Commentary Magazine


Topic: George Tenet

The (Terror-)Friendly Skies

In his book, Bush at War, Bob Woodward describes former CIA Director George Tenet’s initial reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001 thusly:

“This has bin Laden all over it,” Tenet told Boren. “I’ve got to go.” He also had another reaction, one that raised the real possibility that the CIA and the FBI had not done all that could have been done to prevent the terrorist attack. “I wonder,” Tenet said, “if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”

Six months after the “guy’s” acquired skills enabled him and eighteen accomplices to kill some 3000 Americans, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) contacted their flight school to say that the late terrorists had been approved for Visas. At PJM, Annie Jacobson has an unsettling assessment of the developments in U.S. flight school security since 9/11:

The INS unit was disbanded and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took its place in regard to monitoring foreign nationals for flight school eligibility. In September 2004 the Alien Flight Student Program went into effect, with TSA in charge.

Last week, in one of the most damaging reports on the TSA to date, ABC News revealed that in the program’s first year under TSA control, there were “some 8,000 foreign students in the FAA database who got their pilot licenses without ever being approved by the TSA.”

Citing official documents, Ms. Jacobson details the mixture of indecision and interdepartmental red tape that’s kept American skies open to the same American-trained terror that brought down the World Trade Center and blew a hole in the Pentagon over six years ago:

“[Acting General Manager for General Aviation Robert] Rottman made the TSA’s do-nothing policy painfully clear:

Currently DOS and ICE appear to have conflicting views on the appropriateness of B visas for flight training. Department of State, which has the responsibility for development of visa policy, contends that a B visa is appropriate for flight training. However, ICE, which enforces visa requirements, has asserted that B visas are not appropriate for flight training.”

Rottman’s conclusion: “Based on the forgoing, TSA representatives having security inspection responsibility and oversight authority . . . will abstain from making visa appropriate or validity determinations until further notice, as appropriate.”

Is it too great a breach of cordiality to halt all U.S. flight lessons for all visa holders? At least until coming up with a decisive long-term policy? I was just told of a coast-to-coast commercial flight on which all passengers were deprived of peanuts because one passenger was allergic. You’d think the threat of a 9/11 repeat demands as thorough and decisive an approach as the one enabling the safe distribution of in-flight snacks.

In his book, Bush at War, Bob Woodward describes former CIA Director George Tenet’s initial reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001 thusly:

“This has bin Laden all over it,” Tenet told Boren. “I’ve got to go.” He also had another reaction, one that raised the real possibility that the CIA and the FBI had not done all that could have been done to prevent the terrorist attack. “I wonder,” Tenet said, “if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”

Six months after the “guy’s” acquired skills enabled him and eighteen accomplices to kill some 3000 Americans, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) contacted their flight school to say that the late terrorists had been approved for Visas. At PJM, Annie Jacobson has an unsettling assessment of the developments in U.S. flight school security since 9/11:

The INS unit was disbanded and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took its place in regard to monitoring foreign nationals for flight school eligibility. In September 2004 the Alien Flight Student Program went into effect, with TSA in charge.

Last week, in one of the most damaging reports on the TSA to date, ABC News revealed that in the program’s first year under TSA control, there were “some 8,000 foreign students in the FAA database who got their pilot licenses without ever being approved by the TSA.”

Citing official documents, Ms. Jacobson details the mixture of indecision and interdepartmental red tape that’s kept American skies open to the same American-trained terror that brought down the World Trade Center and blew a hole in the Pentagon over six years ago:

“[Acting General Manager for General Aviation Robert] Rottman made the TSA’s do-nothing policy painfully clear:

Currently DOS and ICE appear to have conflicting views on the appropriateness of B visas for flight training. Department of State, which has the responsibility for development of visa policy, contends that a B visa is appropriate for flight training. However, ICE, which enforces visa requirements, has asserted that B visas are not appropriate for flight training.”

Rottman’s conclusion: “Based on the forgoing, TSA representatives having security inspection responsibility and oversight authority . . . will abstain from making visa appropriate or validity determinations until further notice, as appropriate.”

Is it too great a breach of cordiality to halt all U.S. flight lessons for all visa holders? At least until coming up with a decisive long-term policy? I was just told of a coast-to-coast commercial flight on which all passengers were deprived of peanuts because one passenger was allergic. You’d think the threat of a 9/11 repeat demands as thorough and decisive an approach as the one enabling the safe distribution of in-flight snacks.

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All the Falsehoods Fit to Print

What are we to make of President Bush’s final State of the Union Address? The New York Times has an answer. When it comes to Iraq, says the paper,

Mr. Bush’s annual addresses will be remembered most for his false claims — the fictitious “axis of evil,” nonexistent aluminum tubes and African uranium, dangerous weapons that did not exist. No President can want that as his legacy.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To begin with, is the “axis of evil” really “fictitious”? What is the Times driving at here? Perhaps it is quarreling with the use of the word “evil” to characterize North Korea, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But if the editors of the Times do not regard these particular dictatorships as evil, than what is?

Alternatively, perhaps the paper is quarreling with the word “axis.” But Connecting the Dots seems to recall that it was only this past September when North Korea was observed supplying some sort of nuclear technology to Syria, a close ally of Iran. Some reports suggest that Israel seized the material in its raid on a Syrian facility that month. Doesn’t such proliferation activity — along with North Korea’s collaboration with Iran in the field of offensive missiles — make for an “axis”? If not, how does the Times define “axis”?

One might also ask in response to the Times editorial: was Iraq under Saddam Hussein part of an axis of evil? True, only scant and highly debatable evidence has emerged suggesting Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. But did he not have ties to al Qaeda, and isn’t al Qaeda evil?

