A clique of Bush-era neoconservative outliers who whipped Americans into a frenzied state of fear and anxiety after 9/11. Now they’re back, lurking in and around Trump’s transition team, ready to open a vastly improved and expanded toolset for war and profit.
OAKLAND, California — Toward the end of the campaign trail Donald Trump said he would “drain the swamp” in Washington.
This became an easily distillable mantra of what Trump had been promising for the duration of his campaign, that his mission was to destroy and rebuild what had become a corrupt Washington establishment. He would be a “golden wrecking ball,” in the words of Sarah Palin.
A significant part of this “swamp” consists of defense company-funded think tanks and quasi-intellectual architects of foreign policy, including a number of Bush-era neoconservatives who were instrumental in laying the framework for the Iraq War. Some of these individuals learned to tone down their rhetoric, like David Frum, Max Boot and Robert Kagan, in the intervening years.
In a strange but not completely unpredictable twist, however, those neocons who managed to escape the taint of the Bush administration, started allying themselves with Hillary Clinton, warning that Trump’s foreign policy would be a disaster for the world.
The “Hillary Clinton the neocon” meme went viral, not just because of her new neocon associates but because her own rhetoric on Russia and Syria took on a distinctly hawkish tone. She repeatedly said she would launch a military attack in response to Russian cyberattacks and enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
Kagan was merely a protege of a neoconservative clique formed by Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and others who were extremely controversial players in the Reagan administration. In fact, they were referred to as the “crazies” in the halls of the CIA and State Department for their paranoid and aggressive methods in waging the Cold War.
It’s not difficult to understand why the term “crazy” was used to describe them. In June of this year Kagan hosted an official fundraiser for Clinton, during which he mocked President Barack Obama for not wanting a nuclear war with Russia in a bizarre rant about the president delaying offensive weapons for Ukraine.
Even though Trump never used the term “neocon” in the course of bashing U.S. foreign policy, his fanbase likely assumed that part of “draining the swamp” consisted of kicking the “crazies” out of Washington. Unfortunately, this was merely a fantasy on par with Obama’s “Hope” and “Change,” but on the opposite end of the spectrum.
While most Trump supporters had their attention turned to Clinton’s brash hawkishness, they failed to notice that some of the craziest of the neoconservative Bush-era war hawks in Washington had split off from the pro-Clinton neocon consensus and favored Trump. Some examples of this include Michael Ledeen, Bill Bennett, Frank Gaffney, John Bolton, and James Woolsey, signatories to the Project for the New American Century, a think tank co-founded by Kagan during the Clinton administration. PNAC is widely known for developing the roadmap for George W. Bush’s foreign policy agenda that led to the illegal Iraq War and the invasion of Afghanistan. A total of 17 PNAC signatories assumed official positions in the Bush administration.
After Trump’s shocking win on Election Day, the media started heavily focusing on the more cartoonish side of Trump’s rumored transition team leaders, like Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee. It became clear almost immediately that while the people generally known as the “crazies” might be gone, the “even-craziers” — specifically, Bolton, Gaffney, and Woolsey — were waiting in line for their Trump Cabinet appointments.
Michael Ledeen: ‘Our children will sing great songs about us’
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the Army veteran with strong ties to the national intelligence state now rumored to be Trump’s national security adviser pick, co-wrote a book with Michael Ledeen, one of the craziest neocons of them all, called “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies” in July.
Unsurprisingly, Flynn shares many of Ledeen’s attitudes toward the Islamic world. On Feb. 26, Flynn admitted to his own Islamophobia when he shared a blatantly bigoted video on Twitter with the comment: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” Four months after the terrorist attacks in Nice, France,Flynn tweeted a “dare” for “Arab & Persian world ‘leaders’ to step up to the plate and declare their Islamic ideology.”
Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions… https://t.co/NLIfKFD9lU
— General Flynn (@GenFlynn) February 27, 2016
It turns out Gaffney was the originator of the “ban Muslim immigration” policy which Trump adopted after the San Bernardino, California, shooting in December 2015. However, Gaffney never said he was advising Trump; he only admitted to advising Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas who competed against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet the mixing of the conservative hot-button topic of illegal immigration with terrorism — a speciality of Gaffney’s — became a crucial flank in both campaigns.
