[The following is Part I of an exchange between Michael Isikoff and the authors of Party of Defeat. To see Part II, click here. To see Part III, click here -- The Editors.]
Turning Reality on Its Head
By Michael Isikoff
There was a time that David Horowitz (with Peter Collier) wrote absorbing works of history, filled with fresh research and nuanced insights, about great American families like the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts. Now he writes partisan talking points that masquerade as history. How else to describe Party of Defeat? In this work, Horowitz with Ben Johnson presents a full-throttled defense of President George W. Bush's foreign policy while sliming the president's critics (and journalists) as unpatriotic subversives and unscrupulous opportunists. Leave aside Horowitz's inability to make distinctions. ( I am called a "left leaning journalist-a description that will surprise certain members of the Clinton administration who once cast me as a member of the "vast right wing conspiracy.) At almost ever turn, the book's arguments are based on a skewed and selective reading of the public record that turns reality on its head.
Horowitz' most astonishing - and misleading– assertions relate to Iraq. He and his co-author argue that the president's critics have "distorted" the rationale for the war in Iraq, which they contend was really about enforcing Security Council resolutions and upholding the rule of "international law." It was not, as everybody in the country thought, the perceived threat of Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda. True, those were the claims repeatedly made by the President and other senior officials in the run up to war-and which turned out to be almost entirely wrong. But the contention that Iraq had a vast arsenal of WMD, Horowitz and Johnson tell us, was only about "selling" the decision to go to war to the American public, a political exercise that "inevitably involves over-simplification" and the "use of symbolic representations" in place of "complex arguments." There is, to say the last, a rather brazen cynicism implicit in the idea that presidents are justified in not leveling with the country, or "oversimplifying" as they put it, when it comes to basic decisions of war and peace.
Horowitz and Johnson argue that, in any case, President Bush did not really distort the intelligence about Iraqi WMD because his assertions were fully backed by the Oct. 1, 2002 classified National Intelligence Estimate and "confirmed by government intelligence agencies around the world." But the canard that "everybody" in the U.S. and international intelligence community believed what the White House said about Iraq's weapons programs is way too facile. The actual state of the U.S. intelligence about the Iraqi threat- before the White House began its campaign for war-was murky at best. It could best be reconstructed by examining the March, 19, 2002 testimony of Admiral Thomas Wilson, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to the Senate Armed Services committee. Wilson outlined the five most pressing "near term" threats to U.s. security threats around the world-and Iraq didn't even make the list. When he did speak about Iraq, Wilson noted that Saddam's military capabilities had been "significantly degraded" thanks to years for United Nations sanctions and that, as far as US. intelligence agencies knew, the regime possessed only "residual" chemical and biological stockpiles left over from before the Gulf War.
Now cut to the saber rattling rhetoric six months later when the White House launched its political drumbeat for war. Horowitz and Johnson lamely argue that Bush never described the Iraqi threat as "imminent." He said everything but. Iraq was a "grave and gathering danger.", Bush told the United Nations on September 12. 2002. It was a "threat of unique urgency," he told congressional leaders in the Rose Garden on October 2, 2002. In Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, Bush declared that Saddam was rebuilding his nuclear weapons programs and exploring ways of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) to deliver chemical and biological agents "for missions targeting the United States." Most alarming of all, Saddam had forged ties with Al Qaeda-the very terrorists who had attacked America on 9/11. U.S. intelligence, the president proclaimed, had "learned" that Saddam's regime was "training Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses."
Horowitz and Johnson insist these claims were supported by the CIA-vetted NIE, thereby absolving the administration once and for all of the charge of manipulating intelligence. But they totally miss the point about the NIE. The declassified segments of the NIE they quote from in their book (which were publicly released in July, 2003, not in 2006 as they wrongly assert) were not especially newsworthy at the time; they simply mirrored the language in the CIA approved white paper that had been released by the administration on the eve of the congressional vote to go to war. What was significant about the NIE declassified after the war were the striking dissents from within the U.S. intelligence community that had been concealed from the public before the war. Those dissents (unmentioned in Party of Defeat) showed that the Department of Energy (whose nuclear scientists were the country's foremost experts on the subject) had disputed the most critical part of the administration's case relating to Iraq's nuclear program-the conclusion that aluminum tubes being acquired by the Iraqis could only be used for nuclear centrifuges to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb. (The tubes, as the DOE scientists rightly suspected, were actually being used for conventional rockets.) The Air Force's intelligence office (whose analysts were once again the chief experts on the subject) had dissented from the conclusion that Iraq's UAVs were being designed to deliver chemical and biological weapons. The State Department's intelligence office, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) had dissented from the whole idea that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear program. (Vice President Cheney had said before the war that the U.S. knew that Iraq was enriching uranium for a nuclear bomb with "absolute certainty.") INR labeled another part of the nuclear case-the assertion that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Africa - "highly dubious."