Here is an October 2002 letter from CIA Director George Tenet to Senator Pat Roberts that is quite relevant:

We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.

Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom [the military operations that commenced shortly after September 11, 2001], we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.

We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.

Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda, suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action (emphasis added).

How about the aluminum tubes? According to numerous reports, including in the Times itself, Iraq had acquired, or was in the process of acquiring, some 60,000 of them before the U.S. invasion. 60,000 doesn’t sound like “non-existent” to Connecting the Dots. The real issue, as the Times presumably knows but found inconvenient to say, was what the tubes were going to be used for, a nuclear program or a rocket program? As the Times also presumably knows, there was a vigorous debate inside the intelligence community about this question. 

How about the African uranium? Was that also “non-existent”? Here the Times is referring to Bush’s first State of the Union address in which he uttered the soon-to-be controversial sixteen words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Whatever the Times might now be insinuating in its editorial, every single one of those words is true. That is exactly what British intelligence had learned and exactly what it told the United States. Bush’s speech had been vetted by the CIA, which had left the sixteen words in.

Finally, there are the non-existent “dangerous weapons” referred to by the Times. But the newspaper itself was warning about Iraq’s “dangerous weapons” at the very same moment, and on the basis of roughly the same evidence, that Bush was relying on, when he made the allegedly “false claims.” The question is: were Bush’s statements about these weapons (and the Times’s statements) “false” or were they knowingly false? There is a world of difference between the two, which the Times editorial page elects to fudge.

No President, concludes the Times editorial, wants all these “false claims” as his legacy. But when the history of this period is written, it is the knowingly false claims found day after day on the editorial pages of the New York Times that will deserve a chapter of their own.

What are we to make of President Bush’s final State of the Union Address? The New York Times has an answer. When it comes to Iraq, says the paper,

Mr. Bush’s annual addresses will be remembered most for his false claims — the fictitious “axis of evil,” nonexistent aluminum tubes and African uranium, dangerous weapons that did not exist. No President can want that as his legacy.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To begin with, is the “axis of evil” really “fictitious”? What is the Times driving at here? Perhaps it is quarreling with the use of the word “evil” to characterize North Korea, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But if the editors of the Times do not regard these particular dictatorships as evil, than what is?

Alternatively, perhaps the paper is quarreling with the word “axis.” But Connecting the Dots seems to recall that it was only this past September when North Korea was observed supplying some sort of nuclear technology to Syria, a close ally of Iran. Some reports suggest that Israel seized the material in its raid on a Syrian facility that month. Doesn’t such proliferation activity — along with North Korea’s collaboration with Iran in the field of offensive missiles — make for an “axis”? If not, how does the Times define “axis”?

One might also ask in response to the Times editorial: was Iraq under Saddam Hussein part of an axis of evil? True, only scant and highly debatable evidence has emerged suggesting Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. But did he not have ties to al Qaeda, and isn’t al Qaeda evil?

Here is an October 2002 letter from CIA Director George Tenet to Senator Pat Roberts that is quite relevant:

We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.

Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom [the military operations that commenced shortly after September 11, 2001], we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.

We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.

Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda, suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action (emphasis added).

How about the aluminum tubes? According to numerous reports, including in the Times itself, Iraq had acquired, or was in the process of acquiring, some 60,000 of them before the U.S. invasion. 60,000 doesn’t sound like “non-existent” to Connecting the Dots. The real issue, as the Times presumably knows but found inconvenient to say, was what the tubes were going to be used for, a nuclear program or a rocket program? As the Times also presumably knows, there was a vigorous debate inside the intelligence community about this question. 

How about the African uranium? Was that also “non-existent”? Here the Times is referring to Bush’s first State of the Union address in which he uttered the soon-to-be controversial sixteen words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Whatever the Times might now be insinuating in its editorial, every single one of those words is true. That is exactly what British intelligence had learned and exactly what it told the United States. Bush’s speech had been vetted by the CIA, which had left the sixteen words in.

Finally, there are the non-existent “dangerous weapons” referred to by the Times. But the newspaper itself was warning about Iraq’s “dangerous weapons” at the very same moment, and on the basis of roughly the same evidence, that Bush was relying on, when he made the allegedly “false claims.” The question is: were Bush’s statements about these weapons (and the Times’s statements) “false” or were they knowingly false? There is a world of difference between the two, which the Times editorial page elects to fudge.

No President, concludes the Times editorial, wants all these “false claims” as his legacy. But when the history of this period is written, it is the knowingly false claims found day after day on the editorial pages of the New York Times that will deserve a chapter of their own.

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532 Bush Administration Lies About Iraq

What is a false statement? If the New York Times, relying on an outside team of meteorologists, reports that there is 100 percent probability of rain in Central Park tomorrow, but tomorrow comes and the sun shines all day, has the newspaper lied to the American people? 

The question arises because of an article in today’s paper about a new online tool developed by an organization specializing in “investigative journalism in the public interest.”

In a story by John Cushman, the Times reports that “[s]tudents of how the Bush administration led the nation into the Iraq war can now go online to browse a comprehensive database of top officials’ statements before the invasion, connecting the dots between hundreds of claims, mostly discredited since then, linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda or warning that he possessed forbidden weapons.”

The database has been created by The Center for Public Integrity and can be found online here. It is introduced on the website by a statement declaring that “the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003.” The most visible officials in the administration “made the most false statements, according to this first-ever analysis of the entire body of prewar rhetoric.” On some 532 separate occasions, ranking officials “stated unequivocally that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or was trying to produce or obtain them), links to Al Qaeda, or both. This concerted effort was the underpinning of the Bush administration’s case for war.”

