Spy v. Spy

Videotaping would be “subject to too much scrutiny in court,” one DIA officer suggested in Thailand and CIA counsel concurred: “Even totally legal techniques will look ugly.”

Twenty minutes into the interview, listening to rationales for torture euphemistically branded ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (EIT), 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl put on her schoolmarm scold: “This is Orwellian stuff.  The United States doesn’t do that.”

José Rodriguez, the former Deputy Director/Operations CIA, clenched his jaw offering the pugnacious look of a Latin Ray Kelly and retorted, “Well, we do!”

Of course we do.  Any bleeding-heart ACLU type, including the Inspector General of the CIA, who takes exception, should know that Rodriguez doesn’t give “a rat’s ass.”  And neither do ‘tough-tawkin,’ real Americans who, like 24hrs devotees in the Bush-Cheney White House, are in thrall to visions of agent Jack Bauer  tracking down the “ticking time bomb” before it is too late.  It is a variation of the Nam-era battle cry, “Kill ‘Em All – Let God Sort Out the Innocent,” variously called The One Percent Doctrine or the Mosaic Theory.   

In 2002, when a high-value detainee (HVD) named Abu Zubaydah was captured during a firefight in Pakistan, he was, as Rodriguez stated, taken to a “black site,” so that “we could elicit intelligence.”  Code-named ‘Cat’s Eye,’ the site was a disused warehouse, in proximity to a SIGINT complex, just off Udon Royal Thai Air Force base, in northeastern Thailand.  The US Air Force based out of this location during the Vietnam War, as did CIA proprietary, Air America.

The American epitaph in Vietnam is an iconic 1975 photo depicting the scramble for the last helicopter out of Saigon.  Evacuees are clambering up a ladder to the roof of an apartment building serving as a makeshift landing pad for an Air America UH-1 Huey.  As the chopper lifted off, leaving behind thousands of desperate Vietnamese US-proxies to the advancing North Vietnamese Army (NVA), CIA officer Frank Snepp watched.  The mayhem had manifested in the most personal way, as his Miss Saigon, thinking herself abandoned by him, had just killed herself along with the child she claimed was his. 

Snepp was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit by D/CIA at the end of ’75, in part for his analysis laying out the collapse, but also for his interrogation of one HVD.  In late ‘72, 29yrs-old Snepp was dispatched by Langley HQ to Station in Saigon to conduct the interrogation of Nguyen Tai, an NVA colonel characterized as “one of the most hostile counterintelligence prisoners ever to fall in allied hands.”  Snepp came on the heels of other interrogators, including the South Vietnamese who used electric shocks, clubs, all manner of privation, waterboarding and “Chinese Water Torture.”  

For a field officer whose first assignment in ’69 had been profiling targets for strike teams in the notorious Phoenix Program, harsh interrogation may have seemed tame fair indeed.  For Snepp’s stint at interrogating, conditions were tempered to an all-white cell, brightly lit 24/7 with maxed-out air-conditioning, as Tai, like many Vietnamese, thought cooling poisonous. But if “interrogation is a hunt for the game of the human mind,” Tai’s revelations yielded small quarry, as he was convinced cooperation would spell his demise once all of Vietnam fell to his comrades. 

For Snepp “our handling of the evacuation was an institutional disgrace” so he set down all its hairy details in “Decent Interval”, published without clearance from CIA’s Publications Review Board.  He suffered the consequences.  When I ran into Snepp in Manhattan in the early ‘80s, all his royalties had been clawed back.   He was a remote figure, estranged from almost everyone, his moral outrage muted.

No such fate awaits José Rodriguez for publishing “Hard Measures” which touts EIT and boasts of destroying 92 tapes of the EIT of Abu Zubaydah.  “We needed to get everybody in government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed,” Rodriguez told 60 Minutes.  “I had had a lot of experience in the agency where we had been left to hold the bag.  And I was not about to let that happen for the people that work for me.” 

