Hitchens Has No Clothes: A response to ‘Vidal Loco’

In his February Vanity Fair
hitpiece, Christopher Hitchens argues that the post-9/11 world has driven Gore Vidal ‘Loco’ – the signs, he says, were always there, but 9/11 and events thereafter ‘accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant.’

Hitchens begins his missive with Gore’s take on 9/11 itself, in which he ‘insinuated or asserted that the administration had known in advance of the attacks on New York and Washington and was seeking a pretext to build a long-desired pipeline across Afghanistan.’

And then Hitchens goes on, drawing on Vidal’s October 2009 interview with Johann Hari:

‘He openly says that the Bush administration was ‘probably’ in on the 9/11 attacks, a criminal complicity that would “certainly fit them to a T”; that Timothy McVeigh was “a noble boy,” no more murderous than Generals Patton and Eisenhower; and that “Roosevelt saw to it that we got that war” by inciting the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. Coming a bit more up-to-date, Vidal says that the whole American experiment can now be described as “a failure”; the country will soon take its place “somewhere between Brazil and Argentina, where it belongs”; President Obama will be buried in the wreckage - broken by “the madhouse” - after the United States has been humiliated in Afghanistan and the Chinese emerge supreme. We shall then be “the Yellow Man’s burden,” and Beijing will “have us running the coolie cars, or whatever it is they have in the way of transport.”’

Gore Vidal has ‘descended straight to the cheap, and even to the counterfeit’, becoming a peddler of ‘crank-revisionist and denialist history’ in an ‘awful, spiteful and miserable way’. His writing and speaking witnesses ‘the utter want of any grace or generosity’, the ‘entire absence of any wit or profundity’, all replaced by ‘sarcastic, tired flippancy’ and ‘lugubrious resentment’. Even a cursory reading of Hitchens’s attack leaves a distasteful residue on the tongue - Gore Vidal is now eighty-five; has lost of the use of his legs; and lost his partner of 50 years. It is unsurprising that his irony is more cutting, his criticisms more caustic, and his tone more inflexible. Hitchens approach, however, is to relentlessly kick an old man when he’s down, rather than to engage critically and constructively with what his still sharp mind has learned.

Indeed, while denigrating Gore, Hitchens displays a chronic contempt for simple matters of fact and evidence. Let’s start with Vidal’s supposedly ‘crackpot’ scepticism of the Bush administration’s narrative of 9/11.

Obfuscating the Failures Behind 9/11

Hitchens conveniently overlooks Vidal’s axiomatic acceptance that the attacks were carried about by Islamist terrorists: ‘... our policies were such that we were going to have a lot of crazy people out there in the Arab world who were going to try to blow us up, because of crimes they feel we committed against them. Any fool could see it coming. And I’m sufficiently a fool to have seen it.’ It is only in this context that Gore describes bin Laden as ‘still not the proven mastermind.’ Hitchens thinks this is self-evidently absurd, but it would seem the FBI agree with Gore, not Hitchens: according to Sonoma State University’s Project Censored, one of the top 25 censored news stories of 2008 was that ‘He [bin Laden] has not been formally indicted and charged in connection with 9/11 because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11.’ Clearly, this doesn’t prove bin Laden wasn’t the mastermind, but should give us pause for thought about why the evidence isn’t so forthcoming.

On that note, it is a matter of record that the intelligence community received advanced warnings of the attacks. In Gore Vidal’s extended piece for the London Observer (currently hosted on eleven term Washington Congressman Hon. Rep. Jim McDermott’s website) he draws on my interview with former chief investigative counsel for the US House Judiciary Committee, David Schippers, who impeached President Bill Clinton. Schippers was approached by senior FBI agents in late July 2001 complaining that their investigations into an imminent al-Qaeda terrorist attack targeting the ‘financial district’ of ‘lower Manhattan’ were blocked from Washington. Schippers’ story was corroborated by investigative journalist Greg Palast , who reported for BBC Newsnight and the Guardian that pre-9/11 FBI investigations into the terrorist connections of Saudi royals and the bin Laden family were also blocked ‘for political reasons’. Gagged FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, whose courageous whistleblowing on US intelligence corruption was also featured in a Vanity Fair cover-story, has similarly said that the FBI had ‘real, specific’ advanced warning of the 9/11 attacks. Documents she translated clearly ‘showed that the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the country and plotting to use airplanes as missiles. The documents also included information relating to their financial activities’ - contradicting Condoleezza Rice’s now notorious pretence that US intelligence knew of no ‘possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles’.