But, reports the Center, “it is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to Al Qaeda. This was the conclusion of numerous bipartisan government investigations, including those by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2004 and 2006), the 9/11 Commission, and the multinational Iraq Survey Group, whose “Duelfer Report” established that Saddam Hussein had terminated Iraq’s nuclear program in 1991 and made little effort to restart it.”

What are we to make of all this? After delving into the database and reading the Center’s analysis, the question arises: did the Bush administration “methodically” lie to the public? The Center’s own answer is yes, and the same answer is the impression left by the news pages of the New York Times. Indeed, the paper reports that what the database exposes is akin to the worst political scandal of the American presidency: “Muckrakers may find browsing the site reminiscent of what Richard M. Nixon used to dismissively call ‘wallowing in Watergate.’”

Toward the end of its story, the Times notes that “officials have defended many of their prewar statements as having been based on the intelligence that was available at the time — although there is now evidence that some statements contradicted even the sketchy intelligence of the time.”

But that is an absurd way of putting it, minimizing and obscuring some central facts. Would it not have been more honest for the newspaper of record to recall that however “sketchy” the intelligence, it was not presented by the CIA to the administration as sketchy at all? Rather, it was presented as an iron-clad case, most memorably by CIA director George Tenet as a “a slam-dunk.” And would it not have been more honest to point out that the post-war studies of Iraq’s WMD program, like the Duelfer Report, had the benefit not merely of hindsight but the ability of investigators to roam freely through Iraqi archives and facilities? Back in 2002 and early 2003, when the U.S. was gearing up for war, things looked very differently than they did afterward.

This brings us back to the question which we began. What is a false statement? Did the Bush administration lie when it relied on the CIA’s estimates of Iraq’s WMD program, or is it the Center for Public Integrity that is now doing some lying, with the New York Times brazenly helping them along?

What is a false statement? If the New York Times, relying on an outside team of meteorologists, reports that there is 100 percent probability of rain in Central Park tomorrow, but tomorrow comes and the sun shines all day, has the newspaper lied to the American people? 

The question arises because of an article in today’s paper about a new online tool developed by an organization specializing in “investigative journalism in the public interest.”

In a story by John Cushman, the Times reports that “[s]tudents of how the Bush administration led the nation into the Iraq war can now go online to browse a comprehensive database of top officials’ statements before the invasion, connecting the dots between hundreds of claims, mostly discredited since then, linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda or warning that he possessed forbidden weapons.”

The database has been created by The Center for Public Integrity and can be found online here. It is introduced on the website by a statement declaring that “the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003.” The most visible officials in the administration “made the most false statements, according to this first-ever analysis of the entire body of prewar rhetoric.” On some 532 separate occasions, ranking officials “stated unequivocally that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or was trying to produce or obtain them), links to Al Qaeda, or both. This concerted effort was the underpinning of the Bush administration’s case for war.”

But, reports the Center, “it is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to Al Qaeda. This was the conclusion of numerous bipartisan government investigations, including those by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2004 and 2006), the 9/11 Commission, and the multinational Iraq Survey Group, whose “Duelfer Report” established that Saddam Hussein had terminated Iraq’s nuclear program in 1991 and made little effort to restart it.”

What are we to make of all this? After delving into the database and reading the Center’s analysis, the question arises: did the Bush administration “methodically” lie to the public? The Center’s own answer is yes, and the same answer is the impression left by the news pages of the New York Times. Indeed, the paper reports that what the database exposes is akin to the worst political scandal of the American presidency: “Muckrakers may find browsing the site reminiscent of what Richard M. Nixon used to dismissively call ‘wallowing in Watergate.’”

Toward the end of its story, the Times notes that “officials have defended many of their prewar statements as having been based on the intelligence that was available at the time — although there is now evidence that some statements contradicted even the sketchy intelligence of the time.”

But that is an absurd way of putting it, minimizing and obscuring some central facts. Would it not have been more honest for the newspaper of record to recall that however “sketchy” the intelligence, it was not presented by the CIA to the administration as sketchy at all? Rather, it was presented as an iron-clad case, most memorably by CIA director George Tenet as a “a slam-dunk.” And would it not have been more honest to point out that the post-war studies of Iraq’s WMD program, like the Duelfer Report, had the benefit not merely of hindsight but the ability of investigators to roam freely through Iraqi archives and facilities? Back in 2002 and early 2003, when the U.S. was gearing up for war, things looked very differently than they did afterward.

This brings us back to the question which we began. What is a false statement? Did the Bush administration lie when it relied on the CIA’s estimates of Iraq’s WMD program, or is it the Center for Public Integrity that is now doing some lying, with the New York Times brazenly helping them along?

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Affirmative Action at the CIA

A thoughtful reader, Orlando Jackson, suggests that in criticizing affirmative action at the CIA, I am trying to have it two ways. On the one hand, he writes, “you and critics, want the CIA to ‘connect the dots’ via a better enabled HUMINT [human intelligence]. Yet, on the other hand, you critique them when they work towards this end” by bringing in people who speak Farsi, Urdu, and Arabic, and you dismiss the value of recruiting “non-white agents to operate in the predominately non-white world of al-Qaeda.”

These would be valid points if Mr. Orlando were accurately capturing what is going on. But as best we can tell, the CIA’s affirmative-action program has never been tailored toward bringing in operatives who speak the languages and/or otherwise resemble al-Qaeda terrorists. Rather, it has been oriented toward the politically-correct goal of creating a workforce that more closely resembles America (or the EEOC’s version of America)–in other words, bringing in more Hispanics, blacks, women, the disabled, and Pacific Islanders.

