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Profile: Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman was a participant or observer in the following events:

When Dick Cheney becomes defense secretary (see March 20, 1989 and After), he brings into the Pentagon a core group of young, ideological staffers with largely academic (not military) backgrounds. Many of these staffers are neoconservatives who once congregated around Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (see Early 1970s). Cheney places them in the Pentagon’s policy directorate, under the supervision of Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, himself one of Jackson’s cadre. While most administrations leave the policy directorate to perform mundane tasks, Wolfowitz and his team have no interest in such. “They focused on geostrategic issues,” one of his Pentagon aides will recall. “They considered themselves conceptual.” Wolfowitz and his team are more than willing to reevaluate the most fundamental precepts of US foreign policy in their own terms, and in Cheney they have what reporters Franklin Foer and Spencer Ackerman call “a like-minded patron.” In 1991, Wolfowitz will describe his relationship to Cheney: “Intellectually, we’re very much on similar wavelengths.”
A Different View of the Soviet Union - Cheney pairs with Wolfowitz and his neoconservatives to battle one issue in particular: the US’s dealings with the Soviet Union. Premier Mikhail Gorbachev has been in office for four years, and has built a strong reputation for himself in the West as a charismatic reformer. But Cheney, Wolfowitz, and the others see something far darker. Cheney opposes any dealings with the Soviets except on the most adversarial level (see 1983), and publicly discusses his skepticism of perestroika, Gorbachev’s restructing of the Soviet economy away from a communist paradigm. In April, Cheney tells a CNN news anchor that Gorbachev will “ultimately fail” and a leader “far more hostile” to the West will follow in his footsteps. Some of President Bush’s more “realistic” aides, including James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Condoleezza Rice, as well as Bush himself, have cast their lot with Gorbachev and reform; they have no use for Cheney’s public advocacy of using the USSR’s period of transitional turmoil to dismember the nation once and for all.
Cheney's Alternative Policy - Cheney turns to the neoconservatives under Wolfowitz for an alternative strategy. They meet on Saturday mornings in the Pentagon’s E ring, where they have one maverick Sovietologist after another propound his or her views. Almost all of these Sovietologists echo Cheney and Wolfowitz’s view—the USSR is on the brink of collapse, and the US should do what it can to hasten the process and destroy its enemy for good. They assert that what the Soviet Union needs is not a reformer guiding the country back into a papered-over totalitarianism, to emerge (with the US’s help) stronger and more dangerous than before. Instead, Cheney and his cadre advocate enforced regime change in the Soviet Union. Supporting the rebellious Ukraine will undermine the legitimacy of the central Soviet government, and supporting Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic, will strike at the heart of the Gorbachev regime. Bush and his core advisers worry about instability, but Cheney says that the destruction of the Soviet Union is worth a little short-term disruption.
Failure - Bush will not adopt the position of his defense secretary, and will continue supporting Gorbachev through the Soviet Union’s painful transition and eventual dissolution. After Cheney goes public one time too many about his feelings about Gorbachev, Baker tells Scowcroft to “[d]ump on Dick” with all deliberate speed. During the final days of the Soviet Union, Cheney will find himself alone against Bush’s senior advisers and Cabinet members in their policy discussions. [New Republic, 11/20/2003]

Entity Tags: George Herbert Walker Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Boris Yeltsin, Franklin Foer, US Department of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, James A. Baker, Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, Mikhail Gorbachev, Spencer Ackerman