Hitchens similarly ignores that three months before 9/11, US officials warned the Taliban of a US military strike in October 2001 if they didn’t join up with the Northern Alliance. That warning came on the back of a series of negotiations involving UNOCAL from 1996 to 2000, to build a pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan. We now know, thanks to journalists like Ahmed Rashid and politicians like Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, that the US had covertly sponsored the Taliban in the (evidently vain) hope they might bring the ‘stability’ necessary for the trans-Afghan pipeline.

And according to Forbes (19 January 2005), ‘Since the US-led offensive that ousted the Taliban from power, the project has been revived and drawn strong US support’ as it would allow the Central Asian republics to export energy to Western markets ‘without relying on Russian routes’. The problem remains that the southern section of the proposed pipeline runs through territory still de facto controlled by Taliban forces. Gore never jumps to any specific conclusions around such evidence, but instead simply provokes the reader in his inimitable fashion: ‘Conspiracy? Coincidence!’

Protecting the Politicization and Corruption of Intelligence

Indeed, the pre-9/11 intelligence failure was not simply because of a lack of reliable intelligence, or because intelligence bureaucracy was hopelessly incompetent (which it was and is), but ultimately because the Bush administration made political decisions that obstructed critical intelligence investigations and ongoing information-sharing that could have prevented 9/11. Those decisions were made to protect vested interests linked to US support of Islamist extremist networks like the Taliban and their state-sponsors, such as the Gulf kingdoms, rooted in Western oil dependency and intersecting financial investments. The inadequacy of the 9/11 Commission investigation, in this regard, is an open secret to many intelligence experts. In the words of 27-year CIA veteran and former Chairman of the National Intelligence Estimate Ray McGovern, ‘ The 9/11 report is a joke. The question is: What’s being covered up? Is it gross malfeasance, gross negligence? Now there are a whole bunch of unanswered questions.’

As other whistleblowers such as the FBI’s Coleen Rowley and Robert Wright have said, the problem was the politicization and corruption of the intelligence system - a reality which reared its ugly head yet again in the Iraq-WMD fable, also thoroughly documented by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, which found that ‘the public relations push for war came before the intelligence analysis, which then conformed to public positions taken by Pentagon and White House officials.’ This assessment is corroborated by multiple senior CIA officials, including the former highest ranking CIA officer in Europe, Tyler Drumheller, who said that when incoming information proved ‘there were no active weapons of mass destruction programs’, the White House group dealing with preparation for the Iraq war said ‘Well, this isn’t about intel anymore. This is about regime change.’ Drumheller observes: ‘The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming, and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy.’

But particularly since 9/11, reality has never been Hitchens’s strong point. Failing entirely to have learned his lesson over Iraq War 2003, in relation to which he was a leading protagonist, he now continues to pontificate on Iran, lambasting the findings of successive National Intelligence Estimates to the effect that there is scant evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. Opining that ‘for most of the duration of the Iraq debate, the CIA was all but openly hostile to any argument for regime-change in Baghdad’ (ignoring that the reason for this was precisely the lack of evidence) he superimposes the same twisted logic on the Iran scenario:

‘Why, then, have our intelligence agencies helped to give the lying Iranian theocracy the appearance of a clean bill, while simultaneously and publicly (and with barely concealed relish) embarrassing the president and crippling his policy? It is not just a hypothetical strike on Iran that is rendered near-impossible by this estimate, but also the likelihood of any concerted diplomatic or economic pressure, as well.’

Due to the CIA’s failure to generate a convenient justification for Total War on Iran, Hitchens entitles his piece, ‘ Abolish the CIA ’, and declares: ‘The system is worse than useless - it’s a positive menace. We need to shut the whole thing down and start again.’ So the CIA should be abolished not for extra-judicial assassinations or torture or anything like that, but because… it doesn’t tow the neocon line on unilateral pre-emptive warfare!?

