Thursday, April 27, 2006

Gaps in the rough draft of history

Today I am pondering the mystery of Tyler Drumheller.
If the name seems unfamiliar, it's because he has been widely ignored over the past week by the news outlets of America. That includes the newspaper which employs me.

First, the ill-reported information:
Drumheller, an ex-spook, is arguably at least as important as the dissenting retired military generals who have been calling for Donald Rumsfeld's scalp. He too is newly retired from his job -- as chief of the CIA's European operation -- and he has gone public (on CBS' Sixty Minutes and on MSNBC's Hardball) with first-hand evidence that the Bush administration hyped the prewar intelligence on WMDs and stonewalled the stuff it didn't like.

Basically, Drumheller helped recruit a high-ranking Iraqi source who had the inside skinny on Saddam Hussein's non-existent stockpile. The source was Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri. As Drumheller told MSNBC the other night, Sadri reported to the CIA -- and the CIA in turn told the White House -- that Hussein had no WMD capability, that "it was nowhere within years of completion, either nuclear or biological."

Drumheller said the White House at first was "enthusiastic" to learn about Sabri's "high-level penetration" of the Hussein regime, but that their enthusiasm waned as soon as they heard what Sabri had to say. This was in September 2002, at a time when President Bush and Vice President Cheney were beginning their series of speeches contending that Hussein had the capability to launch weaponry against the U.S. homeland.

But word got back to Drumheller that the White House was not interested in Sabri's evidence absolving Hussein. As Drumheller told CBS last Sunday, "We said, 'well, what about the intel?' And they said, 'Well, this isn't about intel anymore. This is about regime change.'"

Looking back today, Drumheller's conclusion is that "the policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming, and they were looking for intelligence to fit the policy."

Drumheller's credibility is buttressed by the fact that two other key sources also shared his conclusion. Bush's British government allies, writing in what are now known as the Downing Street memos (none of which have been contested by the White House), concluded during the summer of 2002 that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." And another former CIA official, Paul Pillar, wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that "official intelligence was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions (and) intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made..."

It gets more interesting. Drumheller says he was interviewed three times by the Bush-chartered Silberman-Robb Commission, but his testimony never made it into the final report. Perhaps this is why: I am quoting here from the report itself:
"(H)ow policymakers used the intelligence they were given" was an issue "not within our charter." can reasonably ask: why has the Drumheller story been largely ignored by the press?The New York Times did an advance of the CBS interview last Saturday, with no follow up. No major newspaper early this week ran anything. The Associated Press ran a brief summary on Sunday, but nothing else. The Washington Post hasn't done a piece. My own paper attributes its silence on the story to lack of space.

Dan Froomkin, an online political commentator at the Washington Post, has also tracked the story; when the topic came up yesterday during an online chat with readers, he admitted he was flummoxed by the lack of coverage ("I can't possibly explain why").

Is it because Drumheller (and Sabri) have been discredited? Nope. The White House hasn't attacked them, preferring instead to release only a rote sentence: "The President's convictions about Saddam Hussein's possession of WMD were based on the collective judgement of the intelligence community at that time."

So here's my professional judgement on this: Bush's credibility on Iraq is at such a low ebb (check even the Fox News poll) that it's no longer considered "news" when his WMD stance is publicly contested by credible people who are adding new facts to the historical record. A majority of Americans have already concluded that Bush was selling a bill of goods, so much of the press reaction to Drumheller is basically, "Yeah, tell us something we don't know already."

Well, it was Ben Bradlee, the famed Post editor, who said that journalism was the first rough draft of history. Maybe we'll have to be rescued by the historians.