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Behind the Presidency

by Thomas R. Eddlem
July 25, 2005
 

Admire him or despise him, George W. Bush is essentially a figurehead for the tightly knit Establishment oligarchy that actually runs the Executive Branch of our government.

When a tiny, single-engine Cessna 150 aircraft wafted into restricted Washington, D.C., airspace on May 11, the federal government went to a terrorism threat advisory level of red alert, and the nation's capitol was evacuated. As it happened, the airplane had simply been off course during a trip from Pennsylvania to an air show in North Carolina. But the fallout from the incident revealed volumes about how the executive branch of the federal government is run during a crisis.

Perhaps most revealing of all was the exchange between the White House Press Corps and White House Press Spokesman Scott McClellan the next day. "Scott, yesterday the White House was on red alert, was evacuated," noted a reporter. "The First Lady and Nancy Reagan were taken to a secure location. The vice president was evacuated from the grounds. The Capitol building was evacuated. The continuity of government plan was initiated. And yet, the president wasn't told of yesterday's events until after he finished his bike ride, about 36 minutes after the all-clear had been sent. Is he satisfied with the fact that he wasn't notified about this?" "Yes … the protocols that we put in place after September 11th were being followed," replied McClellan. "They did not require presidential authority for this situation."

If George Bush is not even informed of a national red alert terrorism emergency when the Capitol is evacuated and his own wife is moved to a bomb shelter, then he is clearly not in charge at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

This is not the first time that Mr. Bush has proven himself to be peripheral in a crisis situation. As captured on videotape at the time, Mr. Bush's initial reaction to being informed of the 9/11 attacks was to sit immobilized for as much as nine minutes while the children's book My Pet Goat was read to a classroom of second graders. Granted, one predictable human response to such a crisis would be a momentarily paralyzing sense of shock. Yet none of the president's staffers saw fit to jog his elbow or otherwise snap him out of his lengthy reverie, which would be the expected course of action if "presidential authority" were really required to deal with an unfolding terrorist attack.

All of this raises a serious question: if George W. Bush is not running the federal government during times of crisis, who is?

Cheney in Charge

According to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, one of the key administration leaders in charge at the Oval Office during the May 11 red alert was Vice President Dick Cheney. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, while a stunned and distracted President Bush was contemplating a pet goat during the 9/11 crisis, Cheney issued a shoot-down order for airplanes in Washington, D.C., airspace and appeared to be in charge. The vice president is clearly the dominant personality in the Bush-Cheney team and is plainly the most important member of an informal committee that runs the executive branch of the U.S. government.

"The inner circles of the U.S. national security community — members of the National Security Council (NSC), a select number of their deputies, and a few close advisors to the president — represent what is probably the most powerful committee in the history of the world, one with more resources, more power, more license to act, and more ability to project force further and swifter than any other convened by king, emperor, or president," wrote David J. Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy magazine. That committee, as described by Rothkopf, is headed by a triumvirate composed of Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who had been Cheney's superior 30 years prior during the Ford administration), and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The triumvirs, like many of their associates and subordinates, are or have been members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

It is Cheney whom Rothkopf identifies as "the power behind the throne." "Cheney has the largest national security staff of any vice president in U.S. history — one larger than President John F. Kennedy's entire NSC staff at one time," he observes. "He also has a network of close associates that extends throughout the government and who report to him or to Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, his chief of staff." Most of the details of Cheney's realm — including the precise number of staffers who report to him — are unknown, since the vice president's office is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of both Bush administrations, explains that Cheney has "three bites at the apple. He has his staff at every meeting. He would then come to principals' meetings. And then he'd have his one-on-ones with the president."

Rise of an Insider

Dick Cheney has cultivated that clout during a long history in government, which began with an internship with liberal Wisconsin Republican Congressman William Steiger. About a year later, with Steiger's help, Cheney got a foot in the door with Nixon appointee Donald Rumsfeld, at the time head of the Office of Economic Opportunity — a welfare agency notorious for shoveling out subsidies to subversive groups, including domestic terrorist groups like the so-called American Indian Movement. When Nixon resigned in 1974, Ford tapped Rumsfeld to be chief of staff, and Rumsfeld brought Cheney in tow. Within a year, Rumsfeld was secretary of defense, and Cheney, at age 34, was presidential chief of staff.

