As featured in the Independent on Sunday
Christopher Hitchens (in top form)
In his February Vanity Fair hitpiece, Christopher Hitchens argues that the post-9/11 world has driven Gore Vidal "Loco' the signs, he says, were always there, but 9/11 and events thereafter "accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant.' Hitchens begins his missive with Gore's take on 9/11 itself, in which he "insinuated or asserted that the administration had known in advance of the attacks on New York and Washington and was seeking a pretext to build a long-desired pipeline across Afghanistan.'
And then Hitchens goes on, drawing on Vidal's October 2009 interview with Johann Hari:
"He openly says that the Bush administration was "probably' in on the 9/11 attacks, a criminal complicity that would "certainly fit them to a T"; that Timothy McVeigh was "a noble boy," no more murderous than Generals Patton and Eisenhower; and that "Roosevelt saw to it that we got that war" by inciting the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. Coming a bit more up-to-date, Vidal says that the whole American experiment can now be described as "a failure"; the country will soon take its place "somewhere between Brazil and Argentina, where it belongs"; President Obama will be buried in the wreckage - broken by "the madhouse" - after the United States has been humiliated in Afghanistan and the Chinese emerge supreme. We shall then be "the Yellow Man's burden," and Beijing will "have us running the coolie cars, or whatever it is they have in the way of transport."'
Gore Vidal has "descended straight to the cheap, and even to the counterfeit', becoming a peddler of "crank-revisionist and denialist history' in an "awful, spiteful and miserable way'. His writing and speaking witnesses "the utter want of any grace or generosity', the "entire absence of any wit or profundity', all replaced by "sarcastic, tired flippancy' and "lugubrious resentment'. Even a cursory reading of Hitchens's attack leaves a distasteful residue on the tongue - Gore Vidal is now eighty-five; has lost of the use of his legs; and lost his partner of 50 years. It is unsurprising that his irony is more cutting, his criticisms more caustic, and his tone more inflexible. Hitchens's approach, however, is to relentlessly kick an old man when he's down, rather than to engage critically and constructively with what his still sharp mind has learned.
Indeed, while denigrating Gore, Hitchens displays a chronic contempt for simple matters of fact and evidence. Let's start with Vidal's supposedly "crackpot' scepticism of the Bush administration's narrative of 9/11.
Obfuscating the Failures Behind 9/11
Hitchens conveniently overlooks Vidal's axiomatic acceptance that the attacks were carried about by Islamist terrorists: "... our policies were such that we were going to have a lot of crazy people out there in the Arab world who were going to try to blow us up, because of crimes they feel we committed against them. Any fool could see it coming. And I'm sufficiently a fool to have seen it.' It is only in this context that Gore describes bin Laden as "still not the proven mastermind.' Hitchens thinks this is self-evidently absurd, but it would seem the FBI agree with Gore, not Hitchens: according to Sonoma State University's Project Censored, one of the top 25 censored news stories of 2008 was that "He [bin Laden] has not been formally indicted and charged in connection with 9/11 because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11.' Clearly, this doesn't prove bin Laden wasn't the mastermind, but should give us pause for thought about why the evidence isn't so forthcoming.
On that note, it is a matter of record that the intelligence community received advanced warnings of the attacks. In Gore Vidal's extended piece for the London Observer (currently hosted on eleven term Washington Congressman Hon. Rep. Jim McDermott's website) he draws on my interview with former chief investigative counsel for the US House Judiciary Committee, David Schippers, who impeached President Bill Clinton. Schippers was approached by senior FBI agents in late July 2001 complaining that their investigations into an imminent al-Qaeda terrorist attack targeting the "financial district' of "lower Manhattan' were blocked from Washington. Schippers' story was corroborated by investigative journalist Greg Palast, who reported for BBC Newsnight and the Guardian that pre-9/11 FBI investigations into the terrorist connections of Saudi royals and the bin Laden family were also blocked "for political reasons'. Gagged FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, whose courageous whistleblowing on US intelligence corruption was also featured in a Vanity Fair cover-story, has similarly said that the FBI had "real, specific' advanced warning of the 9/11 attacks. Documents she translated clearly "showed that the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the country and plotting to use airplanes as missiles. The documents also included information relating to their financial activities' - contradicting Condoleezza Rice's now notorious pretence that US intelligence knew of no "possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles'.
Hitchens similarly ignores that three months before 9/11, US officials warned the Taliban of a US military strike in October 2001 if they didn't join up with the Northern Alliance. That warning came on the back of a series of negotiations involving UNOCAL from 1996 to 2000, to build a pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan. We now know, thanks to journalists like Ahmed Rashid and politicians like Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, that the US had covertly sponsored the Taliban in the (evidently vain) hope they might bring the "stability' necessary for the trans-Afghan pipeline.
And according to Forbes (19 January 2005), "Since the US-led offensive that ousted the Taliban from power, the project has been revived and drawn strong US support' as it would allow the Central Asian republics to export energy to Western markets "without relying on Russian routes'. The problem remains that the southern section of the proposed pipeline runs through territory still de facto controlled by Taliban forces. Gore never jumps to any specific conclusions around such evidence, but instead simply provokes the reader in his inimitable fashion: "Conspiracy? Coincidence!'
Protecting the Politicization and Corruption of Intelligence
Indeed, the pre-9/11 intelligence failure was not simply because of a lack of reliable intelligence, or because intelligence bureaucracy was hopelessly incompetent (which it was and is), but ultimately because the Bush administration made political decisions that obstructed critical intelligence investigations and ongoing information-sharing that could have prevented 9/11. Those decisions were made to protect vested interests linked to US support of Islamist extremist networks like the Taliban and their state-sponsors, such as the Gulf kingdoms, rooted in Western oil dependency and intersecting financial investments. The inadequacy of the 9/11 Commission investigation, in this regard, is an open secret to many intelligence experts. In the words of 27-year CIA veteran and former Chairman of the National Intelligence Estimate Ray McGovern, "The 9/11 report is a joke. The question is: What's being covered up? Is it gross malfeasance, gross negligence? Now there are a whole bunch of unanswered questions.'
As other whistleblowers such as the FBI's Coleen Rowley and Robert Wright have said, the problem was the politicization and corruption of the intelligence system - a reality which reared its ugly head yet again in the Iraq-WMD fable, also thoroughly documented by George Washington University's National Security Archive, which found that "the public relations push for war came before the intelligence analysis, which then conformed to public positions taken by Pentagon and White House officials.' This assessment is corroborated by multiple senior CIA officials, including the former highest ranking CIA officer in Europe, Tyler Drumheller, who said that when incoming information proved "there were no active weapons of mass destruction programs', the White House group dealing with preparation for the Iraq war said "Well, this isn't about intel anymore. This is about regime change.' Drumheller observes: "The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming, and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy.'
But particularly since 9/11, reality has never been Hitchens's strong point. Failing entirely to have learned his lesson over Iraq War 2003, in relation to which he was a leading protagonist, he now continues to pontificate on Iran, lambasting the findings of successive National Intelligence Estimates to the effect that there is scant evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. Opining that "for most of the duration of the Iraq debate, the CIA was all but openly hostile to any argument for regime-change in Baghdad' (ignoring that the reason for this was precisely the lack of evidence) he superimposes the same twisted logic on the Iran scenario: