it debated whether
to authorize the use of force:
"Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain proscribed high-strength
aluminum tubes are of significant concern. All intelligence
experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons and that
these tubes could be used in a centrifuge enrichment program.
Most intelligence specialists assess this to be the intended
use, but some believe that these tubes are probably intended
for conventional weapons programs." (CIA report, October 2002)
That was a generally accurate summary (though I seriously
doubt that "all" experts believed Iraq was actively
seeking nukes), but it didn't reflect the views of a well-informed,
independent community. It reflected the views of a community
whose members had, in varying degrees, been conned, bullied
and/or co-opted by the Bush Gang.
The "Electing the Truth" Con
The Bush Gang turned next to the public, who needed reminding
of the gravity and imminence of the Imminent Iraqi Threat.
How could the con artists convert a mere assessment - shared
by most intelligence specialists, disputed by some - into
a statement of incontrovertible fact? By adopting the unspoken
premise that the criteria for establishing "the truth" is
winner-take-all vote - even on a matter where, at the time
of the vote, the truth could not be definitively established!
Thus, if at least 50.1 percent of intelligence analysts
believe those tubes were destined for use in uranium enrichment,
that makes it "the truth." No need to unscare the public with
unalarmist claims by DOE nuclear scientists about the unsuitability
of those tubes for uranium enrichment and their perfect suitability
for conventional artillery rockets. With "the truth" established,
con artists George, Dick and Condi felt free to assert or
imply that there was one and only one purpose for those aluminum
By definition, con artists are unethical. Yet strange as
it seems, some regard themselves as upright and honorable.
Assuming that "the truth" can be elected is one of the tricks
that eases the conscience of cons who have a deep and abiding
need to see themselves as ethically sound.
Profiles in Cowardice
Recall Albright's dismay at what he heard from a "knowledgeable
government scientist." As paraphrased by Albright, "the administration
could say anything it wanted about the tubes while government
scientists who disagreed were expected to remain quiet."
The key words are "were expected." The Bush Gang con artists
certainly want to give the impression that they are running
a "republic of fear," so as to discourage whistleblowing.
But this is mostly bluster. There's zero chance of an intelligence
whistleblower suffering physical harm. Zero. The cons might
try to get him or her canned, but that is the absolute worst
that could happen. He or she would be out on the street, but
with a high profile and the respect of a large slice of the
public, including at least a few employers in academia and
the private sector who'd be delighted to offer a worthy position
to someone they regarded as a hero.
The con artists are shrewd judges of character, and they
know gutless cowards when they see them. The con artists have
their shortcomings (e.g., contempt for the democratic principle
"informed consent of the governed"), but every last one of
them - even Condi - has balls. It's the height of audacity
to con the country into an unnecessary war, particularly a
few short years after the previous president was impeached
for lying about adultery. Yet they took on the task and pulled
Albright's scientist acquaintance did what the cons expected
he would: He kept quiet. Sure, he spoke to Albright - anonymously.
That doesn't count. That doesn't stop a disinformation campaign
in its tracks.
Or consider that former ambassador, dispatched to Niger
in February 2002 to look into those uranium-procurement allegations.
He reported back that there was no truth to them and that
the supporting documents were forgeries. So what did he do
when the claim was reported as fact in the September 24 British
dossier on Iraq? Or December 19, when Colin Powell's State
Department unveiled a laughable "Fact Sheet" with the claim?
Or January 26, when Powell leveled the charge
at the World Economic Forum? Or January 28, when Bush told
the nation that the British government "has learned" of Iraq's
pursuit of uranium from Africa?
The ex-ambassador said nothing. Not even anonymously. He
knew the truth and had the clout and credentials to expose
it. All he lacked was Condi's balls.
Or consider Greg Thielmann, who retired in September 2002
after a 25-year career at the State Department, the last four
of which he served in its Bureau of Intelligence and Research,
where, Newsweek reports,
his "whose duties included tracking Iraq's WMD program."
Before retiring he had looked into the Niger connection,
judged it implausible, and shared that verdict with "Powell's
office." (Thielmann assumed, but didn't know for a fact, that
Powell was made aware of his assessment.) In retirement, he
was stunned by Bush's promotion of the connection in his January
28 national address. Thielmann didn't know at that point that
the Niger evidence was forged, only that it was a "stupid
piece of garbage."
A retiree, Thielmann had no worry about being fired should
he show his face and speak his mind. Armed with that extra
layer of protection, he did nothing.
After the war, Thielmann finally spoke publicly. He told
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, "The Al
Qaeda connection and nuclear weapons issue were the only two
ways that you could link Iraq to an imminent security threat
to the U.S. And the administration was grossly distorting
the intelligence on both things." Before the war, when Thielmann
could have made a difference, he cowered in his corner and
nibbled on cheese.
So who is worse? A Bush Gang so contemptuous of the democratic
process that they treated Congress, the citizenry and even
their own intelligence community as suckers to be conned,
or potential whistleblowers who had the goods to expose the
phoniness of the Imminent Iraqi Threat but refused to toot?
I guess it comes down to whether you think it's more loathsome
to be despicable or pathetic.
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses
in mass communications and American foreign policy at the
University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. His essay "Lying
Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His 'Techniques of Deceit'"
was published several weeks before the start of the Iraq war.
He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.