Saturday, February 11, 2006

Is Anybody Really in Charge Here?

[[P O L I T I C S]] * By any measure, this was a bad week to be among the dwindling number of George W. Bush defenders. Despite the prez’s previous contention that “I don’t know” Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who’s now at the center of a widening influence-buying scandal in Washington, D.C., the convicted former “golden boy” confirmed in e-mail communications with a Washingtonian magazine editor that Bush, whom Abramoff described as having “one of the best memories of any politician I have ever met,” saw the lobbyist “in almost a dozen settings and joked with me about a bunch of things, including details of my kids.” Only days later, a photo surfaced showing a 2001 event in D.C. during which Bush greeted an Abramoff client, Raul Garza, who was then the chairman of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, as the now-disgraced lobbyist looked on. The questions that remain to be answered: How much influence did Abramoff buy for his clients in the Bush White House, and how often?

This was also the week that Michael D. Brown, who as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) became the focus of anger surrounding the Bush administration’s inept, inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, told a U.S. Senate panel that he had warned White House officials last summer--well before the storm--of the potential for disastrous levee breaches in New Orleans. This directly contradicts Bush’s televised assertion on September 1 that “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” Brown also let senators know that he had alerted top presidential aides shortly after the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast that his “worst nightmare” of flooding in the Crescent City was coming true, and he said assertions by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that it didn’t know of the flooding were “baloney.” He added that because of FEMA’s subordinated role within Bush’s DHS, it was nearly impossible for his agency to marshal the sort of emergency response that the deadly catastrophe warranted. “We’ve done a great job as Republicans of establishing more and more bureaucracy,” Brown groused to Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine).

It was this same week that Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, the now-indicted I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, told a federal grand jury investigating the CIA leak scandal--aka Plamegate--that the veep and other White House superiors had “authorized” him to “disclose classified information to journalists to defend the Bush administration’s use of prewar intelligence in making the case to go to war with Iraq,” according to the National Journal. As reporter Murray Waas writes, “Libby testified to the grand jury that he had been authorized to share parts of [a then-still highly classified National Intelligence Estimate titled ‘Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction’] with journalists in the summer of 2003 as part of an effort to rebut charges then being made by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson that the Bush administration had misrepresented intelligence information to make a public case for war.” It is in association with those controversial efforts that Libby is alleged to have told journalists that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent. “Libby and other Bush administration officials believed that if Plame played a role in the selection of her husband for the Niger mission, that fact might discredit him,” Waas explains. In a follow-up story, The Wall Street Journal quotes Steven Aftergood, the director of a project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, as saying that the implication from Libby’s disclosure that he was free to discuss secret intelligence matters with the media “is that the White House--the vice president--has been using his declassification authority as a way to advance the administration’s political agenda. In other words, information that supports the administration’s position on Iraq or whatever is selectively declassified and other information is not. That’s not a criminal offense, but it’s kind of sleazy.” These revelations might leave Cheney open to being called to testify in Libby’s trial, scheduled to start early next year. And as the WSJ notes, they’re “likely to resurrect a sensitive issue for the Bush administration going into November’s midterm congressional elections: the rationale for the Iraq war and tactics used to quell criticism.”

And now, on top of everything else, comes a must-read article in Foreign Affairs magazine written by Paul R. Pillar, who was the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. In that piece, Pillar accuses the Bush administration of “cherry-picking” intelligence information about Iraq in order to validate a decision that had already been made to launch a war against Saddam Hussein. Pillar further asserts that the White House ignored warnings that Iraq could easily collapse into violence and anarchy after Saddam’s overthrow. Pillar explains:
In the upside-down relationship between intelligence and policy that prevailed in the case of Iraq, the administration selected pieces of raw intelligence to use in its public case for war, leaving the intelligence community to register varying degrees of private protest when such use started to go beyond what analysts deemed credible or reasonable. The best-known example was the assertion by President George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq was purchasing uranium ore in Africa. U.S. intelligence analysts had questioned the credibility of the report making this claim, had kept it out of their own unclassified products, and had advised the White House not to use it publicly. But the administration put the claim into the speech anyway, referring to it as information from British sources in order to make the point without explicitly vouching for the intelligence.