In 1978, Cheney won election to the U.S. House of Representatives as Wyoming's sole congressman. During an 11-year tenure in the House, Cheney compiled ratings over 80 percent in this magazine's "Conservative Index." But during that time Cheney also became an active internationalist, joining the Council on Foreign Relations in 1982 and eventually serving as a director of the organization. As Cheney acknowledged in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations on February 15, 2002, he was careful to avoid mentioning that affiliation in dealing with his conservative constituents:

[I]t's good to be back at the Council on Foreign Relations. As Pete mentioned, I have been a member for a long time, and was actually Director for some period of time. I never mentioned that when I was campaigning for reelection back home in Wyoming.

Cheney left Congress in 1989 to serve as secretary of defense in the administration of the elder President Bush, overseeing the invasion of Panama and the first Iraq war. When Bush the Elder left the White House in 1993, Cheney moved to the private sector — sort of — becoming CEO of the Halliburton Company. Capitalizing on his political connections, Cheney helped the international conglomerate bury its snout deeply into the corporate welfare trough. As tidily summarized by the left-wing organization CorpWatch:

[Cheney] brought with him a trusty Rolodex and his former chief of staff, David Gribbin, whom he appointed as chief lobbyist. In the last two years the pair of them notched up $1.5 billion dollars in federal loans and insurance subsidies compared to the paltry $100 million that the company received in the five years prior to Cheney's arrival.

Thus, it is hardly a wonder Cheney championed the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), which uses taxpayer dollars to subsidize foreign investments by multinational corporations. During a May 8, 1997 address to an Ex-Im conference in Washington, D.C., Cheney snarled that opponents of the corporate welfare program "obviously don't know that for every dollar appropriated to the Bank in the last five years, Ex-Im has returned approximately 20 dollars worth of exports." While this arrangement is very lucrative for Cheney and his corporatist cronies, it's entirely unconstitutional — and it does nothing to benefit taxpayers forced to subsidize it. In fact, Ex-Im has played a prominent role in offshoring manufacturing jobs and draining the U.S. economy. Cheney doesn't bite the hand that feeds him, that's for sure.

War Hawk Central

Vice president since 2001, Cheney is among the closest confidants of President Bush in the White House. He was among the early and most vocal proponents of the unnecessary war against Iraq, and one of the most persistent and dogged exaggerators of the intelligence on the Iraq "threat." For example, Cheney told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on August 26, 2002, during the lead-up to the March 2003 invasion, that Saddam Hussein, "sworn enemy of the United States," was a very credible threat:

The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents. And they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago. These are not weapons for the purpose of defending Iraq; these are offensive weapons for the purpose of inflicting death on a massive scale, developed so that Saddam can hold the threat over the head of anyone he chooses, in his own region or beyond.

Cheney's statement today has long been revealed for the complete warmongering falsehood that it was. In fact, although U.S. intelligence agencies had told the administration that they had no proof Hussein had completely destroyed its biological and chemical weapons stockpiles as the Iraqi regime had claimed and had presented estimates suggesting that Hussein likely retained some chemical and biological weapons capability, no U.S. intelligence source at the time of Cheney's remarks suggested Hussein had been "enhancing" his capabilities in those fields.

Moreover, independent sources such as the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq and the 9/11 Commission Report stressed that intelligence agencies had no indications that there was a relationship between al-Qaeda and the Hussein regime, though Cheney repeatedly made this claim in public pronouncements before and after the invasion of Iraq. Cheney's method of promoting war against Iraq consisted of publicly making statements about unproven allegations of ties, and then continuing to argue that the ties were credible long after his sources were discredited.