This is not idle speculation on my part. I wrote about it in detail back in 2005 in What Became of the CIA. Here is a relevant excerpt:

By 1995, under John Deutch, Clinton’s second director, the effort to remake the agency in the name of “diversity” had intensified markedly. Deutch began his tenure by advancing a “strategic diversity plan” and installing a forty-year-old Pentagon official, Nora Slatkin, in the agency’s executive-director slot to carry it out. Slatkin soon formed a Human Resources Oversight Council (HROC) aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities.” The need for such measures, according to HROC, was clear from its own study of shortfalls in “recruiting, hiring, and advancement”:

[M]inorities in the agency’s workforce — particularly Hispanics and Asian-Pacific employees — remain underrepresented when compared with Civilian Labor Force (CLF) guidelines determined by the 1990 census. Hispanic employees in FY 1995 accounted for 2.3 percent of the agency workforce; CLF guidelines indicate Hispanics nationwide account for 8.1 percent of the nation’s workforce. Asian-Pacific employees comprised only 1.7 percent of the agency’s workforce; CLF guidelines indicate Asian-Pacific minorities comprise 2.8 percent of the nation’s workforce.

To reduce these statistical discrepancies, Slatkin declared “a goal that one out of every three officers hired in fiscal years 1995-97 be of Hispanic or Asian-Pacific origin.” She moved no less aggressively to alter the ethnic and sexual complexion of the CIA’s higher levels. In just six months, she was able to report, “42 percent of officers selected for senior assignments ha[d] been women or minorities”. . . .

By 1999, the agency’s top leaders were actively engaged in the campaign for greater diversity, or, in plain English, quotas. Clinton’s third director, George Tenet, issued a major statement deploring the fact that “[m]inorities, women, and people with disabilities still are underrepresented in the agency’s mid-level and senior officer positions,” and asserting his determination to end this state of affairs. It was, he said, incumbent on “supervisors and managers” at all levels to understand that diversity is “one of the most powerful tools we have to help make the world a safer place,” and he declared that they would be held accountable for “ensuring that this agency and community are inclusive institutions.” 

By all means, let’s have a CIA whose composition more closely resembles that of our adversaries. But unless things have changed radically since George Tenet resigned, that is not what affirmative action in the intelligence world is all about.

A thoughtful reader, Orlando Jackson, suggests that in criticizing affirmative action at the CIA, I am trying to have it two ways. On the one hand, he writes, “you and critics, want the CIA to ‘connect the dots’ via a better enabled HUMINT [human intelligence]. Yet, on the other hand, you critique them when they work towards this end” by bringing in people who speak Farsi, Urdu, and Arabic, and you dismiss the value of recruiting “non-white agents to operate in the predominately non-white world of al-Qaeda.”

These would be valid points if Mr. Orlando were accurately capturing what is going on. But as best we can tell, the CIA’s affirmative-action program has never been tailored toward bringing in operatives who speak the languages and/or otherwise resemble al-Qaeda terrorists. Rather, it has been oriented toward the politically-correct goal of creating a workforce that more closely resembles America (or the EEOC’s version of America)–in other words, bringing in more Hispanics, blacks, women, the disabled, and Pacific Islanders.

This is not idle speculation on my part. I wrote about it in detail back in 2005 in What Became of the CIA. Here is a relevant excerpt:

By 1995, under John Deutch, Clinton’s second director, the effort to remake the agency in the name of “diversity” had intensified markedly. Deutch began his tenure by advancing a “strategic diversity plan” and installing a forty-year-old Pentagon official, Nora Slatkin, in the agency’s executive-director slot to carry it out. Slatkin soon formed a Human Resources Oversight Council (HROC) aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities.” The need for such measures, according to HROC, was clear from its own study of shortfalls in “recruiting, hiring, and advancement”:

[M]inorities in the agency’s workforce — particularly Hispanics and Asian-Pacific employees — remain underrepresented when compared with Civilian Labor Force (CLF) guidelines determined by the 1990 census. Hispanic employees in FY 1995 accounted for 2.3 percent of the agency workforce; CLF guidelines indicate Hispanics nationwide account for 8.1 percent of the nation’s workforce. Asian-Pacific employees comprised only 1.7 percent of the agency’s workforce; CLF guidelines indicate Asian-Pacific minorities comprise 2.8 percent of the nation’s workforce.

To reduce these statistical discrepancies, Slatkin declared “a goal that one out of every three officers hired in fiscal years 1995-97 be of Hispanic or Asian-Pacific origin.” She moved no less aggressively to alter the ethnic and sexual complexion of the CIA’s higher levels. In just six months, she was able to report, “42 percent of officers selected for senior assignments ha[d] been women or minorities”. . . .

By 1999, the agency’s top leaders were actively engaged in the campaign for greater diversity, or, in plain English, quotas. Clinton’s third director, George Tenet, issued a major statement deploring the fact that “[m]inorities, women, and people with disabilities still are underrepresented in the agency’s mid-level and senior officer positions,” and asserting his determination to end this state of affairs. It was, he said, incumbent on “supervisors and managers” at all levels to understand that diversity is “one of the most powerful tools we have to help make the world a safer place,” and he declared that they would be held accountable for “ensuring that this agency and community are inclusive institutions.” 

By all means, let’s have a CIA whose composition more closely resembles that of our adversaries. But unless things have changed radically since George Tenet resigned, that is not what affirmative action in the intelligence world is all about.

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Is President Bush the Real Author of the Iran NIE?

