consortiumnews.com

'Talkin' Texan' Means Lyin' Big

By Robert Parry
February 5, 2006

On Feb. 1, the day after his State of the Union Address, George W. Bush stood on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and delighted his audience by talking “Texan,” which in Bush’s lexicon must mean lying big.

Bush’s biggest lie that day was his claim that his warrantless wiretaps inside the United States were needed to intercept calls in which “one of the people making the call has to be al-Qaeda, suspected al-Qaeda, and/or affiliate.”

The President said, “Let me put it to you in Texan: If al-Qaeda is calling into the United States, we want to know.” His listeners laughed and applauded.

With his folksy style, Bush again got away with his false assertion that existing law wouldn’t let U.S. intelligence intercept these al-Qaeda telephone calls when, in fact, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 set up procedures for just such intercepts and even let the Executive tap first and get approval from a secret court later.

But “talkin’ Texan” is apparently like telling tall tales about Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, except Texas-sized.

Bush’s wiretap lie was abetted a day later, when Deputy Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden refused to divulge to the Senate Intelligence Committee – even in closed session – how many Americans were subjected to Bush’s warrantless wiretaps.

By keeping the scope of the operation secret, Hayden protected Bush’s account, since the President had depicted the eavesdropping as “limited,” affecting only a “few” people who supposedly were in direct touch with al-Qaeda operatives.

If Hayden had admitted the truth – that many thousands of Americans had been spied on under Bush’s warrantless wiretaps and few, if any, had any links to al-Qaeda – Bush’s story would collapse.

So, Bush administration officials have contended they can’t divulge the numbers or other details to avoid “helping al-Qaeda.” But people knowledgeable about U.S. eavesdropping capabilities say the number would be of no help to al-Qaeda, nor was the New York Times disclosure in December 2005 that Bush was conducting wiretaps without warrants.

Al-Qaeda operatives have long assumed the United States has the capacity to intercept their phone calls and e-mails, so they go to great lengths to deliver messages face-to-face or to send messages by courier. When they do communicate electronically, they make only brief cryptic references because they expect the message may well be intercepted.

Sept. 11 Prevention

Bush and Hayden also have tried to justify the warrantless wiretaps by speculating that the Sept. 11 terror attacks might have been prevented if this extra-legal “terrorist surveillance” program was in place in 2001.

But the September 11th Commission found that the failure to stop the terrorist attacks resulted from the U.S. government fumbling the interpretation of available evidence, not from a lack of electronic eavesdropping.

Bush’s first counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke faulted the President for failing to show decisive leadership and “shake the trees” of the federal bureaucracy after being warned in August 2001 about an impending al-Qaeda attack.

Yet, Bush appears to be counting on the weak memories of Americans and their susceptibility to emotional arguments. To make that work, however, Bush has had to keep the numbers of wiretaps secret so he can mislead about the scope of the operation.

What the domestic spying actually seems to entail is the National Security Agency scooping up conversations and e-mails of vast numbers of Americans – possibly in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions – and then mining that data.

Federal officials told the New York Times that this wiretap data generates thousands of tips each month, which are then passed on to the FBI for further investigation.

“But virtually all of [the tips], current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans,” the Times reported. “FBI officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. … Some FBI officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans’ privacy.” [NYT, Jan. 17, 2006]

In other words, this widespread wiretapping of Americans is not restricted to a small number of people who are chatting with al-Qaeda associates; it is prying into the communications of innocent Americans and burdening U.S. law enforcement with worthless tips that divert investigative resources away from more promising leads.

An investigation by the Washington Post reached a similar conclusion.

“Intelligence officials who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use,” the Post reported on Feb. 5, 2006.

The Post cited two “knowledgeable sources” who said the number of Americans spied on through the warrantless wiretaps was in the thousands, with one source putting the number at about 5,000.

But the Post added, “the program has touched many more Americans than that” because the technology sifts through hundreds of thousands of e-mails, faxes and phone calls before selecting Americans for closer examination.

These depictions of a vast program don’t square with Bush’s down-home claims about the government having the phone numbers of some al-Qaeda operatives and just wanting to know who they’re talking to in the United States.

Caught Lying

Though Bush is telling the American people to trust him, he already has been caught lying about this wiretapping program, which he first authorized in 2002. Two years later, he went out of his way to give assurances that he was following the law and getting warrants for terrorism-related wiretaps.

In 2004, Bush told a crowd in Buffalo, N.Y., that “by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires – a wiretap requires a court order. … Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.”

On New Year’s Day 2006, Bush lied again, insisting that his warrantless wiretaps only involved communications from suspicious individuals abroad who were contacting people in the United States. Bush said the eavesdropping was “limited to calls from outside the United States to calls within the United States.”