Rodriguez got to look out for his people, Snepp did not.  But what was the real tale of the tapes?  For one thing Zubaydah was a guinea pig, Rodriguez testified, and EIT was very much a questionable work in progress.  But videotaping would be “subject to too much scrutiny in court,” one DIA officer suggested in Thailand and CIA counsel concurred: “Even totally legal techniques will look ugly.”  But maybe the tapes revealed that EIT simply didn’t deliver as claimed. Maybe EIT is less about information and more about messaging to what depth of hopelessness captured terrorists will be reduced. 

The FBI’s Arabic-speaking lead interrogator, Ali Soufan, like Snepp, favored “informed interrogation technique” that involves “engaging and outwitting” the subject into believing more is known than actually is, thus providing that delta of actionable intelligence.  He believes “people in Washington rewrote the results” to give undue credit to EIT; Zubaydah gave up dirty nuke wannabe Jose Padilla prior to his 83 waterboardings, says Soufan, as well as identifying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) as the mastermind of 9/11.  

Though KSM was waterboarded 183 times, Leslie Stahl pointed out that, “you really didn’t break him…. He didn’t tell you about Osama bin Laden.”  Rodriguez did a rare retreat: “there is a limit to what they will tell us….  That was the one secret he was going to take to the grave, and that was the protection of the Sheikh.”  So much for EIT leading to the ticking time bomb.

Cofer Black, a classmate of Rodriguez’s from the Farm and his predecessor at CIA/CTC, famously proclaimed that he was going to bring back Osama bin Laden’s head on a stick with flies walking across his eyeballs.  Mission Unaccomplished, Cofer now serves on Team Romney as their Black Ops, flies-on-the-eyeballs guy.  His Sancho Panza goes on 60 Minutes to lay claim for the ultimate reckoning of bin Laden, followed two weeks later by a fawning interview of another high-ranking Black acolyte, Hank Crumpton.  

What kind of domestic psyops are in the offing here?  This Spy v Spy tradecraft debate between Manchurian Candidate and Machiavelli presents a classic divide writ large: the distinction between uncertainty, a law of physics, and certainty, an article of faith.  The Company Man v the mission minded; the morally righteous v the morally outraged.

 

Photos: (Top) Frank Snepp, (Bottom) Jose Rodriguez

Iran From 10,000 Feet

Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could.

This column appears in the February 2nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Trunk to tail the elephants circle the ring while the four remaining clowns in the circus vamp, weep and honk their noses to the delight of the audience. The train travels from Iowa to New Hampshire, and then makes its way down the coast to Florida where the most recent performance went off without a hitch. With dozens more appearances planned for the upcoming weeks, the greatest show on Earth promises to keep the masses entertained for months to come.

Outside the alternate reality that is the American election season, however, a gathering storm is rapidly approaching, threatening to rip the stakes from the ground and bring the tent down upon all of us.

The deadliest game of chicken in history is being played in dark alleys with no headlights. Two cars careen toward each other, Iran in one and Israel in the other, while the world huddles close to see which one of them blinks first. But we are all more than spectators in this deadly contest, we are participants. The ever-expanding concentric circles of conflict that began with the Mossad and Hezbollah, extended to neighboring nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Syria, now encapsulate the United States, Europe, Russia and China.

In short, the stage is set for World War III. Damn, those Mayans were good!

Because the economy is still in the center ring, however, it’s the primary show the audience focuses on. We can see shadowy figures moving about in the periphery. We know they’re there, but our attention is diverted for the moment. Humanity be damned, it’s still the economy, stupid. It’s why every pronouncement of war, every threat to prevent a nuclear Iran, includes references to the disruption of the global oil supply.

But exactly how do you quantify the potential ramifications of a complete breakdown in both production and supply of oil in the Middle East, and more specifically Iran? The second oil shock of the 1970s, beginning with an Iranian oil-workers’ strike in 1978 and continuing through the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, is a useful portent of financial catastrophe. This two-year flare-up resulted in skyrocketing oil prices that reached $38 per barrel in 1980. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s around $90 per barrel.

