Hubris Goeth Before…

I spent a couple of hours with Condoleezza Rice back in 1999, when I was a media fellow at the Hoover Institution and she was still provost at Stanford but already an adviser to Dubya, who was obviously going to be influential. Then I wrote about it for WorldNetDaily. (I think the piece holds up fairly well, except for the concluding paragraph suggesting Dubya would probably be an improvement over Clinton.) I found her bright, engaging, attractive, and well-informed across a range of foreign policy and international issues.

Perhaps reflecting Brent Scowcroft, who had been her most significant mentor up to then (except perhaps for Madeleine Albright’s father), she spoke that day as something of a foreign policy realist rather than a neocon crusader, talking about the legitimate U.S. sphere of influence (Europe, the Middle East, some of East Asia) more than the duty to establish democracy everywhere. In retrospect, however, one small aspect of that conversation might have set off alarm bells.

Never especially shy about putting my own views forward, I spent at least some of the time outlining the idea of a more modest foreign policy of avoiding intervention into other countries’ problems unless absolutely necessary as a matter of self-defense. She acknowledged that this was a respectable point of view, and (I thought at the time) even gave a little ground, admitting that it had a certain merit, except perhaps in times of extreme trial or crisis. She at least didn’t treat the points I made as the ravings of a lunatic. It was a very civilized and friendly discussion.

I attributed this, of course, to my own brilliance and charm. In retrospect, I wonder if it didn’t also reflect a certain desire to please others on her part, a desire that just might go a little beyond ordinary politeness. I’m not saying what some other opponents of the Bush administration imply (or in some cases shout) – that she is a lapdog. She is not an intellectual lightweight, though she is a little short on real-world experience. But if her natural mode is to please others, or at least not to offend them, and the person she has the strongest incentive to please is George W. Bush, perhaps it is unlikely that she will be the person who can look him in the eye and say, "Mr. President, you know I have the utmost respect for you, but you’re simply wrong about this issue" sometime when it counts.

It could happen, of course. Ms. Rice will have more prestige and perhaps more confidence in her new position, and a department full of canny operators to back her up if she decides to show some independence. And her position at Stanford, provost, was more a nuts-and-bolts administrative position than a head-in-the-clouds academic visionary job, as I learned from the former president of our company, who was provost at Stanford before Condoleezza. So she has some administrative experience.

Seeking Support, Not Advice

But chances are President Bush, who according to any number of stories now thinks he understands foreign policy and doesn’t need mentors any more, will be in charge of American foreign policy, and he will not be inclined to suffer challenges from within lightly. And Condoleezza Rice certainly knows who her benefactor is.

The president places an extremely high premium on loyalty, and like many people who are at least subconsciously aware that they are not fully prepared or knowledgeable about certain issues, his version of loyalty doesn’t include challenging him very often. He wants people who will carry out his wishes, not people to offer advice as to what those wishes should be.

That seems the best explanation for his second-term cabinet choices to date. Alberto Gonzales, to replace the often clumsily publicity-seeking John Ashcroft at Justice, is an old friend from Texas who has proven his loyalty and knows how to work more quietly, though his policies are likely to be no less conservative and authoritarian.

He will be replaced as White House counsel by Harriet Miers, another old Texas crony and former Texas lottery official with experience dealing with scandal, which could come in handy during a second term. She has been a loyal staffer up to now.

Margaret Spellings, named to be Secretary of Education, is also essentially a staffer who has tried to fly "under the radar" most of the time but has worked hard behind the scenes on the misbegotten "No Child Left Behind" (or is that No Child Left Un-Nannied?) act. Again, somebody known more for her personal loyalty to the president than for creative thinking about education.

Stephen Hadley, who takes over from Condoleezza as national security adviser, views himself as a "facilitator" more than an innovator or policy wonk. He was willing to be the one to fall on his sword – metaphorically, of course, he didn’t resign or get fired – over the uranium-in-Africa blunder in the 2002 State of the Union speech. His prior experience is with Cheney, so he’s likely to be a neocon-tinged hardliner.