The ban on Muslims also became a major talking point among the so-called “alt-right” movement, possibly because Gaffney was one of the only “crazies” who managed to build a bridge to the alt-right movement years before Trump’s run, writing columns fear-mongering about Muslims and Shariah for Stephen Bannon’s far-right Breitbart News outlet. Most neoconservatives decided to “liberalize” their rhetoric in terms of Islam, but Gaffney stayed true to two of the more controversial neoconservative principles, that “it’s only force that [the Arabs] respect” and that Muslims, in general, pose a threat to free society around the world — a notion sharply criticized by Francis Fukuyama, a PNAC signatory who defected from the neoconservative movement.
Gaffney is rumored to be leading the foreign policy section of Trump’s transition team, although he and Trump spokespeople have publicly denied this. And while he claims he’s not part of Trump’s team, it’s worth noting that there is an uncanny overlap between his regular radio show guest lineup and Trump’s transition team: James Woolsey, John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, and even Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
John Bolton: Too unwieldy for Dubya
John Bolton was well known in Washington for being so rhetorically unhinged while serving as under-secretary of state for arms control and international security that he was demoted to U.N. ambassador in 2005. George W. Bush reportedly found him too difficult to keep in check and worried that his temperament might cause more problems than he was worth in the White House.
In 2002, Bolton called for an official investigation into “Cuba’s biological weapons program,” claiming that Cuba’s world-renowned biomedical program was actually a cover for a deadly threat to the United States. By the end of Bush’s second term, Bolton had become an international laughing stock for his bloviating displays at the U.N. General Assembly. This trend continued into the Obama administration, as Bolton openly called for the execution of whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Unlike other neoconservatives, like Robert Kagan, Bolton was mostly fine with Obama leaving Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
“Instead of focusing on overthrowing Assad or aiding his enemies,” Bolton wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Post in May 2014, “we should be vigorously pursuing regime change in Iran.”
In 2015, Bolton spent thousands of dollars, via his super PAC, the Foundation for American Security and Freedom, to destroy Rand Paul in ads which used video footage of nuclear explosions to paint the Republican senator as a pacifist on Iran. After Paul dropped out of the Republican primaries, Bolton turned the John Bolton Super PAC’s sights on Trump, funneling millions of dollars into research and media buys aimed at getting Trump into the White House.
James Woolsey: The source of the Saddam-9/11-anthrax crisis nexus
Perhaps the most well-connected and elusive of the pro-Trump neocon outliers, James Woolsey served in both the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He was the director of the CIA under Clinton, and after leaving the public sector, he went on to become a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. That company supplies the NSA, CIA and Pentagon with a constant stream of private contractors, including Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who Woolsey has said should “hang by the neck until he’s dead.”
While working in the private sector, Woolsey reconfirmed the longstanding critique that the CIA, is an arm of corporate power. And he did more than rationalize the agency’s role in corporate espionage — he bragged about it.
“That’s right, my continental friends, we have spied on you because you bribe,” Woolsey declared in an editorial that ran in the Wall St. Journal in March 2000.
Like John Bolton, Woolsey was also obsessed with the idea of a preemptive strike on North Korea. At a conference in 2013, he claimed a North Korean EMP bomb attack on the United States was just around the corner.
“A surgical strike to prevent North Korean development of an ICBM has never been more urgent. Such a strike would draw a necessary line in the sand for North Korea—and Iran,” Woolsey wrote in a May 2013 opinion piece for the Journal co-authored by Peter Vincent Pry.
Woolsey was also technically the first U.S. official, former or current, to publicly blame Saddam Hussein for the events of 9/11. When he made these statements on NBC and other media outlets Sept. 12 and 13, 2001, it made him an instrumental player in planting the three-way connection between Saddam, 9/11, and the anthrax attacks in the public consciousness in the early weeks following 9/11.
Woolsey pushed so hard on this false narrative in one ABC appearance that Peter Jennings interrupted him during the broadcast to ask: “Why do you keep bringing up Iraq?”
“I wanted you to explain it because every time you say something on television these days, people are … sometimes inclined to believe it immediately,” Jennings added later:
Watch James Woolsey advocating for military action against Iraq during a 2001 appearance on ABC with Peter Jennings:
Five weeks later, the Village Voice revealed that Wolfowitz had hired Woolsey, unbeknownst to Secretary of State Colin Powell, to gather additional “evidence” to prove Saddam was the mastermind behind 9/11. However, it seemed more likely that Woolsey wasn’t “investigating” as much asserting this false connection to the public to help push the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq.
He also had a peculiar preoccupation with bio-weapons as a method of terror, co-developing an extremely elaborate bio-weapons terror drill called “Operation Dark Winter” involving The New York Times’ Judith Miller and other newspaper reporters in June 2001 — three months before actual anthrax-laced letter were sent through the U.S. mail.
