William Rivers Pitt - Before These Crowded Streets
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Unanswered Questions : Thinking for ourselves.
Before These Crowded Streets
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Tuesday 23 March 2004
I went to New York City this weekend to cover the protests marking the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. It was a good showing as far as these things go; having covered the massive demonstrations last year, I was impressed by the number of people who turned out. The protest wended its way down many blocks of Madison Avenue, and then down the Avenue of the Americas, pretty much cutting that portion of the city in two. The protesters themselves were well-behaved - vocal, colorful, angry, but well-behaved - and the police stayed out of the way.
Later that afternoon, I jumped into a cab and headed down to the financial district to do something I hadn't done yet. A few minutes later, I found myself at the corner of Church St. and Vesey St. standing between two graveyards. The one on the left was small fenced in by a black wrought-iron fence, and very old. It reminded me of the Revolutionary War-era Granary on Tremont St. in Boston, where Paul Revere and Samuel Adams rest. The graveyard on the right was much newer, massive, fenced in by a towering gray barrier. There were no old headstones, no grass for the wind to ruffle.
This was Ground Zero, and it still smelled like burning.
It occurred to me, as I tried to take in the enormity, that I could be standing on a spot where someone died instantly after jumping from a window that used to stand high above in those lost towers. The street was crowded with ghosts, and I couldn't stay long for the chill they left in their wake. As I dove into another cab, I remembered that George W. Bush wants to give his acceptance speech at the GOP nomination from that sacred, scarred place. You have to stand at Ground Zero to appreciate the staggering arrogance of anyone who would consider, for a nanosecond, using the place for political theater.
The chill of that place was fresh in my bones on Sunday night when I turned on '60 Minutes' to see Richard Clarke, former Director of Counter-Terrorism for the National Security Council and veteran of every administration since Ronald Reagan, denounce George W. Bush and his whole crew for their failure to deal with terrorism before and after September 11, and for attacking Iraq when no threat to our country was present there.
"Frankly," said Clarke, "I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We'll never know. I think he's done a terrible job on the war against terrorism."
On September 11, fears that an attack on the White House were imminent caused that building to be evacuated. Richard Clarke was one of the few to stay behind, to stand inside that juicy target while rogue planes were still in the air, so he could keep working from the Situation Room. "I kept thinking of the words from 'Apocalypse Now,' the whispered words of Marlon Brando," said Clarke, "when he thought about Vietnam. 'The horror. The horror.' Because we knew what was going on in New York. We knew about the bodies flying out of the windows. People falling through the air. We knew that Osama bin Laden had succeeded in bringing horror to the streets of America."
Clarke's horror was compounded by the fact that he and others had been clarioning warnings about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda within the Bush White House for months and months. "On January 24th, 2001," said Clarke, "I wrote a memo to Condoleezza Rice asking for, urgently -- underlined urgently -- a Cabinet-level meeting to deal with the impending al Qaeda attack. And that urgent memo wasn't acted on. I blame the entire Bush leadership for continuing to work on Cold War issues when they came back in power in 2001. It was as though they were preserved in amber from when they left office eight years earlier. They came back. They wanted to work on the same issues right away: Iraq, Star Wars. Not new issues, the new threats that had developed over the preceding eight years."
"George Tenet was saying to the White House, saying to the president - because he briefed him every morning - a major al Qaeda attack is going to happen against the United States somewhere in the world in the weeks and months ahead," continued Clarke. "He said that in June, July, August." For the record, Bush's response to these warnings was to go to Texas for a month-long vacation. No actions of any significance were taken to address the al Qaeda threat until after the towers came down.
In pressing for action against the looming al Qaeda threat, Clarke finally got a meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "I began saying, 'We have to deal with bin Laden; we have to deal with al Qaeda.' Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, said, 'No, no, no. We don't have to deal with al Qaeda. Why are we talking about that little guy? We have to talk about Iraqi terrorism against the United States.' And I said, 'Paul, there hasn't been any Iraqi terrorism against the United States in eight years!' And I turned to the deputy director of the CIA and said, 'Isn't that right?' And he said, 'Yeah, that's right. There is no Iraqi terrorism against the United States."
The focus remained on Iraq even after the attacks. In the days after September 11, Clarke along with the heads of the American intelligence community attempted to direct the Bush administration towards the true threat. "Rumsfeld was saying that we needed to bomb Iraq," said Clarke. "And we all said no, no. Al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan. We need to bomb Afghanistan. And Rumsfeld said there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq. I said, 'Well, there are lots of good targets in lots of places, but Iraq had nothing to do with it.' Initially, I thought when he said, 'There aren't enough targets in Afghanistan,' I thought he was joking."
"I think they wanted to believe that there was a connection," continued Clarke, "but the CIA was sitting there, the FBI was sitting there, I was sitting there saying we've looked at this issue for years. For years we've looked and there's just no connection."