Perhaps we should also abolish the FBI for failing to indict bin Laden for 9/11. Or abolish the entire Western intelligence community for lampooning the widely debunked neocon allegation, supported by self-anointed crystal-ball intel-gazer Hitchens, that 9/11 chief bomber Mohamed Atta was linked to Saddam Hussein . Or abolish the British Ministry of Defence, whose Chief Scientific Adviser described the Lancet study finding of 655,000 Iraqi civilian deaths as ‘robust’ and methodologically ‘close to best practice’ - the same study hysterically described by Hitchens as ‘politicized hack-work’, a ‘crazed fabrication’, and ‘conclusively and absolutely shown to be false’. While we’re at it, let’s abolish the BBC for reporting the MoD’s inconvenient opinion.

Notice the pattern - the need for war is an unquestionable given; those who pull the rug out from under the war-machine by pointing out the emperor’s brazen nudity are committing ‘treason’. Yet it is the impassioned concern for evidence, and for the well-being of Americans and the world, that motivates Gore’s discussions about issues like Pearl Harbour, Timothy McVeigh, and the collapse of the American empire.

Historical Revisionism: From Pearl Harbour to the Lusitania

Here, again, we see Hitchens incapable of even-handedness. On Pearl Harbour, Vidal’s remark ‘Roosevelt saw to it that we got that war!’ is a call to question the received wisdom about a historical debate that still continues. His disquiet reflects some of the views of high-ranking officials in Roosevelt’s own administration, such as Vice-Admiral Frank E. Beatty, aide to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who wrote in 1954 in US News and World Report:

‘Prior to December 7, it was evident even to me... that we were pushing Japan into a corner. I believed that it was the desire of President Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Churchill that we get into the war, as they felt the Allies could not win without us and all our efforts to cause the Germans to declare war on us failed; the conditions we imposed upon Japan - to get out of China, for example - were so severe that we knew that nation could not accept them. We were forcing her so severely that we could have known that she would react toward the United States. All her preparations in a military way - and we knew their over-all import - pointed that way.’

This perspective, we should note, neither contradicts nor fully supports the conclusion that Roosevelt specifically provoked and knew about the attack on Pearl Harbour as such - rather it suggests that Pearl Harbour occurred as a consequence, surprise or not, of US provocation. There is a lesson in this, as in Gore Vidal’s wise remark that ‘In geopolitics as in physics, there is no action without reaction’.

If Gore’s scepticism about Pearl Harbour represents a ‘crackpot’ strain, then what do Hitchens’s writings about the sinking of the Lusitania in his Blood, Class and Empire (2004) say about him? Hitchens points to how the US sank its own ship, the USS Maine, in Havana as a pretext for the Spanish-American War. This was precedent for Winston Churchill’s ‘pivotal role’ in the Lusitania deception, a ‘psychological warfare’ operation that ‘prepared United States public opinion for a war on the terrain of old Europe’ by placing the ship in the line of German fire. He concludes ominously:

‘I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy deliberately to put the Lusitania at risk in the hope that even an abortive attack on her would bring the United States into war. Such a conspiracy could not have been put into effect without Winston Churchill’s express permission and approval.’

Talk about pot calling the kettle black? Whether either of them is right or wrong, compared to Hitchens’s repeated, heated, solemn references to ‘conspiracy’, Gore is far more measured, albeit laden with a heavy-dose of the blackest irony.

Misconstruing McVeigh

Similarly, on Gore’s reference to Timothy McVeigh as a ‘noble boy’: Lazily as usual, Hitchens relies only on the solitary interview with Hari, but Gore’s off-hand comments to Hari about McVeigh are simply an ironic snapshot of a thoughtful, well-documented analysis printed in Vanity Fair in the same month as 9/11, where Gore points to US authorities’ attempts to deflect attention from a much wider plot. Gore refers to a ‘classified report prepared by two independent Pentagon experts’ concluding that the 1995 Oklahoma bombing ‘was caused by five separate bombs’ with a ‘Middle Eastern “signature”’. Sources close to the study ‘say Timothy McVeigh did play a role in the bombing but “peripherally”, as a “useful idiot”’. Gore’s argument is not to laud over McVeigh’s role in this heinous atrocity, but to highlight that his desire for revenge against Waco and so forth was part of a simplified self-righteous moral framework manipulated by a wider terrorist network for its own ends; a self-righteous moral framework that has often plagued Western foreign policy with its callousness about ‘collateral damage’ in the South. Alas, it seems such nuances are beyond Hitchens’s own selectively bankrupt moral framework.