I recently had a chance to sit down over coffee with Donald Rumsfeld, now in private life, to discuss intelligence issues and some other related subjects. In the course of our conversation (as I recalled this morning on the anniversary of December 7, 1941), Rumsfeld brought up the subject of Roberta Wohlstetter’s magisterial book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. He especially pointed me to the book’s introduction by Thomas Schelling, which opens up a short and very brilliant discussion of the nature of surprise, a copy of which Rumsfeld had on hand to give me.  

“Surprise, when it happens to a government,” wrote Schelling,

is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the unalert watchman, but also the one who knows he’ll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of. It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion — which is usually too late. (Unlike movies, real life provides no musical background to tip us off to the climax.) Finally, as at Pearl Harbor, surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.

This text, and presumably the attack on Pearl Harbor itself — Rumsfeld was nine years old when it occurred — seems to have had a profound influence on the former Secretary of Defense. When he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearings on the still-innocent date of January 11, 2001, he was asked a simple but highly pertinent question by Senator Pat Roberts: “What’s the one big thing that keeps you up at night?”

“Intelligence,” is what Rumsfeld replied without missing a beat. And the “importance of considerably improving our intelligence capabilities so that we know more about what people think and how they behave.”

Alas, improving our intelligence capabilities is one thing President Bush has conspicuously failed to do. Our country fell victim to a first intelligence failure on his watch on September 11, 2001, in an attack on our homeland that in both casualties and costs was more devastating than the Japanese surprise attack of 1941. Our country was then led into a war in part on the basis of an erroneous intelligence estimate about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Since September 11 we have poured immense resources into improving intelligence and embarked on numerous reforms, including both a 100-day and a 500-day plan to “integrate” the intelligence community’s diverse components. But as we see from the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran — shoddily argued on its face, with the facts it puts forward directly contradicting its own starkly stated finding that the Iranian nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003 — the fundamental problem of our intelligence community remains intractably in place. Some very low-quality people, who have few inhibitions about smuggling their politics into intelligence findings, continue to occupy positions of high responsibility in the bureaucracy.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? We can blame some of this on Bush’s first CIA director, George Tenet. And we can also point a finger at Tenet’s successor, the far less canny but equally hapless Porter Goss, who was forced out of the job within half a year. And we can question many of the decisions taken by John Negroponte and Mike McConnell, the two directors, successively, of the new post of Director of National Intelligence.

But who appointed all these people? Who kept the Clinton holdover George Tenet in office after September 11 and then, even after the Iraq-WMD “slam-dunk” fiasco, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor? Who appointed Porter Goss to run the CIA and failed to back him up when he tried to clean house? Who acquiesced in the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is emerging as a clumsy and duplicative bureaucratic behemoth, far more focused on drawing and redrawing the organizational charts of the intelligence community than on getting the intelligence itself straight, as the latest NIE demonstrates?

Looking back over the past seven years, I believe it is increasingly apparent that President Bush’s failure to reform the intelligence community — to manage even to gain control of it — is emerging as the largest blot on his presidency. Accused of politicizing the intelligence community, the President has manifestly failed to depoliticize it, with ramifications now spreading across the globe, including the prospect of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons while the U.S. turns a blind eye. 

“Neglect of responsibility,” wrote Schelling, is one of the factors that lead governments to be taken by surprise. Such neglect already cost us dearly on September 11, 2001. We are now fully into the age of weapons of mass destruction, and it may cost us far more the next time around.

I recently had a chance to sit down over coffee with Donald Rumsfeld, now in private life, to discuss intelligence issues and some other related subjects. In the course of our conversation (as I recalled this morning on the anniversary of December 7, 1941), Rumsfeld brought up the subject of Roberta Wohlstetter’s magisterial book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. He especially pointed me to the book’s introduction by Thomas Schelling, which opens up a short and very brilliant discussion of the nature of surprise, a copy of which Rumsfeld had on hand to give me.  

“Surprise, when it happens to a government,” wrote Schelling,

is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the unalert watchman, but also the one who knows he’ll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of. It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion — which is usually too late. (Unlike movies, real life provides no musical background to tip us off to the climax.) Finally, as at Pearl Harbor, surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.

This text, and presumably the attack on Pearl Harbor itself — Rumsfeld was nine years old when it occurred — seems to have had a profound influence on the former Secretary of Defense. When he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearings on the still-innocent date of January 11, 2001, he was asked a simple but highly pertinent question by Senator Pat Roberts: “What’s the one big thing that keeps you up at night?”

“Intelligence,” is what Rumsfeld replied without missing a beat. And the “importance of considerably improving our intelligence capabilities so that we know more about what people think and how they behave.”

Alas, improving our intelligence capabilities is one thing President Bush has conspicuously failed to do. Our country fell victim to a first intelligence failure on his watch on September 11, 2001, in an attack on our homeland that in both casualties and costs was more devastating than the Japanese surprise attack of 1941. Our country was then led into a war in part on the basis of an erroneous intelligence estimate about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Since September 11 we have poured immense resources into improving intelligence and embarked on numerous reforms, including both a 100-day and a 500-day plan to “integrate” the intelligence community’s diverse components. But as we see from the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran — shoddily argued on its face, with the facts it puts forward directly contradicting its own starkly stated finding that the Iranian nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003 — the fundamental problem of our intelligence community remains intractably in place. Some very low-quality people, who have few inhibitions about smuggling their politics into intelligence findings, continue to occupy positions of high responsibility in the bureaucracy.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? We can blame some of this on Bush’s first CIA director, George Tenet. And we can also point a finger at Tenet’s successor, the far less canny but equally hapless Porter Goss, who was forced out of the job within half a year. And we can question many of the decisions taken by John Negroponte and Mike McConnell, the two directors, successively, of the new post of Director of National Intelligence.