Think about that for a moment. If the equivalent figure of $90 today thrust the global markets into utter chaos and drove the world deeper into recession in 1980, what effect would a new shock today have on the global economy, considering oil is consistently trading around $100 per barrel today? Obama doesn’t need to ask Jimmy Carter how that would work out.

This is why Europe and America have been rallying support to increase economic sanctions on Iran while Israel continues its effective covert assault on the power structure in Tehran. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently visited China to ask for their participation in a global embargo on trading with Iran. The problem there, of course, is that China receives approximately 10 percent of its oil from Iran—a figure projected to grow steadily over the next couple of decades as China attempts to break the coal habit. Geithner’s reception was as chilly as it was when he asked the Chinese to adjust their undervalued currency in an effort to stabilize the balance of trade between our nations. Add to the mix that China has no moral or political allegiance to Israel, and it’s easy to understand why Geithner would have had better luck talking to the Great Wall of China than its ruling class.

The political calculus in Washington is as complicated as ever. Obama has been able to walk the tightrope between America’s hawks and isolationists by surging our forces in Afghanistan while withdrawing them from Iraq, and allegedly killing Osama bin Laden while entertaining the possibility of dialogue with Tehran. Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could. But time is running out as the election draws ever nearer, which is why the war rhetoric is beginning to intensify. This diplomatic squeeze is lost only on mouth-breathing Americans whose eyes are glued to the spectacle in the center ring, as they await the outcome of each GOP primary as if it matters. The rest of the planet has adjusted to the darkness as it watches these war preparations very, very closely.

Here’s the current score. Europe has taken a decidedly aggressive stance by leading the way with harsh economic sanctions on Iran forcing the United States to follow suit perhaps more than it might have otherwise. China and Russia have little to gain by punishing Iran as they trade openly. Israel is not above taking matters into its own hands and striking Iran’s nuclear facilities but it requires more assurance from the United States that we will back its play. The less-than-cozy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarts Israel’s next move, because acting unilaterally without U.S. support is as suicidal as doing nothing may someday prove to be.

 Saudi Arabia, which shares access to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, also has little patience for Iran’s shenanigans; but it, like Iran’s allies in the area, has its own political and economic issues, and can hardly afford a conflict with any of the region’s stakeholders.

We are witnessing one of the greatest standstills of all time. The deciding vote, however, will likely come from none of the nations mentioned here because a new, more powerful force has emerged in the global landscape with the ability to tip the scales: the people.

From Occupy to the Arab Spring, the past year has shown that the most influential voice in world politics is that of the people. In this new interconnected world, the Iranian government’s clandestine policies and shadowy behavior are anachronistic. That’s not to say Israel and the United States don’t understand this potential, as both admit to stoking tensions within Iran to mobilize its youth in the hopes that they will lead to yet another revolution. If a fruit vendor in Tunisia can set off a series of events that changed the Arab world forever, the same can even happen in a nation as mysterious and closed-off as Iran. Dictators can be ousted and regimes can be toppled without deploying the U.S. military.

It’s why an untimely show of force against Iran would undermine the Iranian people’s naturally occurring dissatisfaction, shown by their willingness to protest the regime’s fraudulent elections and its hard-line stances that have wrought such economic hardship. This phenomenon has been occurring even before the most recent round of rigorous sanctions. In practice, imposing more stringent sanctions or military action may have the opposite of the desired effect by coalescing support for the Iranian government from within. Given the Iranians’ already poor economic circumstances, they may in fact see little distinction between enduring harsh sanctions and a blistering show of force.

