Chain of CommandThe Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
In May 2004, at the height of the Abu Ghraib prison abusescandal, a senior political Republican Party operative wasgiven the reassuring word that Vice President Dick Cheney hadtaken charge, with his usual directness. The operative learnedthat Cheney had telephoned Donald Rumsfeld with a simplemessage: No resignations. We're going to hunker down and toughit out.
Cheney's concern was not national security. This was apolitical call-a reminder that the White House would seizecontrol of every crisis that could affect the re-election ofGeorge Bush. The Abu Ghraib revelations, if left unchecked,could provoke more public doubt about the wisdom of the war inIraq, and about the sometimes brutal intelligence operationsthat were used to wage it. The White House and Pentagon alsowould have to work together to prevent Congress and the pressfrom unraveling an incendiary secret - that undercovermembers of an intelligence unit that operated in secret in thename of every American had been at Abu Ghraib. The seniorleadership in the White House has been aware since January ofthe mess at Abu Ghraib, and, more importantly, of the factthat photographs and videotapes existed, and might somedayreach the public. As we have seen, the military chain ofcommand had ignored the possibility of higherup involvementand moved quickly to prosecute the military police who hadcommitted the acts - "the kids at the end of the food chain,"as a former senior intelligence official put it: "We've gotsome hillbilly kids out of control." The perception persiststhat this was Rumsfeld's war, and that it was hisassertiveness and his toughness that sometimes led to thebombing of the wrong target or the arrest of innocents. ButCheney's involvement in trying to conceal the import of AbuGhraib was not unusual; it was a sign of the teamwork at thetop. George Bush talked about "smoking them out of theirholes" and wanting them "dead or alive," and Rumsfeld was theone who set up the mechanism to get it done. The defensesecretary would hold the difficult news conferences and takethe heat in public, as he did about Abu Ghraib, but thePresident and Vice President had been in it, and with him, allthe way. Rumsfeld handled the dirty work and kept the secrets,but he and the two White House leaders were a team.
There is so much about this presidency that we don't know, andmay never learn. Some of the most important questions are noteven being asked. How did they do it? How did eight or nineneoconservatives who believed that a war in Iraq was theanswer to international terrorism get their way? How did theyredirect the government and rearrange long-standing Americanpriorities and policies with so much ease? How did theyovercome the bureaucracy, intimidate the press, mislead theCongress, and dominate the military? Is our democracy thatfragile? I have tried, in this book, to describe some of themechanisms used by the White House - the stovepiping ofintelligence, the reliance on Ahmad Chalabi, the refusal tohear dissenting opinions, the difficulty of getting straighttalk about military operations gone bad, and the inability - or unwillingness - of the President and his senior aides todistinguish between Muslims who supported terrorism and thosewho abhorred it. A complete understanding of these last fewyears will be a challenge for journalists, politicalscientists, and historians.
Many of the failings, however, were in plain sight. TheAdministration's manipulation and distortion of theintelligence about Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda and its nationalsecurity threat to the United States was anything but a secretin Washington, as the pages of this book make clear. And yetthe Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, after ayear-long investigation, published a report, in July 2004,stating that the critical mistakes were made not in the WhiteHouse, but at the C.I.A., whose analysts essentially missedthe story. There was an astonishing postscript that told muchabout the disarray in Washington. Three Democrats, John D.Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the vice chairman of thecommittee, Carl Levin of Michigan, who is also the rankingDemocrat on the Armed Services Committee, and Richard Durbinof Illinois, signed a separate statement disavowing thereport's central findings. "Regrettably, the report paints anincomplete picture of what occurred during this period oftime," they wrote, noting that the "central issue" of howintelligence was misused by the Administration and the pre-warrole of Ahmad Chalabi would be included in a second report-onethat was not to be made public until after the presidentialelection. "As a result," they wrote, "the Committee's phaseone report fails to fully explain the environment of intensepressure in which Intelligence Community officials were askedto render judgments on matters relating to Iraq, when policyofficials had already forcefully stated their own conclusionsin public."
And yet, Rockefeller, Levin, and Durbin put their names on thereport, helping to make it appear unanimous and bipartisan.There are, once again, unanswered questions. Why didn't theDemocrats take a stronger stand? How much influence did theWhite House exert on the Republican members of the committee?Why didn't the press go beyond the immediate facts? The innerworkings of the committee were in many ways a more importantstory than its findings.