At the same American Enterprise Institute panel discussion in which Michael Ledeen proclaimed that “our children will sing great songs about us,” Woolsey made sure to deflect suggestions from critics that the United States needed to present evidence that Iraq had anything to do with the 2001 anthrax attacks in order to attack the country, saying: “We are not to be held to some lawyerly standards of proof here.”
Mike Pence: From ‘Rush Limbaugh on decaf’ to vice president-elect
A focus on Iran, North Korea, and “radical Islam” is a disturbing thread connecting Trump’s “crazies.” But when it became clear which foreign policy officials were circling Trump, an even more troubling theme started to emerge: the theme of using the 2001 anthrax letter attacks for unseemly purposes.
Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president, who, like Dick Cheney before him, is leading the presidential transition team, also played a pivotal role in propelling the Saddam/anthrax propaganda from 2001 to 2003.
Pence is a former right-wing AM talk radio host who referred to himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” He continued doing radio as a freshman senator in 2000, and in an attempt to be hip, he adopted social media earlier than most of his fellow senators and cobbled together a makeshift radio studio in his congressional office in 2001.
However, Pence couldn’t use that office until March of 2002 because traces of anthrax were found there the previous October. He convened a press conference, where he thanked God and Jesus that he survived the attack, and he allowed TV cameras to catch him and his family receiving antibiotic treatments at a Washington-area hospital later that evening.
Unlike Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle, two senators who received weaponized anthrax in letters addressed to them through the U.S. Postal Service, Pence decided to use his trauma to echo a narrative that Michael Ledeen, Robert Kagan, and James Woolsey were all pushing: The anthrax attacks were the work of Saddam Hussein.
Very early in his career, Pence had shown his willingness to do favors for neoconservative manipulators in the shadows of Washington by helping spread blatant lies about Iraq.
Even when Bush’s press secretary had admitted to no longer pursuing the case that Iraq committed the attacks, Pence continued repeating this false narrative in editorials and letters, even going so far as to pressure Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate the alleged connection.
Newt Gingrich: ‘I will not be in the Cabinet’
Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani are also being floated as possible Trump Cabinet picks. And they, too, have troubling connections to hyperbolic terrorism fear-mongering and the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Gingrich’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention echoed a return to Bush-era “Power of Nightmares” thinking as he preached about the likely possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. After the November 2015 Paris attacks and several weeks before the San Bernardino shooting, it seemed as though Gingrich was wishing ill on Californians when he tweeted that “a California terrorist attack will convince our leaders this is real war.”
Maybe scale of the Paris attack following Russian airline bombing and California terrorist attack will convince our leaders this is real war
— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) November 13, 2015
During the panic of the 2001 anthrax attacks, Gingrich shared an American Enterprise Institute panel with Michael Ledeen, James Woolsey, and Richard Perle on Oct. 29, 2001. Gingrich proclaimed:
“Now we are currently almost paralyzed in this city by one, two, three, four envelopes. Imagine where we would be if there were 70,000 cases. Imagine where we would be if, on September the 11th, we had a nuclear or chemical weapon. And as tragic as the loss of 6,000 people are, I don’t think we have yet come to grips with how big the tragedy could be in the future.”
“I think we have to think of these two events — September 11 and anthrax — as precursors to a real heart attack. We’ve now had a warning. The question is how serious we’re going to take this warning.”
Of course, when it came to proof that Saddam had anything to do with 9/11, Gingrich echoed Woolsey: “I don’t think we need evidence about anything with regard to Iraq. I think what we need is a series of steps which de-fang the rattlesnake or eliminate it.”
That, he concluded, “is much more rational than to worry about connecting things. … Everybody that doesn’t like us will simply lie about the connections.”
In a recent interview with McClatchy, Gingrich said, unequivocally, “I will not be in the Cabinet.” He did add, though, that he would be “focusing on strategic planning.”
His swift departure could be related to his connections to the pharmaceutical industry, which date back to 2003, when he started the healthcare think tank and lobbying firm Center for Health Transformation. He served as a consultant to the firm, making millions of dollars each year by giving speeches to top pharmaceutical companies and receiving $60,000 to 200,000 per appearance.
The Center for Health Transformation, owned by Gingrich LLC, filed bankruptcy in 2014 and paid only 32 percent of the money they owed in a disclosed settlement agreement.
