Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The doctrine of "plausible deniability"

It is an article of faith among President Bush's critics that he lied us into a war in Iraq (a charge that Bush's defenders categorically dismiss). But now comes author Ron Suskind, with a new book about the Bush administration, entitled The One Percent Doctrine, with a different take on that accusation:

He basically argues that Bush didn't literally lie (a liar is somebody who has true knowledge, then consciously falsifies it). Rather, Suskind says that Bush was allowed to tell the truth as he saw it, based only on the partial information with which he was provided.

In other words, Bush was kept in the dark about a lot of stuff that would have undercut his prewar spin about the allegedly dire and urgent threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Suskind is the writer who made a splash with magazine articles that depicted Bush as incurious and ill-informed, and featured a White House aide speaking disdainfully of "the reality-based community." He also wrote a book with former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, who saw Bush as disengaged, "like a blind man in a room full of deaf people." Suskind's new book, released this week, is based on material gathered from sources at the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, State Department, and Treasury Department.

He basically makes the case that Bush on many prewar occasions was not fully briefed (thanks to Vice President Cheney and his people), and that at other times Bush failed to master the paperwork he was given. Suskind reports that, in the fall of 2002, Bush didn't read the full National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a document that buried its numerous caveats (Hussein hadn't shown much interest in attacking the U.S.; Hussein had no imminent WMD program; Hussein had few contacts with al Qaeda) back in the footnotes.

Here's a money quote from Suskind: "Keeping certain knowledge from Bush -- much of it shrouded, as well, by classification -- meant that the president, whose each word circles the globe, could advance various strategies by saying whatever was needed. He could essentially be 'deniable' about his own statements...Whether Cheney's innovations were tailored to match Bush's inclinations, or vice versa, is almost immaterial. It was a firm fit. Under this strategic model, reading the entire NIE would be problematic for Bush: it could hem in the president's rhetoric, a key weapon in the march to war. He would know too much."

All told, Suskind said this morning on NBC's Today Show, "Bush is an action-based man, but he operates within a framework that Cheney largely designed."

Then there were the instances, detailed by Suskind, when Bush went public with claims that were flatly contradicted by the briefings he already had received. These days, most Americans tell pollsters that Bush can't be trusted to tell the truth about Iraq; if this book is widely read, his credibility will take yet another hit, because Suskind cites fact-twistings that took place long before the Iraq war was launched.

Example: the case of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. Citing his inside sources, Suskind reports that Zubayah was dismissed by federal officials as mentally unstable, even insane, and that, rather than being a terrorist mastermind, he was actually assigned to minor tasks, such as arranging travel for wives and kids. The CIA relayed all this to Bush and Cheney in a briefing -- whereupon, two weeks later, Bush told the American people that Zubaydah was "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States."

Soon after, according to Suskind, Bush met with CIA chief George Tenent and essentially instructed Tenent to get evidence from Zubaydah that would confirm Bush's public misstatement. Bush reportedly said to Tenent, "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" No sir, said the subordinate. After that, Zubaydah was subjected to all the latest torture techniques: simulated drowning, death threats, sleep deprivation, earsplitting noise, denial of medication...and as a result, Zubaydah talked about all kinds of plots, against nuclear plants, monuments, apartment buildings, malls, banks. Security forces fanned out in panic, but none of his claims panned out. What it all meant, writes Suskind, is that American officials "would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

...All of this, in order to help the president "save face."

Meanwhile, we also have Dick Cheney's doctrine of wilfull deniability. Yesterday, during an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, he insisted again that the insurgency is in its "last throes" (a view contradicted by the reality-based stats collected by the Brookings Institution; its latest index reports that the number of insurgents has risen by 25 percent since May 2005, and that the number of daily attacks by insurgents have risen by 28 percent since May 2005).

Cheney also stated yesterday: "I don’t think anybody anticipated the level of violence that we have encountered." The Associated Press dutifully quoted that remark without fact-checking it, thereby leaving the impression that Cheney was right.

But Cheney was wrong. Many prewar reports anticipated serious insurgent violence. Here's one, from the Army War College, February 2003: "A force intially viewed as liberators can rapidly be relegated to the status of invaders should an unwelcome occupation continue for a long time...The longer a U.S. occupation continues, the more danger exists that elements of the Iraqi population will become impatient and take violent measures to hasten the departure of U.S. forces....The impact of suicide bombing attacks in Israel goes beyond their numbers, and this fact will also capture the imagination of would-be Iraqi terrorists.”

That report did caution, however, that a "premature" U.S. withdrawal would aggravate instability and perhaps provoke civil war. Bush administration supporters could cite that line as justification for their current stay-the-course posture. However, a new CNN poll suggests that most Americans are fed up. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they want the Bush team to set a withdrawal timetable, preferably pulling out within a year; only 41 percent said no to a timetable. And that's a big shift from six months ago, when the same pollsters found the public evenly divided on that issue.

If this is indeed an accurate reading of the public mood -- if, in other words, a pullout timetable is now the "centrist" position -- it will be instructive to track the Democratic response. Senate Democrats are currently offering two Iraq amendments to a pending defense bill: "let's pull out by summer '07" (sponsored by John Kerry and Russ Feingold); and a "let's start a pull out, but not with a date certain" (championed by Carl Levin and Jack Reed). No doubt the latter will get a lot more Democratic votes. Despite the shifting polls, and the growing mountain of evidence gathered by sleuths such as Suskind, most Democrats remain fearful of feeling pain from Karl Rove's lash.