Exchange with Michael Isikoff, Part III

Selective Outrage
by Ben Johnson

In his critique of our book Party of Defeat Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff rises to a pitch of moral outrage over our lack of concern for the alleged torture of terrorist Ibn Shaykh al-Libi. This focus is typical of critics of the war who ignore the massive leaks of classified information about America’s national security and domestic counterterrorism programs by American press organizations like Newsweek and the support for this criminal subversion of America’s national interest by the Democratic Party.

Isikoff’s heart bleeds for Ibn Shaykh al-Libi and burns with outrage over his needless “torture,” but he exhibits no outrage over his employer’s exposure of classified anti-terrorism programs designed to protect Americans from murderers in their midst.

Isikoff claimed in Part I of his critique: “After being beaten and tortured, [al-Libi] coughed up his story about Saddam and Al Qaeda.” The trouble with Isikoff’s complaint is that al-Libi gave this testimony before any rendition had taken place, and thus before the torture Isikoff alleges. George Tenet writes in his autobiography, “In the course of questioning while he was in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, al-Libi made initial references to possible al-Qa’ida training in Iraq.” The New York Times “exposé” on al-Libi merely states he “provided his most specific and elaborate accounts” following rendition. The Senate Intelligence Committee reiterated in 2006, “Al-libi told debriefers that he fabricated information while in U.S. custody to receive better treatment and in response to threats of being transferred to a foreign intelligence service which he believed would torture him.” Even after rendition to a “foreign intelligence service, [al-Libi] fabricated more information in response to physical abuse and threats of torture.” George Tenet throws additional cold water on Isikoff’s Orwellian narrative:

[W]e transferred him to a third country for further debriefing. Allegations were made that we did so knowing that he would be tortured, but this is false. The country in question understood and agreed that they would hold al-Libi for a limited period, and then return him to U.S. military custody, where he would be registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Amazingly, Isikoff overlooks the two sources we cited that imply al-Libi lied in retraction, rather than under “torture” (which, again, may have never occurred): then-CIA Director George Tenet and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Instead, he voices outrage at the “unnamed” source we cited who stated al-Libi deliberately lied to mislead the United States. That source was Omar Nasiri, who infiltrated al-Qaeda and whose book was vetted by antiwar CIA analyst Michael Scheuer and “members of various European security agencies.”

There are numerous other reasons to believe al-Libi may not have been the naïf Isikoff presents. Isikoff has written the CIA has not verified al-Libi’s claim to be a senior member of al-Qaeda. However, Omar Nasiri remembers al-Libi as a terrorist leader in Afghanistan. The New York Times revealed, “A government official said that some intelligence provided by Mr. Libi about Al Qaeda had been accurate, and that Mr. Libi’s claims that he had been treated harshly in Egyptian custody had not been corroborated.”

Isikoff glosses over the fact that al-Libi is an al-Qaeda terrorist (or at minimum a collaborator) and that terrorists are trained liars who are instructed to claim they were tortured by secular democracies and thus play on the credulous citizens of those democracies who are ready to believe evil things about their government. The al-Qaeda handbook lists as one of its missions: “Spreading rumors and writing statements that instigate people against the enemy.” It instructs captured terrorists, “Complain of mistreatment while in prison.” For some reason, al-Libi did not recant his testimony for something approaching 11 months after his return to U.S. custody, free to revert to following the al-Qaeda game plan, confident that amenable journalists will pick up his story.

Another omission from Isikoff’s account is the benefits accruing from al-Libi’s rendition. His tip led to the capture of Abu Zubaydah, then the highest-ranking al-Qaeda official to be captured in the War on Terror. Zubaydah had been involved in training the 9/11 hijackers and implicated in numerous other terrorist actions against the United States.

Isikoff’s concern for the al-Qaeda terrorist is not extended to the victims of politically motivated leaks from his own news organization. Dana Priest’s front page WaPo story specifically mentioned Jordan as a rendition site. One week to the day after the story ran, al-Qaeda launched a string of coordinated bombings against Western hotels located in Jordan, killing more than 50 people (including an American movie producer).

That’s only slightly more than the number of people killed when Isikoff falsely asserted in Newsweek that U.S. soldiers had flushed a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay – a claim he based on one anonymous source, one “no comment,” and the non-denial of an uninformed party. When Newsweek retracted the story, the humiliated editor said part of its rationale was the numerous unconfirmed reports of similar incidents from al-Qaeda members.

Undocumented instances of torture or other mistreatment often turn out to be illusory, as Mr. Isikoff has learned. However, the permanent damage done to our national reputation and our soldiers’ morale endure well beyond the retraction. This, rather than the unconfirmed suffering of an al-Qaeda member, outrages us. The difference in focus is the key difference between books like Hubris and Party of Defeat.


