[This is the second part of the exchange between Michael Isikoff and David Horowitz and Ben Johnson about the book Party of Defeat. To see Part I, click here. To see Part III, click here.]
An Irrelevant Ideological Lens
By Michael Isikoff
The chief problem with the critique of Horowitz and Johnson is they persist in seeing the world through a stale and utterly irrelevant ideological lens. There is nothing “liberal” or “conservative” about the issues here. (And for the record, I don’t put myself in either camp.) Whatever the merits of using military force to overthrow Saddam-- and there were certainly legitimate arguments to make at the time-- there is no serious dispute that the Bush administration badly misled the public about the state of intelligence about the threat posed by the Iraqi regime. It proclaimed it had “bulletproof evidence” (in Donald Rumsfeld’s words) of connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda when it had nothing of the kind. It asserted it knew with “absolute certainty” (as Vice President Cheney put it) that Saddam was acquiring equipment for a nuclear weapons programs—when the government’s chief nuclear scientists disputed the claim. These were not “side” shows. They were central to persuading the Congress and the public to back the invasion-- and an abuse of trust that undermined American credibility around the world. I’m glad that 18 Republican members of Congress endorsed Party of Defeat, a partisan attack on Democrats. But the reason that no mainstream publications have reviewed their book probably has little to do with political bias. It’s because, without offering any new information, Horowitz and Johnson try to relitigate issues about which, for most Americans, the verdict of history is already in.
In their lengthy rebuttal, Horowitz and Johnson repeat the argument in their book that the real reason Bush decided to wage war was Saddam’s “defiance” of Resolution 1441. But Resolution 1441 (demanding that Saddam fully account for his pre-Gulf War WMD and permit the return of weapons inspectors for verification) wasn’t passed until November 8, 2002. That’s nearly one year after Bush ordered General Tommy Franks to draw up invasion plans, nine months after he ordered the CIA to begin covert warfare and sabotage aimed at paving the way for an invasion (Project Anabasis) and two months after he asked Congress to pass a resolution authorizing him to use military force to overthrow Saddam. There’s a reason few thought at the time the White House was terribly interested in the findings of weapons inspectors or the fine print of Security Council resolutions: they said so! “A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam’s] compliance with U.N. resolutions,” Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 26, 2002. (Instead, he added, it would only provide “false comfort.”) When told, on May 1, 2002, that a reporter was questioning the grounds for the president’s “war talk” at a White House press briefing, Bush blurted out to two aides: “Did you tell her I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast!” Is there anybody at this point who seriously questions that the president and his top aides were determined to invade Iraq and weren’t waiting for the outcome of United Nations Security Council resolutions?
Two other points: Horowitz and Johnson seek to defend the disgraceful Ibn Shaykh Al-Libi episode by noting that the Egyptian security service denied having tortured him. And they believe this? The Egyptians routinely deny to U.S. officials they engage in torture. And year after the year, the U.S. State Department rejects those denials and harshly condemns the Egyptian security services for their horrific human rights abuses. (This year’s report cites “numerous, credible reports” of torture that include “stripping and blindfolding victims; suspending victims by the wrists and ankles in contorted positions or from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beating victims with fists, whips, metal rods, or other objects; using electric shocks; dousing victims with cold water; and sexual abuse, including sodomy.”) Amazingly, Horowtiz and Johnson cite an unnamed intelligence operative who speculates that the reason that al-Libi fabricated his story about Saddam training Al Qaeda operatives in WMD was not to stop the torture he was being subjected to but because he considered the Iraqi leader an “enemy” and he wanted to provoke the U.S. into getting rid of him. Who knows if that were actually al-Libi’s motivation? (He has conveniently disappeared.) But of course al Qaeda considered Saddam an enemy. Most professional intelligence analysts knew that all along- and that the sketchy reports of sporadic “contacts” between Iraqi officials and Al Qaeda leaders never amounted to anything approaching “collaboration.” That’s why the steady drumbeat of pre-war administration claims that Saddam and Osama were somehow in bed together, was, not to put too fine a point on it, a fraud from the start.