But Bush’s explanation was at odds even with what his own administration had previously admitted to journalists – that the wiretaps also covered calls originating in the United States. The White House soon “clarified” Bush’s remarks to acknowledge that his warrantless wiretaps did, indeed, involve communications from the United States. [NYT, Jan. 2, 2006]

But Bush apparently has decided that – if framed right – the wiretap issue can help him politically. Bush’s aides have begun counterattacking, accusing Democrats and the news media of jeopardizing the safety of Americans.

“Let me be as clear as I can be: President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why,” declared deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove in a speech on Jan. 20. “Some important Democrats clearly disagree.”

Rove didn’t specify who any of these “important Democrats” were, most likely because no prominent Democrat has disagreed with the need to know who al-Qaeda is calling or why. They only are saying that the existing FISA law set legal standards for permitting this surveillance and that Bush has chosen to circumvent the law.

For his part, Bush is painting his detractors as helping the enemy by just mentioning the wiretaps.

While talkin’ Texan at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., Bush said, “I'm sure you can understand why you don't want the President or anybody talking about the operating details. … If you're at war, and you're trying to stop an enemy from attacking you, why in the world would you want to tell the enemy what they're doing to stop them, because they'll adjust.”

Bush then assured the appreciative crowd, “We are safeguarding your liberties.”

Killing Children

Bush also bathed his Grand Ole Opry listeners in feel-good rhetoric about the fundamental decency of the American people.

“What a fantastic country,” Bush said. “We deeply care about every human life. The life of a child in Baghdad is precious. And so when we see these killers kill somebody – a young child outside a hospital where one of our soldiers is handing out candy, we weep, because Americans have a deep compassion for every human being.”

But Bush didn’t mention how his invasion of Iraq has led to the killing and maiming of tens of thousands of civilians, including many children.

For instance, at the start of the war, Bush authorized the bombing of a restaurant in Baghdad because some faulty intelligence suggested that Saddam Hussein might be having dinner there. As it turned out, Hussein wasn’t there, but 14 civilians were killed, including seven children. One mother collapsed when her decapitated daughter was pulled from the rubble.

Some legal scholars have cited this bombing and similar incidents as evidence of war crimes committed by Bush, but the President has never apologized for killing civilians in Iraq, instead claiming that Hussein was the one who “chose war.”

Bush reprised that favorite chapter of his revisionist history during his Grand Ole Opry speech, too.

“We gave Saddam Hussein a chance to deal with the world in good faith by honoring the United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Bush said. “He chose – it was his choice – he chose to defy the resolutions. And so we took action.”

In other speeches, Bush has gone even further, rewriting the history to say that Hussein hadn’t let the U.N. inspectors in, even though the inspection teams entered Iraq in November 2002 and were citing good Iraqi cooperation before Bush forced them to leave in March 2003 so the invasion could proceed. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President Bush, With the Candlestick…”]

New evidence also has emerged in Great Britain, revealing that Bush planned to invade Iraq regardless of what the U.N. inspectors discovered or whether the U.N. Security Council approved a war resolution.

“The US would put its full weight behind efforts to get another resolution and would ‘twist arms’ and ‘even threaten’. But [Bush] had to say that if ultimately we failed, military action would follow anyway,” according to minutes of a Jan. 31, 2003, meeting between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Bush and Blair also discussed the possibility of creating a pretext for war. According to Bush, “The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach” of U.N. resolutions.

”It was also possible that a defector could be brought out who would give a public presentation about Saddam’s WMD, and there was also a small possibility that Saddam would be assassinated,” Bush said, according to the minutes.

At the meeting, Bush added that after the invasion, he “thought it unlikely that there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups.” (The minutes were obtained by human rights lawyer Philippe Sands for a new edition of his book, Lawless World. The minutes were reviewed by British Channel 4 News.)

Though Bush was wrong about Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and the likelihood of sectarian violence under the U.S. occupation, he continues to urge the American people to trust his judgment on a plan for “victory in Iraq.”

Talkin’ Texan at the Grand Ole Opry, Bush said, “I want to describe right quick our plans for victory in Iraq. First of all, anytime we put our troops in harm's way we got to go in with victory in mind.” The audience responded with warm applause.

In his Nashville remarks, Bush did back away from one longtime canard that he’s used to justify seizing broad powers domestically, invading Iraq and ignoring international law. In speech after speech, Bush has insisted that before Sept. 11, 2001, Americans thought the Atlantic and Pacific oceans protected them from foreign attack.

But no American growing up during the Cold War felt that way. They knew that Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles could obliterate American cities in minutes.

At the Grand Ole Opry, Bush finally took note of complaints about this misleading argument by acknowledging the fact that the oceans really wouldn’t have protected Americans from nuclear attack.

“When we grew up, oceans protected us, it seemed like,” Bush said. “We felt pretty safe and secure from an attack on American soil. We were concerned about a nuclear threat, but nevertheless, we felt secure because we were isolated from threats it seemed like.”

In “talkin’ Texan,” the phrase “it seemed like” must be synonymous with “almost the same as true.”


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

Back to Home Page