War Powers, War Lies: Part 13: The War That Wasn’t

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 War Powers, War Lies: A Series

Part 13: The War That Wasn’t

Published in the Maryland Daily Record March 31, 2006 

            When George Bush and his apologists linked the U.S.-led attack on Iraq with the so-called Global War on Terror, they invoked a nonesuch.  Not only was there not a War on Terror in the semantic sense (as we saw last time), but there was, in fact, not even a very thoroughly-waged struggle with Al Quaeda.


            This is not to deny that in Osama bin Laden’s mind a war existed.  In a self-styled fatwa  dated February 23, 1998, he called upon Muslims everywhere to respond to what he called “a clear declaration of war” by America on Allah by “kill[ing] the Americans and plunder[ing] their money wherever and whenever they find it.”  And indeed the consequences of the resultant rampage – the Embassy bombings of August 1998, the Cole bombing of October 2000, and 9/11, all direct Al Quaeda operations, not to mention acts by affiliates at home and abroad, have been devastating to both American lives and American treasure.  But when all is said and done, it remains a terrorist campaign.  It does not come close to threatening our survival as a nation, as a war might.  We should not be confusing bin Laden’s delusions of grandeur with reality.  And to buy into his label for what he is doing or our response to it confuses our thinking.


            The best response to terrorism in the West, where there is a well-maintained separation between armies and police forces, is primarily police work, not military action.  In the report of the 9/11 Commission, the nation’s official after-action report of that terrible day, the list of the organizations whose practices, policies and failings are cited for having contributed to the disaster consists mostly of civilian organizations: the FAA, the FBI, the CIA, the New York police and fire departments, the former INS.  These were agencies in the business of law enforcement, public safety, and intelligence, not war.  And the response was largely a matter for these agencies.  That is not to deny the military had to play a role; because many of the plot’s instigators were sheltered by Afghanistan, which would not yield them up to anything but military force, such force was called for there.  But the continuing job of defending against bin Laden’s and related terrorist campaigns remains primarily civilian, not military, and war is not the proper rubric for this or any primarily civilian effort.


            In any case, the pursuit of this so-called war, whether by civilian or military agencies, has been too much a matter of words and too little of action.


            In the months between January 2001, when President Bush came to office, and September 11, 2001, he and his team downplayed the problem and ignored those who were sounding the alarm.  The narratives of the 9/11 Commission and of Richard Clarke, who had worked for both Presidents Bush, and had been the nation’s chief counterterrorism official for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, differ little on this.  During the Clinton years U.S. intelligence had gradually awakened to the unique threat of bin Laden and his network, and had begun trying to do something about it,  and then George W. Bush came along and slammed on the brakes. 


            At least three times the Clinton Administration had tried to seize or kill bin Laden and had had to pull back because the conditions were not right.  The sequel, when Bush came to office, has been masterfully summarized by Eric Alterman and Mark Green in The Book on Bush.  Their full discussion is worth a read, but a few points are worth mentioning here.


            Immediately after Bush took power, U.S. intelligence determined that Al Quaeda had been behind the Cole; there was no response from the administration.  On January 31, 2001, a bipartisan commission headed by Gary Hart and Warren Rudman delivered a report to Bush, personally briefing Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell.  They warned that terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction were coming, and they called for the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security to shield us.  Despite the fact that the commission represented the work of a year and a half, Bush announced that the issue would instead be covered in a government-wide review under Dick Cheney’s purview, which Bush would periodically review through the National Security Council.  There is no evidence that any such review by Cheney or Bush ever occurred before 9/11.  And in fact on September 9, 2001, Bush vetoed an effort to reprogram $600 million from missile defense to meeting the domestic terror threat.  On September 10, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft turned down an FBI request to add 149 field agents, 200 analysts, and 54 translators to its counterterrorism effort.


            Bush himself admitted as much to chronicler Bob Woodward: “I knew [bin Laden] was responsible, or we felt he was responsible, for the [previous] bombings that killed Americans.  I was prepared to look at a plan that would be a thoughtful plan that would bring him to justice, and would have given the order to do that…. But I didn’t feel that sense of urgency.” 


            So little urgency, in fact, that the White House ignored more specific warnings.  During the summer of 2001 Bush received two briefings that a major terrorist attack, possibly including hijacked planes, was coming.  Bush received a memo entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”  The day he received it, Bush left work early to go fishing.  And at the very beginning of the Bush presidency, Richard Clarke had intensively briefed Rice with a proposal for a major program to “roll back” al Qaeda (arresting its members everywhere), engaging in large-scale covert operations in Afghanistan, providing aid to the Taliban and Al Quaeda’s foe, the Northern Alliance, and going after the worldwide money network of Al Quaeda.  Had the White House responded and led the government with the proper sense of urgency, the likelihood of “connecting the dots” – putting together what was known about the specific plot (e.g. the training of Arab men to fly aircraft, the movements of known terrorists, NSA signals traffic ) – would have been much greater.  Had the obvious focus on aircraft been recognized, the airlines might have been required to enforce the watchlist which should have denied some of the hijackers the right to fly.  Screeners might have been motivated to keep knives and box cutters off passenger aircraft.


            Before September 11, then, there was no War on Terror.  As soon as the planes struck, according to President Bush’s account to Bob Woodward, he “knew” we were at war.   His rhetoric thereafter was uniformly warlike.