Finally, Horowitz and Johnson—having been caught in their mistake about Scooter Libby not having leaked Valerie Plame’s CIA identity—subtly reshift their argument to instruct me that Richard Armitage was actually the “source” of the leak. Thanks for the info, guys. The news that it was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage who first leaked Joe Wilson’s wife’s identity to Bob Woodward and columnist Robert Novak was revealed to the world in Hubis, the book I co-wrote with David Corn. Horowitz and Johnson criticize what they call Corn’s ‘”tortured” logic (a Freudian slip that?) regarding the White House connection. I don’t know what tortured logic they’re talking about. But as we painstakingly laid out in the book, Armitage’s role does not change the fact that Libby and Karl Rove (completely independently) leaked the same information for their own political reasons—to discredit Wilson for his criticism of the White House’s use of the phony Niger yellowcake story. Far from being tortured, it’s the same logic that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald used to show that Libby had a genuine motivation to lie about what he knew about Wilson’s wife, resulting in his indictment and conviction for multiple felonies. I assume it was my collaboration with Corn, at the time the Washington editor for the Nation, that led Horowitz and Johnson to conclude (wrongly) that I’m a “left-leaning journalist.” David certainly qualifies. But the operative word there is “journalist.” The discovery that Armitage, an Iraq war skeptic, was the original leaker didn’t mesh well with the original liberal narrative that the entire CIA leak affair was one giant White House plot. Life, alas, is messier than partisans would like it. But once we discovered Armitage’s role, neither Corn nor I hesitated for a second about reporting it to the hilt and revealing it to the world in the book we wrote. It’s called journalism—very different from the polemic that is Party of Defeat.
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.
This Debate is Not Over
By David Horowitz and Ben Johnson
The chief problem with Michael Isikoff’s latest comment is its attempt to pigeon-hole us as individuals who – unlike himself – see these issues through ideological lenses and therefore don’t really see them at all. In fact we do. There is nothing ideological in the case we have presented that Democrats turned their backs on a war they had authorized, and did so for political reasons that had nothing to do with the war itself (or with official intelligence about the war).We further argued that critics of the war such as Michael Isikoff have focused on side issues – the yellowcake uranium in Niger caper and the erroneous claims about the uses of aluminum tubes – which were irrelevant to the actual decision to go to war.
The war was not about an imminent threat posed by existing WMDs or by existing WMD programs, which renders the Niger and aluminum tubes issues irrelevant. Nor did we argue “the real reason Bush decided to wage war was Saddam’s ‘defiance’ of Resolution 1441.” The full Iraqi threat lay in:
1) Saddam’s 30 year history of aggression, and decade-long collusion with terrorists hostile to the United States;
2) Saddam’s defiance of 17 UN Security Council arms control resolutions, including the ultimatum that expired on December 7, 2002;
3) Saddam’s systematic violations of the Gulf War truce, which alone justified the resumption of war;
4) Saddam’s clear and proven intentions to proceed with WMD programs once the inspectors were neutralized or gone and sanctions were lifted, as verified by The Duefler Report; and
5) The fact that 150,000 American troops had to be placed on his border to get the UN inspectors into Iraq, and the troops could not be kept there indefinitely.
Like other critics of the war, Isikoff does not confront any of these issues, but instead focuses on peripheral matters such as those already mentioned.
A central focus of our critique of the Democratic leadership is its claim that the Bush Administration duped them into authorizing the war by manipulating the intelligence on which they based their votes. This is a lie and has been disproved by every investigation into the matter to date. Through the Senate and House Intelligence committees and the National Intelligence Estimate, the Democratic leadership had full access to all the intelligence on which the authorization for the use of force was based. They endorsed the war, again with full access to the intelligence on Iraq which the Bush Administration possessed. Their subsequent campaign against the President and the war effort – which focused on the claim that Bush misled them – was unfounded, cynical, unscrupulous, unprecedented, and malicious, and has done irreparable damage to American security and to its troops in harm’s way. Those are facts. Isikoff may dispute them, but at this point in our discussion he hasn’t. We consider that eloquent in itself.
