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Iraq, Ten Years Later: What About the Constitution?

By       Message Seymour Hersh     Permalink
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Source: New Yorker

We have a new anniversary to celebrate, or to mourn. The bombing of Baghdad 10 years ago this week marked the beginning of another senseless American war fought for reasons that turned out not to exist, driven by wrongheaded, cockeyed, and manipulated intelligence.

We know the history. After a few weeks in which the Iraqi Army scattered without putting up much of a fight, the situation quickly got out of control. By mid-2004, with a Presidential election under way, it was clear to many that we were deep into a guerrilla war that would turn out badly and take the lives of thousands of Americans, and many times that number of Iraqis. And yet George Bush, the man who brought us there, won reëlection that November.

So the question that presents itself is: What's up with our Constitution? How could a small group of hard-line conservatives around President Bush, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and a few neoconservatives so quickly throw us over the cliff? This included not only a war fought on false pretenses but also a system of torture and indefinite detention that, in far too many cases, ran against our laws and values (and was only partially checked by the Supreme Court). 

It's not enough to blame it on the fear, anger, and confusion brought on by the 9/11 attacks. What happened to our press corps with its alleged independence and its commitment to the First Amendment and the values of the rest of the Bill of Rights? What about Congressional oversight -- laughable in the run-up to the war, and even more laughable today, as American enters the 12th year of its worldwide War on Terror. Is our Constitution that fragile?

The dominant question that marked the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals -- what did the President know and when did he know it? -- no longer needs to be asked. We have a President who found a way, last May, to let the world -- and, most importantly, those wavering independents in the months before last year's election -- know via the New York Times that he personally participated in discussions about which a terrorist, real or suspected, was to be assassinated. 

The Times quoted John Brennan, then a senior Presidential adviser and now our newly confirmed director of Central Intelligence, as explaining that the suspects went through a checklist that included "the infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things." 

The question about all of these things that has yet to be asked -- at a Presidential news conference or during Brennan's confirmation hearing -- is this: How many suspects on your list have been taken off the list because of unreliable intelligence or a conclusion that the "imminent" threat was no longer so imminent? The answer, according to people who know of such matters, is very few, if any. Meanwhile, we are creating more and more terrorists as we drone and predator along.

A second question that could be asked is: How many of the men and women who attend meetings about the kill lists have participated in Situation Room viewing of post-strike footage of the predator and drone raids? A retired senior intelligence officer said that some of those who have attended have wryly characterized it as watching "snuff movies."

Nothing succeeds in Washington like being tougher than the next guy. And woe to those who express doubt. In its article last May, the Times quoted retired Admiral Dennis Blair, the Obama Administration's first director of National Intelligence, who was replaced after just 16 months on the job, as saying that the drone and predator strikes were talked about as "the only game in town" -- in a way that "reminded me of body counts in Vietnam." 

Vietnam. And Iraq, and Afghanistan. We have a lot of anniversaries to forget.

Above: American soldiers in the battle for Baghdad, April 8, 2003. Photograph by Alex Majoli/Magnum.


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Seymour Hersh leaped to national prominence in 1969 when he broke the story of the My Lai massacre by U.S. Marines operating in Vietnam. He has written for the New Yorker since 1971. His journalism and publishing awards include a Pulitzer Prize, (more...)

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