Commentary Magazine


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The Massachusetts Polls and the November Election

The most startling news since Barack Obama’s colossal victory over Hillary Clinton in Iowa was the Democratic poll in Massachusetts the other day showing the little-known Republican Scott Brown beating the state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, in the special contest for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat by a  point. A subsequent poll by the Boston Globe had the Democrat winning by 15. Somebody is very wrong here, obviously, and we won’t know until next Tuesday’s election which poll got the Massachusetts electorate right. But if the Democratic poll is closer to the truth, and if Coakley can’t come up with something to pull Brown’s numbers down over the next week, she is going to lose and a Republican is going to win an ineffable symbolic victory against Barack Obama and especially against health care.

And yet Republican politicians shouldn’t celebrate just yet—and not because of the talking-point excuses that are being handed out by Democrats and their spin doctors about how Democratic retirements and losses don’t mean anything. They mean an enormous amount. But a Brown victory in Massachusetts would suggest something rather more complicated than a simple Republican wave in 2010. It suggests that disgust with the political system has reached a level never before seen in the modern era, a disgust so profound that a little-known Republican can come to inhabit the Liberal Lion’s office.

There have been hints and whispers of this kind of trend before; the Ross Perot phenomenon in 1991-2, for example. Ever since, we’ve been hearing about the possibility of a political conflagration that would originate in the most stable part of any electorate, its center, as the two parties increasingly find themselves in the thrall of their extremes and find it impossible to appeal to the broad middle.

That notion seemed overblown, and was proved to be overblown; since 2000, the electorate has seemed uncommonly engaged with the two parties, with turnout rising enormously in each national election. Al Gore received the most votes in American history in 2000, only to be eclipsed by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004; Bush was eclipsed by Barack Obama in 2008.

But it doesn’t seem overblown any longer. The Bush administration’s inability to prosecute the war in Iraq effectively in its first three-and-a-half years combined with Republican corruption and the incompetence on display in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to bring the Republican “brand” low in 2006 and 2008. Now the Obama administration’s wild overreach on health care, coupled with its response to the Christmas Day airline-bombing attempt, has brought it similar difficulties. And both parties have lost the confidence of the American people when it comes to explanations for the financial meltdown of 2008 and the responses to it.

And so you have a damaged Republican Party and a damaged Democratic Party, and the elected politicians who represent them. The election coming up will be the first mass test of the effect of this mass bipartisan antipathy. Anti-incumbent fervor will, naturally, hurt Democrats far more than Republicans because there are more Democratic incumbents. But Republican incumbents have every reason to beware as well, just so long as the Democrats trying to unseat them don’t run dogmatically to the Left.

The most startling news since Barack Obama’s colossal victory over Hillary Clinton in Iowa was the Democratic poll in Massachusetts the other day showing the little-known Republican Scott Brown beating the state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, in the special contest for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat by a  point. A subsequent poll by the Boston Globe had the Democrat winning by 15. Somebody is very wrong here, obviously, and we won’t know until next Tuesday’s election which poll got the Massachusetts electorate right. But if the Democratic poll is closer to the truth, and if Coakley can’t come up with something to pull Brown’s numbers down over the next week, she is going to lose and a Republican is going to win an ineffable symbolic victory against Barack Obama and especially against health care.

And yet Republican politicians shouldn’t celebrate just yet—and not because of the talking-point excuses that are being handed out by Democrats and their spin doctors about how Democratic retirements and losses don’t mean anything. They mean an enormous amount. But a Brown victory in Massachusetts would suggest something rather more complicated than a simple Republican wave in 2010. It suggests that disgust with the political system has reached a level never before seen in the modern era, a disgust so profound that a little-known Republican can come to inhabit the Liberal Lion’s office.

There have been hints and whispers of this kind of trend before; the Ross Perot phenomenon in 1991-2, for example. Ever since, we’ve been hearing about the possibility of a political conflagration that would originate in the most stable part of any electorate, its center, as the two parties increasingly find themselves in the thrall of their extremes and find it impossible to appeal to the broad middle.

That notion seemed overblown, and was proved to be overblown; since 2000, the electorate has seemed uncommonly engaged with the two parties, with turnout rising enormously in each national election. Al Gore received the most votes in American history in 2000, only to be eclipsed by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004; Bush was eclipsed by Barack Obama in 2008.

