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Torture, Lies, and the Little Bush Who Cried Wolf

Torture, Lies, and the Little Bush Who Cried Wolf

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 05 August 2004

While the world watches to see when, where, or even if Osama bin Laden will cast his vote in America's presidential elections, his odds-on-favorite Mr. Bush has already given him a priceless gift - and not just in Iraq. The untold damage Team Bush has done to American intelligence only helps the Saudi terrorist wage his global holy war, gravely endangering your safety and mine.

But do not despair: help is on the way. For several months, some obviously dyspeptic "deep throats" have been waging their own guerrilla counter-attacks, leaking inside information to hungry journalists, who are no longer as shamefully embedded as they once were.

The latest skirmish comes this week. Did you see how quickly unnamed law men and spooks let slip that the administration used computer files dated before 9/11 to jack up Sunday's dramatic Code Orange warning of impending terrorist attacks on East Coast financial targets?

Apparently seized last month in Pakistan along with alleged al-Qaeda computer boffin Muhammad Naeem Nur Khan, the data files reportedly held book-length reports on the vulnerabilities of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, New York Stock Exchange, Citicorp, and Prudential Financial. According to officials, the files also included hundreds of photographs, drawings, diagrams, logs of pedestrian traffic, and notes on the best types of explosives to use against each target. Someone had apparently read at least one of the files within the last six months, but it remains unclear whether anyone had updated any information.

So, yes, the threat might have been thorough, sophisticated, and remarkably detailed, as Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge pointed out. But the information was three or four years old, a stubborn fact that he failed to mention on Sunday, when he solemnly proclaimed his terrorist warning.

Worse for Ridge, many insiders rushed to reveal their own skepticism, which the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major media spread far and wide.

"There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new," said a senior law enforcement official. Others agreed. They had no concrete evidence that terrorists were even watching the targets any longer, let alone preparing to attack them. No evidence at all, leading USA Today to a remarkably jarring headline: "Financial Targets Face No Immediate Threat."

Rebuffed on all sides, Ridge dropped the other shoe. "When you see this kind of detailed planning, you have to take preemptive action to prevent it from occurring," he declared.

Pre-emptive warnings, pre-emptive war - he had chosen the perfect word.

Reporters pressed on. One question was obvious, except to willing fools and those who pretend to believe in the sanctity of our governing institutions.

Did Secretary Ridge go Code Orange to help his president's re-election campaign? Was he trying to drown out the favorable public reaction to John Kerry following the Democratic National Convention, as Howard Dean had impolitely suggested?.

"We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security," Mr. Ridge intoned in a wonderfully self-righteous way. "It's not about politics. It's about confidence in government telling you when they get the information."

Ah, quoth Hamlet, there's the rub. Having so misused intelligence information to take America into a pre-emptive war in Iraq, and now playing the same game with Iran, Team Bush could hardly expect anyone to take them at their word. Even the stock markets, which normally go down when investors fear anything unexpected, climbed happily up in the face of the latest alert.

Am I being unfair?

Try to imagine a conversation between Ridge and the President in the Oval Office. "No, Tom, we can't do that," says Mr. Bush. "It wouldn't be right. Unless we have concrete, up-to-date intelligence, we mustn't do anything that could in any way affect the elections."

Not likely, is it?

Instead, we get television pictures of Laura Bush bravely visiting one of the targeted buildings in New York City, along with an on-going build-up of heavily armed police, barricaded streets, and security check points to welcome the Republican National Convention later this month. America at War. President Bush reassures the nation at nine.

Think of all the security images as a moving, made-for-TV tableau vivant to reinforce the key message of the Bush campaign: "Only He Can Keep You Safe." Karl Rove, the president's political guru, has outdone himself yet again. How far we have come from the simple backdrops Rove's predecessor Michael Deaver arranged for Ronald Reagan.

But wait, cries the anti-skeptic on my shoulder. What if this time the administration has intelligence that is real? They could, and that only compounds the problem. Having cried wolf several times too often, Mr. Bush and his people put us all at greater risk when the terrorists do show up.

No longer able to trust what our government says, we can only try to judge for ourselves, listening closely to what the skeptical lawmen and spooks let slip. In the case of the five financial targets, the circumstantial evidence suggests they're relatively safe, at least in the short term.

For starters, al-Qaeda reportedly stopped using emails to communicate even before 9/11, relying instead on human messengers. So it seems unlikely that Muhammad Naeem Nur Khan, the Pakistani computer man, would know what al-Qaeda has been planning in the last two or three years. The files on his computer probably had more to do with their earlier planning, or could have been planted to mislead American investigators. Bin-Laden's people have played that trick before, which suggests that all of those police at financial centers might do better watching unchecked container ships coming into New York Harbor, or safeguarding chemical plants and refineries in Northern New Jersey.

More troubling are the other streams of intelligence Ridge and the White House now cite to back up their dusty computer data. These other streams reportedly include information extracted from Khan himself and others recently arrested in Pakistan. Given past and continuing practice by both Americans and Pakistanis, we have to assume the use of torture, which immediately raises doubts about the truth of anything the tortured captives might have revealed.

Saturday, we ran a revealing story from the New York Times about one of America's first high-ranking al-Qaeda captives, a Libyan named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. The Pakistanis took al-Libi prisoner in late 2001 and subsequently turned him over to the Americans, who held him at one of the CIA's 200 secret interrogation centers. According to the Times story and several other accounts, al-Libi was the main source for one of the administration's strongest justifications for the war in Iraq - that Saddam Hussein had cooperated with Osama bin-Laden in spreading Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Using al-Libi's information in a speech in Cincinnati in October 2002, President Bush dramatically staked his claim. "We've learned," he said, "that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases."

Bush and his aides continued to repeat the claim, linking Saddam and Osama whenever they could. Secretary of State Powell made the same claim at great length in his February 2003, while trying to win support for the war from the United Nations Security Council.

Only now, according to the Times' intelligence sources, al-Libi has backed away from what he had earlier said. What the Times failed to mention was even more interesting, that he had apparently made those claims after intensive torture by the CIA.

This began to emerge Sunday in a rather hedged report from the Washington Post. Al-Libi, it turns out, was the captive who first sparked the debate within the Bush Administration about how roughly the CIA could interrogate its captives. We have seen the answer at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and in accounts of what the CIA does at its secret interrogation centers. Now, we see how reliable a tortured man's statements can be. According to both the Times and Post, the CIA has not yet been able to determine which of al-Libi's many stories to believe.

Not that anyone in an administration hell-bent on war would have cared all that much whether al-Libi was telling the truth, as long as they could say with a straight face that they had "intelligence information." This is how low Mr. Bush has brought our intelligence services, and it is why the professionals are now fighting back against an administration hell-bent on winning re-election.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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