The reexamination of prewar public statements is a necessary part of understanding the process that led to the Iraq war. But a narrow focus on rhetorical details tends to overlook more fundamental problems in the intelligence-policy relationship. Any time policymakers, rather than intelligence agencies, take the lead in selecting which bits of raw intelligence to present, there is--regardless of the issue--a bias. The resulting public statements ostensibly reflect intelligence, but they do not reflect intelligence analysis, which is an essential part of determining what the pieces of raw reporting mean. The policymaker acts with an eye not to what is indicative of a larger pattern or underlying truth, but to what supports his case.

Another problem is that on Iraq, the intelligence community was pulled over the line into policy advocacy--not so much by what it said as by its conspicuous role in the administration’s public case for war. This was especially true when the intelligence community was made highly visible (with the director of central intelligence literally in the camera frame) in an
intelligence-laden presentation by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the UN Security Council a month before the war began. It was also true in the fall of 2002, when, at the administration’s behest, the intelligence community published a white paper on Iraq’s WMD programs--but without including any of the community’s judgments about the likelihood of those weapons’ being used.

But the greatest discrepancy between the administration’s public statements and the intelligence community’s judgments concerned not WMD (there was indeed a broad consensus that such programs existed), but the relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. The enormous attention devoted to this subject did not reflect any judgment by intelligence officials that there was or was likely to be anything like the “alliance” the administration said existed. The reason the connection got so much attention was that the administration wanted to hitch the Iraq expedition to the “war on terror” and the threat the American public feared most, thereby capitalizing on the country’s militant post-9/11 mood.

The issue of possible ties between Saddam and al Qaeda was especially prone to the selective use of raw intelligence to make a public case for war. In the shadowy world of international terrorism, almost anyone can be “linked” to almost anyone else if enough effort is made to find evidence of casual contacts, the mentioning of names in the same breath, or indications of common travels or experiences. Even the most minimal and circumstantial data can be adduced as evidence of a “relationship,” ignoring the important question of whether a given regime actually supports a given terrorist group and the fact that relationships can be competitive or distrustful rather than cooperative.

The intelligence community never offered any analysis that supported the notion of an alliance between Saddam and al Qaeda. Yet it was drawn into a public effort to support that notion. To be fair, Secretary Powell’s presentation at the UN never explicitly asserted that there was a cooperative relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. But the presentation was clearly meant to create the impression that one existed. To the extent that the intelligence community was a party to such efforts, it crossed the line into policy advocacy--and did so in a way that fostered public misconceptions contrary to the intelligence community’s own judgments.
As Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus notes in his own story about Pillar’s allegations, this is “the first time that such a senior intelligence officer has so directly and publicly condemned the administration’s handling of intelligence.”

It’s at moments like these--and they’ve been coming more frequently over the last few months--that one has to wonder whether the younger Bush might not have been better off following his father into history as a one-term president.

HAVE THEY LEARNED NOTHING?: Following up on Michael Brown’s criticism of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, an 11-member House select committee of Republicans is set to release a “blistering report” that The Washington Post says will make the case that “Hurricane Katrina exposed the U.S. government’s failure to learn the lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as leaders from President Bush down disregarded ample warnings of the threat to New Orleans and did not execute emergency plans or share information that would have saved lives.” According to the Post, this report “lays primary fault with the passive reaction and misjudgments of top Bush aides, singling out Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Operations Center and the White House Homeland Security Council.” Read on.

READ MORE:The Trust Gap” (The New York Times); “Attention Citizens, a Blue Dress Special,” by Larry Johnson (TPM Café); “President Cheney’s Goose Is Cooked,” by Trey Ellis (The Huffington Post).

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