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Of Mice and (Con) Men
July 7, 2003
By Dennis Hans

The 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 enrichment.

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 rotors?

David Albright, a former nuclear-arms inspector and a cautious, competent commentator, reviewed the internal debate in an essay published a week before the start of the war. He also explained why he grew increasingly troubled by the fallout from the debate:

"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 analysis.

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 tubes.

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 it off.

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.

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