We are all just pawns: moral ambivalence & criminal offenses in the Clinton Cabinet

General Hugh Shelton

I read a startling story yesterday. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff retired General Hugh Shelton says in his memoir that in 1997 a Clinton cabinet member suggested letting Saddam Hussein shoot down a U2 spy plane to create a ruse to go to war against Iraq. It would  provide for international sympathy and justification the Clinton Administration felt it needed for a war.

It’s a chilling accusation, if true: leaders of the executive branch using an U.S. airman to start a war. Jonathan Turley notes that the crimes that the cabinet member could (should?) be charged with “begin with murder before moving on to conspiracy, false statements, and a host of international offenses. They would also constitute impeachable acts.” And, he goes on to say, the Justice Department has prosecuted others for less.

Salon quotes the passage from Shelton’s book:

Early on in my days as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we had small, weekly White House breakfasts in National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s office that included me, Sandy, Bill Cohen (Secretary of Defense), Madeleine Albright (Secretary of State), George Tenet (head of the CIA), Leon Firth (VP chief of staff for security), Bill Richardson (ambassador to the U.N.), and a few other senior administration officials. These were informal sessions where we would gather around Berger’s table and talk about concerns over coffee and breakfast served by the White House dining facility. It was a comfortable setting that encouraged brainstorming of potential options on a variety of issues of the day.

During that time we had U-2 aircraft on reconnaissance sorties over Iraq. These planes were designed to fly at extremely high speeds and altitudes (over seventy thousand feet) both for pilot safety and to avoid detection.

At one of my very first breakfasts, while Berger and Cohen were engaged in a sidebar discussion down at one end of the table and Tenet and Richardson were preoccupied in another, one of the Cabinet members present leaned over to me and said, “Hugh, I know I shouldn’t even be asking you this, but what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event — something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world. Could you have one of our U-2s fly low enough — and slow enough — so as to guarantee that Saddam could shoot it down?”

The hair on the back of my neck bristled, my teeth clenched, and my fists tightened. I was so mad I was about to explode. I looked across the table, thinking about the pilot in the U-2 and responded, “Of course we can …” which prompted a big smile on the official’s face.

“You can?” was the excited reply.

“Why, of course we can,” I countered. “Just as soon as we get your ass qualified to fly it, I will have it flown just as low and slow as you want to go.”

The official reeled back and immediately the smile disappeared. “I knew I should not have asked that….”

“No, you should not have,” I strongly agreed, still shocked at the disrespect and sheer audacity of the question. “Remember, there is one of our great Americans flying that U-2, and you are asking me to intentionally send him or her to their death for an opportunity to kick Saddam. The last time I checked, we don’t operate like that here in America.”

Salon states that the way the story was told, the person could not have been Berger or Cohen, which leaves Albright and the other cabinet members as possible candidates.

(h/t JonathanTurley.org and Salon.com)


6 responses to “We are all just pawns: moral ambivalence & criminal offenses in the Clinton Cabinet

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Northwoods

    “The ends justify the means” seems a pretty typical Machiavellian MO for many policymakers even in the good ol’ US of A. One of the best documented cases is the recently declassified “Operation Northwoods” (declassified as part of a batch of documents received in unrelated Freedom of Information requests seeking more information on the Kennedy presidency) where a good many high level US leaders completely signed off on faking a terrorist attack on US citizens and blaming it on Cuban aggressors. The plan was nixed by the Kennedy cabinet but not before having been approved by the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military.

    The thinking, apparently, was simply that the good that would come from deceptively sacrificing a relatively small number of innocent citizens and launching a pre-emptive war with Cuba was very likely greater than the harm that might have resulted from a militant and stronger Cuba in the future.

  2. Considering the strong evidence that FDR allowed Pearl Harbor to happen, can anyone really be surprised?

  3. I agree with Jesse; this doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m glad GEN Shelton was there to put that person in their place, but I’m sure those kinds of ideas are tossed around at that level all the time.

    That’s the whole idea behind the Joint Chiefs of Staff serving as advisors to our civilian leadership in matters of war. Their collective experience and expertise in theory should hold enough weight to prevent stupid ideas from being acted on.

    While they have probably saved countless servicemembers lives by immediately shooting down similar schemes, I think there are plenty examples of where they were ignored, at the cost of lots of innocent blood, as well as tax payer dollars.

    • ON the other hand, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was the Joint Chiefs that wanted to put a man in a place (a U2 pilot flying low over Cuba)that would allow more stringent military action, not the civilian leaders. In fact, it was the civilian leaders that worked to keep the Joint Chiefs from implementing a plan that would have put us at war with the Soviet Union. If i recall correctly, the military wanted to bomb Cuba back into the stone age, but Kennedy was having none of it.

      It goes both ways. So while I think it possible that such ideas are occasionally tossed around, I’d like to think that it is cooler, wiser heads that prevail, regardless of whether they are military or civilian. There is a reason that the military is beholden to civilian leadership in this country and not the other way around.

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