nthposition online magazine

The manufacture of fear: 9-11, intelligence, and the "axis of evil"


[ politics | opinion - july 02 ]

On 30 January 2002, President George Bush solemnly told Congress, in his State of the Union address, that 9-11 was only the beginning of America's long struggle with terrorism. Of course, US action in Afghanistan had triumphed, morally and physically, over Al Qa'eda and either put Osama bin Laden into hiding or six feet under the ground. Now, however, the US faced the menace of the "Axis of Evil," Iran, Iraq and North Korea "and their terrorist allies...arming to threaten the peace of the world [by] seeking weapons of mass destruction".

Many commentators, not necessarily from the Left, have noted that Bush's speech, far from being a logical exposition of the next stage in the War on Terrorism, was a justification for the projection of American power and long-awaited vanquishing of "enemies" who had refused to give way since 1991, 1979, and 1950. The shrewdest have noted that in 1992 Paul Wolfowitz, then an official in the Department of Defense and now Deputy Secretary of Defense to Donald Rumsfeld, issued the blueprint for an American "preponderance of power" which would be superior to any other combination of forces in the world.

Yet Bush's speech served a second, more defensive purpose. By shifting attention away from Afghanistan and towards the foes of the near-future, the President could keep the public eye upon "threats" rather than "causes". If Americans were looking abroad for the next conflict and at home for the next hijacked airliner or suicide bomber, they would not have the time to consider: how did we get here or inquire, in the words of the placard in a Pakistani demonstration on 12 September, "America: Think Why You Are Hated". Causes, be they the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, American bases in Saudi Arabia, perceived American "puppet" regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, and US attacks such as the 1998 bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, would remain beyond scrutiny.

One way to appreciate the sleight-of-hand behind the creation of the "axis of evil" is to consider what US intelligence services had been concluding before 30 January 2002. Was there any support for the Bush Administration's mantras of Iraq's manufacture of "weapons of mass destruction", Iran's support of terrorism, and North Korea's construction of ballistic missiles?

Since 1997 the CIA has produced a biannual Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Related to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, National Intelligence Estimates, and the lengthy study Global Trends 2015. [1] The analyses have focused upon nine states, with Russia and China considered the greatest threats to US security. Pakistan and India follow in terms of their total stockpile of weapons, although their menace is discounted because the weapons are most likely to be used in regional disputes such as Kashmir rather than against the US. Although the Axis of Evil membership are mentioned first in every report, they trail these other states both in stockpiles and in their threat to the US.

On the surface, the linkage of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea with "weapons of mass destruction" is established. Iran already has a stockpile of chemical weapons. It has tested the Shahab 3 medium-range ballistic missile, with leaders publicly mentioning development of Shahab 4 and 5, and will "probably" have an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015. Iraq is developing two short-range ballistic missiles, and UN inspections established that Baghdad had supplies of the nerve agent VX. Further estimates have been hindered by the cessation of UN monitoring in December 1998. North Korea was publicly elevated to a threat with the testing of ballistic missiles in the mid-1990s; despite US pressure, it tested, with partial success, an intercontinental ballistic missile in August 1999. Pyongyang also has stockpiles of chemical weapons and, perhaps most significantly, is a major exporter with Russia and China of WMD-related technology.

Yet the CIA reports make clear that these developments do not constitute a clear and present danger to the United States. To the contrary, the trend in all three countries has been away from a conflict over their weapons development. Iran's ballistic missile program in 2015 will be "less reliable" than the current capabilities of Russia and China; more importantly, Teheran views missiles "more as [a] strategic weapon of deterrence...than as [a] weapon of war", an analysis in line with the declared intentions of the Iranian leadership. [2] The CIA has no "direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since [1998] to reconstitute its WMD programmes", and any weapons being developed are for "deterrence". [3] In December 2001, just weeks before the 'Axis of Evil' speech, the Agency reiterated its long-standing conclusion that Iraq's goal is to become a regional power rather than to confront the US. [4] North Korea has complied with the 1994 Agreed Framework demanded by the US, disposing of spent fuel from nuclear reactors and limiting, if not halting, the development of its nuclear programme. [5] In December 2001 analysts confirmed that Pyongyang had extended to 2003 its moratorium on missile launches as long as the US continued negotiations over appropriate civil and military uses of nuclear power. [6] The CIA emphasized, as with its Axis partners, that North Korea's focus was on regional objectives. [7]

