Blaming the CIA Won’t Work

Columnist Robert Novak is hardly a neoconservative. He has often been harshly critical of Israel, which would automatically disqualify him from joining that elite group, but he apparently shares the neocon view of the U.S. intelligence community. In a Christmas Eve column called "Subverting Bush at Langley," Novak, sometimes referred to by his critics as "Robert No-facts," has hit his journalistic lowest point since he deliberately outed CIA officer Valerie Plame in July 2003. Novak argues that the CIA has been systematically seeking to destroy the Bush presidency, a neocon theme favored by the likes of John Bolton and Norman Podhoretz, among others.

Basic neocon doctrine posits that the U.S. policy in the Middle East that seeks to replace corrupt Arab states with democracies that will be friendly to Israel must be right, so therefore the failure of those policies must be the result of a stab in the back by traitors within the system. To complete the circle, neocons note that the intelligence community has long been lukewarm on the Iraq war and other ventures, so it must be sheltering the traitors in question. The neocon syllogism deliberately ignores the fact that the CIA was created in 1947 to provide objective information to policymakers, not to support a particular position or agenda, meaning that if the CIA is doing its job properly it will often find itself at odds with politicians. It also ignores the possibility that the Iraq war and the tight circle of neocons who promoted it might have been wrong both in their basic assumptions about the nature of the Middle East and also in terms of their prescriptions for making it a more congenial place. Neocons have never admitted to being wrong, even with Iraq and Afghanistan tumbling down around their ears. The lesser mortals who get their hands dirty attempting to carry out neocon policies must also take the blame for the mistakes.

Novak gathers many of the neocon critiques of the intelligence community into one broad indictment, claiming that he can discern a "defiant undermining of President Bush." His article claims that the CIA deliberately destroyed the tapes of the "enhanced" interrogations of several key terrorism suspects "in the face of the administration’s resistance," that the CIA produced a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran that does not examine contradictions with an earlier NIE written in 2005, and that the CIA has refused to share information on the Israeli attack on Syria that took place in early September.

Novak’s claims are themselves agenda-driven, and he seems not to know how the intelligence community is currently structured. He also tends to forget that both the CIA and the director of national intelligence work for the president and are completely responsive to his orders – they do not and cannot issue "rogue" intelligence assessments to embarrass the White House. Nor does the U.S. intelligence community decide "on its own what information the public shall learn," as Novak avers. The release of classified information is up to the president. No experienced intelligence officer or anyone who even knows how the system works would claim that the interrogation tapes were destroyed without White House consent. The director of operations who ordered the destruction of the tapes, Jose Rodriguez, is an extremely cautious man who is himself a lawyer. When he acted, he acted under orders.

Regarding the NIE, which Novak describes as "flying solo" by the CIA, even the president and vice president have reluctantly agreed that it is the best possible analysis based on all the information available to the United States government at the present time. That does not make the document infallible, and it does not mean that parts of it might well be rewritten as new information is acquired. The White House has avoided criticizing the report per se, and it has not allowed the conclusions to shift the administration’s preferred policy options, which continue to consist of asserting a hard line against Iran. In addition, Novak seems unaware that the NIE is a consensus document that was issued by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, not by the CIA, nor that it was reviewed and tested both by 16 separate intelligence agencies and the White House before it was issued. It was only released in an unclassified summary form because it was feared that either Congress or the Israelis, both of whom received full classified copies, would selectively leak it to suit their own ends.

Novak’s claim that intelligence on the Israeli attack on Syria is being deliberately withheld by the CIA is also nonsensical, particularly as the CIA does not control either the National Security Agency or the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, where electronic intercepts and satellite photo surveillance are now located. Presumably, those are the two government components that would have information on the Israeli attack, if such intelligence even exists.

The really pathetic part of the Novak story is that his apparent source for the allegations about the CIA is Congressman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, who is the ranking Republican on the House Select Intelligence Committee. If one were to assume that Hoekstra’s years of experience on the committee, which he once headed, means that he is a reliable source with a firm grasp of the difference between politically contrived fiction and reality, one would be wrong. Army intelligence once had a source description referred to as an F-6. An F-6 reported unverifiable information and was himself of uncertain reliability. Hoekstra is an F-6.

Hoekstra is, in fact, one of the propagators of the school of thought that relies on the intelligence "stab in the back" as the principal reason for the Republican Party’s complete failure in Iraq and the so-called global war on terrorism. When a politician finds himself in an untenable position of his own making, he instinctively tries to find a scapegoat. In July 2006, Hoekstra stated, "In fact, I have long been convinced that a strong and well-positioned group within the Agency intentionally undermined the Administration and its policies." He has called for a major shakeup at the CIA not because it has been wrong about issues, but because it is not, in his opinion, loyal enough to the president. And it is so much easier to blame faceless intelligence analysts than to admit that the White House has been catastrophically wrong about Iraq, at a cost of 4,000 American lives and trillions of dollars.

In Novak’s column, Hoekstra describes the CIA as "incompetent, arrogant, and political," which is a trenchant description of the congressman himself. Hoekstra has had his share of foot-in-mouth moments. On June 22, 2006, he and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum announced at a press conference in the Capitol that weapons of mass destruction consisting of 500 chemical devices had been located in Iraq, vindicating the presidential decision to go to war. The weapons turned out to be discarded artillery shells, and the Hoekstra-Santorum claims were quickly disputed by both the Pentagon and the intelligence community. The Iraq Study Group also reexamined the report and determined that Saddam’s chemical weapons had been destroyed in 1991.

Hoekstra is also eager to come to grips with axis-of-evil Iran. In September 2006, the BBC, CBS News, and the Associated Press all reported how Hoekstra’s House Intelligence Committee received an unusual rebuke in the form of a letter from the International Atomic Energy Association for what it described as "serious distortions of the agency’s own findings on Iran’s nuclear activity." The letter raised objections over the committee’s report of Aug. 23, which stated incorrectly that Iran had enriched uranium to weapons-grade level. The IAEA had in fact only found small quantities of enrichment at far lower levels, 3.5 percent versus the 90 percent that Hoekstra’s committee was claiming. The letter also took “strong exception to the incorrect and misleading assertion” that the IAEA removed senior safeguards inspector Chris Charlier for “allegedly raising concerns about Iranian deception” over its program. Charlier had been removed at the request of Tehran, which has the right to make such an objection under agreed rules between the agency and all states, but he remained head of a section investigating Iran. The IAEA added that it was “outrageous and dishonest” to suggest in the report that Charlier was removed for not adhering to a completely fictitious "unstated IAEA policy barring IAEA officials from telling the whole truth” about Iran.

Robert Novak’s rearranging of facts that have already been contorted by Congressman Hoekstra makes for an interesting read, but the defamation of thousands of professional intelligence officers to shield a wholly incompetent Bush administration from its manifold failures is little more than a cheap shot. It does not deserve to be on the editorial page of one of America’s leading newspapers.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.