But it doesn’t seem overblown any longer. The Bush administration’s inability to prosecute the war in Iraq effectively in its first three-and-a-half years combined with Republican corruption and the incompetence on display in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to bring the Republican “brand” low in 2006 and 2008. Now the Obama administration’s wild overreach on health care, coupled with its response to the Christmas Day airline-bombing attempt, has brought it similar difficulties. And both parties have lost the confidence of the American people when it comes to explanations for the financial meltdown of 2008 and the responses to it.

And so you have a damaged Republican Party and a damaged Democratic Party, and the elected politicians who represent them. The election coming up will be the first mass test of the effect of this mass bipartisan antipathy. Anti-incumbent fervor will, naturally, hurt Democrats far more than Republicans because there are more Democratic incumbents. But Republican incumbents have every reason to beware as well, just so long as the Democrats trying to unseat them don’t run dogmatically to the Left.

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Once-Triumphalist Democrats Face Bleak Election Outlook

The widely respected political analyst Charlie Cook, writing in the wake of political developments throughout the last week, says this:

In the world of economics, a virtuous circle is created when a series of positive events triggers a self-perpetuating pattern of other good occurrences — a positive feedback loop, in other words. A vicious circle, of course, is just the opposite and appears to be what Democrats are caught in these days.

Cook goes on to say that in the House, he is still forecasting that Democrats will lose “only” 20 to 30 seats (when Republicans lost 30 seats in 2006, it was said to be a landslide). But he adds:

Another half-dozen or more retirements in tough districts, however, perhaps combined with another party switch or two, would reduce Democrats’ chances of holding the House to only an even-money bet. We rate 217 seats either “Solid Democratic” or “Likely Democratic,” meaning that the GOP would have to win every single race now thought to be competitive to reach 218, the barest possible majority. But if Democrats suffer much more erosion in their “Solid” and “Likely” columns, control of the House will suddenly be up for grabs.

The political troubles for Obama and the Democrats continue to mount, so much so that many people would not be surprised by a repeat of what happened in the 1994 mid-term elections, where Democrats lost more than 50 House seats and control of the House of Representatives. Today’s Democratic Party is in worse shape — and arguably considerably worse shape — now than it was then.

“Today,” proclaimed the Democratic strategist James Carville not all that long ago, “a Democratic majority is emerging, and it’s my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that this majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next 40 years.” Sidney Blumenthal, author of The Strange Death of Republican America, declared, “No one can even envision when the Republicans will control the presidency and both houses of the Congress as they did as recently as 2006.” And Michael Lind added this: “The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States.”

If so, the Fourth Republic of the United States — unlike the French Fourth Republic – will not have lasted long or turned out well.

Republicans should not succumb to the same intoxication that Democrats did in 2008. Politics is a fluid business; a lot can change in a hurry. But right now there is no question that Obamaism and the Democratic Party are in very dangerous territory — and if present trends continue, 2010 will be a monumentally bad year for both.

The widely respected political analyst Charlie Cook, writing in the wake of political developments throughout the last week, says this:

In the world of economics, a virtuous circle is created when a series of positive events triggers a self-perpetuating pattern of other good occurrences — a positive feedback loop, in other words. A vicious circle, of course, is just the opposite and appears to be what Democrats are caught in these days.

Cook goes on to say that in the House, he is still forecasting that Democrats will lose “only” 20 to 30 seats (when Republicans lost 30 seats in 2006, it was said to be a landslide). But he adds:

Another half-dozen or more retirements in tough districts, however, perhaps combined with another party switch or two, would reduce Democrats’ chances of holding the House to only an even-money bet. We rate 217 seats either “Solid Democratic” or “Likely Democratic,” meaning that the GOP would have to win every single race now thought to be competitive to reach 218, the barest possible majority. But if Democrats suffer much more erosion in their “Solid” and “Likely” columns, control of the House will suddenly be up for grabs.

The political troubles for Obama and the Democrats continue to mount, so much so that many people would not be surprised by a repeat of what happened in the 1994 mid-term elections, where Democrats lost more than 50 House seats and control of the House of Representatives. Today’s Democratic Party is in worse shape — and arguably considerably worse shape — now than it was then.

“Today,” proclaimed the Democratic strategist James Carville not all that long ago, “a Democratic majority is emerging, and it’s my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that this majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next 40 years.” Sidney Blumenthal, author of The Strange Death of Republican America, declared, “No one can even envision when the Republicans will control the presidency and both houses of the Congress as they did as recently as 2006.” And Michael Lind added this: “The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States.”