Critics of the Obama administration have likened his stance on Iran as akin to that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Pact in 1938. They claim that the United States is being hoodwinked by Iran’s leadership who will immediately use nuclear weapons against Israel once they possess the capability to do so. Most who have written about the subject, however, believe this is folly, but that it’s better to have an Iran without nukes than one with them. In the meantime, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction might take a backseat to the mutually assured production of oil. In my mind, the specter of nuclear warfare is a singular endgame issue, not an ongoing strategic battle that dismisses the Chamberlain/Hitler analogy in favor of Kennedy/Kruschev. When both men drew their lines in the sand and realized the lines were in exactly the same spot, everyone knew where they stood during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Because the current leaders of Iran have publicly stated that they are committed to annihilating the state of Israel, they have legitimized the world’s fear of a nuclear Iran. But I would submit that the world doesn’t have an Iran problem, it has an Ahmadinejad problem. Were the U.S. to declare unequivocally that we will use force if Iran’s president denies UN inspectors in Iran or we discover that they have developed the capacity to use nuclear technology beyond domestic energy production, we would hardly be blamed for being the aggressor. But perhaps we should re-examine the role of sanctions and look at things differently because a free and prosperous people have a much greater ability to dictate policy in Iran than we outsiders ever will.

A desperate population with nothing to lose alters the equation of Mutually Assured Destruction and interrupts the natural evolution of the Arab Spring. It’s time to reverse the antiquated notion that a forcibly impoverished nation is ultimately obsequious to those nations that suppress it. President Obama should call upon the Congress and the world to lift all economic sanctions on Iran because sanctions starve the people, not the government. Moreover, the people have proven they know how to seize the opportunity for self determination.

Then we can all go back to watching the circus.

 

Main Photo: Associated Press

Philosopher King Wenceslas

As the playwright’s allegory is a triumph of farce over fear, so too was Havel’s call to “step out of living within the lie” that was the “post-totalitarian system.” By the end of year, Czecheslovakia’s Velvet Revolution had toppled, without firing a shot, a dictatorship that violently suppressed the ‘Prague Spring’ twenty years before.

Good King Wenceslas first looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel…
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

Photo: Playwright Vaclav Havel viewing the victorious Velvet Revolution in Wenceslaus Square

The irony gods have been morbidly ironic this year.  On May Day, Osama bin Laden was eliminated even as Pope Paul II was being beatified.  A month later Jack, ‘Dr. Death’, Kevorkian died of natural causes.  This past week a seminal foe of totalitarianism, Vaclav Havel, was dispatched on the very same day as that nuke-toting, tinhorn totalitarian, Kim Jong-il.

Playwright/essayist Havel was part Arthur Miller, Thomas Paine and Nelson Mandela.  Suppressed and imprisoned by the Communists, he went on to become the first president of a free Czechoslovakia.  “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” Havel wrote in The Power of the Powerless that rapidly became the anti-totalitarian treatise embraced by the Solidarity movement in Communist Poland.  “It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality…it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.”

Still very much under the yoke of Communism, “Golden” Prague looked more like deeply tarnished silver when I visited in 1985.  The Czech capital was reputedly anointed Zlata Praha when King Karel (Charles) IV was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in the 14th century and had the towers of his castle painted gold.  Six centuries later and four decades deep into Communist rule, Prague was dark and dreary, compliments of its coal-fired power.  Much of its venerable, once glorious architecture was shrouded in rusting scaffolding.

I saw no one manning the scaffolding and actually refurbishing these buildings during my time in Prague.  Its unappetizing restaurants were no-service cafeterias where not even an epileptic fit would have aroused the wait staff.  Then there were the omnipresent Communist slogans writ in large block letters on white billboards attached to the scaffolding.  “You pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work,” was, doubtless, not among the exhortations.

I was witness to flash-fires of totalitarian state intimidation. A former student of my father’s at Cornell, now a professor, put his Duke Ellington records on loud to mask dinner conversation, pointing to possible mikes in the ceiling.  There was the uniformed interior ministry officer aboard the train to Budapest making a protracted show trial of peering back and forth between me and my passport photo.   But mostly it was the grim, expressionless populace drudging slump-shouldered through the drabness of daily existence.