But who appointed all these people? Who kept the Clinton holdover George Tenet in office after September 11 and then, even after the Iraq-WMD “slam-dunk” fiasco, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor? Who appointed Porter Goss to run the CIA and failed to back him up when he tried to clean house? Who acquiesced in the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is emerging as a clumsy and duplicative bureaucratic behemoth, far more focused on drawing and redrawing the organizational charts of the intelligence community than on getting the intelligence itself straight, as the latest NIE demonstrates?

Looking back over the past seven years, I believe it is increasingly apparent that President Bush’s failure to reform the intelligence community — to manage even to gain control of it — is emerging as the largest blot on his presidency. Accused of politicizing the intelligence community, the President has manifestly failed to depoliticize it, with ramifications now spreading across the globe, including the prospect of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons while the U.S. turns a blind eye. 

“Neglect of responsibility,” wrote Schelling, is one of the factors that lead governments to be taken by surprise. Such neglect already cost us dearly on September 11, 2001. We are now fully into the age of weapons of mass destruction, and it may cost us far more the next time around.

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The Plame Game

Valerie Plame Wilson’s Fair Game is out, complete with lots of blacked-out spots thanks to CIA concerns about the publication of classified information. Thus, in describing how she tended to her twins while holding down her job as an undercover operative, she has passages like this:

It felt a little like feeding a baby bird. Switching between breast and syringe feedings when they took only a few ounces each time and capturing each detail in a notebook soon took its toll. I was exhausted. XXXXXX XXX XXXXX XXXXXX XXXXXXX XXXXXX. Every baby book out there recommends that the mother sleep when the baby sleeps.

She sketches quite a bit of nature, too, but Turgenev she is not.

It was the best time: early evening, the furnace blast from the summer day over, the jasmine just opening to perfume the air, and sunset still streaking the sky pink and orange.

She is candid about many things, including the “relevant life experience” that made her suitable for work as a CIA operative recruiting agents and would-be terrorists:

As a Pi Beta Phi sorority sister at Penn State, I had lived through the frenzied “rush” weeks, and once I’d been accepted by the sorority, I attended many a crowded party where fitting in and exchanging easy banter with others was key to social success. Now, I smiled to myself, envisioning the room as nothing more than another fraternity/sorority party, I dove in, trying to find my target.

This kind of thing, and there is a great deal of it in the book, does not exactly make her come across as a Mata Hari.

She discusses at length the famously controversial sixteen words in President Bush’s State of the Union Address: “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” which prompted her husband, Joseph Wilson, to write an op-ed denouncing the Bush administration for cooking intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction while building the case for war. But she is either being evasive about how these sixteen words ended up in the President’s speech, or her explanation has been removed by the CIA censors. It does not matter; responsibility for the blunder has already been unequivocally accepted by George Tenet, the CIA’s then-director.

To her credit, Plame is honest in sketching the broader picture of how the U.S. came to believe that Iraq was vigorously pursuing WMD’s. Although she does point to what she regards as pressure from the White House on the agency to adjust its intelligence to fit policy—principally by means of visits to CIA headquarters by Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby to engage in direct talks with analysts—she sticks with the evidence that is by now solidly established, namely, that Langley itself must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame:

The crime and the colossal failure of the intelligence community—and the CIA in particular—was that . . .deep disagreements [about Iraqi WMD programs] were relegated to footnotes in tiny type at the bottom of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). The NIE was hastily ordered by Congress in October 2002 (just prior to the vote to authorize use of force against Iraq) and pulled together by the CIA in an unprecedented few weeks. Even more damning is the intellectual sloppiness of a document known as the “President’s Summary,” which distills the NIE down to one page. . . The CIA failed to demonstrate convincingly to the administration that there was a serious and sustained debate over this issue [the aluminum tubes thought erroneously to be for nuclear purposes].

I haven’t yet finished reading this heavily padded (even as it is heavily redacted) book, but so far, given how much it reveals about the peculiar and dysfunctional culture of the CIA, it is more engaging than I expected.

Valerie Plame Wilson’s Fair Game is out, complete with lots of blacked-out spots thanks to CIA concerns about the publication of classified information. Thus, in describing how she tended to her twins while holding down her job as an undercover operative, she has passages like this:

It felt a little like feeding a baby bird. Switching between breast and syringe feedings when they took only a few ounces each time and capturing each detail in a notebook soon took its toll. I was exhausted. XXXXXX XXX XXXXX XXXXXX XXXXXXX XXXXXX. Every baby book out there recommends that the mother sleep when the baby sleeps.

She sketches quite a bit of nature, too, but Turgenev she is not.

It was the best time: early evening, the furnace blast from the summer day over, the jasmine just opening to perfume the air, and sunset still streaking the sky pink and orange.

She is candid about many things, including the “relevant life experience” that made her suitable for work as a CIA operative recruiting agents and would-be terrorists:

As a Pi Beta Phi sorority sister at Penn State, I had lived through the frenzied “rush” weeks, and once I’d been accepted by the sorority, I attended many a crowded party where fitting in and exchanging easy banter with others was key to social success. Now, I smiled to myself, envisioning the room as nothing more than another fraternity/sorority party, I dove in, trying to find my target.

This kind of thing, and there is a great deal of it in the book, does not exactly make her come across as a Mata Hari.

She discusses at length the famously controversial sixteen words in President Bush’s State of the Union Address: “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” which prompted her husband, Joseph Wilson, to write an op-ed denouncing the Bush administration for cooking intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction while building the case for war. But she is either being evasive about how these sixteen words ended up in the President’s speech, or her explanation has been removed by the CIA censors. It does not matter; responsibility for the blunder has already been unequivocally accepted by George Tenet, the CIA’s then-director.

