Two weeks ago, a flurry of opinion polls from CBS News and elsewhere showed that Americans were increasingly unhappy with the war in Iraq and didn't believe that it had achieved its aims or made us any safer. The following week, the Weekly Standard, the organ of the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, published extensive excerpts of a leaked, top-secret memo sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee the previous month by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, a leading neocon ideologue in the Bush administration. The memo sought to retroactively defend the debunked claims that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden had meaningful ties.
Coincidence? Perhaps. But the leak and publication of the Feith memo, which selectively presented a few dozen raw intelligence items plucked from more than a decade of debriefings by national and foreign intelligence agencies, not only shows a certain desperation on the part of the administration to shore up support for the occupation, but it also fits squarely into the cynical pattern of abusing Americans' trust we have seen since 9/11. That, you will remember, was when the administration made the calculated political decision to exploit American anger and grief as the launching pad for an unrelated and extremely reckless foreign policy hatched up in a pair of right-wing think tanks.
"This is made to dazzle the eyes of [those] not terribly educated" about intelligence methods, said Greg Thielmann, a longtime veteran of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence who retired in late 2002.
For those who have watched this pattern, the modus operandi is familiar: Leak to the media or place in speeches intelligence nuggets of questionable value — aluminum tubes, Nigerian uranium, the undocumented Prague meeting — then retreat when pressed. Keep the story alive in the friendly pockets of the media, like William Safire's column or Fox News. When the factoid's cracks start showing, replace it with a new one. Repeat as needed.
Is this just business as usual for American government? No, it is not.
Despite all our tough talk about not trusting politicians, Americans living in a democracy are always forced to some extent to trust our leaders to not exploit our lack of knowledge by lying to us, especially about matters of national security. This is one reason the intelligence agencies have long-established ground rules for how intelligence is vetted and distributed within the government: to make it less open to political manipulation. Raw intelligence, for example, shouldn't be divulged publicly because it is riddled with unverifiable hearsay. But these best practices have been ignored at the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has bypassed the department intelligence agency in favor of an ad hoc, Feith-based system where any flotsam that echoes the White House position is deemed solid.
Feith, who has been playing the cherry-picking role as an amateur intelligence chief for two years, could have just as easily gone into the mountains of intelligence data assembled every year to paint a picture of the much stronger links between Al Qaeda and the Saudi royal house, for example, or the Pakistani intelligence agency — both from nations that are our allies. But the White House position since the first days after 9/11 has been that remaking Iraq was to be the centerpiece of the "war on terror."
Unfortunately for the president heading into an election year, it doesn't wash. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that a full 79% of Americans didn't believe the war in Iraq had made them safer from terrorism. This is why eight months after we took Baghdad, the conservatives continue to leak questionable secrets to justify their actions.
The simple fact is, Al Qaeda didn't need Iraq to pull off 9/11 or any of its other savage attacks, and even if all the anonymous statements in Feith's memo panned out, there still would be no evidence Iraq significantly aided the extremists. We are, whatever the neocons might want us to believe, waging the wrong war in the wrong way.
Christopher Scheer is the co-author of the "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq," co-published this month by Seven Stories Press and Akashic Books.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times