In his critique of our book, Isikoff dodged the issue by arguing that the American “public” was misled by Administration comments about yellowcake uranium and aluminum tubes. This is quite a different argument from claiming that Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee such as John Kerry and Diane Feinstein were misled by such claims, since they had full access to the intelligence sources that President Bush had. We pointed this out in our response to Isikoff but instead of addressing this issue and clarifying his position, he has chosen to repeat his earlier statements – that is to re-conflate and thereby confuse the two separate issues (the alleged misleading of the Democratic leadership and the alleged misleading of the American public): “Whatever the merits of using military force to overthrow Saddam – and there were certainly legitimate arguments to make at the time – there is no serious dispute that the Bush administration badly misled the public about the state of intelligence about the threat posed by the Iraqi regime.” (Emphasis added.)
To establish his case Isikoff makes these arguments: “[The Administration] proclaimed it had ‘bulletproof evidence’ (in Donald Rumsfeld’s words) of connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda when it had nothing of the kind. It asserted it knew with ‘absolute certainty’ (as Vice President Cheney put it) that Saddam was acquiring equipment for a nuclear weapons programs — when the government’s chief nuclear scientists disputed the claim. These were not ‘side’ shows. They were central to persuading the Congress and the public to back the invasion – and an abuse of trust that undermined American credibility around the world.”
The first of these claims is demonstrably false. As we noted in our book and in our previous response, the congressional authorization for the use of force in Iraq, passed by a majority of the Democrats in the Senate contains twenty-three clauses providing the rationale for extreme measures. The clauses specify Iraq’s violation of the cease fire agreement it signed to end the Gulf War, its expulsion of UN weapons inspectors tasked with enforcing the arms control agreements agreed to in the truce, and intelligence about Iraq’s programs to build weapons of mass destruction. The authorization does not mention “connections between al-Qaeda and Iraq,” a statement which implies a formal alliance. The authorization states once that al-Qaeda operatives “are known to be in Iraq” – a much more limited claim and one that is true. Ansar al-Islam was operating in northern Iraq; Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was present in Baghdad, although George Tenet only learned after the NIE was compiled that he had not been there as a guest. All the same, the claim that al-Qaeda was present in Iraq is but one of twenty-three rationales given for the need for force and thus a very minor point in the rationale for the war Democrats signed onto, and one presented to Congress in accordance with the facts as they were known by non-partisan intelligence agents around the world.
Isikoff’s second claim is also false. Aluminum tubes, which are a major focus of his book Hubris, are not mentioned in the congressional authorization and, as we pointed out in our previous reply, the disputes within the intelligence community over equipment for making nuclear weapons were known to (or easily accessed by) Democratic Senators who voted for the war. In fact, Colin Powell noted in his presentation to the United Nations, “we all know that there are differences of opinion. There is controversy about what these tubes are for.” At a minimum, while the public may have been misled by allusions to these tubes, the Democratic leadership was not – at least, no more so than the President. To indulge Isikoff and Corn’s all-important theme, it is true that “nuclear experts” at the Department of Energy argued the tubes were for a conventional weapons program; however, most CIA analysts disagreed, noting the specifications of the tubes were higher than their conventional counterparts and could be used to enrich uranium. A DOE representative spoke to the CIA and, according to those present, failed to make a compelling case. Furthermore, international intelligence weighed in on behalf of the nuclear decision. Even antiwar activist Col. Lawrence Wilkerson confirms that French intelligence insisted they had conducted scientific tests and had “proof positive that the aluminum tubes were not for mortar casings or artillery casings, they were for centrifuges.”
It is true others offered a more innocent explanation. According to George Tenet, the Iraqi agent who tried to procure them claimed “they were to be used in Lebanon to make race car components.” As Tenet points out in his autobiography, “Whatever their intended use, under UN sanctions, Saddam was prohibited from acquiring the tubes for any purpose.” (Emphasis added.) Colin Powell agreed, “Iraq had no business buying them for any purpose. They are banned for Iraq.” This in itself demonstrates what a sideshow Isikoff and Corn’s argument is and certifies Saddam Hussein was violating UN sanctions and seeking to acquire components of a WMD program, whether conventional or nuclear.
If Michael Isikoff and other critics want to make a serious case against the rationale for the war – as opposed to a propagandistic one – they need to show why the twenty-three reasons provided in the congressional resolution justifying the use of force are faulty, insufficient, or misleading. If they want to make a case that Bush manipulated the Democrats in Congress into supporting the war, they need to show that the rationales provided in the authorization are based on deceptive information supplied by the Administration. The fact that they have not done so is because no such case can be made.