Timeline Tags: Neoconservative Influence

When Saddam Hussein begins massing his troops on the Kuwaiti border (see July 25, 1990), the US intelligence community believes in consensus that Hussein is mostly bluffing. He wants to gain leverage in the ongoing OPEC talks, the community believes, and at most will seize a Kuwaiti oil field just across the border. The intelligence consensus ignores the fact that Hussein is moving his elite Republican Guard units, the core of his forces and what reporters Franklin Foer and Spencer Ackerman will call “the very guarantors of his rule,” from Baghdad to the southern desert. Even after invading Kuwait (see August 2, 1990), a National Intelligence Estimate released towards the end of the year concludes that Hussein will withdraw from Kuwait rather than risk a conflict with the US (see Late December 1990). Defense Secretary Dick Cheney becomes increasingly angry and frustrated at the US intelligence community. An intelligence analyst will recall being “whisked into a room, there’s Dick Cheney, he’s right in front of you, he starts firing questions at you, half an hour later and thirty questions later, I’m whisked out of the room, and I’m like, ‘What the hell just happened?’” DIA analyst Patrick Lang, that agency’s foremost Middle East expert and one of the few to predict the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, will recall: “He would ask you factual questions like, ‘OK, about this thing you said. Do I understand you correctly that such-and-such is true? And are you sure about this, and how do you know that?’ And I regard that as a legitimate question.… He wasn’t hostile or nasty about it; he just wanted to know how you knew. And I didn’t mind that in the least.” [New Republic, 11/20/2003]

Entity Tags: Spencer Ackerman, Franklin Foer, Patrick Lang, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Saddam Hussein

Timeline Tags: US-Iraq 1980s

In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, UN inspectors uncover evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program far more advanced than the US intelligence community had predicted. Disgusted by this and other intelligence failures (see Mid-1990 and Late December 1990), Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and his cadre of neoconservatives and hardliners in the Pentagon (see Late March 1989 and After) come to consider the intelligence community, and particularly the CIA, as, in the words of reporters Franklin Foer and Spencer Ackerman, “not only inept but lazy, unimaginative, and arrogant—‘a high priesthood’ in their derisive terminology.” [New Republic, 11/20/2003]

Entity Tags: Spencer Ackerman, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Franklin Foer

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

A memo written by an intelligence analyst working under Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith asserts that while “some analysts have argued” that Osama bin Laden will not cooperate with secular Arab groups like Iraq, “reporting indicates otherwise.” A subsequent investigation by the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General (see February 9, 2007) will criticize the memo, titled “Iraq and al-Qaeda: Making the Case,” saying that it constituted an “alternative intelligence assessment” and therefore should have been developed in accordance with intelligence agency guidelines for publishing alternative views. [US Department of Defense, 2/9/2007 pdf file; New York Times, 2/9/2007] Nevertheless, Bush administration officials such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, DIA Director Thomas Wilson, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and the chief of staff for Vice President Cheney, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, embrace the memo. Cheney’s office is particularly enamoured of the report; journalists Franklin Foer and Spencer Ackerman later report a White House official as saying of Cheney and his staffers, “They so believed that the CIA were wrong, they were like, ‘We want to show these f_ckers that they are wrong.” The memo is based on an earlier briefing by Feith entitled “Assessing the Relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda,” which accused the CIA of using overly rigorous standards to analyze information that might show links between Iraq and the terrorist organization. Feith’s briefing uses almost no evidence to claim a “mature, symbiotic” relationship between the two, alleging “more than a decade of numerous contacts” between al-Qaeda and the Hussein government, and asserting “possible Iraqi coordination with al-Qaeda specifically related to 9/11.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 220-222] An updated version of the “Making the Case” briefing will be presented to the White House in September 2002 (see September 16, 2002).

Entity Tags: Office of the Vice President, Thomas Wilson, Office of Special Plans, Stephen J. Hadley, Spencer Ackerman, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Franklin Foer, Donald Rumsfeld, Bush administration (43), George J. Tenet, Douglas Feith

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

The New Republic prints a long analysis of the Bush administration’s misleading use of intelligence to create a false impression that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the US. The article anonymously quotes former ambassador Joseph Wilson commenting on the claim that Iraq had tried to purchase weapons-grade uranium from Niger, saying that White House officials “knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie.” The reporters, Spencer Ackerman and John Judis, identify Wilson as “a prominent diplomat, who had served as ambassador to three African countries,” sent to Niger to investigate the uranium claims (see February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002). “They knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie,” Wilson tells the reporters. “They were unpersuasive about aluminum tubes (see Between April 2001 and September 2002 and January 9, 2003) and added this to make their case more persuasive.” (Note: The date of the New Republic article is June 29, but the issue containing it is published over a week earlier.) [New Republic, 6/30/2003]