If so, the Fourth Republic of the United States — unlike the French Fourth Republic – will not have lasted long or turned out well.

Republicans should not succumb to the same intoxication that Democrats did in 2008. Politics is a fluid business; a lot can change in a hurry. But right now there is no question that Obamaism and the Democratic Party are in very dangerous territory — and if present trends continue, 2010 will be a monumentally bad year for both.

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Re: Three-Quarters of the Way There

Max, others share your concern about the undue attention to the exit ramps. In a statement, Sen. John McCain praised the commitment of troops, but explained:

What I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the President’s decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region — all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war. A withdrawal date only emboldens Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight.

Success is the real exit strategy. When we have achieved our goals in Afghanistan, our troops should begin to return home with honor, but that withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground, not arbitrary deadlines. In the days ahead, I will seek to address this and other questions I have about the President’s policy, including my continuing concern about the civilian aspect of our strategy.

We can store that in the “elections have consequences” file. Now certainly, Obama’s speech could have been worse — he could have set a date certain for a pullout. But acknowledging that we were spared an even more harmful address won’t eradicate the doubts and concerns raised by the speech he did deliver. And, as Max points out, this is all for naught. The Left won’t embrace any troop commitment, the Right will once again perceive Obama as short on commander-in-chiefness, and our enemies will rightly see that the president’s heart isn’t in this.

Max, others share your concern about the undue attention to the exit ramps. In a statement, Sen. John McCain praised the commitment of troops, but explained:

What I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the President’s decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region — all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war. A withdrawal date only emboldens Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight.

Success is the real exit strategy. When we have achieved our goals in Afghanistan, our troops should begin to return home with honor, but that withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground, not arbitrary deadlines. In the days ahead, I will seek to address this and other questions I have about the President’s policy, including my continuing concern about the civilian aspect of our strategy.

We can store that in the “elections have consequences” file. Now certainly, Obama’s speech could have been worse — he could have set a date certain for a pullout. But acknowledging that we were spared an even more harmful address won’t eradicate the doubts and concerns raised by the speech he did deliver. And, as Max points out, this is all for naught. The Left won’t embrace any troop commitment, the Right will once again perceive Obama as short on commander-in-chiefness, and our enemies will rightly see that the president’s heart isn’t in this.

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Democratic Twister

In today’s Kansas City Star Steve Kraske writes of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ Democratic response to President Bush’ final State of the Union address, “Sebelius looked nervous during the 10-minute speech she had a big hand in writing.”

So would I have, if I’d once been caught cheaply exploiting partisan rifts only to find myself delivering a message of trans-partisan unity to the entire nation. In spring 2007, a deadly tornado hit Greensburg, Kansas. Governor Sebelius wasted no time pulling the Katrina card, and then some. From Yahoo News via Hotair:

With President Bush set to travel to now-razed Greensburg, Kan., on Wednesday to view the destruction wrought by Friday’s 205 mph twister, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she planned to talk with him about her contention that National Guard deployments to Iraq hampered the disaster response.

“I don’t think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower,” she said Monday. “The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace.”

Rumors followed, alleging Sebelius to have said of her claim, “With his (Bush’s) numbers, you can’t really blame me for usin’ that.” In fairness, that part of the story is flatly denied by everyone implicated. But Gov. Sebelius’ words on the record still stand as a testament to her exemplary status as a partisan sniper.

Watching Kathleen Sebelius hop on Obama’s peace-and-love train last night was like watching Bobby Darin try to transform himself into Bob Dylan. “We have no more patience for divisive politics,” she said. The American people “are not nearly as divided as our rancorous politics might suggest.” Then what, Governor, were you so nervous about?

In today’s Kansas City Star Steve Kraske writes of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ Democratic response to President Bush’ final State of the Union address, “Sebelius looked nervous during the 10-minute speech she had a big hand in writing.”

So would I have, if I’d once been caught cheaply exploiting partisan rifts only to find myself delivering a message of trans-partisan unity to the entire nation. In spring 2007, a deadly tornado hit Greensburg, Kansas. Governor Sebelius wasted no time pulling the Katrina card, and then some. From Yahoo News via Hotair:

With President Bush set to travel to now-razed Greensburg, Kan., on Wednesday to view the destruction wrought by Friday’s 205 mph twister, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she planned to talk with him about her contention that National Guard deployments to Iraq hampered the disaster response.