Triumphant Denialism

This hypocritical selectiveness is evident again when Hitchens attempts to laud over the supposedly self-evident preposterousness of Gore’s prediction that the US will end up ‘somewhere between Brazil and Argentina’, the empire collapsing militarily in Afghanistan and internally when China calls in US debt. Yet over a year ago, in the midst of the financial storm, Hitchens himself wrote that the meltdown will put the US ‘on a par with Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Equatorial Guinea.’ He even refers reverentially to Milton Friedman - and Gore Vidal! - for coming up with the phrase ‘socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the rest’ to describe the ‘collusion between the overweening state and certain favored monopolistic concerns’: a condition characterising the US, and thus grounds for defining it as a ‘banana republic’.

But when Gore Vidal says the same, with greater prescience, precision and panache, it is for Hitchens evidence of his craziness. Given Gore’s one-time playful endorsement of Hitchens as his literary ‘successor’ (erased by Gore himself with the recent apt observation ‘You know, he identified himself for many years as the heir to me. And unfortunately for him, I didn’t die. I just kept going on and on and on.’), one detects more than a hint of jealous dejection here, perhaps for Gore’s unique ability to deploy just a few witty turns of phrase to capture harsh truths. Such as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen’s warning to US Congress about the Afghan War that ‘We can’t kill our way to victory’ or that ‘ We’re not winning ... and if we’re not winning we’re losing’; not to mention Obama advisor and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s sobering observation that China’s economic rise underscores a decline in US ‘economic’ and ‘intellectual’ leadership: ‘I don’t know how we accommodate ourselves to it’, Volcker told Bloomberg News. ‘You cannot be dependent upon these countries for three to four trillion dollars of your debt and think that they’re going to be passive observers of whatever you do’. Alas, it seems, all this is simply beyond Hitchens’s hopelessly impaired cognitive faculties.

Ahmed Vs Hitchens

Hitchens’s contempt for reality is also evident from his bizarre misrepresentations about myself, motivated to discredit Gore’s reference to my work in his Observer piece. I am casually described as follows: ‘... a risible individual wedded to half-baked conspiracy-mongering, his “Institute” a one-room sideshow in the English seaside town of Brighton, and his publisher an outfit called “Media Monitors Network” in association with “Tree of Life,” whose now-deceased Web site used to offer advice on the ever awkward question of self-publishing,’ my writings ‘wild-eyed and croaking stuff’.

Hitchens conveniently overlooks the fact that I am at the Department of International Relations, University of Sussex (Brighton); that my ‘one-room sideshow’ Institute is based in London Marylebone and advised by a board of 20 leading scholars; and that Media Monitors Network is not ‘deceased’ at all, but remains a flourishing alternative news website. After I informed him of these and other facts in a letter to the editor at Vanity Fair, Hitchens responded by insisting: ‘When he brought out The War on Freedom, its place of publication was given as a distinctly unassuming street address in Brighton. I did not say that his publisher was deceased but that its then Web site was no more.’ My letter of reply, as yet unpublished, stated as follows: ‘He is either hallucinating or pretending. The book was published in Joshua Tree, California, as clearly stated inside. He thus demonstrates that he has never even seen a copy of my book, let alone read it. He also forgets that in his original article, he located my Institute in Brighton, not the publisher, whose website is alive and well. In any case, these trivial details that Hitchens prevaricates over have no relevance to my credibility or lack thereof.’

In The War on Freedom (2002), I merely laid out facts and lines of inquiry for an official investigation. The book was the first read by the Jersey Girls, informing their work with the 9/11 Family Steering Committee, and is part of the 9/11 Commission Collection at the US National Archives (a collection of 99 books, copies of which were provided to each Commissioner). Hitchens particularly objects to what he describes as the book’s ‘pathetically conspiratorial rambling about the behavior of the military and Federal Aviation Administration that day’, which he thinks ‘has since been utterly refuted by a long and exhaustive article, “9/11 Live: The Norad Tapes” by Michael Bronner in Vanity Fair (September 2006).’

