Former Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney at CPAC 2011 in Washington, DC, February 10, 2011. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
Of all the members of the Bush administration, none has generated as much controversy as Richard B. Cheney. In his memoir “In My Time,” the former vice president defends his support for numerous controversial policy decisions, including the invasion of Iraq and the authorization of waterboarding, which numerous military, intelligence and political officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, have denounced as torture.
In a world of suicide bombers, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), covert financial sponsors, and enemies unconstrained by the laws of armed conflict, Cheney emerged as the man in the shadows who would do whatever he deemed necessary to address these threats. The power he acquired, however, and its implications for the future of a democratic society, caused many Americans to fear a greater potential threat from within. In his relentless pursuit of America’s enemies, the vice president forced the nation to question the degree to which it must sacrifice its values, laws and mechanisms of accountability in exchange for its continued “security.”
Torture and Intelligence
Cheney argues in his book that the coercive interrogation techniques President Bush authorized in the wake of 9/11 saved American lives by enabling CIA interrogators to break the resistance of high-level al-Qaeda operatives who refused to divulge actionable intelligence under standard interrogation methods. He states that use of these techniques on Abu Zubaydah yielded intelligence that led to the capture of 9/11 terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. (FBI special agent Ali Soufan disputes this.)
Open-minded readers who would otherwise consider torture reprehensible might find his arguments persuasive. Later in the book, however, Cheney inadvertently references a case in which torture yielded false intelligence.
In an October 7, 2002, letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), then-CIA Director George Tenet wrote, “We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq had provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.”
President Bush stated in a public speech on the same day, “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases.”
In its September 2006 report on Iraq pre-war intelligence, the SSCI determined that, “the CIA relied heavily on the information obtained from the debriefing of detainee Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a senior al-Qa’ida operational planner, to assess Iraq’s potential CBW [chemical-biological weapons] training of al-Qa’ida.”
Al-Libi fabricated these claims after being tortured by Egyptian intelligence and recanted them one year after the US invasion of Iraq.
The September 2006 SSCI report concludes: “The other reports of possible CBW training from Iraq were never considered credible by the Intelligence Community. No other information has been uncovered in Iraq or from detainees that confirms this reporting.”
Tenet’s October 7, 2002, statement to the SSCI, one of the most alarming allegations of Saddam Hussein’s support of al-Qaeda, was based on false intelligence extracted through torture.
On October 11, 2002, Congress voted to authorize use of military force against Iraq.
While Tenet’s letter alone may not have been decisive in securing this resolution, it is an extraordinary example of how unreliable, and even dangerous, intelligence derived from torture can be.
Manipulation of Iraq Pre-War Intelligence
In defense of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, Cheney writes:
In Senate testimony in 2003, Director Tenet also noted that Iraq was providing safe haven to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born terrorist who had trained in Afghanistan and become a key al Qaeda lieutenant. He had arrived in Iraq in 2002, spent time in Baghdad, and then supervised camps in northern Iraq that provided a safe haven for as many as two hundred al Qaeda fighters escaping Afghanistan. At one of those camps, called Khurmal, Zarqawi’s men tested poisons and plotted attacks to use them in Europe. [italics mine]
Cheney implies here that Hussein was providing active support to Zarqawi by allowing him to operate within Iraqi territory.
Daniel Benjamin, director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff from 1998-1999, notes, however, that “neither the Khurmal camp nor the surrounding area were under Saddam’s control” but, rather, were located within Kurdish territory. He continues, “On at least three occasions between mid-2002 and the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon presented plans to the White House to destroy the Khurmal camp. Each time, the White House declined to act or did not respond at all” despite the fact that Zarqawi and his associates were working to produce ricin and cyanide.
It is remarkable that, apparently, no effort was made prior to the invasion to capture terrorist operatives at this camp and exploit intelligence indicating whether or not Hussein was, in fact, supporting them.
The Media Campaign
Cheney acknowledges responsibility for public statements in which he expressed greater certainty of Iraq/al-Qaeda ties than was warranted by intelligence reports, but he denies deliberate efforts to manipulate Congress. Reviewing the public statements of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, future SSCI Chairman John Rockefeller and others, Cheney notes that he was not the only one to make public statements that were not fully substantiated by the available intelligence.
While one would be hard-pressed to prove that Cheney or other administration officials explicitly lied to anyone, the body of evidence indicates that these officials engaged in a concerted media campaign comprised of dubious statements intended to pressure members of Congress to authorize use of military force against Iraq.
While the invasion of Iraq could not have happened without the September 11 attacks, Hussein’s denial and deception efforts and Ahmed Chalabi’s cynical propaganda campaign, Cheney bears heavy responsibility for a bloody and costly conflict for which the primary justifications – WMD and al-Qaeda ties – proved to be unsubstantiated.