The pressure to attack Iraq, to come up with some sort of justification for an invasion, was not only coming from Don Rumsfeld. "The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this,'" said Clarke. "Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this. I said, 'Mr. President. We've done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There's no connection.' He came back at me and said, "Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection.' And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer."
"We wrote a report. It was a serious look," continued Clarke. "We got together all the FBI experts, all the CIA experts. We wrote the report. We sent the report out to CIA and found FBI and said, 'Will you sign this report?' They all cleared the report. And we sent it up to the president and it got bounced by the National Security Advisor or Deputy. It got bounced and sent back saying, 'Wrong answer. Do it again.' I have no idea, to this day, if the president saw it, because after we did it again, it came to the same conclusion. And frankly, I don't think the people around the president show him memos like that. I don't think he sees memos that he doesn't-- wouldn't like the answer."
The rest is history. A year after the invasion of Iraq, there have been no weapons of mass destruction nor infrastructure to create them found in that country. No evidence of an operational relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda has been put forth. 583 American soldiers have died there, thousands more have been wounded and maimed, and over 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. The dying continues to this very day.
The Bush administration continues to defend its actions in Iraq, and continues to claim that the invasion of Iraq was central to the War on Terror. Their defense of their actions has led to some profoundly embarrassing moments for various officials, none more so than the day Don Rumsfeld appeared on the CBS news program 'Face the Nation.' The transcript of the March 14th encounter tells the tale:
BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just ask you this. If they did not have these weapons of mass destruction, though, granted all of that is true, why then did they pose an immediate threat to us, to this country?
RUMSFELD: Well, you're the--you and a few other critics are the only people I've heard use the phrase 'immediate threat.' I didn't. The president didn't. And it's become kind of folklore that that's--that's what's happened. The president went...
SCHIEFFER: You're saying that nobody in the administration said that.
RUMSFELD: I--I can't speak for nobody--everybody in the administration and say nobody said that.
SCHIEFFER: Vice president didn't say that? The... RUMSFELD: Not--if--if you have any citations, I'd like to see 'em.
Mr. FRIEDMAN: We have one here. It says 'some have argued that the nu'--this is you speaking--'that the nuclear threat from Iraq is not imminent, that Saddam is at least five to seven years away from having nuclear weapons. I would not be so certain.'
Mr. FRIEDMAN: It was close to imminent.
RUMSFELD: Well, I've--I've tried to be precise, and I've tried to be accurate. I'm s--suppose I've...
Mr. FRIEDMAN: `No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world and the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.'
RUMSFELD: Mm-hmm. It--my view of--of the situation was that he--he had--we--we believe, the best intelligence that we had and other countries had and that--that we believed and we still do not know--we will know.
In response to Richard Clarke's damning words on '60 Minutes,' Bush administration officials have frantically fanned out to attack him as a disgruntled employee, a stinking Democrat, as someone who spent time near Bill Clinton and is therefore not to be trusted. This will not hold water. Richard Clarke began shaping American policy regarding terrorism under President Reagan, and continued this work under the first President Bush. He was held over by President Clinton to be his 'terrorism czar,' then held over again by the current President Bush.
Sidney Blumenthal, the former Clinton advisor who worked with Clarke, told me via email, "Dick Clarke is a consummate professional, who served Republican and Democratic administrations, and his integrity is impeccable. His account of what happened is rock solid, as he is. The attacks on him have only affirmed the facts as Clarke presents them. Not one fact he presents has been overturned in the desperate effort to discredit him. The attack on Clarke, filled with new deceptions, diversions and lies, reveals ever more clearly the character of the Bush administration--and the fear Bush has that the American people will learn the truth about his record."
Richard Clarke stands now in a line of accusers that includes senior Bush Administration terrorism advisor Rand Beers, who resigned his position in disgust after watching the administration's actions. The line includes career Air Force officer Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, who worked in the Pentagon and witnessed Rumsfeld's Office of Special Plans manipulate data about Iraq to justify an invasion. The line includes Greg Thielmann, a top State Department intelligence officer who likewise resigned in disgust and accused the White House of cooking the data about Iraq.
The line includes former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who witnessed the Bush administration gear up for an Iraq war literally moments after entering the White House in January 2001. The line includes Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who debunked the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons program by investigating the matter in Niger. His reward for telling the truth was the annihilation of his wife's career as a deep-cover CIA operative by vindictive White House officials. The line is getting longer by the day. The White House would have you believe these career diplomats and military officers are all lying Bush-haters.
The corner of Church St. and Vesey St. in New York City is crowded with ghosts today. The beds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are crowded with the wounded bodies of American soldiers who were sent to Iraq. The tarmac at Dover Air Force Base has held the dead bodies of almost 600 American soldiers after their final journey home from Iraq. The soil of Iraq is filled with the blood and bones of over 10,000 innocents. The halls of the White House are crowded with liars, men and women who have the blood of soldiers and civilians alike running in freshets from their fingers.
I've been to the graveyard. I believe Richard Clarke.
William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'
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