An objective reading of the analyses would lead to the conclusion that the chief concerns for the US should be Russia and China, because the former will remain at least until 2015 "the most robust and lethal threat". [8] As of December 2001, Moscow had 700 ICBMs with about 3,000 warheads; Iran, Iraq, and North Korea have a combined total of 0. [9] China only has a small stockpile of nuclear missiles; however, the number is likely to increase several-fold by 2015 and tens of missiles could be capable of reaching the US. Both Russia and China are by far the leading exporters of missile technology to India, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, as well as Iran and North Korea, and both countries have circumvented export controls or read narrowly any commitment to non-proliferation. [10] (China has still not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty). These inconvenient analyses were explained away by the assurance, given by one senior US official in February 2002, that "the Chinese profess to have a policy of non-proliferation, they insist they don't export missile technology". [11]

Even more striking is the logic, within the grasp of most undergraduate students, that US pressure upon the Axis of Evil is likely to increase rather than decrease the threat of WMD. The CIA analyses make clear that the principal motive for weapons development amongst the Axis is the desire for regional influence and security and that persistent (and, in their eyes, pernicious) US intervention in these regions is a threat to this influence and security. Thus Iran, with memory of the US-backed overthrow of its government and restoration of the Shah in 1953, American support for the Shah's brutal and corrupt regime, and the US attempts to contain or reverse the 1979 Revolution (notably through backing of the Iraqi invasion of Iran), can project its weapons development as self-defense. Iraq can cite the US policy "to keep Saddam in a box", with the attendant exercise of American military power and the sanctions killing possibly a million or more Iraqis, as justification for a response to maintain "security". And North Korea, facing 180 US bases and 37,000 troops in South Korea and the continued fragility of relations with Seoul, can portray its missile programme as a necessary measure for survival. [12]

In the end, however, all of these conclusions and indeed the CIA analyses themselves are moot points, for they run contrary to the fundamental premise of the Bush Administration that American power must be extended and maintained. This was made crystal-clear as early as July 1998 when CIA Director George Tenet confronted the "Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States", chaired by Donald Rumsfeld. [13] The Rumsfeld Commission threw down the gauntlet to any "independent" analysis by the Agency, claiming that rogue states could "inflict major destruction on the US within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (ten years in the case of Iraq)". To this criticism, Tenet responded, "Where the evidence is limited and the stakes are high, we need to keep challenging our assumptions" and repeated that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea "all appear more interested at this time in developing regional missile capabilities". [14]

Once Rumsfeld and other members of the Commission, such as Paul Wolfowitz, became high-ranking and high-profile members of the Bush Administration, Tenet's assessment was irrelevant, for Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and their allies had decided that the US must be involved and must be the dominant power in all regions. They foresaw that such a policy meant confrontation with other countries; far better, therefore, to portray these countries as potential evildoers than to accept that the US might carry the responsibility for increasing tensions. As the Rumsfeld Commission framed the outcome, "A number of countries with regional ambitions do not welcome the US role... They want to place restraints on the US capability to project power or influence."

In this context, 9-11 did not create a new global challenge for the United States; it merely changed the setting for the contest. That contest had been anticipated and even welcomed by the right-wing lobby group, Project for a New American Century, established in 1997 by Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, John Bolton, Paula Dobriansky and many other members of the present Bush Administration to "make the case and rally support for American leadership", "challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values" and "promote the resolve to shape a new century favourable to American principles and interests." [15] PNAC lobbied in 1998 for "a Reaganite reassertion of American power and mastery", and referred specifically to Iraq and North Korea as countries which needed to be mastered.

Whereas the Rumsfeld Commission and PNAC framed the conflict as one over missiles - the US should have a National Missile Defense; other countries should have no such capability - now the justification for the Bush Administration is the War on Terrorism. As with the CIA's earlier analyses, it is irrelevant that Iraqi officials had no connection with Al Qa'eda and the 9-11 hijackers (US sources now admit that there is no evidence that the meeting between Mohammed Atta, one of the "lead" hijackers, and an Iraqi official in Prague was connected with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon) and that Iraq is not behind the anthrax attacks of last autumn. [16] It is an inconvenient fact, fortunately one soon erased from American memory, that the Iranian leadership supported the removal of the Taliban from power and the breakup of Al Qa'eda, albeit through international rather than unilateral American action. As for the niggling reality that North Korea, in its isolation, has not sponsored terrorism since 1970, well, no need to muddle a perfectly good soundbite about an Axis of Evil. [17]

