New York Times - July 25, 2004
'A Pretext for War': Wartime Lies?
By FRED KAPLAN
A PRETEXT FOR WAR
9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies.
By James Bamford.
420 pp. Doubleday. $26.95.
THE title alone brings on fatigue. Do we need yet another book on the failure to foresee 9/11 and the Bush administration's use of the attacks to justify war on Iraq? Then again, the author is James Bamford, who wrote ''The Puzzle Palace,'' the first deep expose of the National Security Agency, and ''Body of Secrets,'' its penetrating sequel. Bamford's byline promises fresh disclosures and acute insights.
Alas, he doesn't deliver this time. He uncovers a few new facts, but most are peripheral to the story. He lays out some novel theses, but they're overblown, undersourced or just wrong.
''A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies'' is three books crammed into one. The first and most riveting is a chronicle of what happened on Sept. 11, some of it familiar, much of it not. It includes the fullest account yet of why the hijacked planes weren't shot down. A few American fighter jets did take off in hot pursuit, but they weren't armed. One was loaded with five seconds' worth of nonexplosive training rounds; two others were being fitted with air-to-air missiles, but there was no time to finish loading them. Even if they had been carrying real weapons, the pilots had no authority to fire them.
Next, Bamford describes the rise of Osama bin Laden and how the United States kept missing him. Only in Part 3 does the book get into the Pentagon's ''pretext for war'' and ''the abuse of America's intelligence agencies.'' But here it turns numbingly unoriginal and conceptually confused.
Does anyone who might pick up ''A Pretext for War'' not know of the C.I.A.'s crippling budget cuts, lack of spies on the ground or shortage of Arab-speaking analysts? Or of its rivalry with the F.B.I., which hindered the sharing of information? Or that the Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi fabricated evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Or that a group of neoconservatives in and out of the Pentagon hyped and twisted intelligence data?
If any of this is news to you, you may consider ''A Pretext for War'' enlightening. If not -- that is, if you read a newspaper now and then -- you'll find its breathless prose a bit odd.
Beyond this, what point is Bamford making? He slams the Central Intelligence Agency for not knowing what Al Qaeda and Iraq were up to. Then he slams the neoconservatives for dismissing the C.I.A.'s initial claims that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction or alliances with Al Qaeda. But if the C.I.A. was so clueless, why should the neocons have accepted its assurances?
Bamford sometimes comes close to wrestling with this contradiction. Because officials had no agents in place, he notes, they were forced to depend on Chalabi's ''bogus information,'' in what he calls ''a dangerous exercise in self-deception.''
Yet more often he accuses the neocons of outright lying. Which is it? Were they deceived or deceivers? Probably they were both, embellishing flimsy evidence to make a case that the C.I.A., to their frustration, wasn't making. It's worth recalling that during the buildup, virtually everyone, including the opponents of war, believed that Hussein had at the very least chemical or biological weapons.
As Bamford well documents, some Pentagon officials and advisers -- most prominently, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle -- were aching for an excuse to invade Iraq and were motivated, in part, by a passion for Israel's security. But Bamford seems to argue that this was the central reason for hostilities (abetted by President Bush's desire to avenge Saddam Hussein's assassination attempt on his father).
This goes too far. As Bamford notes, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld started talking about invading Iraq a few hours after the 9/11 attacks. Yet Rumsfeld had no particular Zionist impulses. And what of Vice President Dick Cheney? Most accounts of the war depict Cheney as the steamrolling force. Yet Bamford refers to him only infrequently. Cheney and Rumsfeld very likely wanted to redraw the map of the Middle East for old-fashioned geopolitical reasons. Perhaps Bamford minimizes their roles because they muddle his principal theme: Israel was the chief culprit, both for bin Laden's war on America and for Bush's war on Iraq.
Bamford recounts a 1996 Israeli attack on unarmed refugees in the southern Lebanese village of Qana. The subsequent ''grisly photographs,'' he writes, ''were likely the final shove, pushing bin Laden over the edge and leading him to dedicating his life to war against what he would call the Israeli-United States alliance. From then on, he would often use the massacre at Qana as a battle cry, and it would become the match lighting the fuse that would eventually lead to the World Trade Center on a Tuesday morning five years later.''
This is nonsense. America's aid to Israel and Israel's policy toward Palestinians have certainly inflamed Islamic terrorists. And in at least one of his war cries, bin Laden did refer to Qana -- along with Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Bosnian Muslims and the sanctions on Iraq. But to the extent bin Laden was driven by any act of policy, it was the presence of American troops on the sacred soil of his native Saudi Arabia during and after the 1991 gulf war. Though this was the principal subject of bin Laden's pivotal 1998 jihad against Americans, Bamford barely acknowledges it. Nor does he dwell on the long tradition of militantly anti-Western clerics who were a major influence on bin Laden's thinking.
THE book has a disjointed quality throughout. Characters are elaborately introduced, then dropped. One chapter begins with an overwrought account of the president getting up to go jogging (''In the onyx darkness, George W. Bush switched on the brass sidelight next to his bed''), to no purpose whatever. A description of a corridor at N.S.A. headquarters is later repeated, practically verbatim. One vital point -- that the C.I.A. didn't try to penetrate Al Qaeda -- is hammered home, with only slight variations, at least seven times. The index is incomplete.
In one sense, Bamford's book is like Bush's push for war: it's a rush job, distorted by his own preconceptions.
Fred Kaplan is the national security columnist for Slate and the author of ''The Wizards of Armageddon.''