One example of this was Cheney's allegation that Iraqi Intelligence Service officer al-Ani had met al-Qaeda leader Mohamed Atta in Prague in April 2001, just months before the September 11 attacks. Cheney made the allegations in an interview on NBC's Meet the Press on December 9, 2001. "Do you still believe there is no evidence that Iraq was involved in September 11?" asked host Tim Russert. "Well, what we now have that's developed since you and I last talked, Tim, of course, was that report that's been pretty well confirmed, that [Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several months before the attack," Cheney replied.

In actuality, the CIA had always remained skeptical of the alleged meeting and never included it in any of its formal intelligence reports on the relationship between al-Qaeda and Iraq. In a June 17, 2004 interview with CNBC's Gloria Borger, long after the allegation was revealed to be a great deal less than "pretty well confirmed," Cheney tried to deny making such an assertion.

"Well, let's get to Mohamed Atta for a minute because you mentioned him as well," Borger began. "You have said in the past that it was, quote, 'pretty well confirmed.'" "No, I never said that," Cheney interjected. "I never said that.... Absolutely not. What I said was the Czech intelligence service reported after 9/11 that Atta had been in Prague on April 9 of 2001, where he allegedly met with an Iraqi intelligence official. We have never been able to confirm that nor have we been able to knock it down, we just don't know."

Note that Cheney said that "we have never been able to confirm [Atta's Prague visit] nor have we been able to knock it down." But the truth is that the CIA had "knocked it down" long before that time. By the time of Cheney's June 2004 interview, the Czech intelligence service had already backed off its initial allegation, and the CIA had credit card charges and bank surveillance video that placed Atta in Florida at the same time he was supposed to have been meeting with Iraqi Intelligence Service officer al-Ani in Prague.

Cheney's Neo-con War Lobby

Cheney visited the deputy director of the CIA five to eight times between September 11, 2001 and February 2003 to get up-to-date intelligence on the links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, according to the Senate Select Committee report on prewar intelligence. He also repeatedly visited the CIA, creating subtle pressure for the CIA to produce more alarmist reports. But Cheney wasn't alone in trawling for pro-war intelligence at the skeptical CIA. His colleagues from a powerful neo-conservative organization, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), were utilizing Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith to pressure the CIA further.

Feith established a Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group after September 11 that sought to justify war with Iraq by forging nonexistent ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. That group began briefing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, with the latter urging it to meet with the CIA to "illuminate the differences between us and CIA." Counterterrorism Evaluation Group officials quickly went into high-gear pressure mode. "[O]fficials under the direction of Undersecretary Feith took it upon themselves to push for a change in the intelligence analysis so that it bolstered administration policy statements and goals," leading Senate Select Intelligence Committee Democrats concluded. "The CIA Ombudsman told the Committee that he felt the 'hammering' by the Bush administration on Iraq intelligence was harder than he had previously witnessed in his 32-year career with the agency." According to the Senate Report, Counterterrorism Evaluation Group officials began meeting with and lobbying the CIA to mention Mohamed Atta as being at a confirmed recent meeting between Hussein and al-Qaeda in September 2002, but the CIA didn't budge.

Wolfowitz, who recently became president of the World Bank, served as an early and key administration staff advocate for war against Iraq. In fact, his support for a second Iraq war preceded the Bush administration. Both Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld signed the Project for a New American Century letter to President Clinton on January 28, 1998, calling for a war against Iraq: "We urge you to seize that opportunity, and to enunciate a new strategy that would secure the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world. That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power." Wolfowitz is a current member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Rumsfeld is a former member. As deputy secretary of defense, Wolfowitz sat in on presidential briefings on the "threat" from Iraq and was able to neutralize the skepticism of fellow CFR members Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet.

PNAC Neo-con Connection

Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz also served as founding members of the Project for a New American Century, although the future vice president did not sign the 1998 letter to President Clinton arguing for a second Iraq war. The Project for a New American Century became the key powerhouse neo-conservative organization with the election of President Bush in 2000.

