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Revealing the road to 'The Dark Side'

IF NEWSPAPERS are the first, the second draft of history on Iraq is in books and broadcast. Two new offerings might well be called the CIA's revenge, so devastating are their accounts of the Bush administration's pre-Iraq War conduct.

One is a ''Frontline'' production titled ''The Dark Side,'' so named for Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that in combating terror, the administration would have to ''work the dark side.'' The other is ''The One Percent Doctrine,'' Ron Suskind's revealing new book about the way the Bush administration has conducted the war on terror.

That, too, takes its title from a Cheney comment, this time from his reported declaration that if there was even a 1 percent chance of a catastrophe occurring, the administration had to treat that possibility as a certainty when formulating a response.

These two impressive pieces of reporting reveal and reinforce a picture of an administration operating in a world where belief overrode evidence and ideology trumped analysis as it pressed for an ill-conceived war.

Let's start with ''The Dark Side,'' the documentary by ''Frontline,'' PBS's award-winning public-affairs series. This remarkable production (which can be viewed at chronicles how Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld - friends, ideological allies, and skilled bureaucratic infighters for more than three decades - wrenched the administration's post-9/11 foreign policy toward their preconceived aim of invading Iraq.

''Frontline'' puts the pieces together in the sort of crisp, cogent, compelling cadence that is television at its best, with an impressive array of actual participants telling the story in on-camera interviews.

Particularly valuable is ''Frontline's'' work documenting how Cheney and Rumsfeld set up their own intelligence operation in the Pentagon under Douglas Feith, undersecretary for policy there. (Readers of Bob Woodward's ''Plan of Attack'' may recall then-Centcom chief General Tommy Frank's biting comment about Feith: ''I have to deal with the [expletive] stupidest guy on the face of the earth almost every day.'') ''The Dark Side'' shows in devastating sequence how Cheney then took the dubious intelligence that Feith's office generated - such as the assertion that Sept. 11 plot ringleader Mohamed Atta had met in Prague with senior officials from the Iraqi Intelligence Service - and pushed it into the public domain, despite the CIA's conclusion that it wasn't true.

The show also quotes Paul Pillar, a veteran CIA intelligence officer who was one of the primary authors of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq that the CIA rushed to cobble together in the fall of 2002, condemning that document.

''It was clearly requested and published for policy advocacy purposes,'' he said. ''The purpose was to strengthen the case of going to war with the American public. Is it proper for the intelligence community to publish papers for that purpose? I don't think so, and I regret having had a role in it.'' Suskind developed deep insight into President Bush and his modus operandi in writing ''The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill.'' His new volume paints a telling portrait of the way this administration has conducted the war on terror.

Although ''The One Percent Doctrine'' is written in a way that sometimes disguises the source of a particular account, the author also has an impressive number of participants on the record.

He portrays an administration that has largely abandoned expertise, evaluation, and analysis in policy-making, acting instead on supposition, instinct, and inclination. The book is replete with revealing moments, such as the one in which Rumsfeld tells his top generals that ''every CIA success is a DoD [Department of Defense] failure.'' Suskind also offers clear instances of this administration's proclivity for making - and marketing - knowingly false statements, and for standing by other claims even when they turned out to be untrue.

Here's an example of the latter penchant: After US and Pakistani agents captured Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, Bush described him as ''one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction in the United States.'' The CIA, however, soon discovered that Zubaydah, a man suffering from serious mental problems, was actually a terrorist of little importance.

Still, according to Suskind, when Bush learned that his supposedly high-value catch was anything but, he said this to George Tenet, then director of the CIA: ''I said he was important. You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?'' Tenet's reply: ''No sir, Mr. President.'' The two presentations differ some on Tenet. ''Frontline'' presents him as a man who at first tried to dispel the notion of Iraq-Al Qaeda ties, but who later sacrificed his integrity for power and become a willing accomplice in the push for war.

A clearly sympathetic Suskind, however, views him as more of a scapegoat.

He offers a markedly different interpretation on an incident made famous in Woodward's book: the December 2002 Oval Office meeting at which Tenet supposedly declared that it was a ''slam dunk'' that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

According to Woodward's account, Bush, skeptical about the CIA's presentation on WMD, turned to Tenet and said: ''I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we've got?'' As Woodward tells it, Tenet rose from an Oval Office couch, threw his arms in the air, and proclaimed: ''It's a slam-dunk case.'' Bush, Woodward writes, pressed him again, asking how confident he was, only to have Tenet throw up his arms again and again declare: ''Don't worry, it's a slam dunk.'' Suskind, however, argues that Tenet was set up as the fall guy, then and later.

Neither Tenet nor John McLaughlin, then his deputy at CIA, remembers the CIA director using the words ''slam dunk,'' Suskind writes. And besides, he quotes McLaughlin as saying, the meeting wasn't about whether Iraq had WMD, but how best to present the case to the public.

The administration having made Tenet the scapegoat, Bush then essentially rewarded him for taking the fall by awarding him the Medal of Freedom, Suskind says. He quotes McLaughlin, Tenet's friend and associate, as saying: ''I know he wishes he could give that damn medal back.'' There's ample food for thought there.

Taken together or individually, ''The Dark Side'' and ''The One Percent Doctrine'' are deservedly damning indictments of a reckless administration.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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