Review of Michael Isikoff's "Hubris"

My review of the really great book by Michael Isikoff on the invasion of Iraq, with a You Tube video featuring Isikoff discussing the book.

Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq WarHubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well researched and ultimately compelling indictment of the Bush 43 rationale for the invasion of Iraq. For those that continue to espouse support for the Iraqi debacle a book like this, with actual details that are pretty hard to refute, is like exposing Count Dracula to sunlight. Isikoff demolishes the WMD rationale for invasion thoroughly; in doing so he brings to light not just “intelligence failures” but the subtle, and not so subtle, pressure on the intelligence community to conform to pre-existing theories on Saddam Hussein brought into the new Administration by the likes of Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, and the President.

The book covers the serial incompetence involved in planning the Iraq war, and how specifically the intelligence community was compromised by the strong desire of the Administration to go to war. War apologists generally try to skirt details, since they are so damning; Isikoff gives you those details in several key areas. Want to recollect how the Administration twisted the fact sets on the “tubes” they accused Iraq of purchasing for centrifuges? Isikoff not only shows you what nonsense that was, but more importantly that the Administration was aware of the problems with the conclusions they were trying to sell the public. A favorite tactic? Leak “inside information” to selected journalists, and then go on Meet the Press and cite those very same news stories as “evidence” of Saddam’s WMD Program(s).

“So there was Cheney on television citing the Times. He said that he could not reveal intelligence sources, but with the Times story, “it’s now public that, in fact, [Saddam] has been seeking to acquire” the tubes for his nuclear weapons enterprise. We know this, Cheney claimed, “with absolute certainty.” Millions of Meet the Press viewers could be forgiven for not realizing that Cheney was citing an article based on information that had come from his own administration. And Cheney went further by remarking that he could not say whether or not Saddam already had a nuclear weapon, leaving that an open possibility. It was a disingenuous remark, for no U.S. intelligence analyst at the time believed that Saddam had his hands on a nuclear bomb.”
Many folks were astounded by the outrageous claims, but many went along for the ride.”

“A CIA officer involved in the tubes episode called it a ‘perfect coming together of arrogance, incompetence, and basic human error. These screw-ups happen all the time, just not with consequences this enormous.”

It was not just Cheney, although his complicity in the misinformation campaign was critical. The President sold nonsense enthusiastically.
”Bush and Blair also talked about the aluminum tubes. The president assured the prime minister the IAEA was wrong to conclude that the tubes were for artillery rockets, not for a nuclear program. Bush insisted that the specifications of the tubes indicated they were indeed right for a nuclear centrifuge. And when the two talked briefly about postinvasion Iraq, Bush remarked that it was “unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups.” Blair agreed.”

The Niger yellowcake debacle, in which, despite repeated entreaties from the CIA, the Administration continued to perpetrate the lie that Iraq had attempted to purchase a vast sum of “yellowcake” for its nuclear program, is covered with great specificity. Another detail that war apologists, and the Bush Administration prefer to forget. The pressure to ignore contrary intel on the yellowcake claim is covered in great detail, leading to the famous use of the sixteen words in a Bush State of the Union Address. A national embarrassment. The Bush Administration attempt to dump that fiasco at the feet of the CIA is fairly easily set aside.

“Eleven days previously, the White House had blamed the CIA for the sixteen words. Now aides were aware of documents showing that the national security adviser, the deputy national security adviser, and the chief speechwriter had ignored clear warnings from the CIA.”

Eventually the White House would have to acknowledge that the clear and unambiguous warnings were ignored. The CIA, eager to please, gave warnings but did not do the independent job that should be expected from them. They seemed to realize, at some level, that the Administration was selling snake oil, but ultimately were compromised themselves, especially Director George Tenet. A good snippet from the book gets right to the fundamental question of what the intel actually showed, with Tenet not able to answer a simple question from Joe Biden:”But when Biden and other committee members pressed Tenet on the sourcing for these claims, they got little in the way of answers. During the questioning, a committee staff member slipped Biden a note with a suggested query, and Biden put this question to Tenet: What “technically collected” evidence did the CIA have of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? What the staffer had in mind was physical proof: radioactive emissions from nuclear sites, electronic intercepts, samples of biological agents. Anything that would be hard and irrefutable. “None, Senator,” Tenet replied. There was a hush in the room. Oh my God, the staffer thought. “ ‘None, Senator’—that answer will ring in my ears as long as I live,” the aide remarked later. Biden appeared bothered. He asked Tenet, “George, do you want me to clear the staff out of the room?” It was a way of asking if Tenet possessed superclassified information, some technical evidence that was so black, so secret, that it couldn’t be shared.”

How did we get to the idea of invading Iraq? Maybe the most important piece of this outrageous series of lies by the Administration was the role of Ahmad Chalabi, and his direct connection to the State of Iran. Chalabi led the Administration by the nose, and even when he was exposed as a total fraud continued to enjoy political support from within the Administration. And what was the connection with Iran, and their intelligence services?

“In late May, Iraqi police, supported by American soldiers, raided the Baghdad home and offices of Ahmad Chalabi, who had become a member of the Iraqi interim governing council created by the U.S. government. U.S. troops seized computers, records, and rifles from two offices of Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. An Iraqi judge said the raids were part of an investigation of assorted crimes: torturing people, stealing cars, seizing government facilities. One of the arrest warrants was for Aras Habib, the INC’s intelligence director. Habib had run the group’s controversial “intelligence collection program,” which had supplied fabricating defectors and bogus information to dozens of media outlets before the war. He also had been suspected by the CIA of being an Iranian agent for years—ever since Bob Baer and Maguire had dealt with him in the mid-1990s.”

“As for Habib, he vanished around the time of the raid on the INC headquarters. His suspicious disappearance raised an intriguing and significant question: Had the fellow responsible for slipping bogus INC “intelligence” on Iraq’s supposed WMDs to U.S. officials and journalists—information concocted to start a war—done so at the behest of Iranian intelligence? Had the U.S. government and the American public been the target of an Iranian intelligence operation designed to nudge the United States to war? These were questions U.S. intelligence agencies never seriously investigated.”

Chalabi’s role is one of the greatest outrages of the adventure, and must lead to an examination of the geo-political ramifications of the war. That piece is not covered in the book, but any discussion of the war should reference the fact that the regional player most positively impacted by the U.S. invasion of Iraq was Iran. The Shia assumption of power in Iraq, and the direct connection of many of the new members of the Iraqi government to Iran, made this connection easy to discern not only while it was happening, but before the invasion as well. The neo-c
ons displayed a shocking lack of even the most fundamental understanding of the regional equilibrium, and how this invasion would tip that equilibrium over in a very negative way for the United States. We continue to suffer the ill effects to this very day, with the ironic twist that many of the same neo-cons who advocated the Iraqi debacle today decry the potential for regional hegemony by Iran.

Of course the Iraqi debacle contains not only the Bush Administration cooking the intel books to justify invasion, but also displaying some of the greatest incompetence in managing Iraq as an occupying power after the fall of the Saddam regime. The book highlights some of the greatest errors committed, but is not strong on post war management. For that I will re-read Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial”. Isikoff gives a very detailed examination of the so called Valerie Plame affair, with Bush Administration officials blowing the cover of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson in an attempt to discredit her husband, a vocal critic of the Bush Administration on the interpretation of the so called “Niger-Iraq Yellowcake” intel. Maybe a bit much on this subject, but certainly shows the mindset that brought us to this disaster.

A highly recommended book by an author not afraid to bring the light of day to the dishonest and incompetent handling of the Iraq debacle by the Bush Administration.

View all my reviews

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