Dumping Those Who Got It Right

The pattern is slightly different at the CIA, where it seems at first glance that you almost need a secret decoder ring to try to figure out what is really going on. The agency is by nature highly secretive and resistant to understanding by outsiders, yet fond of publicity and adept (at many levels) in the dark art of the leak.

When you get past the puffery and leaks, however, the most obvious pattern is that those who came close to getting it right – on the threat of Osama bin Laden before 9/11 and on the dangers of using the "war on terror" as a rationale for beginning an aggressive state-on-state war against Iraq, on the thinness of the evidence for "weapons of mass destruction" and Saddam-al-Qaeda ties – seem to be leaving. Those who were pliant White House tools, or show themselves capable of being such, able to bluster through no matter how wrong their judgments were, get rewarded.

A number of top CIA officials have resigned recently. Mike Scheuer, the "anonymous" CIA analyst author of Imperial Hubris, which is critical of the Bush administration and the war on Iraq, has resigned and appeared on 60 Minutes. Leaks and counter leaks are creating potentially dangerous dampness in the Washington press corps.

The new CIA director, Porter Goss, the former head of the House Intelligence Committee and a former agent himself, casts himself as a determined reformer on a white horse who is identifying deadwood and slashing layers of bureaucracy to improve the ability of the U.S. government to know what is going on in the world.

He more resembles a clueless vandal, alienating and driving out those who got it right about Iraq and promoting those who got it wrong. Moreover, it looks as if he is further politicizing an agency whose analysis should be utterly independent – as if that actually happens in the real world – but usually teeters on the verge of spinning intelligence to please its client in the White House.

There’s little question the CIA is badly in need of some shaking up. With the end of the Cold War (a development it managed not to forecast), it became an agency adrift. Whether the attack could have been prevented or not, it failed to connect the dots prior to 9/11. And former CIA director George Tenet famously assured President Bush that the presence of "weapons of mass destruction" in Saddam’s Iraq was a "slam dunk."

Tailoring Intel Further?

There’s also evidence, beyond Mr. Tenet’s verbal blunder, that during the run-up to the Iraq war, the CIA tailored its assessments of Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities and posture vis-à-vis al-Qaeda to what the White House obviously wanted to hear. Thus, the October 2002 intelligence estimate upgraded dubious evidence of WMD into virtual certainty.

There’s a constant tension in the CIA between pleasing the president and delivering the information it obtains in as accurate, disinterested, and dispassionate way as possible. An internal memo from Mr. Goss embodies the tension. He reminded employees that their job is to "support the administration and its policies in our work." In the same memo he was adamant: "We provide the intelligence as we see it – and let the facts alone speak to the policymaker."

It’s almost impossible to do both, yet that is the CIA’s job.

I had a long chat on the phone with retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, who ran the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration and wrote the recent book, Fixing Intelligence for a More Secure America. His comment on Goss’s assurance that the CIA would be devoted to providing truthful, objective intelligence, rather than intelligence slanted toward one policy or another, was that during the Cold War the Soviets always expressed their undying devotion to peace.

He also outlined one further potential problem. "Good operational agents are natural-born con men," he told me. "Can you imagine the Paul Newman character from The Sting in charge of a giant bureaucracy? It’s just not a natural fit for a guy like Porter Goss." He thinks almost all the CIA heads who came out of Operations turned out to be poor leaders.

An intelligence agency is useful only when it really is independent of political pressure. Porter Goss may understand that, but with a background as a partisan Republican congressman, it’s questionable whether he will ever be perceived as independent. That’s one big reason there’s such turmoil at the CIA.

I’ll discuss Bill Odom’s proposals to reform intelligence – he has more recently written America’s Inadvertent Empire – at more length in a future column. For now, he stressed that more people should be noticing that pinning the blame on the CIA for intelligence failures prior to Iraq has served to deflect attention from the administration’s policy misjudgments.

If anything, at least a few people in the CIA – although not George Tenet – tried to steer the administration away from the quicksand of Iraq. They are being punished for their wisdom, while the neocons who got us into this mess are being rewarded.

George Bush is setting himself up to do any number of stupid things during his second term. It will be interesting to see which one trips him up first.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).