“I don’t think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower,” she said Monday. “The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace.”

Rumors followed, alleging Sebelius to have said of her claim, “With his (Bush’s) numbers, you can’t really blame me for usin’ that.” In fairness, that part of the story is flatly denied by everyone implicated. But Gov. Sebelius’ words on the record still stand as a testament to her exemplary status as a partisan sniper.

Watching Kathleen Sebelius hop on Obama’s peace-and-love train last night was like watching Bobby Darin try to transform himself into Bob Dylan. “We have no more patience for divisive politics,” she said. The American people “are not nearly as divided as our rancorous politics might suggest.” Then what, Governor, were you so nervous about?

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Sunday In Florida

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mike Huckabee, who rushed to John McCain’s defense in the flap over Mitt Romney’s position on an Iraq withdrawal date and bashed Romney this morning, is in a head-to-head battle now with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the VP slot. A quick look at the Florida papers this morning shows that aside from the “Obama Clubs Hillary” stories, it is the Crist endorsement news that grabs the big headlines. The Miami Herald goes with that headline as well, and comments that by raising the Iraq timetable issue McCain “succeeded in putting his opponent on the defensive.” The St. Petersburg Times added its endorsement.

I would agree for reasons stated here that the Crist endorsement is very meaningful, even though many voters have already cast ballots. Whether warranted or not, the McCain team thinks their man has the momentum. Unfortunately for the poll-obsessed among us, polls at this stage may not shed much light on where the race is heading. As we saw with the weekend debate before New Hampshire’s primary and the Hillary big cry, the impact of significant news happenings a day or two before election day generally don’t show up in final polling.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, the Boston Globe offers up this piece on the realities of the turnaround efforts of Mitt Romney’s multi-billion-dollar firm Bain Capital, which unsurprisingly focused on profits and efficiency, not jobs. The story includes this John Edwards-esque comment from a Romney spokesman: “Governor Romney is not critical of companies that have to reduce their workforce in order to remain competitive. He is critical of Washington politicians who throw up their hands in despair and say there’s nothing we can do about it . . . Governor Romney can’t promise that he will bring back lost jobs, but he can guarantee that he will fight for every job.” Because “fighting” is what really matters, I suppose.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mike Huckabee, who rushed to John McCain’s defense in the flap over Mitt Romney’s position on an Iraq withdrawal date and bashed Romney this morning, is in a head-to-head battle now with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the VP slot. A quick look at the Florida papers this morning shows that aside from the “Obama Clubs Hillary” stories, it is the Crist endorsement news that grabs the big headlines. The Miami Herald goes with that headline as well, and comments that by raising the Iraq timetable issue McCain “succeeded in putting his opponent on the defensive.” The St. Petersburg Times added its endorsement.

I would agree for reasons stated here that the Crist endorsement is very meaningful, even though many voters have already cast ballots. Whether warranted or not, the McCain team thinks their man has the momentum. Unfortunately for the poll-obsessed among us, polls at this stage may not shed much light on where the race is heading. As we saw with the weekend debate before New Hampshire’s primary and the Hillary big cry, the impact of significant news happenings a day or two before election day generally don’t show up in final polling.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, the Boston Globe offers up this piece on the realities of the turnaround efforts of Mitt Romney’s multi-billion-dollar firm Bain Capital, which unsurprisingly focused on profits and efficiency, not jobs. The story includes this John Edwards-esque comment from a Romney spokesman: “Governor Romney is not critical of companies that have to reduce their workforce in order to remain competitive. He is critical of Washington politicians who throw up their hands in despair and say there’s nothing we can do about it . . . Governor Romney can’t promise that he will bring back lost jobs, but he can guarantee that he will fight for every job.” Because “fighting” is what really matters, I suppose.

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The Coming Dirty-Bomb Attack

I had some x-rays taken by my dentist yesterday and I glanced nervously at the triangular radiation-caution marking on the device. For the Defense Science Board, a government-run panel composed of military and industry experts, has just issued a report that there are more than 1,000 irradiation machines used in hospitals and research laboratories across the United States that could be used by terrorists as a source of radioactive materials to construct a dirty bomb. “Any one of these 1,000-plus sources could shut down 25 square kilometers, anywhere in the United States, for 40-plus years,” the Washington Post quoted from the report yesterday. (Dental x-ray machines do not present a similar problem.)