To her credit, Plame is honest in sketching the broader picture of how the U.S. came to believe that Iraq was vigorously pursuing WMD’s. Although she does point to what she regards as pressure from the White House on the agency to adjust its intelligence to fit policy—principally by means of visits to CIA headquarters by Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby to engage in direct talks with analysts—she sticks with the evidence that is by now solidly established, namely, that Langley itself must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame:

The crime and the colossal failure of the intelligence community—and the CIA in particular—was that . . .deep disagreements [about Iraqi WMD programs] were relegated to footnotes in tiny type at the bottom of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). The NIE was hastily ordered by Congress in October 2002 (just prior to the vote to authorize use of force against Iraq) and pulled together by the CIA in an unprecedented few weeks. Even more damning is the intellectual sloppiness of a document known as the “President’s Summary,” which distills the NIE down to one page. . . The CIA failed to demonstrate convincingly to the administration that there was a serious and sustained debate over this issue [the aluminum tubes thought erroneously to be for nuclear purposes].

I haven’t yet finished reading this heavily padded (even as it is heavily redacted) book, but so far, given how much it reveals about the peculiar and dysfunctional culture of the CIA, it is more engaging than I expected.

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The Leak Wars

“The government’s ability to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects overseas allowed the United States to obtain information that helped lead to the arrests last week of three Islamic militants accused of planning bomb attacks in Germany, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told Senators on Monday”–the New York Times, September 11, 2007

This is curious. Here we have our top spy revealing one of our nation’s most sensitive secrets, involving not only sources and methods but also that holy of holies: communications intelligence. 

If, say, the fruits of an ongoing U.S. surveillance program had been something uncovered and published by the New York Times for all the world to read, would a whole host of critics, including me, be up in arms? What is going on?

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“The government’s ability to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects overseas allowed the United States to obtain information that helped lead to the arrests last week of three Islamic militants accused of planning bomb attacks in Germany, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told Senators on Monday”–the New York Times, September 11, 2007

This is curious. Here we have our top spy revealing one of our nation’s most sensitive secrets, involving not only sources and methods but also that holy of holies: communications intelligence. 

If, say, the fruits of an ongoing U.S. surveillance program had been something uncovered and published by the New York Times for all the world to read, would a whole host of critics, including me, be up in arms? What is going on?

The conundrum is easily resolved. First, McConnell, as the nation’s top intelligence officer, and unlike any reporter or editor at the Times, is in a position to evaluate whether a given disclosure will cause damage to American security.

Second, McConnell has the authority, under law, to declassify information when he determines it is in the national interest. The New York Times claims the same authority under the First Amendment. But the First Amendment is compatible with a whole range of restrictions on the press, as in the law of libel, the laws governing commercial speech, and so forth. By contrast, the idea that the media is not obligated to follow laws currently on the books restricting publication of national-defense information flies in the face of both reason and precedent.  

Third, in disclosing the success of the U.S. surveillance program in averting a disaster in Germany, McConnell was not revealing anything new. Why not? Because the Times had already compromised the key facts about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance in a series of stories that began in December 2005.

The fact that even after the Times had tipped them off, terrorists continue to use readily interceptible telephones and email demonstrates how difficult it is for them to find alternative means of rapid long-distance communication. But that is by no means a justification for what the Times did. A host of governments officials–Democrats and Republicans alike–have attested to the damage inflicted on U.S. counterterrorism efforts by the Times’s reporting.

CIA Director General Michael V. Hayden, speaking earlier this week at the Council on Foreign Relations, addressed the problem. His words are worth quoting at length:

Revelations of sources and methods or what seems to me to be an impulse to drag anything CIA does to the darkest corner of the room can make it very difficult for us to perform our vital work. When our operations are exposed–you know, the legal, authorized operations overseen by Congress–when those operations are exposed, it reduces the space and it damages the tools we use to protect Americans.

After the press report on how banking records in the international Swiss network could be monitored, I read a claim that this leak–and I’m quoting now–”bears no resemblance to security breaches”. . . I could not disagree more strongly. In a war that largely depends on our success on collecting intelligence on the enemy, publishing information on our sources and methods can be just as damaging as revelations of troop or ship movements have been in the past. Now the compromise to safety can be both immediate and lasting, and it extends beyond specific individuals. Each revelation of our methods in tracking terrorists, tracking WMD, tracking other threats allows our enemies to cover their tracks and change their practices. We’ll respond, but it takes us valuable time to readjust.

Now, some are out there who say there’s no evidence that leaks of classified information have actually harmed national security. As CIA director, I’m telling you there is and they have. Let me give you just two examples. In one case, leaks provided ammunition for a government to prosecute and imprison one of our sources whose family was also endangered. The revelations had an immediate chilling affect on our ability to collect [intelligence] against a top priority target. In another, a spate of media reports cost us several promising counterterrorism and counter-proliferation assets. Sources not even involved in the operation that was exposed lost confidence that their relationship with us could be kept secret and so they stopped reporting.
. . . On their own, journalists often simply don’t have all the facts needed to make the call on whether the information can be released without harm. I’ve heard some justify a release based on their view of the sensitivity of their story’s content with no understanding of the effect the release may have on the intelligence source at the heart of the story. . . [W]he the media claims an oversight role on clandestine operations, it moves that clandestine operation into an arena where we cannot clarify, we cannot explain, we cannot defend our actions without doing even further damage to our national security.

It’s important–as I say this, it’s important to bear in mind that my agency is subject to another oversight mechanism that has full access to our operations and takes our security requirements into account, it’s your representatives in Congress.