Entity Tags: John Judis, Bush administration (43), The New Republic, Joseph C. Wilson, Spencer Ackerman

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Progressive reporter and pundit Spencer Ackerman, responding to former State Department official Philip Zelikow’s revelation of his opposition to the Bush administration’s torture policies (see April 21, 2009), calls Zelikow’s Zelikow’s article in which he explained why he opposed those policies “a delicate and thoughtful rejection of the Bush administration’s architecture of torture.” Ackerman then writes: “To ask an impolite question of Zelikow: why didn’t he resign? I know, resignations of senior officials are few and far between. But it seems like this is one of those issues—the entrenchment of a widespread system of abusive interrogations that are, you acknowledge, most likely illegal—that merits walking out the door. I’m not trying to play the critic, especially after he’s offered such a candid, honest view of his tenure. Nor do I mean to imply that resignation is an easy thing—particularly if you’re trying to change the system from within. But it still seems like a question worth asking.” [Washington Independent, 4/21/2009]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Spencer Ackerman, Philip Zelikow

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Former Vice President Dick Cheney releases a statement that asserts the just-released CIA inspector general’s report (see August 24, 2009) proves that torture, which he refers to as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” works, and follows up with an attack on the Obama administration’s commitment to protecting the nation. Cheney writes: “The documents released Monday clearly demonstrate that the individuals subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al-Qaeda. This intelligence saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks. These detainees also, according to the documents, played a role in nearly every capture of al-Qaeda members and associates since 2002. The activities of the CIA in carrying out the policies of the Bush administration were directly responsible for defeating all efforts by al-Qaeda to launch further mass casualty attacks against the United States. The people involved deserve our gratitude. They do not deserve to be the targets of political investigations or prosecutions. President Obama’s decision to allow the Justice Department to investigate and possibly prosecute CIA personnel (see First Half of August 2009), and his decision to remove authority for interrogation from the CIA to the White House (see August 24, 2009), serves as a reminder, if any were needed, of why so many Americans have doubts about this administration’s ability to be responsible for our nation’s security.” [Weekly Standard, 8/24/2009; Washington Independent, 8/24/2009] Cheney’s statement is contemporaneous with a similar statement from the Republican National Committee (see August 24, 2009).
Disputing Cheney's Assessment - A Democratic official disputes the assertions, saying that the report provides no basis to conclude that torture was effective in eliciting actionable intelligence, and cites caveats in the body of the report. [Politico, 8/25/2009] And the New York Times notes that the memos “do not refer to any specific interrogation methods and do not assess their effectiveness.” [New York Times, 8/24/2009]
'Silly Semantic Game' - Reporter and columnist Spencer Ackerman notes that the memos seem to suggest that the most useful intelligence came from traditional intelligence techniques. He writes, “Cheney’s public account of these documents have conflated the difference between information acquired from detainees, which the documents present, and information acquired from detainees through the enhanced interrogation program, which they don’t.” Human rights organizations take a similar line. Gitanjali Gutierrez of the Center for Constitutional Rights says the documents “don’t make the case for torture, they only show that the CIA is able to tailor documents to justify its actions after the fact.” Tom Parker of Amnesty International notes that the memos “are hardly the slam dunk we had been led to expect. There is little or no supporting evidence in either memo to give substance to the specific claims about impending attacks made by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in highly coercive circumstances.” [Washington Independent, 8/24/2009; TPM Muckraker, 8/25/2009] Reporter Zachary Roth calls Cheney’s claim a “silly semantic game.” While it is true that the US gained actionable intelligence from detainees who were tortured, Roth observes, “it’s totally different from Cheney’s earlier claim—that the documents would show it was the EITs themselves that elicited the information.” [TPM Muckraker, 8/25/2009]

Entity Tags: Barack Obama, Bush administration (43), Obama administration, Central Intelligence Agency, New York Times, Gitanjali Gutierrez, Al-Qaeda, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Zachary Roth, Republican National Committee, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Tom Parker, Spencer Ackerman

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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