Few have more at stake in the expected Senate approval of John Bolton to be U.S. representative at the UN than the remnant of demoralized intelligence analysts trained and still willing to speak truth to power. What would be the point in continuing, they ask, when like so many other policymakers Bolton reserves the right to “state his own reading of the intelligence” (as he wrote to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee)?
Given his well-earned reputation for stretching intelligence beyond the breaking point to “justify” his own policy preferences, Bolton’s confirmation would loose a hemorrhage of honest analysts, while the kind of malleable careerists who cooked intelligence to “justify” the administration’s prior decision for war on Iraq will prosper. I refer to those who saluted obediently when former CIA director George Tenet told them, as he told his British counterpart in July 2002, that the facts needed to be “fixed around the policy” of regime change in Iraq.
It Has All Happened Before
Bolton’s confirmation hearings provide an eerie flashback to the challenge that Robert Gates encountered in 1991 during his Senate hearings in late 1991, after President George H. W. Bush nominated him to be CIA director. The parallels are striking. The nomination of Gates, who as head of CIA analysis had earned a reputation among the analysts for cooking intelligence to the recipe of high policy and promoting those who cooperated, brought a revolt among the most experienced intelligence professionals.
Playing the role discharged so well last month by former State Department intelligence director Carl Ford in exposing Bolton’s heavy-handed attempts to politicize intelligence, former senior Soviet analyst and CIA division chief Mel Goodman stepped forward and gave the Senate Intelligence Committee chapter and verse on how Gates had shaped intelligence analysis to satisfy his masters and advance his career. Goodman was joined at once by other CIA analysts who put their own careers at risk by testifying against Gates’ nomination. They were so many and so persuasive that, for a time, it appeared they had won the day. But the fix was in.
With a powerful assist from former CIA chief George Tenet, then staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, members approved the nomination. Even so, 31 Senators found the evidence against Gates so persuasive that, in an unprecedented move, they voted “No” when the nomination came to the floor.
The First Exodus and Those Who Stayed
After Gates was confirmed, many bright analysts who scored high on integrity quit rather than take part in cooking “intelligence-to-go.” In contrast, those inspired by Gates’ example and his meteoric career followed suit and saw their careers flourish. This explains why, in Sept. 2002 when the White House asked Tenet and his senior managers to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) parroting what Vice President Dick Cheney had been saying about the weapons-of-mass-destruction threat from Iraq, these malleable careerists caved in and did the administration’s bidding. Most of the key players in 2002 had been protégés of Gates.
These include Tenet’s deputy, John McLaughlin, who became acting director when Tenet left in July 2004 to spend more time with his family. Like his former boss, McLaughlin cannot now recall being told that one of the key sources of information highlighted in Colin Powell’s unfortunate speech at the UN on Feb. 5, 2003, was an alcoholic who had been championed by advocates of war on Iraq for his peddling of “intelligence” on phantom “mobile biological warfare laboratories.” Also included among the players in 2002 are the obedient national intelligence officer who blessed the insertion of the biological warfare drivel and other nonsense into the NIE, and the manager who supervised misbegotten analytical efforts regarding the non-nuclear-related aluminum tubes headed for Iraq, as well as the reports on Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Niger reports based on crude forgeries.
Also included: folks like the CIA inspector general, who bowed to pressure from the White House and from McLaughlin last summer to suppress the exhaustive IG report on 9/11. (Release of that report before the election would have been an extreme embarrassment, since it is a gold mine of names of both intelligence officials and policymakers who bungled the many warnings that such attacks were coming.) And folks like the intelligence manager of more recent vintage who recently tried to explain it all to me: “We were not politicized; we just thought it appropriate to ‘lean forward,’ given White House concern over Iraq.”
The cancer of politicization spreads quickly, runs deep, and as we have seen on Iraq can help bring catastrophe.
Thanks to an official British government document leaked to the Sunday Times of London, we now know that well before the infamous NIE of Oct. 1, 2002, on Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” the White House told senior British officials that the U.S. had decided to remove Saddam Hussein by military force. On July 23, 2002, the head of the UK’s foreign intelligence service, fresh back from talks in Washington with CIA counterpart George Tenet, told Prime Minister Tony Blair, “Intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” It is quite rare to have documentary proof of this kind of an intelligence-fixing-and-disinformation campaign.
Barring the unexpected, and despite continuing efforts by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) to prevent Bolton from being confirmed, the Republican-dominated Senate seems sure to confirm him, even though the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after looking so carefully into his qualifications could not endorse him.
This, too, has happened before. In 1983, the committee voted 14 to 3 to reject the nomination of Kenneth Adelman to be director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He was nonetheless confirmed in the full Republican-controlled Senate by a vote of 57 to 42. Still an influential adviser to Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Adelman was among those arguing most strongly three years ago for attacking Iraq. Like Bolton, he never hesitated to “state his own reading of the intelligence.” It was Adelman who achieved dubious fame by assuring all who would listen that the invasion would be a “cakewalk.”
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Birmingham News on May 8.