For the extension of US power into Central Asia is not a post-9/11 phenomenon but an ongoing process, one in which Iran is seen as a rival. [18] The issue of the transport of oil from Russia and neighbouring republics is one key source of tension. The US blocked an agreement between Chevron and the Iranian Government to move the oil through Iran, as other American companies sought, through negotiations with the Taliban, to construct a pipeline through northern Afghanistan. (It may be a mere coincidence that Hamid Karzai, in a previous existence, was a consultant for Unocal.) [19] The post-Taliban environment in Afghanistan is another matter with Iran expressing concern for the fate of Shi'a Muslims in the country and the US opposing any local administration, notably in Herat in western Afghanistan, backed by the Iranians. Beyond Central Asia, there is the inconvenient matter that Iran is a supporter of Hezbollah and the general notion of Palestinian "liberation". [20]

The cases of Iraq and North Korea offer similar lessons in how the War on Terrorism covers long-term power politics. The desire to overthrow Hussein, remedying the failure of 1991, faces the complications that the dictator's removal might lead to the partition of the country or an even more aggressive anti-American regime. So, as the US struggles for a solution, pressure must be maintained not only through economic sanctions but through the sabre-rattling prospect of massive bombing and 200,000 American troops storming the border. Iraq's "real" link to 9-11 is irrelevant; all that is needed is rhetoric. As the ever-present PNAC wrote Bush nine days after the attack, "any strategy aimed at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq". [21] Similarly, North Korea's threat may be more symbolic than real, but even a token missile disturbs not only the image of American dominance in the Pacific but also the illusion of total victory in the Cold War: "[Global security] has never been achieved by appeasing communist tyrannies... Cold War divisions end when the communist governments that gave rise to them collapse." [22]

The American pursuit of a "preponderance of power" is an eternal task. In 1992, a year after the fall of the Soviet Union, Paul Wolfowitz co-authored a Pentagon blueprint for the New Millennium. The US had to prevent any "hostile power from dominating regions" with resources that might elevate that country to great-power status, had to discourage any challenge to US leadership and its vision of political and economic order, and had to block the emergence of any potential competitors. [23]

The problem, of course, is that others might not appreciate the need for this "preponderance of power" and that US policy, far from bringing acceptance, could provoke opposition. The quest for dominance in Central Asia and the Middle East fosters new conflicts, shapes new enemies, and leads to "blowback", the unanticipated consequences of American manoeuvring. Arguably, 9-11 was not the beginning of this cycle of conflict, only its most dramatic occurrence.

American policymakers can tell themselves that, possessing the most weapons, the most money, and the cause of "freedom", victory will eventually be theirs. However, they must confront the possibility that the US public will tire of the conflict, will turn its back on the calls for sacrifice. The solution is the "manufacture of fear". In 1950 NSC 68, the blueprint for victory over Soviet Communism, argued, "The prosecution of the program will require of us all the ingenuity, sacrifice, and unity demanded by the vital importance of the issue and the tenacity to persevere until our national objectives have been attained." [24] More than 50 years later, President Bush called, as US bombs began falling on Afghanistan, for "patience with the long waits that will result from tighter security, patience, and understanding that it will take time to achieve our goals, patience in all the sacrifices that may come". He told his national audience of a letter from a girl in the fourth grade whose father had been called up, "As much as I don't want my dad to fight, I'm willing to give him to you." [25]

This spring, the Bush Administration faced its first major challenge in the War on Terrorism, not from Al Qa'eda but from a press and a public who finally asked if Government officials had information before 11 September that a significant attack was being prepared. On the day that FBI agent Colleen Rowley was testified before a Congressional committee that superiors ignored her warnings in summer 2001, President Bush announced on national television that the Office of Homeland Security would become the second-largest agency of the US Government. The bogeymen followed at home and abroad: Taco Bell employee and small-time criminal Jose Padilla, who was suddenly the "dirty bomber" ready to take out Washington or New York; Al-Qa'eda manipulating the Kashmir crisis and linking up with Hezbollah in Lebanon; the alerts of a possible attack on Memorial Day, then the Fourth of July, now 11 September 2002.