Blind Partisans by Michael Isikoff

I commend Ben Johnson for finding a few stray lines in George Tenet’s memoirs that he thinks supports his muddled account of the Ibn Al Shaykh Al Libi episode. (And how exquisitely ironic that he uses Tenet, of all people, as his authority on the handling of Iraq pre-war intelligence.) But the incontrovertible facts are these:

1) After his capture in Afghanistan, Al Libi was “rendered” for interrogation to the Egyptian intelligence service, which the Bush administration’s State Department has repeatedly condemned for its torture of terror suspects;

2) After being subjected to Egyptian interrogation, he first recounted his tale about Iraq providing chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda;

3) That story found its way into major prewar speeches by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell despite red flag memos by Defense Intelligence Agency analysts questioning its veracity;


4) When returned to U.S. custody, Al-Libi recanted the entire story, forcing the agency to retracted all its reporting based on Al Libi’s account.

I don’t what “Senate Intelligence Committee” Johnson thinks implied that Al-Libi’s recantation was a lie and his prior account to the Egyptians might have been true. But if it’s the United States Senate Intelligence Committee, it found precisely the opposite: Its September 8, 2006 report (issued when the panel was still under Republican control), clearly stated (on p. 107) that the DIA’s initial suspicions about Al-Libi’s Iraq story “were correct” and that (on p. 108) “The Intelligence Community has found no postwar information to indicate that Iraq provided CBW [chemical biological weapons] training to al Qa’ida.” (The report also makes abundantly clear —once again contrary to what Johnson writes—that Al-Libi first told the Iraq story after being interrogated by the Egyptians, not when he was still in U.S. custody. Three FBI agents who participated in the original – and legal – questioning of Al-Libi in Afghanistan say he never mentioned any connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda when the bureau still had access to him and was conducing interrogations the way they are supposed to be done.)

I’ll leave the moral outrage about all to others. The importance of the Al Libi episode is that it is the single most dramatic example of a point that was repeatedly made by senior FBI and Justice Department officials when they vigorously protested the Bush administration’s use of rendition and “aggressive” interrogation methods on terror suspects: torture is more likely than not to produce unreliable information, thereby harming – not helping – U.S. security.

One more point of clarification. Johnson raises the Newsweek Koran in a toilet story which I and my colleague John Barry reported in a two paragraph Periscope item in May, 2005. It is true that Newsweek retracted this story after Pentagon officials adamantly denied that any such episode – or any other incidents of desecration of the Koran—had ever taken place at Guantanamo Bay. Three weeks later, on June 3, 2005, the U.S. Southern Command issued a report concluding that in fact there had been multiple instances of “mishandling” of the Muslim Holy Book at Guantanamo, including cases of Korans being kicked, torn, desecrated with an obscenity and, yes, urinated upon. For many commentators, the report raised yet questions about the credibility of Pentagon assertions of what has taken place at Guantanamo. But such questions evidently don’t concern blind partisans such as Johnson—witness his hysterical use of words like “criminal” and “subversive” to describe the admirable work of journalists who have exposed dubious (and potentially illegal) activities by the government.


Blind That He Is A Partisan (And Defeated)
by Ben Johnson

I would like to end as I began these exchanges: by commending Michael Isikoff for attempting to engage Party of Defeat, the book David Horowitz and I wrote together about “How Democrats and Radicals Undermined America’s War on Terror Before and After 9/11.” I likewise commend him for having given up any pretense that he can disprove its theses: that the administration went to war to enforce 17 broken United Nations Security Council Resolutions (including the terms of the first Gulf War ceasefire) and to prevent Saddam Hussein from becoming an imminent threat; and the bulk of our book, barely touched upon in his exchanges, that Congressional Democrats voted to support the war in 2002 out of political expedience and then launched a sabotage campaign against the president and our war effort three months into the fight for the same reason.

Instead, most of his three exchanges have revolved around Libby, al-Libi, and aluminum. After seeing his arguments systematically dismantled in Part II (especially our noting the French told the administration they had “proof positive” the aluminum tubes were for centrifuges and our taking apart his weak case the administration was hellbent on war at all costs by putting stray quotations in context), he is now reduced to repeating the allegations of an imprisoned al-Qaeda asset and defending the indefensible (the journalistic lie he published that launched a worldwide backlash against the United States, got a score killed, and continues to stain our reputation around the world).

Ironically, he continues to deride us as ideologues, although he remains committed to a conspiratorial view of history already discredited by official investigations. For instance, in his interview with Kevin Zeese of the far-Left website Democracy Rising (and posted on the equally far-Left but more paranoid website CounterPunch), the non-ideological Isikoff stated Vice President Dick Cheney “thoroughly intimidated agency analysts” at the CIA. However, the Senate Intelligence Committee exonerated the administration in toto of pressuring CIA analysts, and as David Horowitz and I document in our book Party of Defeat, the Silberman-Robb Commission “found no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community’s pre-war assessments of Iraq’s weapons programs” (p. 113).

