Wonkette Book Club: Petty Revenge Against Critics? Glad *That's* A Thing Of The Past!
Dick Cheney & his chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, on 9/11/01. National Archives.

When we started reading our current Wonkette Book Club selection, Michael Isikoff and David Corn's Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, I was pretty sure it would be a Very Timely Read because it sure as hell looked like Donald Trump and other rightwing warheads in and out of government were on the way to lying the USA into a whole new war, this time with Iran. And while the lies (even including fake claims about dark connections to 9/11) were certainly there, what looked like an inevitable war with Iran seems to have been shunted to the back burner -- at least until the next crisis.

Of course, now that we're reaching the last segment of our reading, which looks at how Iraq unspooled into forever war and the George W. Bush administration's rationale for invading Iraq was shown to be pure neoconservative wishful thinking, the current gang of idiots has handed us some dandy new parallels. Donald Trump is busy purging those who testified against him in the impeachment hearings, which certainly has some echoes of the Bush administration's efforts to slime and undercut critics of his Iraq war. Mind you, Trump does everything on a far grander, openly corrupt scale. His devotion to the doctrine of weaponized incompetence has turned the USA into a Chaos Emirate.

As always with our book club discussions, please feel free to comment even if you haven't done the reading (chapters 15 through the end), because most of us remember the events as they played out in the news, and some of us were more directly affected, as vets or families of those sent off to be greeted as liberators. If you want to catch up, our first installment of the current Book Club is here, and the second is here. And do remember that if you want to talk about something that isn't either the book or this specific topic (Iraq, the aftermath, and the parallels to now), please save your comments for the open thread, OK?

My initial reaction to the final third of Hubris was, frankly, fairly mixed. Most of the book had concentrated on documenting how willfully Bush and his neocon brain trust had deliberately ignored the abundant warnings that invading Iraq would not be a cakewalk, and that it was far more likely to result in chaos than in regional flowering of democracy and private enterprise. That theme continues as Isikoff and Corn document the growing mess following the military victory and the continual fuckups of the occupation. But the book really seems to lose focus as the authors devote more and more attention to the outing of CIA agent Valerie Wilson (nee Plame), the spouse of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who angered the Bushies by writing an op-ed exposing the flimsy, fraudulent intelligence the administration had used to sell the war.

Ever a creature of self doubt, though, I also feel like that may be an unfair criticism, since before they wrote the book together, both Isikoff and Corn did important work reporting out the details of how Karl Rove and Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, leaked Valerie Wilson's identity to multiple reporters. And L'Affaire Wilson is definitely connected to the rest of the story, as an example of the lengths to which Team Bush tried to control the narrative about the war.

But compared to the vivid contrasts between the actual intelligence and the effort to sell the war to Congress and the public, the parts of the book dealing with the leaks and the subsequent investigation almost feel like they belong in a different book. Perhaps that's just nitpicking on my part. It is important stuff, and genuinely interesting, but also a big departure from what had been the book's central focus. Rove and Libby's attempt to discredit Joseph Wilson by suggesting his criticisms were part of a deep state plot to undermine Bush was a big fucking deal, and Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his role in revealing Valerie Wilson's identity. You could also make the case that the effort to undermine an important critic, was just one more aspect of the Bush administration's snow job: They knew the war was right, so anyone who said otherwise had to be destroyed.

So there's a discussion question, kids.

As for the failures in Iraq, the final chapters of Hubris continue to deliver more and more evidence of not just how badly the war's advocates had spun wishful thinking into a justification for war, and continued to deny evidence that they had been wrong. David Kay, the former UN weapons inspector appointed to lead the military's Iraq Survey Group in a post-invasion search for Saddam Hussein's supposed WMDs, had initially been certain that he would indeed find chemical weapons and proof that Saddam was trying to build nukes. But all his teams found was proof of what many in the intelligence community had been saying all along: Iraq's unconventional weapons programs had all ended after the first Gulf War, and he hadn't restarted any of 'em. Kay said in testimony to Congress,

"We were almost all wrong—and I certainly include myself here." The WMDs weren't hidden; they hadn't been produced in the first place.

Of course, Isikoff and Corn point out that wasn't exactly it, either:

Despite Kay's sweeping statement, not everybody had misjudged Saddam's capabilities. Some intelligence analysts and UN inspectors, particularly those who questioned the nuclear claims, had gotten important parts of the story right.

Despite those findings, the administration -- especially Dick Cheney and those closest to him -- continued to insist the prewar sales job had been honest, although maybe some of the "best intelligence" the administration had at the time turned out to be wrong. That myth has persisted to this day, and we see it playing out in Donald Trump's preference for rightwing conspiracy theories over the intelligence community's findings on Russia (and Ukraine), and in discussions of the votes to authorize the war.