The Defense Science Board is recommending that the hospital and laboratory radiation devices, typically left unguarded, either be secured or replaced with irradiators that use other less lethal materials. That is an excellent (if costly) idea and an urgent matter. But what about the thousands of such devices that are not in the United States? Is anyone worrying about them?

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I had some x-rays taken by my dentist yesterday and I glanced nervously at the triangular radiation-caution marking on the device. For the Defense Science Board, a government-run panel composed of military and industry experts, has just issued a report that there are more than 1,000 irradiation machines used in hospitals and research laboratories across the United States that could be used by terrorists as a source of radioactive materials to construct a dirty bomb. “Any one of these 1,000-plus sources could shut down 25 square kilometers, anywhere in the United States, for 40-plus years,” the Washington Post quoted from the report yesterday. (Dental x-ray machines do not present a similar problem.)

The Defense Science Board is recommending that the hospital and laboratory radiation devices, typically left unguarded, either be secured or replaced with irradiators that use other less lethal materials. That is an excellent (if costly) idea and an urgent matter. But what about the thousands of such devices that are not in the United States? Is anyone worrying about them?

One country—or set of countries—of particular concern is Russia and the rest of the former USSR. The intelligence community’s primary concern with Russia has been the possibility that some of its nuclear weapons will come loose and fall or be sold into terrorist hands. While that danger remains a theoretical possibility, another, more realistic menace has been with us already for a long time.

Way back in 1990, in “Rad Storm Rising,” an article I wrote for the Atlantic (which at my request has courteously posted it on the web for all to read for free), I took note of lax practices regarding nuclear materials and nuclear waste across the still extant USSR. In the Siberian city of Novosibirk alone, a radiation map prepared by the authorities indicated 84 separate “radiation anomalies.” Fourteen of these had been caused by radioactive ampules from scientific and industrial instrumentation that should have been interred at a radioactive-waste disposal site but, according to the Soviet press, “were mindlessly and recklessly thrown out into streets and yards.”

“Even allowing for the Russian penchant for hyperbole,” I observed, “the latest revelations in the ever more candid Soviet press make clear that Soviet problems in the area of nuclear pollution and safety continue to be extraordinarily severe.”

A decade and a half has elapsed since then. The public-health implications of such carelessness are no longer our primary worry. Terrorism is. Even if the United States can do little about radioactive ampules in faraway lands, the Russian authorities, at least as far as protecting their own territory is concerned, can and must.

Dirty bombs are the most likely approach to an al Qaeda follow-on attack to 9/11. And if terrorists are now actively plotting a dirty bomb attack, my bet is that Moscow, the capital of a land where radioactive materials have been treated with appalling recklessness, is a far more vulnerable target than Washington or New York.

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Have NoFEAR: The CIA Is on the Case

Not long after the attacks of 9/11 took the lives of some 3,000 Americans, Congress acted to pass the NoFEAR Act of 2002, putting the CIA under its strictures. If one were to guess by the title and the timing, one might conclude that the NoFEAR Act was designed to reconfigure our lead intelligence agency so that it would be well organized to locate, capture, and/or kill our terrorist adversaries. But one would be wrong. All that the the NoFear Act required was for the CIA to work harder in weeding out discrimination and to post summary statistics on its website about its progress in resolving complaints about things like “sexual” and “non-sexual” harassment. In 2005, the typical such complaint was under investigation for an average of 897 days. By the following year, the CIA had made a huge stride forward and the typical complaint was investigated for an average of only 396 days. 

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, Iran’s stark raving president, is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Does the CIA have inside sources in Tehran that report to us what he tells his cabinet members, or microphones in his home so that we know what he chats about with his charming wife through her chador? I wouldn’t count on it.

Once upon a time, though, we had a very different kind of intelligence agency.

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Not long after the attacks of 9/11 took the lives of some 3,000 Americans, Congress acted to pass the NoFEAR Act of 2002, putting the CIA under its strictures. If one were to guess by the title and the timing, one might conclude that the NoFEAR Act was designed to reconfigure our lead intelligence agency so that it would be well organized to locate, capture, and/or kill our terrorist adversaries. But one would be wrong. All that the the NoFear Act required was for the CIA to work harder in weeding out discrimination and to post summary statistics on its website about its progress in resolving complaints about things like “sexual” and “non-sexual” harassment. In 2005, the typical such complaint was under investigation for an average of 897 days. By the following year, the CIA had made a huge stride forward and the typical complaint was investigated for an average of only 396 days. 

