|February 21, 2006|
The CIA and Its Dirty Pictures
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Almost thirty years ago, the first documentary on which I received a writing credit was a public television special titled "Vietnam: Picking Up the Pieces." Produced by the independent documentarian Jon Alpert and his wife, Keiko, they were the first Western TV crew allowed into Vietnam after the 1975 fall of Saigon.
The program showed a Vietnam trying to recover from the devastation of years of combat. It was a nation desperately impoverished, reliant on Soviet aid, struggling to adjust to the reunification of north and south, and grappling with the aftermath of a war that they had seen as one of liberation but which the United States perceived as a battleground in the global struggle against Communism.
In retrospect, you can see in the documentary the seeds of the resilient society Vietnam has become today; a socialist state but one in which competitive markets and tourism -- along with inflation and property rates -- are thriving.
Diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States were restored more than a decade ago, but at the time of the documentary, the two nations were still at loggerheads. We arranged a screening at the State Department, and after viewing this hour that depicted a country building back from war, coping with its own dilemmas and inconsistencies, yet quite clearly, even stunningly, hopeful, a couple of the State analysts came up to us with a sort of comradely nudge nudge, wink wink.
Well, they said, we saw the pictures and heard what the people had to say, but we know what you really were trying to tell us: it's hell on earth.
It was like that old joke about the guy who looks at the Rorschach ink blots, sees nothing but sexual acts and when questioned by the shrink about his obsession, says "Don't look at me, doc, you're the one with the dirty pictures."
At the time, it seemed bizarre, but this weekend, after reading James Risen's book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration," it's clear that such hammering of square pegs in round holes is standard operating procedure in intelligence gathering and American foreign policy, especially under the current administration. All too often, information had been shaped to conform to doctrine rather than the other way around, and we pay the price at a greater and potentially deadlier rate every day.
It was the imminent publication of Risen's book that triggered the New York Times' decision to go ahead with his front-page articles about the National Security Agency's domestic wiretapping program, a story the paper had sat on for a year, partly at the request of the White House. But "State of War" is about much more than supralegal surveillance. It's an agonizing litany of how mismanagement, political infighting -- with Cheney, Rumsfeld and their neo-con friends at the forefront, the president frequently and purposely left out of the loop -- and good, old-fashioned pig ignorance led to a series of monstrous intelligence gaffes.
Those blunders contributed to the current bedlam in Iraq, the creation of a narco-state in Afghanistan, and the worldwide expansion of al Qaeda. There's even the tale of an outrageous CIA scam called MERLIN that inadvertently may have handed Iran -- as in Axis of Evil -- blueprints for a nuclear weapon.
An especially surprising story is that of Dr. Sawsan Alhaddad, an Iraqi anesthesiologist living in Cleveland. In 2002, she was recruited by the CIA to travel to Baghdad and secretly question her brother, "a key figure in Saddam Hussein's clandestine nuclear weapons program."
On behalf of her adopted country and at great personal risk, she did as she was asked. Her brother was incredulous: Iraq's nuclear program had been destroyed years before, he told her, and sanctions kept Saddam from beginning it anew. She even asked him about the alleged Iraqi attempts to buy yellowcake uranium from the African country Niger. Nothing like that was going on, she was told, and, Alhaddad said, her brother "kept wondering where the CIA was getting these crazy questions."
CIA officials refused to believe her, nor did they believe thirty other Iraqis they sent to speak to family members, all of whom returned with identical versions of Alhaddad's story. Their reports, Risen writes, "were buried in the bowels of the CIA and were never released for distribution to the State Department, Pentagon or the White House. The CIA had obtained hard evidence that Saddam Hussein had abandoned his efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction -- and the agency chose not to share that information with the president of the United States, who was about to send American troops to fight and die in Iraq." Hopes for peace were "dashed by the petty turf battles and tunnel vision of the agency's officials."
"State of War" chronicles this "war fever" that seized the CIA in its desire to tell Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld what they wanted to hear; demonstrates how other intelligence failures contributed to the current insurgency and the ongoing crises in Afghanistan and Iran; and ends with a disturbing chapter on Saudi Arabia's connections to al Qaeda:
"Even as the Bush Administration spent enormous time and energy trying in vain to prove connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in order to justify the war in Iraq, the administration was ignoring the far more conclusive ties with Saudi Arabia. Those links are much stronger and far more troubling than has ever been previously disclosed, and until they are thoroughly investigated, the roots of al Qaeda's power and the full story of 9/11, will never be known."
Especially chilling in light of everything from the current situation with Hamas in Palestine to the proposed turning over of six American ports to an Arab-owned company, Risen concludes, "Washington's failure to confront questions about Saudi Arabia before and after 9/11 raises much broader questions, including whether the Bush administration really understands or knows how to deal with the rapid political change now underway in the Middle East."
Now that's what I call a dirty picture.
P.S. All this talk about the CIA demands noting the passing of Emmy Award winning documentary film maker Al Levin, who died last week, age 79. Among his many projects were several investigating and exposing CIA mischief, including "Who Invited U.S.?" and "The Secret Government" with Bill Moyers. Avuncular and wry, always willing to share advice or a good story, his commitment to social justice was solid and true. As Al would say, "Avanti!" Onward.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
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