A Pretext for War An Interview With James Bamford

For more than two decades, James Bamford has been a noted investigative journalist focusing on intelligence-gathering in the United States. He exposed the ultra-secret National Security Agency two decades ago in The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets, both award-winning bestsellers. He has testified as an expert witness on intelligence issues before committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives as well as the European Parliament in Brussels and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. His most recent book, A Pretext For War:9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies, examines intelligence-gathering related to the Iraq War and 9/11. In addition to writing, he spent most of the 1990s as the Washington investigative producer for the ABC News program World News Tonight.

Zeese: Tell me about your current book, A Pretext for War : 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies.

Bamford: Pretext is the only book to take an in-depth look at the U.S. intelligence community from before 9/11 to the war in Iraq. It describes how CIA Director George Tenet, while succeeding in increasing the personnel strength of the CIA’s Clandestine Service during the late 1990s, failed to change the culture, direction, and training from a Cold War focus to a counterterrorism focus. Through interviews with current and former clandestine service case officers who graduated from “The Farm,” the CIA’s secret training facility in Williamsburg, Va., it is clear that few if any people with Middle Eastern ethnicity, cultural background, or language skills were recruited. Thus, the CIA never even tried to penetrate al-Qaeda during the years leading up to 9/11, believing it too difficult, too dangerous, or “not their job,” depending on which agency official I interviewed. Instead, the agency relied on three tactics, none of which were of any use in capturing bin Laden: military and financial support for the Northern Alliance, which was squeezed into a small corner of northeast Afghanistan; support for the Pakistani ISI intelligence service, which had no incentive to go after either bin Laden or the Taliban; and support for a small group of old ex-anti-Soviet mujahedin who were set up in a wine vineyard with no supervision and ended up accomplishing virtually nothing.

Ironically, at the same time the CIA was unwilling to penetrate al-Qaeda, during the summer of 2001 about seven or eight Americans joined up with little difficulty, including John Walker Lindh, a college dropout from northern California. He did what the CIA should have done – went to Yemen and studied the Koran and Arabic, then went to study at a religious school in Pakistan, joined a guerilla training camp, and then went to Afghanistan where he easily joined al-Qaeda. The group then sent him to their premier terrorist training camp where he had a number of one-on-one meetings with bin Laden and picked up bits and pieces of the 9/11 plot.

Pretext also takes the only minute-by-minute look (about one-third of the book) at the confusion and chaos taking place among senior officials in Washington and elsewhere in the hours following the 9/11 attack. It examines everything from the secret locations to which the vice president and other officials disappeared, to the evacuation of the intelligence agencies, to the highly secret Continuance of Government (COG) procedures that were activated – many for the very first time.

Next, Pretext describes how the claims involving Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and Hussein’s involvement with 9/11, were simply used as pretexts for a war long planned by a small group of neoconservatives supportive of the Israeli government’s policies and the expansion of U.S. military power throughout the Middle East. It examines how top Bush administration officials Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser first drafted a war plan outlining an attack on Iraq, and removal of Saddam Hussein, in 1996. But the document, titled “A Clean Break,” was drafted for Israel, not the United States. At the time, the three were acting as advisors to newly elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Israel can shape its strategic environment,” they wrote. “This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective.” Not satisfied with regime change in Iraq, they went on to recommend that Israel continue to “shape its strategic environment” by “rolling back Syria.”

Wurmser then authored a paper in January 2001 arguing that the U.S. and Israel jointly launch a preemptive war throughout the Middle East and north Africa to establish U.S.-Israeli dominance. The U.S. and Israel should “strike fatally, not merely disarm, the centers of radicalism in the region – the regimes of Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Tehran, and Gaza,” he wrote. He then added that, “crises are opportunities.”

About the same time, on Jan. 30, 2001, President Bush held his first National Security Council meeting and, according to former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, discussed only two topics: becoming closer to Israel’s Ariel Sharon and locating targets to attack in Iraq.

As Wurmser had suggested, following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration immediately began using the crisis as an opportunity to launch their long-planned war against Iraq. At 2:40 p.m. on Sept.11, as the Pentagon was still burning, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld dictated notes indicating his intention to blame Saddam Hussein, even though there was no evidence of any such link and all the intelligence pointed exclusively to bin Laden and al-Qaeda. “Hit S.H. at same time,” he wrote. “Sweep” him up, whether “related” to 9/11 or “not.”

Next, Wurmser was put in charge of a secret unit in Feith’s office with the cover name Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group. Its function was to gather and feed less-than-credible intelligence – intelligence discounted by the CIA, such as the supposed Niger uranium deal – to the White House and Vice President Cheney’s office. Wurmser is now Cheney’s top Middle East advisor.