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, Iran’s stark raving president, is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Does the CIA have inside sources in Tehran that report to us what he tells his cabinet members, or microphones in his home so that we know what he chats about with his charming wife through her chador? I wouldn’t count on it.

Once upon a time, though, we had a very different kind of intelligence agency.

During the cold war, when the divided city of Berlin was regularly the pivot point of world crises, America’s lead spy agency was vitally interested in knowing what the Russian military high command was talking about in its local headquarters and in its discussions with Moscow. As early as 1948, U.S. intelligence officers began to contemplate the possibility of tapping Soviet and East German communication lines. Sometime in 1952, an actual operation to do just that was set in motion: the Berlin Tunnel project, codenamed PBJOINTLY.  

A clandestine tunnel was mapped out—some 1,500 feet long, extending well into the Soviet zone where military communication cables were known to be buried. A major problem was how to handle the huge volume of extracted dirt without tipping off the omnipresent guards along the border. A number of different ideas were entertained. One CIA employee proposed digging a hole and dumping the dirt into it; out of this facetious suggestion a real solution to the problem was found.

That piquant detail, and the story of the tunnel operation in full, are recounted in an internal CIA history of the operation written in 1967 and only recently declassified (and made available in the invaluable online document repository maintained by the Federation of American Scientists). The episode may have been one of the great U.S. intelligence triumphs of the cold war. But as with all things in the intelligence wilderness of mirrors, maybe not.

The official history notes that the existence of the tunnel was disclosed to the Russians at its inception by a Soviet mole inside British intelligence. For unknown reasons Moscow may then have let it operate only to terminate it on their own schedule. But a good deal of countervailing evidence suggests that PBJOINTLY came to a more prosaic end brought about by bad weather.

In April 1956, heavy rain caused some short-circuits in Soviet cables; repair efforts were made to restore the broken links; in the course of replacing aging lines, Soviet technicians found the equipment chamber at the end of the tunnel where the Americans were tapping their communications. But the CIA, which was very clever back then, had put an official looking sign on the entrance in Russian and German: “Entry Forbidden by Order of the Commanding General.” In case the instruction was disobeyed, they had also placed a microphone inside the chamber. The conversations the CIA picked up made it clear that the Soviets had no idea what they had stumbled upon. Only gradually, as they Russians investigated further, did the nature of the chamber dawn on them.

With that, after eleven months and eleven days of operation, the CIA tunnel project came to an end.  While it was running, however, it provided a wealth of highly sensitive information about Soviet politics and military developments in a range of spheres, including discussion of unrest among Soviet nuclear scientists. The official history comments on the information’s reliability: “Despite our knowledge that certain elements of the Soviet government were aware of our plans to tap these cables, we have no evidence that the Soviets attempted to feed us deception material through this source.”

Could American intelligence replicate such a feat today? We don’t know what we don’t know about the CIA’s successes, so it may be unfair to judge. But with the agency attempting to comply with a hundred absurd congressional mandates that have turned it into a timid and paralytic bureaucracy, it seems highly unlikely. We are in the midst of one of the most dangerous moments in our history, and given what it tells us about our own lack of seriousness in matters of intelligence, the NoFEAR Act itself is one of the major things we have to fear.

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Bill Keller, Secret Agent

In 1978, back when I was working for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Moynihan propounded what he called “the Iron Law of Emulation.” The basic idea was that organizations in conflict with one another come to resemble one another. Because he was drawing on the work of the 19th German sociologist Georg Simmel, some on his staff used to call it, somewhat mockingly, the Iron Law of Simmelation.

But Moynihan’s point was a good one. And today, with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on the witness stand in the trial of Scooter Libby, we can see the iron law at work in the fiercely adversarial relationship between the Times and the U.S. intelligence community.

The editors and reporters of the New York Times believe they are covering the CIA–and in fact they are–but they are also in competition with the spy agency and the resemblances between the two institutions are striking.

Both, to begin with, have a remarkably similar mission. The CIA is charged with trying to inform its clients (the White House and the rest of the executive branch) about the world around it: what is going on where, what are the looming dangers, what are the facts, and how do reliably do we know them? Much of what the New York Times does is precisely the same, except its client is not the government but the newspaper-buying American public.