Actually, in The War on Freedom, I argued that the behaviour of Gen. Richard Myers, Dick Cheney, George W Bush, among other senior officials, during the attacks on that terrible day amounted to a systemic dereliction of duty. If, for instance, then-Commander-in-chief President Bush had got involved in the US air force response as soon as he was informed of the first WTC attack, rather than notoriously chatting to children about a pet goat, the US air force may have been able to respond sooner and more coherently, potentially saving lives now lost. I have used the term ‘complicity’ to characterize this dismal failure in the strict sense of criminal law - the US legal definition of complicity applies ‘when someone is legally accountable, or liable for a criminal offense, based upon the behavior of another’, and is implied specifically in the following sense: ‘... having a legal duty to prevent the commission of the offense, a person fails to make an effort he is legally required to make.’ Instead of engaging with the fact of systemic senior official negligence on 9/11, for which officials should be held accountable, Hitchens skirts over it by valiantly critiquing a straw-man conspiracy theory about 9/11 being a ‘pre-arrangement involving the United States government’.

In The War on Truth (2005), I elaborate, blaming the failure of US air defence on a collapse of standard operating procedures linked to confusion over various hijack exercises and simulations on 9/11. This argument is corroborated by Bronner’s excellent investigation of the 9/11 NORAD tapes, cited by Hitchens, which reports that throughout the attacks pilots thought they were dealing with a simulation and had to keep checking that ‘inputs’ on the screen were in fact real hijackings. Due to the excessive privatization of the US national security apparatus, a company such as Ptech - financed by indicted Saudi al-Qaeda terrorist and bin Laden supporter Yassin al-Qadi - was granted high-level security clearance by its clients which included the Pentagon, FAA, and US Air Force. Ptech, which was investigated by the FBI in relation to 9/11, specialised in integration software solutions and had access to some of the most sensitive computer systems across the US government. Ptech’s links to these security holes which could have been exploited by al-Qaeda on 9/11 were ignored by the 9/11 Commission. The fact that the Pentagon continued to do business with Ptech even after 9/11 and despite the FBI’s investigations, illustrates an ongoing dereliction of duty and continued politicization of the US intelligence system. Hitchens’s misrepresention of such lines of inquiry as ‘conspiracy-mongering’ does a disservice to the 9/11 victims and their families.

In this context, his screed on Gore Vidal is merely yet another example of Hitchens’s escalating propensity to project his own increasingly vast distance from reality onto those who object to his war-mongering. It is not Gore who has ‘taken a graceless lurch toward the crackpot’, in the unabashed words of Vanity Fair’s introduction to Hitchens’s outburst. Rather, it is Hitchens who has become after 9/11 an unhinged and deranged cheerleader for Total War. After Gore, Hitchens would have himself anointed ‘emperor’. But it is Hitchens, not the indefatigable Gore Vidal, who staggers and stumbles, shamelessly exposed, screaming nonsensically, through the streets of the American capital.

Dr Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author and political analyst specialising in international security issues. He is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, and has taught international relations theory, contemporary history, empire, and globalization at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex and Brunel University’s Politics & History Unit. He is also Strategy Director for Creative Education at Arts Versa Consultants, where he has consulted for projects funded by HM Government’s Department for Communities for Local Government and the US Embassy in London.

Nafeez’s books include The War on Freedom (Progressive, 2002); Behind the War on Terror (New Society, 2003); The War on Truth (Interlink, 2005); The London Bombings (Duckworth, 2006); and A Users Guide to the Crisis of Civilization, forthcoming from Pluto and Palgrave Macmillian in June 2010. Nafeez has been an expert commentator for BBC News 24, BBC Radio Five Live, BBC World Today, BBC Asian Network, Channel 4, Sky News, C-SPAN, CNN, FOX News, Bloomberg, PBS Foreign Exchange, Al-Jazeera English, among others. He has written for the Independent on Sunday, New Internationalist, Raw Story, New Criminologist, Counterpunch, ZNet, Alternet, Op Ed News, Atlantic Free Press and Dissident Voice. His work is cited and reviewed in the Sunday Times, Times Higher Educational Supplement, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Observer, Big Issue, New York Observer, among others. Nafeez’s terrorism research was used by the 9/11 Commission, and he testified in US Congress in summer 2005.

He has also advised the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the UK Parliamentary Select Committee for Communities on its Inquiry into Preventing Violent Extremism.

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