It is, of course, absolutely true that the full NIE was available to all members of Congress, including leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry -and virtually none of them took the time to actually read it. There is plenty of blame to go around here. But the dissents within the NIE were only a small part of what turned out to be even more sordid story. Further investigations by the Congress showed that doubts were rampant throughout the U.S. intelligence community about almost every aspect of the administration's case. The claim that Iraq was developing mobile biological weapons labs (a prominent part of Secretary of State Colin Powell's later speech to the Security Council) turned out to rest almost entirely on a shady Iraqi refugee in Germany code-named Curveball. When senior U.S. intelligence officials raised doubts about his credibility, they were brushed aside by their superiors. The assertion that Saddam was training Al Qaeda members in chemical and biological warfare was based on an even shaker single source -an Al Qaeda operative named Ibn al Shaykh Al-Libi, who had been picked up by the U.S. military during the invasion of Afghanistan and "rendered" by the CIA to Egypt for "enhanced" interrogations. After being beaten and tortured, he coughed up his story about Saddam and Al Qaeda. After the war, he recanted the whole thing - and the CIA withdrew all its reporting (having nothing else to support the idea that anything al-Libi said had ever taken place.) The Al-Libi story is a scandal for which administration officials have never been held accountable. We now know that DIA and the CIA analysts had questioned his story from the outset. One August, 2002 CIA report sent to the White House (only disclosed this year) had concluded that al-Libi had likely "fabricated" parts of his account-a red flag that was ignored by White House officials intent on marshaling the most powerful public case they could make against Saddam, no matter how shaky its foundations.
Horowitz and Johnson charge that in the summer of 2003 leading Democrats-fed by "disinformation" from Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson - launched a "reckless" attack on the war in order to gain political advantage. They call this, rather hyperbolically, "the most disgraceful episode in America's history." But some of the sharpest attacks on the war from the outset came from sober minded Republicans who rightly worried invading Iraq could harm U.S. security by distracting the country from the more pressing threat of Al Qaeda. It was Brent Scowcroft, President George H.W. Bush's national security advisor, who wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in August, 2002 under the headline "Don't Attack Saddam." And it was Dick Armey, the conservative House Republican Majority Leader, who that month expressed disbelief at the United States would go to war without a legitimate casus belli. "We Americans don't make unprovoked attacks," he said.
It is true that leading Democrats (many of whom had backed the war in the fall of 2002) pivoted and started criticizing the administration on Iraq in the summer of 2003. But this probably had less to do with scoring cheap political points than the cold hard facts on the ground. After three months of occupying the country by the U.S. military, not a whiff of WMD could be found. AS Carl Ford, the sage State Department intelligence chief (who Dick Cheney had once tried to recruit for his vice presidential staff) later put it, "the whole underpinning and logic of the war was unraveling." That, coupled with the disclosure of pre-war dissents from inside the intelligence community and the emergence of a deadly Sunni insurgency that nobody in the administration had predicted or planned for, rightly raised the question as to whether the country had been conned.
There is much else that is wrong or distorted in the Party of Defeat. The authors bizarrely claim that the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee "subsequently confirmed" the President's State of the Union assertion about Iraq seeking uranium from Africa. Actually, the committee's last word on the subject (on p. 25 of its September 12, 2006 report) was to endorse the Iraq Survey Group's unequivocal conclusion: there is "no evidence that Iraq sought uranium from foreign sources after 1991." They claim that Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's convicted chief of staff, never leaked the identity of Joe Wilson's wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame. Actually, he did - to Judith Miller of the New York Times over breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel on July 8, 2003. They rightly chastise President Clinton for failing to respond aggressively enough to intelligence warnings that "sooner or later, Bin Laden will attack U.S. interests, perhaps using WMD." Then they whitewash the Bush White House's own inattention to the subject in its first nine months in office even after the president received the Aug. 6, 2001 Daily Intelligence Brief entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
But why muck up a partisan story line with such inconvenient facts? Far easier to oversimplify.