            In most wars one tries to capture or kill senior enemy leaders.  We started doing that.  As Clarke said, Bush “began by again offering the Taliban a chance to avoid U.S. occupation of their country and, when that failed, he initially sent in only a handful of Special Forces.”  There was good military sense in invading.  Afghanistan harbored terrorist camps and havens, not to mention bin Laden.  We destroyed the camps.  But we partly botched the efforts to capture the terrorists, looking the other way (at Pakistan’s request) while many flew to Pakistan, and then lied to the press about the existence of the flights and our deliberate neglect of them.   And, of course, we utterly botched efforts to capture bin Laden at the Tora Bora caves. 


            The Tora Bora story has been exhaustively reported by now.  Major investigations by the Washington Post  and the Christian Science Monitor,  investigative reporting by Seymour Hersh, and the memoir of the senior CIA operative at the scene, Gary Berntsen , are all in fundamental agreement.  Too rushed by the White House to wait for sufficient U.S. “boots on the ground,” our leaders tried to work through paid local Afghan warlords to do most of the fighting, with no U.S. commanders on the scene above the rank of lieutenant colonel.  General Tommy Franks tried to “run the show” from Tampa.  Many of the warlords we relied on had already been paid off by bin Laden before we even arrived, and he continued to pay them after the attack started, in particular one Hazrat Ali.[Comment9]  There was never any real chance our proxies would hinder bin Laden’s departure. Just when the major push on Tora Bora began in early December 2001, bin Laden and various associates left, traveling by mountain paths to Pakistan, our supposed ally. Pakistan’s army, on which we were relying to intercept bin Laden if he fled that way, was of uncertain loyalty; not even formally tasked perform the interception, and too few in number, nor did it control the territory where bin Laden fled, which was run by local Pakistani tribes.


            And even after bin Laden was gone, as Richard Clarke recounts, Bush “dispatched additional forces but less than one full division equivalent, fewer U.S. troops for all of Afghanistan than the number of NYPD assigned to Manhattan.”   True, as James Risen of the New York Times reported, there had been a promising plan to send Afghans into the new Al Quaeda homeland, southwest Pakistan, after bin Laden and the remaining core of his organization.  But then the Administration shifted its focus to Iraq.  This was the moment when “al Quaeda was most vulnerable…. The United States captured or killed more than two-thirds of the operatives who had been running al Quaeda at the time of the attack on new York and Washington.”  But when that remainder were nearly beaten, as one NSC official told Risen, the intelligence forces were advised: “Here’s what you have now, you don’t get anything more.  No additional missions, no additional forces, no additional dollars.”[Comment11]   Al Quaeda was allowed to recover.


            Not surprisingly, from that point on, the Administration’s rhetoric about the priority of the bin Laden manhunt was dialed back considerably.  Militarily, from that point until Iraq, the “war effort” consisted primarily of seizing Muslim men from around the world and, in plain English, being really mean to them.  There was an intelligence component and a prevention component to the roundup and the ill treatment, no doubt, but after a very early point, the expression of anger seems to have been the real gist, along with venting frustration at the poor quality of intelligence being received.  Jane Mayer of the New Yorker recently paraphrased David Brant, an NCIS investigator, summing up the interrogations at Guantanamo: “Military-intelligence interrogators at Guantánamo … seemed poorly trained, and were frustrated by their lack of success, [leading to] escalating levels of physical and psychological abuse.”   As recently released transcripts of Combatant Status Review Tribunals reveal, most of the prisoners against whom these atrocities were committed were not very likely ever to have been terrorists.  For instance, it emerges that a number of them were detained simply because they wore a model of watch which had been used in bombings linked to Al Quaeda.  And the atrocities continued after the prisoners [Comment13] had been confined for so long their intelligence, if any, had to be stale.  This sad performance scarcely merits the name of warfare.


            Meanwhile, on the domestic front Bush did much to thwart preparation against future terrorist attacks.  Real warfare typically involves a defense of some sort.  And defense starts with planning and organization.  Bush fought the formation of the 9/11 Commission and failing at that, successfully saw to it the Commission was underfunded.  Even after 9/11, Bush continued to resist creating a Department of Homeland Security until popular opinion made that stance untenable.   Although it was obvious that passenger and luggage screening needed to be federalized as a fundamental bulwark against repetitions of 9/11, Bush resisted.


            The home front “war effort” remained weak throughout the buildup to Iraq.  It would take several articles to list the particulars.  A few representative instances (suggested again by Alterman and Green) will have to do.


$          In the face of widespread media outrage, the Administration continued to allow chemical plants to handle horrifically dangerous materials with essentially no security.


$          In 2002, Bush impounded $2.6 billion earmarked for homeland security and $500 million for first responders. 


$          In November 2002 the National Nuclear Security Administration (which provides protection for nuclear labs and our nuclear stockpile) was forced to announce a hiring freeze despite a shortage of guards. 


$          The 2002 and 2003 budgets badly squeezed the financial viability of the Coast Guard.


            Instead of taking necessary measures to shore up the nation’s security against chemical, biological, or nuclear attack by terrorists, the Bush administration commenced to lavish billions of dollars (approximately $250 billion at most recent estimate)  on attacking Iraq.  This was called a part of the War on Terror.  But there was no War on Terror of which the Iraq fiasco could become a part.


            In fact, as we shall see next time, our venture into Iraq created a terrorist incubator where none had existed before.  Invading Iraq to vanquish Al Quaeda was like trying to quench a fire with gasoline.

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