I was treated to one unintended parody of the system. Performing Puccini’s opera, La Bohème in the capitol of Bohemia must have been deemed appropriate by the authorities, spotlighting, as it does, the anti-materialist credo of Bohemians, forerunners of beatniks and hippies.   This was a socialist production of ‘boy falls for terminally ill girl’ love story where even the most minor character got to saunter front and center and ham it up.  With his eye for the absurd, playwright Havel might well have been in the audience putting the finishing touches on Temptation.

In Havel’s retelling of the Faust legend, a pact is made with dogma rather than the devil.  When Temptation premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in April of ’89, I was in the audience and Havel was locked up in a Czech prison for leading a demonstration.  (As Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray sold his soul to the Devil for eternal youth, I’m always on the lookout for Faustian pacts.)  Attempting to contact the devil in the detailed government restrictions that bind him, Temptation’s Dr. Foustka conjures an odious Rumplestiltskin named Fistula who smells like Limburger cheese.

As the playwright’s allegory is a triumph of farce over fear, so too was Havel’s call to “step out of living within the lie” that was the “post-totalitarian system.”  By the end of year, Czecheslovakia’s Velvet Revolution had toppled, without firing a shot, a dictatorship that violently suppressed the ‘Prague Spring’ twenty years before.  Havel was elected his country’s first post-Communist leader.

The following year, 1990, I spent months observing another philosopher attempting to be elected king.  Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is Havel’s superior as a writer and storyteller.  But Vargas Llosa was haughty where Havel was humble, rigid not resilient like Havel, and he was rejected by the Peruvian electorate.

Philosopher kings are few and far between, successful ones even more so.  While Havel declined to preside over the splitting of his country, he stood for election as president of the Czech Republic and served for two terms as Prague was once again restored to its past glory.  Another Vaclav named Klaus was his conservative rival and presidential successor whom Havel came to dread dealing with owing to his “distaste for confrontation.”  In typical form, Klaus complained that Havel’s invitation to writer Salman Rushdie, who had a ‘fatwa’ hanging over his head, would undermine Czech trade with Arab countries.   More than anyone, Havel would appreciate the irony that many conservative pundits in America misattribute quotes to him that were actually declared by Klaus.

Havel was able to exact some level of retribution by thinly casting his rival as the villain ‘Vlastik’ Klein in his final play, Leaving, the only one he wrote in the twenty-two years following his country’s liberation.  Creativity is born of restraint, it is said, and dies in freedom.

Mayday Mayday May Day

The eclipse of John Paul’s beatification by the elimination of bin Laden, is a striking reminder, if one were needed, of conflicting forces of good and evil a rage in our world.

Pope John PaulWho will remember that the May Day killing of Osama bin Laden began with the beatification of Pope John Paul II?

Thirty years ago, on May 13, 1981, John Paul was greeting the throng in Vatican City.  As he was taking a second spin around St. Peter’s Square in his open-air white Jeep, four bullets fired from a semi-automatic pistol struck him.  Two shots lodged in his lower intestine producing massive blood loss.  He survived and thrived for twenty-four more years, cries of ‘Santo Subito!’ – ‘Sainthood Now!’ – ringing out upon his passing.  On the first of May, Anno Domini 2011, his successor beatified him, marking the fastest track ever to sainthood. 

The eclipse of John Paul’s beatification by the elimination of bin Laden, is a striking reminder, if one were needed, of conflicting forces of good and evil a rage in our world.

As death stars aligned in early ‘81, the attempted assassination of the Pope occurred within seven weeks of the attempt on President Reagan.  While Reagan’s assailant was a star-struck nut, the Pope’s would-be assassin hailed from sinister forces.  In the Evil Empire narrative of the final round of the Cold War, the Turk shooter in St Peter’s Square was a “trained sniper” sponsored by the Bulgarian KGB working for their Soviet masters.