Isikoff is an investigative correspondent for Newsweek and the co-author (with David Corn) of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Getting One’s Head Straight
By David Horowitz and Ben Johnson
We want to begin by thanking Michael Isikoff for having the courtesy to respond to a conservative argument. We live in a cultural moment, where this has become unusual. Liberals so dominate the organs of the culture –the news magazines such as Time and Isikoff’s own journal Newsweek, the news pages of virtually every major metropolitan newspaper, the op-ed pages of virtually every paper save the Wall Street Journal, the major journals of opinion both online and in print – that they are rarely moved to notice, let alone confront a serious argument when it is offered by conservatives like ourselves. Although our book, Party of Defeat levels the most serious charges against the Democratic Party leadership over its conduct in the war on terror and although it has been endorsed by 18 members of Congress, including the ranking members of the Intelligence, Homeland Security, Counter-terrorism and International Affairs committees, and although the book has been out for months, not a single review of has appeared in the liberal media, and we are fairly confident that none will. Moreover, even though FrontPage has offered its own pages to the editors of Slate, The American Prospect, The New Republic, and other liberal journals, Michael Isikoff is the only liberal commentator on foreign policy who has responded. So, it is appropriate to begin our reply to his critique by commending him for being willing to write one.
Unfortunately he has chosen to begin his argument with a series of misrepresentations. Our book is not “a full-throttled defense of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy” as Isikoff claims. It contains in fact harsh criticisms of Bush and praise for critics such as generals Shinseki and Scowcroft. Nor is it a series of “partisan talking points that masquerade as history,” as Isikoff suggests. Our book does not pretend to be a history of the Iraq war or the war on terror. It is specifically and explicitly a focused critique of the critics of the president’s war policy – including Michael Isikoff.
Here is how we describe our agendas in the introduction to Party of Defeat: “This book is about unprecedented attacks on an American president and a war in progress. It is about the impact of a divided national leadership on the prosecution of the war. It is an attempt to understand the defection of leaders from a war they supported and from a national purpose they presumably share. It is also an effort to understand the influence on the Democratic Party of a radical Left, which has defected from that purpose and no longer regards itself as part of the nation.”
Isikoff begins his response with two other charges that require comment. We do not “slime” critics of the war nor do we fail to make distinctions. We did refer to Isikoff as “left-leaning journalist.” However, Isikoff’s observation that the Clintons smeared him as a member of the “vast right wing conspiracy” because he did a superlative reporting job on their antics says more about the Clintons than it says about him. His book Hubris, which can fairly described as a 400-page partisan attack on the Bush administration’s foreign policy bolstering the main talking points of Democratic critics. Of all the investigative reporters available, Isikoff chose to co-author his book with David Corn, the Washington Bureau chief of The Nation, as much a movement organ of the political Left as Human Events of the political Right. If Isikoff were a writer for the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal instead of Newsweek and had co-authored a stock defense of Bush’s war policy with National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, would he think it odd if, say, Frank Rich described him as a “right-leaning journalist?”
In our book, we accuse critics of the war of conflating the political selling of the war with the rationale for the war. The rationale for the war – the reasons why the administration actually decided to go to war – was laid out in several statements and documents, none of which is analyzed in Isikoff’s book. The first of these was the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq, passed by both houses of Congress in October 2002. Twelve of the bill’s 23 justifications for the use of force relate to the 16 violated UN resolutions designed to enforce the Gulf War truce – a fact Isikoff neither mentions nor confronts in his book and which he dismisses in his critique of ours. Were the Democrats duped into incorporating this language into the bill and making these their chief justifications for action?
The rationale for the war was further laid out in the joint U.S. and British statement of December 19, 2002, that Iraq was in material breach of the UN Security Council ultimatum (Resolution 1441) whose deadline was December 7. It was again defined in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, which declared that the U.S. would not allow Iraq to become an “imminent threat.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair eloquently defended the decision to parliament on the eve of the war, rehearsing the evidence that Saddam Hussein could no longer be trusted to comply with international law and the Gulf War truce, and concluding that allowing him to remain in power posed an unacceptable threat.
It was Saddam’s defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 whose deadline was December 7, 2002, that provided the legal basis for the war, a fact that Isikoff fails to mention. The main criticism we level against Isikoff’s book is that in 458 closely argued pages indicting the Bush administration for launching a needless and unjustified war, he refers to this resolution in a cursory two paragraphs which fail to mention or confront its significance. Isikoff’s failure to defend this omission in his response to our book or to deal with our argument we take as a vindication of our thesis. Isikoff and and all the other critics of the war fail to make a distinction between the selling of the war and the rationale for the war, and thus fail to make their case. Not one of them, for example, provides a realistic alternative to the war decision, short of capitulation to Saddam and acquiescence in his plan to become a nuclear power.
