How Bush Fosters Bad Intelligence
Secrecy and Stonewalling Do Not Help National Security
National Post, April 24, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- On April 13, during only his third prime-time press conference as president, George W. Bush was asked why he had insisted that his forthcoming testimony to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States be given jointly with Dick Cheney, the Vice-President.
"Because the 9/11 commission wants to ask us questions," he replied, "that's why we're meeting."
The reporter tried again: "I was asking why you're appearing together, rather than separately, which was their request."
Round II: "Because it's a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 commission is looking forward to asking us."
Bush could have saved even more time by issuing a simple (and accurate) "Because I said so." The biggest reason the President will be testifying some time between now and May 18, 2004, rather than in 2002, is that he fought tooth and nail against creating the public commission in the first place (favoring a secretive internal review), and then dragged his feet at every opportunity to cooperate with the body's requests for information and access to administration officials.
It was because Bush said so that 9/11 commissioners didn't have access to Presidential Daily Briefings (PDBs), including the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," for a year after they first requested them. It was because Bush said so that Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor, first refused to testify (on the implausibly applied principle of executive privilege), and then relented in the face of public outcry. And it is on Bush's insistence that his appearance with Cheney in front of the commission will be private and not under oath, and won't even be tape-recorded for posterity.
These actions are perfectly consistent with the President's 39-month track record in processing and protecting sensitive information: Transparency is overrated, secrecy is a virtue, national security trumps the Constitution, the executive branch trumps the legislative and judicial branches, and post-Watergate reforms curtailing the government's ability to snoop and prosecute at will are a serious obstacle to protecting the country.
Bush has expanded the purview of executive privilege by asserting that Congress (and the public) have no right to know which industry leaders Dick Cheney met with on his Energy Task Force committee, that any sitting or former U.S. president can block the public release of presidential papers (which, pre-Bush, were declassified 12 years after the holder left office), and that the government has the right to incarcerate any American terrorist suspect indefinitely, on no specific charge, without any outsider (such as a judge) being able to investigate whether this unprecedented authority is being abused.
How you feel about this approach depends largely on how much you trust this -- or any --administration. Unfortunately, Bush's track record doesn't look promising.
On the macro level, almost every major setback the Bush administration has faced has been connected with the faulty gathering or interpreting of intelligence. The Sept. 11 massacre itself, though it may well have been unpreventable, has been described even by administration officials as an intelligence failure. Same goes for those so-far missing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) -- which, in fairness to Bush, were predicted by many other countries' intelligence agencies -- to say nothing of the now-bitter assessment that Americans would be greeted in Iraq as "liberators," and therefore wouldn't require a very large force of troops.
These last items especially point to one of the key dangers in granting any presidency the right to lord it over intelligence: the perhaps irresistible temptation to politicize or cherry-pick sensitive data, and show to the public only what they need to know in order to support your policies.
When Dick Cheney wasn't satisfied with the quality of "filtered" information he was receiving from the Central Intelligence Agency, he created his own in-house data processing staff, to "stovepipe" the raw stuff directly to the top. As Kenneth Pollack, author of the influential war-supporting book The Gathering Storm, told The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh last year, Cheney's spooks dismantled "the existing filtering process that for 50 years had been preventing the policy-makers from getting bad information. They created stovepipes to get the information they wanted directly to the top leadership.... They were forcing the intelligence community to defend its good information and good analysis so aggressively that the intelligence analysts didn't have the time or the energy to go after the bad information."
Information, historically, tends to warp under the glare of intense political pressure, and cherry-picked data has a tendency to sour, as did Bush's State-of-the-Union claim on Jan. 28, 2003, that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's confident WMD assertion two months later, "We know where they are."
What might be more disturbing, in terms of what it says about the culture of the Bush administration, is how information has been manipulated in matters having nothing to do with national security. For instance, in the run-up to last year's US$395-billion Medicare bill, the chief actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Richard Foster, was instructed orally and in writing by Thomas Scully, who was then the Medicare chief, to suppress his own estimates showing the bill would cost as much as $551-billion, according to Foster. One month after the legislation was safely signed into law, the administration announced that -- whoops! -- the price tag was actually $534-billion.
There have also been multiple instances of this famously leak-averse administration using leaks and selective declassification to punish critics. Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA "operative" by anonymous "administration officials" 10 days after her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to Gabon, wrote a damning New York Times op-ed accusing Bush of "manipulating intelligence" about Saddam's alleged uranium-shopping in Africa, a story Wilson had personally investigated on behalf of the government and judged untrue.
More recently, former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke, in the midst of his highly publicized and critical testimony to the 9/11 Commission, was outed by the administration as the anonymous source for an August, 2002, background briefing to Fox News that was more favorable than Clarke's March, 2004, statements.
Is the Bush administration, then, uniquely venal in its manipulation of information (or, Worse Than Watergate, as the recent book title by Richard Nixon's former White House counsel, John Dean, has it)? Impossible to say, though I'd wager probably not -- it's still truly shocking, 30 years later, to read about the profound abuses uncovered by the post-Watergate Church Committee hearings (which led, cyclically enough, to many of the same restrictions Bush is now trying to undo).
But that's all the more reason for vigilance today. If the next president turns out to be the Antichrist, then the Antichrist will take the reins of a government that has greatly expanded its ability to conduct affairs under the cover of secrecy, and set a tone where public scrutiny and insider criticism is distinctly unwelcome.
Faith in the American public's ability to improve upon the secret deliberations of its government is as old as the republic itself. It may be ugly and uncomfortable, but it's the best way we know to prevent abuse, and bring distributed intelligence to the table. The security of the country is too important to leave to the experts.