According to a 1978 CIA assessment, the elevation of the Archbishop of Krakow should “prove extremely worrisome to Moscow if only because the responsiveness of his papacy is likely to evoke in East European communist societies.”  And four years later, “the Soviets may be particularly sensitive to the issue because of the Western press implications that General Secretary Andropov, during his tenure as head of the KGB, might have played a role in the attempt (on Pope John Paul’s life).”  William Casey, Reagan’s DCI and a Knight of the Order of Malta, fully fathomed the fulcrum of faith in the upending of Communism.  

Archbishop Karol Josef Wojtyla was every inch a product of the Polish Catholic Church, the pre-eminent buttress of national identity through the travails of Napoleonic invasion, Nazi conquest, and Communist suppression.  Returning to Poland in mid-‘79 as Pope, John Paul held mass before more than a million in Warsaw in defiance of laws against public gathering and religious worship. “Don’t be afraid,” he counseled the crowd.  “The future of Poland will depend on how many people are mature enough to be non-conformist.”  It marked the beginning of the end of the Evil Empire.  

The Pope’s passion for his people’s freedom did not extend to the plight of the peoples of Latin America.  In “Liberation theology”, which had taken root in ‘68 when Latin bishops determined to rededicate the Church to the downtrodden, John Paul saw the threat of Communism wrapped in a challenge to Church hierarchy.  The newly installed Pope took it upon himself to campaign vigorously against “the popular Church.”  In his first major Papal trip early in ‘79, John Paul faced five million of the faithful in Mexico City and denounced liberation theology: “When they begin to use political means, they cease to be theologians.”

On his fifth trip to Latin America in ’85, the Pontiff flew into the Andean mountain town of Ayacucho, stronghold of a burgeoning insurgency – the Sendero Luminoso, aka the Shining Path.  He appealed to the Maoist revolutionaries:

“I beg you, with pain in my heart, and at the same time with firmness and hope, that you reflect on the paths you have taken.  In the name of God, change paths!…  We need to promote the dignity of man and help to transform unjust situations and structures that violate dignity….  We must not heed those who reduce the poor to sociopolitical or economic abstractions.”

Later that day, the Pontiff touched down in Lima.  It was precisely 8:38pm on a mild, late summer night in the Peruvian Capital.  The Pope’s plane was on the tarmac less than a minute when a total blackout blanketed the entire city of six million.  The Sendero, in a precision strike, had blown up five of the six high-voltage transmission towers feeding Lima.  In sync, lanterns, shining from various directions, formed a hammer and sickle on the slope of a nearby hill for John Paul to see.  God said, “Let there be light”; the audacious Shining Path said otherwise, letting the Pontiff know it could have been lights out for him.

Seven years later, Sendero’s leader, who many supposed was commanding the impending takeover of Peru from the rugged heights of the Andes, was ferreted out in an upper class neighborhood in Lima.  Among other factors, investigators were alerted to amounts and types of garbage coming from the two-story safe-house.  Like the terror masters who would succeed and exceed him, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Osama bin Laden, the ego-maniacal “Fourth Sword of Communism” couldn’t hack the Spartan life in a mountain hideout.

Over time, the Pope’s Turkish assailant has variously implicated Bulgarians, Palestinians, Mossad and, last November, the Vatican secretary.  In the global cross-currents of signals to kill, some are received through fillings, others in the scrawl of telecasts.  The lethal results are indistinguishable.  And what of the simultaneous deliverance of polar opposites?  Sorting it all out, requires the omniscience of a saint.