Instead Isikoff’s book focuses on the Administration’s efforts to sell the war to the public, most notoriously in Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN on February 5, 2003, five weeks before the invasion began and almost certainly after the decision to use force was made. Powell’s speech was an ill-conceived attempt to get Saddam’s allies – Russia, China and France – to enforce Resolution 1441 and defend international law. It was more importantly an attempt to persuade the left-wing Laborites in Britain, who were violently opposed to Blair’s support for the war, to relent. Saddam’s violation of the Gulf War true and defiance of a 17th UN Security Council Resolution, a war ultimatum, had not been enough to convince the British Labor Party or the French of the need to use force.
Powell’s emphasis on WMDs and invocation of the aluminum tubes was unfortunate but was part of a political effort to sell the war to the public. It was not a strategic defense of the decision to go to war. Isikoff regards as “brazen cynicism” on our part the suggestion that moving masses politically requires simplification and the use of symbols such as WMDs. But are there any political arguments that are conducted differently? In a nuanced manner? War critics often hail George H.W. Bush’s actions before the first Gulf War as a model for interventions. Bush-41 secured a UN resolution for military action, but he also sold the war by recounting Saddam’s atrocities – even referring to Hussein as “Hitler revisited,” hardly a nuanced claim.
The real question for critics like Michael Isikoff, who oppose the war, is this: Do they believe that if the United States withdrew its 150,000 troops from the Iraqi border in 2003 Saddam Hussein would not have proceeded to develop WMDs and use them? The Duelfer Report concluded that Saddam would have developed them as soon as sanctions were lifted. Does Isikoff believe the United States could have kept 150,000 troops on the Iraqi border indefinitely in order to use them when Saddam developed nuclear weapons? Does he think that invading a power that possessed nuclear weapons would be more prudent than invading a power that was planning to get them? Is this the case he wants to make? He should make it then, instead of throwing up red herrings like aluminum tubes and Niger uranium deals – which is precisely what we argued in our book.
The subject of which, to reiterate, was the opposition to the war by the leaders of the Democratic Party. When Isikoff discusses the intelligence debate that preceded the war he conveniently elides this issue and makes the irrelevant and inflammatory case that the public was not given access to the internal administration conflicts over the intelligence that underpinned the decision to go to war. The public was not told that there was opposition inside the intelligence and military communities to the views the administration finally adopted. Of course they weren’t. What nation in all history has operated its intelligence as an open book? When has any commander laid all his intelligence to any enemy who happens to be monitoring his national press? What can Isikoff be thinking?
The real issue is what the Democrats knew about the intelligence debate, not the public. The Democrats voted to use force, endorsed the war, and then within three months – three months! – turned against it and attacked it calling their own country an aggressor nation, their president a liar who sent American youth to die for no reason, and U.S. troops bloody occupiers and war criminals. In defense of this betrayal, the Democrats claim that Bush manipulated the intelligence and deceived them. But this is demonstrably false. It is itself the biggest lie of the war. As the major opposition party in a democratic nation, the Democrats had full access to the intelligence debate and participated in it. Isikoff’s confusion of “the public” with the Democratic leadership has the effect of amplifying the confusion that sustains the Democrats’ claim that they were duped.
But unlike the public, the Democrats had access to all the intelligence information the government had. The Senate Intelligence Committee oversees the CIA and America’s other intelligence agencies. In other words the Democrats knew, or if they didn’t know all they had to do was ask CIA chief George Tenet – a Clinton appointee -- and he would have been required by law to tell them.
As we note in our book, the “striking dissents” the Democrats cited for their abrupt about-face were frauds: Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, and Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski. The Senate Intelligence Committee ruled that Wilson provided “misleading” information to the press about his trip to Niger and that his report “lent more credibility” to the notion that Iraq had sought African yellowcake. Similarly, the Butler Report (never rescinded) deemed the assertion that was the basis for Bush’s 16 words “well-founded.” Ted Kennedy reference Kwiatkowski’s testimony that analysts were pressured by a Zionist cabal, but the Senate Intelligence Committee found she “had no direct knowledge to support any claims that intelligence analysts were pressured, and much of what she said is contradicted by information from other interviews.” If the president’s effort to enforce 17 UN Security Council resolutions and remove a murderous tyrant from office – a goal Al Gore endorsed in 1992 and Bill Clinton seconded in 1998 – certainly the Democrats’ vicious attack on the commander-in-chief’s integrity (allegations that would have been illegal during previous wars) rest on equally flawed intelligence.
In short, their opposition to the war was political, unprincipled, and unconscionable. With a war in progress, and American soldiers in harm’s way, they launched a psychological warfare campaign against their own commander-in-chief whose aim was to discredit their own country as an aggressor nation, violating international law. This is what we described as “the most disgraceful episode in American history” and this is the substance of the charge we made in our book. Michael Isikoff’s critique doesn’t begin to address it.