Because they are caught up in certain characteristic American dysfunctions, both institutions carry out their functions with mixed results.

The CIA and the Times, for one thing, are both charter members of the cult of “diversity.” In 1995, the spy agency created an internal body called the Resources Oversight Council aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities,” leading the CIA to hire more Hispanics at the very moment when it really needed more Arabic speakers.

The Times has been doing something quite similar, and damage has demonstrably been done. In 2006 the paper announced with much fanfare that an internal body known as “the diversity council” had concluded that “diversity is essential to our business future and our journalism.” But the emphasis on diversity had been in place for decades, and it was to figure in one of the worst debacles (see below) the newspaper ever endured.

Like any large elite organization the CIA and the Times must contend with mediocrity creeping in and gumming up the works. Thus, the CIA has kept incompetents in its ranks, including “anonymous”–a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, its top expert on Osama bin Laden, who despite his insistence on always “checking the checkables,” has enormous difficulty spelling proper names and who characterized bin Laden as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” And “gentle,” too.

The Times, for its part, keeps an impressive daily log of its errors, spelling and otherwise, which despite an army of editors, it cannot seem to contain. For more serious instances of bias and misinterpretation, one need only recall the reporting by Walter Duranty of Stalin’s show trials and artificial famine in the 1930’s, the placement of the Holocaust on the back pages during the 1940’s, its depiction of the North Vietnamese defeat in the Tet offensive as a major victory, or turn to watchdog outfits like CAMERA for an array of contemporary documentation.

Both institutions, over the years, have had worse than bad apples in their ranks. The CIA has suffered outright turncoats like Soviet mole Aldrich Ames, who despite internal evaluations of egregious misbehavior was steadily promoted upward until he was in a position to give away the CIA’s most precious assets.

The New York Times has had its outright traitors, too, like the diversity-hire Jayson Blair, whose fictional reporting the paper was to call “a profound betrayal of trust.” During his five-year career progressing from intern to national reporter, the management of the Times received numerous warnings that the rising star was actually a comet waiting to crash. Despite such cautions, Blair steadily advanced, like Aldrich Ames, eventually reducing the Times to what it itself called “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

But in both institutions, it is not deliberate bad faith that typically creates malfunction but something else. The CIA notoriously failed to foresee the attacks of September 11 and then issued an erroneous “slam-dunk” assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The problem was simply that agency analysts placed too much stock in Iraqi émigré sources who were telling them what they wanted to hear. The New York Times’s credulous treatment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal fell into the same trap.

Judith Miller was front and center. In reporting on Saddam’s burgeoning (but non-existent) WMD program, she too placed too much faith in sources who were telling her what she wanted to hear. Strikingly, in both cases, the chain of command in the CIA and the New York Times failed to ask critical questions, which only became utterly obvious–and the subject of much sanctimonious handwringing–in the incandescent glow of hindsight.

Ironically, one of the factors underpinning such maladaptive behavior is that both institutions operate behind a veil of secrecy. The CIA assiduously keeps both its methods of intelligence gathering and its internal deliberations under wraps: sources and methods, in particular, are treated as ultra-sensitive matters, disclosure of which is punishable by law.

So too with the New York Times, which, even as it calls for greater openness by the U.S. government jealously conceals its own internal workings. As with the CIA, sources and methods are treated by the Times as a matter of extraordinary sensitivity, with some of its operatives ready and willing to go to jail (Judith Miller once again!) rather than reveal who has told them what.

All of which makes the Scooter Libby trial so very compelling. A window is being opened into the internal operations of news- and intelligence-gathering at once. It is only confirming that in many of their essentials, and despite the loud protestations such a claim would elicit from both sides, the iron law of emulation holds. The Times and the CIA are becoming more similar with each passing year.

To apply for employment with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, click here.

To apply for employment as a New York Times‘s reporter, editor, or deliveryman, click here.

In 1978, back when I was working for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Moynihan propounded what he called “the Iron Law of Emulation.” The basic idea was that organizations in conflict with one another come to resemble one another. Because he was drawing on the work of the 19th German sociologist Georg Simmel, some on his staff used to call it, somewhat mockingly, the Iron Law of Simmelation.

But Moynihan’s point was a good one. And today, with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on the witness stand in the trial of Scooter Libby, we can see the iron law at work in the fiercely adversarial relationship between the Times and the U.S. intelligence community.

