A War of Convenience?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; 1:11 PM

President Bush and Vice President Cheney could have reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in lots of ways. What they chose to do was launch a global war on terror -- potentially a war without end.

This decision now seems like a big mistake. In the name of the war on terror, we have invaded and occupied a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11, we have emboldened our enemies, we have lost and taken many lives, we have spent trillions of dollars, we have sacrificed civil liberties, and we have jettisoned our commitment to human dignity.

But was it an honest mistake? Did Bush and Vice President Cheney declare war because they believed it was the best way to guarantee the safety of the American people? Or did they do it in a premeditated -- and ultimately successful -- attempt to seize greater political power?

New Yorker writer Jane Mayer's new book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals," offers evidence of the latter. (See yesterday's column for an overview.)

In an online interview with Harpers blogger Scott Horton, Mayer sums up her findings this way: "After interviewing hundreds of sources in and around the Bush White House, I think it is clear that many of the legal steps taken by the so-called 'War Council' were less a 'New Paradigm,' as Alberto Gonzales dubbed it, than an old political wish list, consisting of grievances that Cheney and his legal adviser, David Addington, had been compiling for decades. Cheney in particular had been chafing at the post-Watergate reforms, and had longed to restore the executive branch powers Nixon had assumed, constituting what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called 'the Imperial Presidency.'

"Before September 11, 2001, these extreme political positions would not have stood a change of being instituted -- they would never have survived democratic scrutiny. But by September 12, 2001, President Bush and Vice President Cheney were extraordinarily empowered. Political opposition evaporated as critics feared being labeled anti-patriotic or worse."

Andrew J. Bacevich called attention to this point in his review of Mayer's book in The Washington Post on Sunday: "Mayer recognizes . . . the intimate relationship between the global war on terror and Addington's new paradigm. The entire rationale of the latter derived from the former: no war, no new paradigm. Hence, the rush to declare that after Sept. 11, 2001, everything had changed. The insistence that the gloves had to come off, that the so-called law enforcement approach to dealing with terrorism had failed definitively, that only conflict on a global scale could keep America safe: These provided the weapons that Addington's War Council wielded to mount its assault on the Constitution -- all of course justified as necessary to keep Americans safe.

"Matthew Waxman, who in 2001 was serving as special assistant to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, told Mayer that the decision to frame the U.S. response to 9/11 as a war was taken with 'little or no detailed deliberation about long-term consequences.' Yet the decision was a momentous one, he continues, setting the United States on 'a course not only for our international response, but also in our domestic constitutional relations.'

"Little deliberation occurred because none was deemed necessary. As Mayer makes clear, the White House seized upon the prospect of open-ended war with alacrity. And why not? In the near term at least, going to war almost invariably works to the benefit of the executive branch. War elicits deference from Congress and the courts. As a wartime commander-in-chief, the president wields greater clout. In this particular case, war also helped deflect demands for accountability: Despite what Mayer describes as 'the worst intelligence failure in the nation's history,' the aftermath of 9/11 saw not a single senior official fired."

Frank Rich picked up on that last point in his Sunday New York Times opinion column: "In [Mayer's] telling, a major incentive for Mr. Cheney's descent into the dark side was to cover up for the Bush White House's failure to heed the Qaeda threat in 2001. Jack Cloonan, a special agent for the F.B.I.'s Osama bin Laden unit until 2002, told Ms. Mayer that Sept. 11 was 'all preventable.' By March 2000, according to the C.I.A.'s inspector general, '50 or 60 individuals' in the agency knew that two Al Qaeda suspects -- soon to be hijackers -- were in America. But there was no urgency at the top. Thomas Pickard, the acting F.B.I. director in the summer of 2001, told Ms. Mayer that when he expressed his fears about the Qaeda threat to Mr. Ashcroft, the attorney general snapped, 'I don't want to hear about that anymore!'"

And in an opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post, former CIA analyst Glenn L. Carle wrote that we as a nation have allowed the specter of the terrorist threat "to distort our lives and take our treasure.

"The 'Global War on Terror' has conjured the image of terrorists behind every bush, the bushes themselves burning and an angry god inciting its faithful to religious war. We have been called to arms, built fences, and compromised our laws and the practices that define us as a nation. The administration has focused on pursuing terrorists and countering an imminent and terrifying threat. Thousands of Americans have died as a result, as have tens of thousands of foreigners. . . .

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