“Frontline” Ignores Its Own Reporting To Paint Cheney as Crazy Ahab

PBS’s “Frontline” aired a documentary last night called The Dark Side about the manipulation of intelligence by the vice president’s office in the runup to the Iraq war. This is now an old story, but it was well-told. Frontline assembled a number of former intelligence analysts to show how the CIA’s usual standards of accuracy were overrun in order to produce the result Cheney wanted.

Aluminum tubes… Yellow cake from Niger….Chemical labs in train cars….All the warmongering claims duly parroted to the world by George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell, thereby damaging themselves forever.

The climax of the documentary comes when Paul Pillar, a former CIA executive, says that he regrets having signed off on a white paper he didn’t fully believe and whose sole purpose was “to strengthen the case of going to war with the American public.” He and George Tenet did something improper, and were buffaloed.

But the mystery the show raises and fails to answer is, Why did Cheney do it? We mostly see Cheney on “Meet the Press.” After 9/11 he declares that we must engage the enemy in the “dark side” of warmaking. Thus the Frontline title. And yes, the program proves that Cheney operated in the dark side, outside of constraints. But why? To what end? Frontline cannot say, except to hint at megalomania and Ahablike desertion of Cheney’s rational faculties.

I find myself actually sympathizing with Cheney. As I’ve written here before, Cheney is a blank. There is no intimate biography of him to describe his thinking. Frontline’s answer is pat. It doesn’t plumb his past much, say at American Enterprise Institute. It doesn’t talk to his friends or colleagues.

I sympathize with Cheney because I don’t think that in pushing us into a disastrous war, Cheney was unpatriotic or out of touch with reality. I believe he was doing his utmost to protect the nation, and came up with different answers to the clash of cultures than the CIA or the liberal Frontline audience (including me). Bad answers, arrogant answers, disastrous answers. But dammit, they were his answers.

This is where I accuse Frontline of ignoring its own reporting. Through the beauty of the internet, PBS has offered us fuller transcripts of many of the interviews on which it based its show. Again and again, what comes up in the interviews is the importance of neoconservative thinking to the Administration:

—An interviewer prods Pillar about the power of the neocons: “[Did] you feel that there was among this group, the neocons, that there was a real force out there pushing to overthrow Saddam?” Pillar: “It was there, but it wasn’t until 9/11 afforded the opportunity by making the American public suddenly much more militant that the prospect of actually going to war became real. Before 9/11, they didn’t have enough to hang on.”

—Here is former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke on the influence in the administration of Laurie Mylroie, a feverish neocon, whose dubious claims about Iraq Paul Wolfowitz imbibed hook-line-and-stinker: “Wolfowitz spouted that ‘All of what you say is Al Qaeda must actually be state-sponsored, because no terrorist organization could do that without a nation helping them. And the nation must be Iraq, and we know this from reading the writings of this woman, Laurie Mylroie,’ whom we had known about and checked out several times [and concluded to be unreliable].”

—Here is former CIA exec Michael Scheuer on Rumsfeld and Feith and Wolfowitz’s view of the Mideast. “Syria is a perfect example. Syria, in my adult life, has always been tagged as an enemy of the United States and as a threat, but once you get inside the intelligence community, you find out that the Syrians are bankrupt, a police state that’s riven with factions and couldn’t threaten the United States in 100 years. But because Rumsfeld and [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy [Douglas] Feith and Wolfowitz are so pro-Israeli, the answer needs to come back, “Yes, Syria is a threat.” Over the course of a decade and longer, even back into the first Bush administration and into Mr. Reagan’s administration, the enemies of Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Feith, Mr. Wolfowitz were not necessarily the enemies that you could derive from the intelligence material.”

—Here is Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, describing the neocons as a cabal of “Jacobins”: “Dick Cheney is genuinely concerned about the security of this country; there’s no question in my mind about that. He’s paranoid about it, I think. And you can say, “Well, the vice president of the United States and the president of the United States should be paranoid about my security,” and I probably wouldn’t argue it until it starts causing me to do things that violate my own code of conduct, ethics and so forth. Then I’m going to object. So how did they come to ally themselves [with] these Jacobins who are, above all else, intent on a messianic spread of the American way around the world at the point of the bayonet? And [how did] these ultranationalists, who during the campaign, for example, decried nation building, [start] going about the world slaying monsters and spending billions to do it? How did they come to form this unholy alliance, these Jacobins and these ultranationalists? … FRONTLINE: This is what you meant when you called them a “cabal” “Yes. Because it uses the statutory process in which the entire bureaucracy has a voice to camouflage the real decision-making process.”

Amazingly, Frontline did not once use the word “neoconservative” in its show last night. This was unfair both to its audience and Cheney. Frontline knew from its own reporting the importance to Cheney of neoconservative ideas of reforming the Middle East as a way to end terrorism. Myself, I think these are disastrous wrongheaded ideas. But they are genuinely Cheney’s ideas, and deserve debate. How did he absorb them? How did his thinking evolve? Where did these ideas come from? To what extent were others mentioned in the show, from Wolfowitz to Judy Miller to Scooter Libby, adherents? What do these ideas say about the world?

If you want to explain the Iraq war, this is the investigation to be done. Frontline had this deeper and richer story about ideas and policymaking within its grasp, but chose to talk about bureaucratic infighting.