Rudy Giuliani: 9/11, anthrax crisis as a source of business, profits
Like James Woolsey, Rudy Giuliani was in charge of his own “biochemical attack” drill, “Operation Tripod.” It was co-sponsored by the Office for Domestic Preparedness, a U.S. government branch run by Dick Cheney. The drill had been scheduled to take place on Sept. 12, 2001, but was cancelled due to the events of Sept. 11.
In 1999, Giuliani allocated $13 million in the city budget for the construction of a “command bunker,” called the Office of Emergency Management, or OEM, on the 32nd floor of World Trade Center Building 7.
Later, as a rationale for building the OEM, he said: “We would be facing emergencies we hadn’t faced before — sarin gas attacks, anthrax attacks”
Even while attempting his first bid for mayor in 1989 (a campaign run by Fox News’ Roger Ailes), Giuliani had a reputation as a corrupt official who took money from criminals and known drug traffickers. Giuliani’s opponent, Ed Koch, noted that White & Case, the Manhattan law firm where Giuliani worked, represented Panama’s Manuel Noriega. When confronted with this information, Giuliani pleaded total ignorance and was discredited among New York voters as a corruptible liar.
Somehow, even with these obstacles, Giuliani became mayor of New York in 1994, but his old habits hadn’t gone away. He rushed 9/11 cleanup and recovery efforts, benefiting Wall St. at the expense of the health and safety of many first responders health. He also quickly secured the sale of the shredded steel from the World Trade Center through dozens of different companies and contractors, several of which had ties to organized crime.
During Giuliani’s testimony to the 9/11 Commission hearings, protesters — some of whom were carried out by security — repeatedly interrupted him, yelling: “Ask him about the radios!” This was a reference to a widespread belief among firefighters who survived 9/11 that Giuliani was responsible for the deaths of their colleagues because they had not been provided the improved walkie-talkie radios that FDNY had been promised seven years prior. The radios would have enabled them to communicate to the firefighters in 2 World Trade Center that the other building had collapsed, giving them an opportunity to attempt an escape.
Not long after 9/11, Giuliani profited immensely from the anthrax letter attacks, as he was conveniently positioned as the owner of BioONE, a company which provided “decontamination” services and specialized in the cleanup of anthrax. The company “fumigated” the building of the National Enquirer and the Sun, where Robert Stevens, the first victim of the attacks, worked as a photo editor. When BioONE attempted to relocate their headquarters into the building, Giuliani said about his company: ”It will be a symbol that we can deal with these new risks that we live with in our new world.”
The amount Giuliani made from this single decontamination effort was never disclosed. But, to provide a frame of reference, it cost the U.S. government $130 million just to decontaminate the Brentwood Post Office in Washington.
Giuliani often finds himself in lucky positions for profits to be made on tragedies or rising fears, like SkyWatch, the company he co-owns which specializes in Mexican border security using an expensive high-tech digital surveillance grid.
Those hoping Trump would put an end to the military-industrial complex should note that SkyWatch’s border technology utilizes drones, cameras, and GPS monitoring developed In collaboration with Raytheon, one of the world’s top defense companies.
If Giuliani gets a Cabinet position, Trump’s “wall” might not be a physical wall at all.
The very real danger posed by the fear-mongering ‘even-craziers’
This overview of the dirty deeds, including deliberate strategies to turn profits on tragedies and outright lies, of Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, James Woolsey, John Bolton, Frank Gaffney, and Michael Ledeen provides merely a sampling of the type of people Americans should expect to have control of the reigns of power again in a Trump administration.
While Trump portrayed himself as an “anti-war” candidate, each new person speculated to be recruited to his team chips away the veneer of his campaign rhetoric.
By the end of the presidential race, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had warned voters with hyperbole that Trump shouldn’t have access to the presidency. Someone with his temperament, they urged, shouldn’t have the nuclear codes. Meanwhile, the mainstream press predicted that Trump’s racist dog-whistling and authoritarian tone would bring about American fascism.
But what if we were being told to look for the potentiality of fascism in the wrong place? What if a greater danger was being overlooked?
Lurking just beneath the surface of Trump’s transition team, there’s a clique of Bush-era neoconservative outliers who helped drive Americans into a state of perpetual fear and anxiety. Neocons brought us to the very brink of fascism after 9/11. While some of these “crazies” had learned to behave themselves in recent years, at least rhetorically, the outliers, the “even-craziers,” didn’t. And now they have access to a vastly improved Bush-era toolset: a totalitarian framework of rendition, torture, and warrantless mass surveillance.