On that point, it's worth noting that Democrats who voted for the war and say Bush sold them cherry-picked intelligence may be on slightly firmer footing than Republicans who insist the CIA and other agencies just never found any contrary facts. As we noted last time, the CIA did prepare a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that included dissenting opinions, especially from the State Department and the Air Force, but the report was classified and not distributed to Congress. It was available for members to read in the two weeks before the October 2002 vote, but only in a secure room where they couldn't even make notes, and only a few members of either house and some congressional aides actually read it. Those who did were appalled at how weak it was, but since it was secret, members couldn't bring the details out in public. Neither Bush nor his National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice ever looked at the NIE.

In an afterword for the 2007 paperback edition we've been linking to, Isikoff and Corn note that, as Bush prepared to start the "surge" policy in Iraq, a whole new classified NIE found that the threat from Islamic radicals had actually gotten far worse, largely due to the invasion of Iraq. Those findings leaked to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and true to form, Bush and his cabinet blamed the media for giving a "false impression" of the report's findings. But under pressure from Congress, a declassified summary of the report revealed just how bad the estimate was:

The NIE concluded that radical jihadis were "increasing in both number and geographic dispersion." The trend, if left unchecked, would result in "increasing attacks worldwide." As for Iraq, the NIE stated that the war "is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives" and has "become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."

And that's before ISIS grew out of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq. Huh!

The 2007 afterword also adds further details on the administration's secondary selling point for the war, the claim that Saddam Hussein was in league with al Qaeda (before 9/11 or ever). One of the chief claims, touted by Bush, CIA director George Tenet, and Colin Powell, in his UN speech, was the idea that Saddam was providing chemical weapons training to al Qaeda operatives. As we noted in our first book club discussion, some CIA experts noted that made little logical sense since Osama bin Laden and Saddam were ideological enemies, and the claim itself had been extracted from captured al Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi under torture by Egyptian intelligence; he later recanted it when he was no longer in CIA custody.

A Senate Intelligence Committee report offered more detail on how that crucial "evidence" for the war was obtained:

Al-Libi "knew nothing" about ties between Baghdad and bin Laden, and he "had difficulty even coming up with a story," he later said, according to a February 2004 CIA cable based on debriefings of al-Libi. His answers displeased his Egyptian interrogators. Al-Libi was crammed into a tiny box less than twenty inches high and held there for seventeen hours. When the box was opened, al-Libi was given one final opportunity to "tell the truth." He was knocked to the floor and "punched for fifteen minutes." At that point, al-Libi subsequently told the CIA, he "fabricated" a story about how al-Qaeda members had been dispatched to Iraq for WMD training.

Remember, Donald Trump believes absolutely that torture works.

And finally, one more connection from then to now: Scooter Libby was of course convicted and sentenced to prison for lying about his part in leaking Valerie Wilson's name to the press (others who leaked her identity, Karl Rove and Richard Armitage, weren't charged). Near the end of his term, Bush commuted Libby's prison sentence, pissing off poor Dick Cheney, who wanted to see Libby pardoned. That would have to wait until Donald Trump pardoned Libby in 2018. Trump insisted the pardon was necessary because poor Libby's conviction was unfair, but the pardon probably had just as much to do with Trump's wanting to let his own partners in crime know they could look forward to pardons if they kept their mouths shut.

And, of course, for one other really obvious reason: the Bush deputy attorney general who appointed the special prosecutor in the Libby case was a guy named James Comey. As even the wingnuts at RedState acknowledged (in an otherwise useless piece on how the leak was very legal and very cool), Trump's pardon was squarely aimed at giving "a middle finger to James Comey."

Gosh, don't you all long for the days when right-wingers subverted all the mechanisms of government to pursue their interests but at least refrained from saying a cuss in a White House presser?

Looking forward to your comments on the book, the Iraq War, and the parallels to the current fuckery in the comments!

Programming note: As always with Book Club, please save comments that are wholly off topic for the Open Thread, which will go up in a while. Yr Friendly Neighborhood Comments Moderator will be fairly aggressive in flagging off-topic posts and asking you to take 'em elsewhere.

Also too! Once it's out in August, we will absolutely be doing a Book Club on the newest book by Rick Perlstein, Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980. (Looky! A preorder linky with Wonket kickback!) No other writer has quite so brilliantly documented how we got to our current politics than Perlstein, whose Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America I would make required reading for all Wonketters if I were king. Between now and August, maybe we should do a book club on Nixonland, huh?

[Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn / Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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