If the Axis of Evil doesn't exist, it must be created. It serves the double purpose of keeping a "threat" before the public while offering the prospect that this threat will be vanquished. As we write this, the Government has just leaked to the 'New York Times' the plan for the vanquishing of Iraq through air raids from Turkey and Dubai supporting an invasion from Jordan. Never mind that Jordanian permission for this operation is unlikely (and that, if it had been given on the quiet, public trumpeting of the operation is the worst possible strategy to maintain Amman's support), never mind that US Administrations to date have balked at risking a heavy loss of American ground troops, never mind that "victory" in Iraq will do nothing to the structure and plans of Al-Qa'eda but will probably foster a wider resentment spurring that organisation. For the moment, we can hold to the illusion of the preponderance of power.


1 Since 1997 there have been eight Unclassified Reports to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Related to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions (henceforth URCAT re:WMD). Although the law requires a biannual report, there was only one in 1997 and only one for the first half of 2001, to which an extra section was added in the wake of 9-11. All are available at www.cia.gov/cia/publications There are recent unclassified versions of National Intelligence Estimates of September 1999 (henceforth 'NIE 99'), available at www.cia.gov/cia/publications/nie/nie99msl.html, and December 2001 (henceforth 'NIE 01'), available at www.cia.gov/nic/pubs/other_products/ Unclassifiedballisticmissilefinal.htm. 'Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue About the Future with Nongovernmental Experts' (henceforth 'GT2015') is available at www.cia.gov/cia/publications/globaltrends2015/index.html [Back]

2 See 'NIE 99', p7 [Back]

3 Ibid., p3 [Back]

4 'NIE 01', p14 [Back]

5 'URCAT re: WMD July-December 2000', p5 [Back]

6 'NIE 01', p8 [Back]

7 'NIE 99', p5 [Back]

8 'NIE 99', p7 [Back]

9 'NIE 01', p10 [Back]

10 See, for instance, 'URCAT re: WMD Jan-June 1999', p9. The Reports to Congress also include sections on the role of Western countries as proliferators of WMD-related technology, selling to states such as Iran and Libya [Back]

11 "China is treated more gently than North Korea for same sin," 'New York Times', 21 February 2002 [Back]

12 For full list of US bases worldwide, see "Here, There and Everywhere," 'New Statesman', 28 January 2002, pp32-3 [Back]

13 An unclassified summary of the Rumsfeld Commission's report is available at www.fas.org/irp/threat/bm-threat.htm [Back]

14 CIA press release, 15 July 1998, available at www.cia.gov/cia/public_affairs/press_release/ archives/1998/pr071598.html [Back]

15 See the PNAC website at www.newamericancentury.org [Back]

16 See Larry Everest, "Creating Pretexts: The Post-9/11 Campaign Against Iraq," available at www.zmag.org/everestiraq.htm [Back]

17 The State Department's 'Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000' report, available at www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2000/2419pf.htm, points out that communist hijackers of a 1970 flight from Japan to North Korea remain in the country. Pyongyang has actually done more to counter terror recently than promote it: since 9/11 it has joined three rounds of anti-terrorism talks and released a joint declaration with the US reiterating its opposition to terrorism and agreeing to support international actions against terror. [Back]

18 See for instance Ariel Cohen, "Iran's Aggressive Moves in the Caspian Basin Challenge International Economic and Security Interests," available at www.eurasianet.org/departments/business/articles/eav081401.shtml. [Back]

19 See Tom Turnipseed, "A Creeping Collapse in Credibility at the White House: From Enron Entanglements to Unocal, Bringing the Taliban to Texas and Controlling Afghanistan", available at www.counterpunch.org/tomenron.html [Back]

20 These tensions often culminate in the call for "democracy" in Iran. See, for example, the recent discussion on CNN at "Iranians Struggle for Democracy," 'Q&A', 9 July 2002, www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0207/09/i_qaa.01.html. [Back]

21 "Rumsfeld and His Crew," www.currentconcerns.ch/archive/20011106.php [Back]

22 Statement available at www.newamericancentury.org/chinaoct2500.htm [Back]

23 See "The US search for absolute security is a threat to us all," 'Guardian', 9 August 2001; John Basil Utley, "Answering the Wolfowitz Doctrine on American Empire," www.antiwar.com/rep/utley4.html; "Rumsfeld and His Crew," www.currentconcerns.ch/archive/20011106.php [Back]

24 'NSC 68', 14 April 1950, reprinted at www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/nsc-68/nsc68-4.htm [Back]

25 "Bush Announces Start of Onslaught," Observer, 7 October 2001, www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4272168,00.html [Back]