Osama Been Long-Forgotten

Novelist Brad Meltzer’s latest thriller, Inner Circle, casts a light upon a tradition that has been somewhat of a mystery until now. The ceremonial passing of the torch from the outgoing president of the United States to the newly elected president has in recent years included a private letter left on the desk in the Oval Office, beginning with Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush; it is presumably the first thing the new president sees when taking office. The note to President Obama from President George W. Bush was concealed in a plain envelope with a Post-It note that simply read “44.” Pretty cool.

The premise behind Inner Circle is pretty cool as well. Meltzer became fascinated by a secret spy ring established by George Washington that served the president directly and apparently endured for several administrations. He imagined the continuance of this clandestine group and how knowledge of it would pass from POTUS to POTUS in the secret letter, hidden in plain sight.

The actual content of these letters remained private until President George H.W. Bush revealed to Meltzer what he had written to his successor, President Bill Clinton. The letter is cordial and benign, and ends with “I’m rooting for you,” which is more formal than one of the sentences in Reagan’s letter that reportedly read, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Meltzer said it was a reminder that, while the position itself is powerful and extraordinary, “they are still human people doing very human things.”

Like I said, the whole thing is pretty cool. But I have a different theory about what’s in the letter to Obama. My guess is it reads something like this:

Barack,

No time for pleasantries so I’ll get to it. Bin Laden’s in the basement. When the shit hits the fan, take him to the desert in Nevada, make a grainy tape of him calling us infidels— make sure he mentions something topical—then give him a shave and let him hit the tables in Vegas for a couple of days. Let him win big and take 72 “virgins” (i.e. hookers) to a suite at the Bellagio. Give tax breaks to the wealthy, subsidize oil companies, and keep the Central Bank (Goldman Sachs) on your side.

Sincerely,

Dick Cheney. 43rd President of these United States.

P.S. – Hang on. George wants to write something.

Oh-BAMAlamadingdong! President! Not bad for a black fella from Kenya! My advice? Give everyone a funny nickname. Oh, and Area 51’s got neat shit there. Have Biden give you a tour! Make war not love! (Got that on a bumper sticker on my new truck!)

Dubya  (That’s “W” phonetically. Or FUNetically as I like to say because the English language is fun!) Fox News rocks!

The point I’m making here is that I no longer believe in hobgoblins and bogeymen. Let me be clear. I do not think 9/11 was an “inside job” as many conspiracy theorists love to claim. The very real and tragic destruction on that fateful day was at the hands of well-financed and highly organized terrorists claiming allegiance to Osama Bin Laden. They were not, however, aided in any way by Saddam Hussein’s oil-rich administration in Iraq. Nor was there any credible threat of WMDs. And yet we waged an eight-year battle in Iraq to wrest control of their oil fields and infrastructure only to hand the Iraqis back a political and economic system in disrepair. All the while hanging fear in the human form of Bin Laden around our necks.

The real story is we had this guy beat on 9/12, and I’m betting we had his head on a platter on 9/13 because this is America and we rock. Our initial strategy in Afghanistan was enough to disrupt their terrorist network and drive the bastards to the hills. Our subsequent actions in Iraq and mishandling of the prolonged war in Afghanistan created a credibility gap in our foreign policy that made us look like imperialists instead of liberators.

This gap haunts us today as the protests in the Middle East and Northern Africa stun the world. The moment Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar Gadhafi ordered air strikes on protestors in Tripoli the United States could have, should have, convened the U.N. Security Council (impotent without our involvement) and led the charge to take over Libya and imprison Gadhafi. This is genocide and we have the power to stop it.

But our trillion-dollar blood-for-oil campaign over the past decade has made America war-weary, debt-ridden and lacking international credibility. And if tomorrow POTUS 44 decides that defending innocent Libyans is the right and righteous thing to do, the world will point to rising oil prices as the reason we went in, not humanitarianism. They will also be able to point to our silence with respect to genocide, most recently in Sudan and several other countries in past decades.