Instead Isikoff returns to the side issues that serve only distract attention from the question at hand – and in particular the famous aluminum tubes which were presented as evidence by Powell that Iraq was more advanced than it actually was in developing its nuclear program. But Bush had made very clear that his policy was not to take down a regime that already had nuclear weapons. It was to prevent Saddam from getting to the point where he would have them. This is inarguably what Bush meant when he said in his State of the Union address in January 2003 that he would not allow Iraq to become an “imminent threat.” Isikoff simply dismisses this substantive policy position as rhetoric. But it was not rhetoric. It was a substantive policy – the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war. If Saddam was not going to abide by international law and the UN arms control agreements he had signed, which were designed to prevent him from developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the United States was determined to remove him by force. That was the message and that was the policy, first enunciated by President Clinton, then endorsed by his entire national security team, and finally passed by a majority of Democrats in the United States Senate.
Isikoff’s counter-claim that Bush already regarded Iraq as an “imminent threat” is refuted by Bush’s eleventh hour ultimatum to Saddam to leave Iraq and thereby avoid war. If Bush was concocting evidence to justify an invasion of Iraq, why would he give Saddam this loophole? If his concern was stockpiles of WMDs, the question is the same. The answer is that Bush thought that any Iraqi dictator besides Saddam was likely to yield to the pressure the United States and its allies were exerting and comply with the UN resolutions and international law without an armed intervention. In the 458 pages of his book, Michael Isikoff does not address this issue – which is crucial to evaluating the decision to go to war – nor has a single Bush critic known to us. Turning reality on its head is blaming Bush, rather than Saddam Hussein, for the war that ensued.
Isikoff’s indictment of the U.S. government for its treatment of al-Libi, and the pivotal role the misinformation he supposed volunteered to end his torture, is dubious. The Senate Intelligence Committee notes, “The foreign government service denies using any pressure during al-Libi’s interrogation…while CIA believes al-Libi fabricated information, the CIA cannot determine whether, or what portions of, the original statements or the later recants are true or false.” George Tenet is more specific: al-Libi “clearly lied. We just don't know when. Did he lie when he first said that al-Qa’ida members received training in Iraq or did he lie when he said they did not?” Did he offer up false information to end his torture (torture the foreign service denies occurred), or did he crack under pressure and later recant the truth he had spoken? Tenet concludes, “In my mind, either case might still be true…since we don’t know, we can assume nothing.” There is also the question of al-Libi’s motive in lying, whichever portion of his testimony he invented. One intelligence operative has asserted al-Libi fabricated ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, not to pacify his torturers, but to provoke the United States into toppling Saddam, whom he considered an enemy. In that case, al-Libi is not the victim of Isikoff’s scenario but a liar and jihadist provocateur.
Nor are Isikoff’s other indictments of our book made on any firmer basis. We hardly “whitewash the Bush White House's own inattention” to terrorism. Shortly after taking office, Bush ordered a comprehensive anti-terrorism plan, which arrived on his desk September 10, 2001. As Isikoff knows, the “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” memo was elliptical, vague, and added no new information of an imminent nature. Moreover, Isikoff fails to mention how a comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy (which had been in the works for eight months) could have been produced in the one month that elapsed between this memo and the 9/11 attacks.
Isikoff takes us to task over the leak of Valerie Plame’s name to Robert Novak. Scooter Libby was not the source of this leak; rather antiwar Realist Richard Armitage was. He then told no one and let the president’s enemies in the Democratic Party and the media call him a liar for several years. Still, Isikoff’s co-author, David Corn, has tortured logic to somehow link Armitage’s inadvertent leak to the White House.
Far from ignoring Brent Scowcroft’s argument, as Isikoff suggests we refer to him on pages 158-9. His objections were discussed in detail in David Horowitz’s previous book, Unholy Alliance. In fact, we cite General Scowcroft as one of the few “isolated but conspicuous models of responsible dissent” on page 158 of Party of Defeat, because after the war began he did not call the president a liar or brand our soldiers as war criminals – or even falsely accuse them of flushing a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay. This is an exceedingly low threshold to cross but one many leftists fail to meet.
In sum, we made a case in our book that Isikoff and other critics of the war have conducted a straw man argument – inventing their own reasons why America went to war in Iraq in order to refute them. But why muck up a partisan story line with inconvenient facts? Far easier to ignore the facts and make your case without them.
[Join us in our next issue for the second round of this exchange -- The Editors.]