Finally, Pretext closely examines the numerous lies and deceptions presented to the Congress, the American public, and the world in order to justify the war in Iraq.

Zeese: A recent memo of meeting minutes was released in Great Britain saying the Bush administration was “fixing the intelligence” so that the Iraq War could be justified. And when I look back at intelligence reports I see lots of indications that there were doubts about WMD, Iraq as a threat to the U.S. and surrounding countries that were downplayed or ignored. Was intelligence manipulated to get the Congress and public to support the war in Iraq?

What kind of pressure, if any, was put on U.S. intelligence agencies to come up with a basis for the war?

Bamford: Intelligence was manipulated, mangled, ignored, and analysts were harassed and bullied to present the false picture that Iraq was an imminent threat to the U.S. In talking with intelligence analysts and case officers, in the months leading up to the war none believed that Iraq posed a threat to the U.S. The most basic evidence was the fact that Iraq had never begun work on a long-range missile system (unlike Iran and North Korea), something that can be easily seen by imaging satellites space with a resolution down to the centimeter. And no country has ever built a warhead without simultaneously building a delivery system.

One CIA analyst from the Iraq Nonproliferation section told me that his boss once called his office together (about 50 people) and said, “You know what – if Bush wants to go to war, it’s your job to give him a reason to do so.” The former analyst added, “And I said, ‘All right, it’s time, it’s time to go… And I just remember saying, ‘This is something that the American public, if they ever knew, they would be outraged.'”

Congress was also lied to. Because Iraq had no long-range missiles, they were told in secret session that Iraq was planning to launch a series of unmanned drones loaded with chemical and biological agents against the East Coast of the U.S. Many members of Congress voted for the resolution exclusively because of that warning. It later turned out that not only did Iraq not have such warheads, the few drones they had were rudimentary, short range, and there was no way to launch them from sea off the East Coast in the first place. There were many such falsehoods.

Zeese: After 9/11, there were many changes in law to fight the war on terrorism. The PATRIOT Act is the most notable. Congress is in the process of expanding and making permanent the PATRIOT Act. What are your thoughts on the balance being struck between civil liberties and the war on terrorism?

Bamford: In the same way the Bush administration used the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to launch its disastrous war against Iraq, they are now exploiting the threat of terrorism to push for harsh assaults on constitutional liberties. And they are succeeding to a remarkable degree, largely because of the nonstop drumbeat of fear and paranoia generated over the issue and the steady, numbing regularity of their attacks on civil liberties. The Senate Intelligence Committee is now debating such provisions as whether to reauthorize the FBI to conduct secret, warrantless searches of library, bookstore, and video shop records to see what you are reading or watching; granting the FBI the right to subpoena information about you without the need of obtaining court approval; classified procedures giving the FBI broad new warrantless authority to secretly record the origins and destinations of letters in your mailbox.

This last provision even alarmed some senior U.S. Postal Service officials. “This is a major step,” Zoe Strickland, the chief privacy officer for the Postal Service, told the New York Times. “From a privacy perspective, you want to make sure that the right balance is struck between protecting people’s mail and aiding law enforcement, and this legislation could impact that balance negatively. … I worry quite a bit about the balance being struck here, and we’re quite mystified as to how this got put in the legislation.”

Resorting to the politics of fear is not new. In 1947, President Harry Truman was seeking advice on how to convince Congress to pass an aid bill for Greece and Turkey to help them defeat the communist insurgency. “Mr. President,” volunteered Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, “the only way you are ever going to get this is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.” And James Madison once warned, “If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”

Zeese: There are a lot of people discussing whether the U.S. government was aware of the 9/11 attack before it happened; some even argue that some in the U.S. government were involved or informed of the attack. What are your thoughts on this?

Bamford: I disagree. The problem was the opposite: the U.S. didn’t have a clue before the attack. I also found no evidence that the U.S. government was involved in the attack.

Zeese: What has been the reaction to A Pretext for War, in particular by members of Congress?

Bamford: Pretext was very well received by reviewers, the public, and members of Congress. Time gave it a two-page spread and called it “Probably the best one-volume companion to the harrowing events in the war on terrorism since 1996.” The New York Times’ top reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, also gave Pretext an excellent review, calling it “Highly persuasive … a damning portrait of the country’s intelligence agencies,” adding, “Bamford unearths new details … to create a vivid, unsettling narrative.” And the Washington Post gave Pretext the cover of the book review and called it “Highly readable and well-researched. … Bamford does a superb job tying together threads of the Sept. 11 intelligence failures and their ongoing aftermath, using original research, the public record, and a light, fast-paced writing touch.”

Pretext was also very well received by Congress. In an unusual move, a number of Republican and Democratic members of Congress hosted me at several private, members-only events to outline how the Bush administration deceived Congress and the public in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. This included both a dinner and an address in the Capitol Building.