Oil has damned us if we do and damned us if we don’t. The Iraq War will forever expose the Bush administration as a fraud even if Osama Bin Laden magically appears on CNN hogtied to a bayonet and carried through the streets of lower Manhattan. Of course, no one is holding their breath for this to happen any time soon. Meltzer’s novel is fanciful and fun to contemplate but the real-life secrets locked in the White House are neither of those things. The 9/11 victims deserve better. As do the Sudanese, Afghanis, American soldiers, Libyans, Iraqis… Tragically, the list goes on.

Nine Years from 9-11

President Bush believed history would vindicate his actions and justify our aggression abroad. The Bush Doctrine was to be the cornerstone of his administration, America’s new approach to the world and the war on terror and the toppling of Saddam’s statue would be its symbol. But the hands on the rope that pulled down the statue, and would later hang the man, would ultimately fail to save the legacy of the doctrine.

It is nine years from the moment America’s heart stopped at 9:03 a.m., September 11, 2001. This was the precise moment the second plane struck the South Tower and threw the nation into a state of shock—the instant we realized we were under attack. The strongest nation in the world was stunned and immobile, paralyzed with fear. One hour and two minutes later America’s heart began beating once again with a shot of adrenaline when the South Tower collapsed. We sprung into action and haven’t stopped since.

Promises were made to us that day and many days since. We were promised American troops would hunt down the terrorists and “smoke ’em out” of their caves. We would take the fight to the “evil-doers” and disrupt the vast terrorist network around the globe. The Bush administration stepped into Soviet shoes by assuming their unwinnable fight in Afghanistan. Yet we diverted our focus to Iraq and allowed those responsible for 9/11 to slip away. We committed the unforgivable sin in warfare of dividing our attention and took firm control of the ministry of oil in Iraq while the rest of the country burned and Afghanistan floundered.

President Bush believed history would vindicate his actions and justify our aggression abroad. The Bush Doctrine was to be the cornerstone of his administration, America’s new approach to the world and the war on terror and the toppling of Saddam’s statue would be its symbol. But the hands on the rope that pulled down the statue, and would later hang the man, would ultimately fail to save the legacy of the doctrine.

We will probably never know if the Bush Doctrine has any merit as it was improperly applied to nations that didn’t pose a threat to us as a whole. We have, however, learned that democracy is not portable. It cannot be imposed; rather, it must be grown in a territory governed by firm secular guidelines by which laws are crafted and enforced. And while the underpinnings of a nation’s code of law may be similar to the moral tenets shared by the world’s most practiced religions, they must also operate independently. Democracy is also aided by a diverse economic base stemming from rich agrarian resources that foster infrastructure growth. None of these were fully developed in the nations we overthrew.

In Iraq the American neo-cons attempted to manufacture something that looks and feels like democracy from a single-source oil economy through the forced installation of infrastructure and free elections. These are important tributaries of democracy but not the river from which it flows. Bush’s belief that we would win hearts and minds in the Middle East by spreading democracy through state-building had the reverse effect of further poisoning the region and positioning Iran and Pakistan, two powerful nuclear nations, against us. Now, as we withdraw thousands of our troops from Iraq on the eve of 9/11, we are left to ponder the one war that remains.

Americans didn’t need a war to assuage our anger after 9/11. We needed to punish the leadership of the radical fundamentalists who attacked us. We needed baseball and country music, candlelight vigils and Bin Laden’s head on a platter. How miraculous it would have been had we sent elite military teams to Afghanistan to rout the Taliban and focused all of our energy on bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice. Imagine how quickly we could have responded to the aftermath of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and how prepared we would have been to assist in Haiti. The experience our troops would have received from these humanitarian exercises would have prepared us for the devastating floods in Pakistan today; an effort that could truly win over hearts and minds.

No, democracy is not portable, but humanity is. And as we ready ourselves to return to that moment nine years ago, we will also revisit some remarkable acts of humanity that shone on that day. Acts of heroism performed by citizens, not governments; just as our heroism abroad was in the actions of our soldiers and not the policies they obeyed.