The movement now called "neo-conservatism" actually gestated within a group of former disciples of Leon Trotsky, one of the founders of the Soviet Union and creator of the Red Army. Irving Kristol, commonly regarded as one of the chief founders of neo-conservatism, wrote an autobiographical essay entitled "Memoirs of a Trotskyist." "I regard myself to have been a young Trotskyite and I have not a single bitter memory," wrote Kristol in 1995. Other pioneering Trotskyites included James Burnham, a founder of National Review magazine; and the husband and wife team of Norman Podhoretz (who once wrote poetry in praise of the Soviet Red Army, Trotsky's most notable creation) and Midge Decter.

Unlike genuine conservatives, whose chief preoccupation is the preservation of individual liberty and national independence, neo-conservatives were primarily preoccupied with power. Supporters of a welfare state at home and an interventionist foreign policy abroad, the neo-cons attached themselves to the Republican Party and made an alliance of convenience with social conservatives — despite having little interest in the social conservative agenda.

In a June 11, 2003 essay for National Review, unrepentant Trotskyist Stephen Schwartz, a prominent contributor to several neo-conservative journals, praised neo-conservative "pioneers" Kristol and Burnham for refusing to "apologize … grovel … crawl and beg forgiveness for having, at one time, been stirred by the figure of Trotsky." "To my last breath I will defend … Trotsky," Schwartz defiantly wrote. "To my last breath, and without apology."

In a remarkable June 7, 2003 National Post article, Canadian reporter Jeet Heer quoted Schwartz as saying that "in certain Washington circles the ghost of Trotsky still hovers around." At a February 2003 White House party, Schwartz recalled, he and Paul Wolfowitz had a chat about Trotsky's legacy. Another illustration of Trotsky's influence, wrote Heer, was the fact that Cheney and Wolfowitz turned to Kanan Makiya, an Arab leader of the Trotsky-founded Fourth International, for "advice about Iraqi society."

Trotsky and his followers believed in waging a permanent revolution — a theme that has certainly been embraced by the administration of George W. Bush. Another key influence on the thinking of neo-conservatives was University of Chicago Professor Leo Strauss, who taught that mankind in general — and Americans in particular — need to be ruled by a managerial elite that can manipulate them through the use of lies and myths. Once again, that approach can be seen in the behavior of the Bush administration.

The Project for a New American Century began with a June 3, 1997 "Statement of Principles" stipulating that "we need to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global responsibilities today." And the "global responsibilities" the military would carry out would be "to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values" and to "promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad." This is, of course, fully consistent with the 1998 letter to President Clinton to attack Iraq and precisely what the Bush-Cheney administration has done with regard to Iraq.

While the White House has cultivated a public image of George W. Bush as the man in charge at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Vice President Dick Cheney, acting in concert with a shadowy "committee" of neo-conservatives, has quietly led the administration from behind the scenes for the past five years. Far from being the man in charge at the White House, Bush the Younger is merely a useful vessel; after all, Cheney and his neo-conservative comrades were urging that the United States resume a war with Iraq, and target other nations for "regime change," several years before President Bush supposedly made up his mind up about whether or not to invade.

During presidential election campaigns, much attention is lavished on the perceived strengths and failings of the personality at the head of the ticket. How many Americans knew in 2004 that when they pulled the lever for George W. Bush they were actually reelecting Cheney and his shadowy oligarchy — the people who are really running things?


Establishment's Man

Even before George W. Bush became president, the influence the American Establishment exerts over him was strongly evident. A photo shows Mr. Bush at a May 23, 2000 press conference in Washington, D.C., where he was joined by an entourage of foreign policy gurus, including former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former General (later Secretary of State) Colin Powell, and former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Also joining him at the conference were Condoleezza Rice, the head of his campaign's foreign policy team who became his national security adviser and later secretary of state, and Donald Rumsfeld, a former secretary of defense who acquired that same post in the new Bush administration. All six are (or were) members of the Council on Foreign Relations, the most visible manifestation of the Insider Establishment.

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