Sunday, June 01, 2003

A circle of manipulators

There's a fascinating and disturbing article up today at the Phiadelphia Inquirer.
Iraq war looking less like a success Bush's advisers fear questions for which they have no answers. By John Walcott Inquirer Washington Bureau WASHINGTON - Some of President Bush's top advisers, who had hoped the war in Iraq would be the turning point in the battle against terrorism and the centerpiece of Bush's reelection campaign, fear it is instead becoming a political, diplomatic and military mess. "The postwar period in Iraq is messy. We haven't found what we said we'd find there and there are unpleasant questions about assumptions we made and intelligence we had," said one senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If many more months go by and our troops are still there, the Iraqis are still fighting each other and us, and we still haven't found any WMD [weapons of mass destruction], there will be hell to pay." The situation in Iraq could rebound quickly, especially if U.S. forces can restore basic services and make headway in efforts to create a united civil authority. But for now, U.S. troops in Iraq are becoming the targets of anger and ambushes. Eleven Americans died last week from enemy action and accidents, and some of their civilian leaders now privately admit that the relatively small force that quickly overwhelmed the Iraqi military is too small to restore order in a nation the size of California. The U.S. attempt to hand over the country to an Iraqi civilian administration isn't faring much better, and Bush is expected to meet with L. Paul Bremer 3d, the top U.S. civilian in Iraq, in Qatar on Wednesday to discuss overhauling the U.S. administration in Baghdad for the second time in a month. A top U.S. official on Friday said Bremer's predecessor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, had failed, adding: "We lost a month because of Garner." A growing number of critics in Congress and some within the administration now suspect that a third problem, potentially the most serious, helps explain the military and political difficulties. These critics say that much of the administration's public rationale for the war, and much of its planning for the war and its aftermath, appears to have been based on fabricated or exaggerated intelligence that was fed to civilian officials in the Pentagon by Iraqi exiles eager for the United States to oust Saddam Hussein. The exiles' intelligence network, intelligence officials said, told Pentagon officials that, among other things, many Iraqi Shiites would welcome American troops as liberators, that some key generals would surrender their entire units, and that Hussein had sent a key operative to work with a small militant Islamic group, Ansar al Islam, that had ties to al-Qaeda. Officials in the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State Department all warned repeatedly that past experience with the exiles, led by Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, indicated that the intelligence they provided was unreliable at best. But Iraqi defectors produced by the Iraqi National Congress and other intelligence supplied by the group got a hearing in two important places: a special intelligence group set up by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, and the New York Times. The Iraqi National Congress, U.S. intelligence officials said, bypassed the skeptics in the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency and fed the same information about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaeda to both places, so Pentagon officials would confirm what the Times was hearing and the newspaper would confirm what the Pentagon was hearing.
Here we see, writ-large, the problem with an establishment media far to willing to swallow the official line. A small group of Iraqi exiles played one group of gullible accomplices (PNAC inspired Defense Department insiders) off against another group of gullible accomplices (New York Times' journalists) and used them to reinforce each others impression of what was going on. The idea is pretty simple: (1) feed some "facts" to the Times and then tell the reporters to go talk to such and such at the Defense Department for confirmation and additional information. (2) At the same time, feed similar "facts", but not necessarily the same "facts", to such and such within Donald Rumsfeld's circle. (3) Wait for the two to start talking to each other. (4) The people from the Times will see the additional information from the Pentagon and say, "There must be something here because Don's boys are saying similar things". (5) The people at the Pentagon will listen to the inquiries from the Times people and say, "There must be something here because the Times is hearing similar information from their own sources." All the time, neither side quite realizes that the other side is being fed information from the same source. This is how a single-source story can be turned into a multiple source story. Of course, this does not preclude the possibility that some people with the Defense Department and the Times knew this was going on. Indeed, Chalabi and crew might have been advised to pull of this operation by PNAC. And, considering the case of Jayson Blair, some at the Times may have known the stories were shaky but smelled the opportunity to score a really big story and shelved their misgivings for the chance to get a Pulitzer (and a bigger paycheck) in the future. But then, even if we give these people all the benefit of the doubt as to their motives, we must still conclude that they were incredibly incompetent. The Pentagon insiders and the Times staff should have known not to rely on information from sources that were as obviously biased as was Chalabi's group. But then both of these groups are so convinced of their own superiority that they probably never considered the idea that they could be so easily fooled. "Inconceivable!" -- Vizzini

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