Zeese: You’ve been writing about intelligence matters for two decades, beginning with The Puzzle Palace. What is your evaluation of how intelligence has evolved over the years and in particular about recent changes in law and policy regarding how intelligence is gathered, shared, and directed?

Bamford: Over the years, the principal problem with the intelligence community is that 85 percent of it is primarily under the control of the secretary of defense, not the director of Central Intelligence. This includes the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Defense Intelligence Agency – the major collection agencies. Under the Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld has exercised control over the intelligence community to extreme and dangerous lengths. For the first time, Congress authorized him to appoint his own powerful intelligence czar – an undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Then, to bypass the intelligence coming from the CIA – much of which was indicating that Iraq was not a threat – he established a special secret office to come up with its own intelligence on Iraq, much of which turned out to be fraudulent. These included bogus reports from Ahmed Chalabi, a person whom the CIA had wisely refused to have anything to do with a decade ago.

The creation of the director of national intelligence was supposed to help correct this problem. But the lines of responsibility were never really changed, and unless Negroponte and Hayden quickly begin asserting their authority – backed up by Congress and the White House – it is likely the real power will remain, and expand, within the office of secretary of defense. This could lead to the continued politicization of intelligence.

Another major issue is human intelligence. Traditionally, human spies have been virtually useless. During the Cold War, from 1985 to 1993, the U.S. had about a dozen Soviet agents passing information to the CIA. The problem was, they had all been compromised by both Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI. Thus, whatever we were getting from them was worse than useless because it was likely disinformation from the KGB. Today, because al-Qaeda is so decentralized around the world and operates in airtight cells, even if someone was able to penetrate the organization, they would only learn what a single cell might be doing.

Technical intelligence is equally problematic in a “war on terrorism.” NSA was originally designed to eavesdrop on a large stationary country that constantly communicated – mostly in the clear – over dedicated government lines. Today, the problem is the opposite – it is like trying to find a single call in a giant electronic haystack. The terrorists move from country to country, communicate at a minimum, use disposable phones, calling cards, pay phones, the Internet, and other hard-to-trace equipment. During the 1990s, the NSA – the country’s largest and most expensive intelligence agency – downsized by one-third. At the same time, there was an enormous increase in new modes and volume of communication, from cell phones to e-mail to high-speed data transfers. Also, instead of easy-to-capture dedicated government communications channels, the terrorists use the worldwide communications grid, so locating individual calls has become extremely difficult. Additionally, there are new legal problems with 21st century communications. An e-mail sent from Madrid to Paris during the busy morning hours may be automatically routed via New York where communications are quiet. Thus, different laws now apply because the call is no longer foreign but domestic (or international), at least for a millisecond.

Languages are still another major problem. During the Cold War, there were many colleges pumping out Russian- and Slavic-area studies and language majors. But now there are virtually no colleges teaching such key dialects as Urdu, Pashto, Dari, and many others among the more than 6,500 languages in the world. And NSA has little language capability for future conflicts in many parts of the world. If al-Qaeda moves into the political vacuum in Congo, for example, there are maybe one or two people at most who speak Lingala. Gen. Mike Hayden, director of NSA until he was recently named deputy DNI, attempted to modernize NSA during his tenure there, but he was only partly successful.

Imagery is also a problem. It was designed to focus on stationary missile silos, not humans running from mountain to mountain or country to country. The NRO/NGA are still a long way away from developing systems that can hover over a single spot for an extended period of time, or have a resolution that can pick out individual faces.

Then there is the problem of the CIA’s new license to kill anytime and anywhere overseas without oversight. They are now using missile-armed drones to do assassinations in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and other places in total secrecy, often without notice even to the host countries. And these problems just scratch the surface in the intelligence community.

Zeese: Has President Bush committed any impeachable offenses?

Bamford: It would seem logical that if Bill Clinton could be subject to impeachment for an alleged deception over a minor consensual sexual affair, George W. Bush should be subject to the same treatment for launching a deadly and seemingly endless war based on lies, distortions and deceptions. If that doesn’t qualify as a “high crime,” I don’t think anything does. The key problem is massive public apathy and extremely poor press coverage. I think the only way to prevent such wars in the future would be to make every citizen an equal shareholder in the war – not just the families of the 140,000 troops currently in Iraq. This would require legislation mandating a draft upon the deployment of a certain number of troops to a combat environment. Also, legislation forbidding deficit spending for a war should be enacted. The cost of a war would have to be paid as a surcharge on all taxpayers in the year the fighting takes place. In this way, nearly every citizen would have both a personal and financial stake in a war. If such were the case today, we would not be in this situation – and if we were, there would certainly be calls for impeachment.

May 26, 2005

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