The editors and reporters of the New York Times believe they are covering the CIA–and in fact they are–but they are also in competition with the spy agency and the resemblances between the two institutions are striking.

Both, to begin with, have a remarkably similar mission. The CIA is charged with trying to inform its clients (the White House and the rest of the executive branch) about the world around it: what is going on where, what are the looming dangers, what are the facts, and how do reliably do we know them? Much of what the New York Times does is precisely the same, except its client is not the government but the newspaper-buying American public.

Because they are caught up in certain characteristic American dysfunctions, both institutions carry out their functions with mixed results.

The CIA and the Times, for one thing, are both charter members of the cult of “diversity.” In 1995, the spy agency created an internal body called the Resources Oversight Council aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities,” leading the CIA to hire more Hispanics at the very moment when it really needed more Arabic speakers.

The Times has been doing something quite similar, and damage has demonstrably been done. In 2006 the paper announced with much fanfare that an internal body known as “the diversity council” had concluded that “diversity is essential to our business future and our journalism.” But the emphasis on diversity had been in place for decades, and it was to figure in one of the worst debacles (see below) the newspaper ever endured.

Like any large elite organization the CIA and the Times must contend with mediocrity creeping in and gumming up the works. Thus, the CIA has kept incompetents in its ranks, including “anonymous”–a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, its top expert on Osama bin Laden, who despite his insistence on always “checking the checkables,” has enormous difficulty spelling proper names and who characterized bin Laden as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” And “gentle,” too.

The Times, for its part, keeps an impressive daily log of its errors, spelling and otherwise, which despite an army of editors, it cannot seem to contain. For more serious instances of bias and misinterpretation, one need only recall the reporting by Walter Duranty of Stalin’s show trials and artificial famine in the 1930’s, the placement of the Holocaust on the back pages during the 1940’s, its depiction of the North Vietnamese defeat in the Tet offensive as a major victory, or turn to watchdog outfits like CAMERA for an array of contemporary documentation.

Both institutions, over the years, have had worse than bad apples in their ranks. The CIA has suffered outright turncoats like Soviet mole Aldrich Ames, who despite internal evaluations of egregious misbehavior was steadily promoted upward until he was in a position to give away the CIA’s most precious assets.

The New York Times has had its outright traitors, too, like the diversity-hire Jayson Blair, whose fictional reporting the paper was to call “a profound betrayal of trust.” During his five-year career progressing from intern to national reporter, the management of the Times received numerous warnings that the rising star was actually a comet waiting to crash. Despite such cautions, Blair steadily advanced, like Aldrich Ames, eventually reducing the Times to what it itself called “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

But in both institutions, it is not deliberate bad faith that typically creates malfunction but something else. The CIA notoriously failed to foresee the attacks of September 11 and then issued an erroneous “slam-dunk” assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The problem was simply that agency analysts placed too much stock in Iraqi émigré sources who were telling them what they wanted to hear. The New York Times’s credulous treatment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal fell into the same trap.

Judith Miller was front and center. In reporting on Saddam’s burgeoning (but non-existent) WMD program, she too placed too much faith in sources who were telling her what she wanted to hear. Strikingly, in both cases, the chain of command in the CIA and the New York Times failed to ask critical questions, which only became utterly obvious–and the subject of much sanctimonious handwringing–in the incandescent glow of hindsight.

Ironically, one of the factors underpinning such maladaptive behavior is that both institutions operate behind a veil of secrecy. The CIA assiduously keeps both its methods of intelligence gathering and its internal deliberations under wraps: sources and methods, in particular, are treated as ultra-sensitive matters, disclosure of which is punishable by law.

So too with the New York Times, which, even as it calls for greater openness by the U.S. government jealously conceals its own internal workings. As with the CIA, sources and methods are treated by the Times as a matter of extraordinary sensitivity, with some of its operatives ready and willing to go to jail (Judith Miller once again!) rather than reveal who has told them what.

All of which makes the Scooter Libby trial so very compelling. A window is being opened into the internal operations of news- and intelligence-gathering at once. It is only confirming that in many of their essentials, and despite the loud protestations such a claim would elicit from both sides, the iron law of emulation holds. The Times and the CIA are becoming more similar with each passing year.

To apply for employment with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, click here.

To apply for employment as a New York Times‘s reporter, editor, or deliveryman, click here.

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