The one substantive argument Isikoff makes in an attempt to rebut our argument is that the invasion plans for Iraq were drawn up a year before the deadline expired for the UN Security Council ultimatum (Resolution 1441). It is true that invasion plans were drawn up a year in advance. Elaborate war plans were in place during the entire Cold War, but the United States never launched a missile or fired a shot against the Soviet Union. Producing scenarios for potential military flashpoints is what responsible war commanders do.
If you want peace, prepare for war – especially in dealing with international thugs such as Saddam Hussein. The military buildup was intended to force Saddam to re-admit the UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq, which it did. What Isikoff and every other critic of the war seem to forget is that the war that ensued would have been avoided if Saddam had complied with the agreements he had had signed. Moreover, as we pointed out in our book and in our rebuttal, even after the decision to invade was made, and two days before it took place, Bush offered Saddam and his heirs the option of leaving the country. If they had done so, there would have been no war. The idea that Bush decided a year in advance of the war, that he was going to invade Iraq no matter what Saddam did is preposterous and is refuted by every move he made in the lead up to the war – including getting congressional authorization and a unanimous UN Security Council Resolution, two things that Bill Clinton failed to do in launching his war against the Serbs in Bosnia.
Isikoff’s argument falls apart when he dismisses the congressional authorization and the UN Security council resolutions, and instead cites a statement by Cheney that Saddam couldn’t be trusted and an off-the-cuff aside Bush made to an un-named reporter that he was going to “kick” Saddam’s “mother-fucking ass all over the Middle East” as proof that the entire Bush Administration was determined to go to war regardless of any facts. Cheney's VFW speech made the common sense point that the mere physical presence of the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq would no more assure Saddam's compliance with 16 UN Security Council resolutions than it did before their ejection during the Clinton administration. The UN inspectors were not there to search for weapons but to ensure his compliance – and they could not. Isikoff and Corn’s other proof is a series of expletives – the sort Bush’s predecessor launched into about everyone on Capitol Hill. His is a conclusion in search of evidence.
“Is there anybody at this point who seriously questions that the president and his top aides were determined to invade Iraq and weren’t waiting for the outcome of United Nations Security Council resolutions?” Well, Joe Lieberman and Tony Blair are two such people. Blair, a British socialist, sacrificed his political career to stand with Bush and against his own party because he believed the invasion of Iraq was absolutely essential to enforce international law and protect the peace. Isikoff should read Blair’s lengthy statement to Parliament on the eve of the war, explaining why it was necessary, and then he should respond to those arguments rather than dredging up backroom remarks Bush is alleged to have made and dismissing critics he can’t answer as “ideologues.”
We were not “caught” in a mistake about Libby: our book’s focus was on the leak to Robert Novak – the leak that sparked the appointment of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald -- in which Libby had no role. Of course, Fitzgerald knew this all along. The Washington Post has acknowledged, “Cheney was the target,” and Fitzgerald settled for Libby out of “pique at his inability” to get his boss. The instant Isikoff's partner learned of Armitage's role in the leak case, he – wait for it – tied it to George W. Bush, weakly pleading Armitage’s slip “was, in a way, linked to the White House effort.” This is not called journalism – it's calling partisan shilling, and it's what Isikoff and his partner have engaged in under cover of journalism. Yet he asserts we operate from an ideological lens. Talk about Hubris.
As we noted in our rebuttal, 18 members of congress including Peter Hoekstra, the ranking member of the House intelligence committee and Jon Kyl the ranking member of the Senate committees on terrorism and homeland security, have endorsed our book, but no liberal media outlet has reviewed it. Isikoff thinks that this has little to do with political bias. According to him “it’s because, without offering any new information, Horowitz and Johnson try to re-litigate issues about which, for most Americans the verdict of history is already in.”
Oh. Most Americans re-elected Bush in 2004. Was that the verdict of history on the war? If most Americans elect John McCain in 2008, will that be? This is just grandstanding. What significant supporters of the war agree with Michael Isikoff? Despite Isikoff’s wish to sweep it under the historical rug, this debate is far from over.