Isikoff further claims “most professional intelligence analysts” saw no confluence between terrorists and Iraq. However, most professional intelligence analysts at the CIA made the case for an al-Qaeda/Iraq connection, and George Tenet stood by it in his 2007 autobiography. To prove their thesis, Isikoff and David Corn will have to explain why a Realist Democrat and Clinton administration hold-over would wish to perpetrate “fraud” (Isikoff’s word) of this sort – and not merely Tenet but all those who made such claims, inside the CIA and out. But Tenet’s assertion does not fit into the vast Bush conspiracy Isikoff has attempted to artifice by referencing such “proofs” as the president’s cursing fits and the existence of run-of-the-mill military contingency plans.

Moreover, Robert Novak has written Hubris repeatedly skewed its account of its primary focus, the Plame leak. Novak recounted Isikoff and Corn make him appear as an agent of a White House harassment campaign bolstering a war that Novak opposed. How could they get it right on terrorist interrogation?

If there has been a documented report that al-Libi was “tortured,” Isikoff has not cited it. He also fails to explain how the innocent al-Libi “coughed up” information that led to the capture of high-ranking al-Qaeda official Abu Zubaydeh, or why he was spotted in an al-Qaeda camp.

Again, al-Libi has nothing to do with our book, and he is not mentioned in it. However, to indulge my correspondent’s passion, there still seem to be questions about when al-Libi “coughed up” the false part of his story. A year after the 2006 Senate Intelligence Committee report, Tenet wrote that al-Libi first spoke about an Iraq/al-Qaeda connection while in U.S. custody (and contemporaenous reports by Isikoff’s colleagues in the liberal media concur). As we pointed out in Part I, the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2006 recorded the CIA’s view that it “cannot determine whether, or what portions of, the original statements or the later recants are true or false.” (p. 108.) In 2007, Tenet affirmed this, noting, “The fact is, we don’t know which story is true, and since we don’t know, we can assume nothing.”

Again, the concept that al-Libi was deliberately misleading his interrogators could be interpreted in a way sympathetic to al-Qaeda (as Isikoff reads it), that the beleaguered jihadist lied under stress. Or it could be that, according to Nasiri, he lied to involve the U.S. in a war with Iraq, proving he is not “the single most dramatic example” that “torture is more likely than not to produce unreliable information” but rather the single most mundane example that al-Qaeda terrorists are liars and prestige media reporters are easy marks, blind both to their partisanship and its potential for useful idiocy.

The fact that al-Libi lied itself contradicts Isikoff and Corn’s contention that Bush and Cheney twisted intelligence. (They also omit that the world intelligence community believed the same things about the Hussein regime as the CIA, a fact owing either to poor intelligence or Bush/Cheney omnipotence.) At best, the al-Libi affair is a muddled case – and one utterly irrelevant to the issue, much less our book’s thesis – but it’s all Isikoff has left.

Incredibly, rather than showing outrage at the way his profession has undermined our Homeland Security, he defends the practice as “admirable,” instead making a semantic objection to my argument.

Reporting classified information is both criminal and subversive in the denotative sense: it is illegal to reveal classified information and subverts the nation’s defense. Liberal hero Woodrow Wilson jailed people for lesser infractions. This is all the more inexcusable in that the revelations did not concern the waging of war abroad but the attempt to capture terrorist networks in the United States. This is not admirable but execrable.

And like Dan Rather and Mary Mapes standing by the National Guard forgeries, Isikoff’s conspiratorial view of a Republican administration leads him to defend his Koran flushing report (he ventures only that “Newsweek retracted this story”), which instigated worldwide protests.

To state the obvious: Isikoff’s story was a lie, and citing other cases of Koran mishandling does not make his story correct.

As to the allegations themselves, Isikoff selectively cites the record to cast maximum aspersions on the U.S. military. For instance, Brig. Gen. Jay W. Hood’s official investigation found that one copy of the Koran had been “desecrated with an obscenity” but not that any American had been responsible for it. Likewise, the one incident of urine splashing on a U.S. government-issued Koran was found inadvertent, as was another incident. Isikoff relates these without relevant qualifiers. Indeed, Hood found detainees had flushed, urinated upon, or otherwise desecrated their own copies of the Koran more than seven-times as often than verified accounts of deliberate U.S. mishandling. The mass bulk of “Koran desecration” and other atrocity stories waged in al-Qaeda’s psychological warfare against the United States have never been verified (and never will be). This does not raise “questions about the credibility of Pentagon assertions of what has taken place at Guantanamo” but questions of Isikoff’s veracity and whether he will ever learn from his journalistic malpractice. (“Isikoff Lied; People Died.”)

Isikoff’s erroneous reporting got a score of people killed and more than one hundred injured. Forgive me if I refuse to yield him the moral high ground when he argues President Bush has caused people to die for a lie.

Nonetheless, we thank Michael Isikoff for making any argument about Party of Defeat at all, however tangential. Many liberals refuse to engage the book whatsoever. Although Isikoff could not address any of its main points on the rationale for the Iraq war, much less Congressional Democrats’ sabotage of the war they supported, our editorial pages remain open to reputable critics – especially those we have invited from Slate, The American Prospect, The New Republic, and other journals – to attempt what he failed.

This story originally appeared as “Who Lied When People Dies? Round III” on Thursday, September 25, 2008, on FrontPage Magazine.