The Terrible Power of Purposeful Ignorance

When politicians say they “didn’t know” about certain consequences or actions, the sad truth is that often they knew and just didn’t care.

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Iraqi women pass by a house destroyed during air campaign at early stages of war, in Baghdad, Iraq, March 18, 2007, ahead of the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion on Iraq. The 10th anniversary of the invasion is later this month. (AP/Samir Mizban)
Iraqi women pass by a house destroyed during air campaign at early stages of war, in Baghdad, Iraq, March 18, 2007, ahead of the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion on Iraq. The 10th anniversary of the invasion is later this month. (AP/Samir Mizban)

On the unhappy 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, those of us who spoke out against the impending catastrophe a decade ago are naturally tempted to rehearse the argument, particularly given the proclivity of our opponents to question the patriotism, perseverance, and perspicacity of the so-called dovish side. As The Guardian editorializes, “With the passage of time, the judgment of those who took to the streets against the rush to war only looks wiser.”

I will resist this temptation, save for my desire to revisit a single article that appeared on page one of The New York Times on October 9, 2002—roughly six months before the invasion began. Written by Alison Mitchell and Carle Hulse, the piece was titled, “THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE DEBATE; C.I.A. SEES TERROR AFTER IRAQ ACTION.” The article was published on the day that “the Bush administration pushed Congress … for a broad vote to authorize the president to use force against Iraq,” as the authors observed in their lede. But the story’s focus was decidedly inconsistent with the main narrative gripping prewar Washington.

According to the Times reporters, CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin, writing on behalf of Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, explained that Iraq was not involved in—nor was it planning any—terrorist attacks against the United States. As McLaughlin put it, “‘Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks’ with conventional or chemical or biological weapons against the United States.”

On the other hand, were former Iraq President Saddam Hussein to “conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist action.” Such actions at the time were thought to include either conventional terrorism or even a weapon of mass destruction, as it would be Hussein’s “last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.”

The rest of the article is weighed down by ridiculous quotes from Bush administration officials, including Tenet, insisting that “‘There is no inconsistency’ between the C.I.A. views in [McLaughlin’s] letter and those of the president.”

This was all nonsense, of course. The fundamental facts of the CIA report were clear: Pre-U.S. invasion, Iraq did not pose a terrorist threat to the United States. But if it were to invade, it would likely create an environment that would foster such animosity. Since the entire point of a purported preemptive attack on Iraq was to reduce the terrorist threat to the United States in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, taking action that would, in fact, do the opposite would be something that should have been off the table. After all, it’s not as if The Nation or a liberal think tank issued this warning assessment—it was the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The idea that any pundit or even anyone at all could say that they had better information than the CIA would have been ridiculous—nobody has better-quality information about what is happening inside a closed society’s weapons and military programs than the CIA. And to say that the assessment itself was politically motivated—well, the CIA director was a former Republican staffer and a close ally of the president, and hence probably eager to be as loyal to the president as possible.

So how did the war’s supporters manage to overcome this devastating report revealed for all to see on the front page of America’s newspaper of record that shot a hole right through the middle of their argument? Simple: They ignored it. They wanted a war. Period. And they got it. They knew—they just didn’t care.

I thought of this story yet again when I read a column last week by The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein, titled, “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” in which Klein discovered that many Republicans in Congress professed ignorance about President Barack Obama’s proposals to solve the sequester crisis and thus that “Some of the gridlock in Washington is simply the result of poor information.” Klein goes on to add:

What’s holding an agreement up is, in part, that Republicans are far less willing to compromise on taxes than Democrats are to compromise on Medicare and Social Security. But what shouldn’t be holding an agreement up is that top Republicans simply don’t know the compromises the White House is willing to make on Medicare and Social Security.

But as with Iraq, there is the kind of information of which one is unaware and the kind of which one chooses to be unaware. Klein had no trouble disproving the ignorance-based assertions of the Republican leadership with regard to the president’s position. Indeed, the proof was right there in the president’s most recent budget or the president’s plan to replace the sequester. The information is there for anyone who cares enough to click on it, and yet the sequester continues. It continues with powerful and influential pundits like The New York Times columnist—and former executive editor—Bill Keller, for example, who repeated discredited claims about the president’s plans in a recent column that could just as easily have been double checked—in this remarkable case, by reading Bill Keller’s own writing.

And what about that 2002 CIA report on an Iraqi invasion? Well, in addition to everything else that went wrong due to incompetence, corruption, misunderstanding, venality, and dishonesty in the Bush administration and its allies, the invasion turned out to have done exactly what the CIA predicted it would. Its accuracy was revealed in a September 23, 2006, Times article titled, “Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat.” According to the classified National Intelligence Estimate, which is the combined view of all the U.S. government’s intelligence agencies and was leaked to the reporters, the opening section of the report—titled, “Indicators of the Spread of the Global Jihadist Movement”—showed that the Iraq war was a primary reason for “the diffusion of jihad ideology.” The report added that “The Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,” and the reporters further noted that “Broad judgments of the new intelligence estimate are consistent with assessments of global terrorist threats by American allies and independent terrorism experts.”

It is true that knowledge is power. But getting American politicians to act upon that knowledge—or even convincing top pundits and reporters to pay attention to it—well, that’s another matter entirely. Just ask the millions of families of those killed, wounded, or displaced by the pointless and counterproductive American invasion of Iraq on its 10th birthday.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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