George Tenet and Porter Goss, George Bush’s previous CIA directors, never said anything nearly as sustained or lucid on this vital subject–and they and we paid for their silence with an accelerating flow of leaks appearing in the media. It is unlikely that Hayden’s caution will be heeded by many in the press, least of all at the New York Times. But the issue, at least, has finally been joined in a serious way by the Bush administration.

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“Blowback” in Lebanon?

The State Department has designated Fatah al-Islam, a self-declared al-Qaeda affiliate of Sunni Muslim extremists based in northern Lebanon, a “terrorist” group.

Back in March, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, explained that this outfit, consisting of a relatively small number of fighters but heavily armed, was actually a creature of the United States. In line with a reorientation of U.S. policy to bolster Sunni Muslims in the growing contest with the Shiites of Hizballah and its controlling hands in Iran, the U.S. had covertly joined with Saudi Arabia to support the terrorists of Fatah al-Islam.

Here was Hersh in May amplifying his point on CNN:

Key player are the Saudis, of course, and [Saudi Prince] Bandar. What I was writing about was a sort of a private agreement that was made between the White House, we’re talking about [Vice-President] Dick Cheney and Elliott Abrams, who is one of the key aides in the White House, with Bandar. And the idea was to get support, covert support—money, from the Saudis to support various hard-line jihadists, Sunni groups, particularly in Lebanon, who would be seen in case of an actual confrontation with Hezbollah.

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The State Department has designated Fatah al-Islam, a self-declared al-Qaeda affiliate of Sunni Muslim extremists based in northern Lebanon, a “terrorist” group.

Back in March, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, explained that this outfit, consisting of a relatively small number of fighters but heavily armed, was actually a creature of the United States. In line with a reorientation of U.S. policy to bolster Sunni Muslims in the growing contest with the Shiites of Hizballah and its controlling hands in Iran, the U.S. had covertly joined with Saudi Arabia to support the terrorists of Fatah al-Islam.

Here was Hersh in May amplifying his point on CNN:

Key player are the Saudis, of course, and [Saudi Prince] Bandar. What I was writing about was a sort of a private agreement that was made between the White House, we’re talking about [Vice-President] Dick Cheney and Elliott Abrams, who is one of the key aides in the White House, with Bandar. And the idea was to get support, covert support—money, from the Saudis to support various hard-line jihadists, Sunni groups, particularly in Lebanon, who would be seen in case of an actual confrontation with Hezbollah.

If Hersh was right, and that was indeed the U.S. plan, it badly backfired. Fatah al-Islam, holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp near the city of Tripoli, was then and still is locked in combat with the Lebanese army. “Unintended consequences,” was Hersh’s explanation for the contradiction.

But Hersh is a serial confabulist. In the pages of the New Yorker, he is kept somewhat in accord with reality by the demands of fact-checkers. But off that magazine’s pages, and on the lecture circuit and TV, he feels free to say all sorts of things that do not exist in the here and now but only in the not-here and never.

Hersh thus explained, in the same CNN interview, how in this latest Lebanese case of “blowback” history is repeating itself:

If you remember, you know, we got into the war in Afghanistan with supporting Osama bin Laden, the Mujahadeen back there in the late 1980’s with Bandar, and with people like Elliott Abrams around, the idea being that the Saudis promise us they could control—they could control the jihadists.

Even when Hersh is making things up, he is nothing if not skilled at maintaining an aura of plausibility. Thus, his account of U.S. support for Osama bin Laden in the Afghan war will ring a bell of truth in many minds. But that is only because it is a myth that has been put in circulation for years thanks to people like Hersh himself. It too is false.

I do not trust everything that the former director of the CIA, George Tenet, says. As I have shown here, he is fully capable of prevaricating. But here is Tenet on this point in his memoir, At the Center of the Storm:

Internet-based conspiracy theorists keep alive the rumor that bin Laden had somehow worked for the CIA during the Afghan-Soviet war or had more informal contacts with American officials during that time. Let me state categorically that CIA had no contact with bin Laden during the Soviet’s Afghanistan misadventure.

Denials do not come any more unequivocal than that.

On the one hand, allegations can be generated at will. On the other hand, hard facts, accompanied by documents and proof, are far tougher to produce. Are we are dealing, in the case of Seymour Hersh, with an instance of asymmetrical information warfare?

Hersh’s charges raise another question seldom asked by his fellow national-security journalists in Washington: what are his sources? Or to put a follow-up question in a leading fashion, is Hersh a journalist or a propagandist or, as is becoming increasingly common in the American media, a hybrid of the two?

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Let’s Help al Qaeda to Kill Americans

What is the best way for terrorists to wreak havoc in the United States? That was the question posed, and answered, yesterday on the New York Times website by Steven D. Levitt, the University of Chicago professor of economics and author of the best-selling book, Freakonomics.

Levitt’s advice to al Qaeda, based upon the economic principle of generating the greatest quantity of harm with the least possible input of resources, would be to learn from the Washington D.C snipers of 2002. He suggests arming

20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrang[ing] to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable, especially considering how few resources it would require of the terrorists. It would also be extremely hard to catch these guys. The damage wouldn’t be as extreme as detonating a nuclear bomb in New York City, of course; but it sure would be a lot easier to obtain a handful of guns than a nuclear weapon.

This does indeed sound like a terrifying scenario and perhaps there is a terrorist cell hidden here that will carry it out.

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What is the best way for terrorists to wreak havoc in the United States? That was the question posed, and answered, yesterday on the New York Times website by Steven D. Levitt, the University of Chicago professor of economics and author of the best-selling book, Freakonomics.

Levitt’s advice to al Qaeda, based upon the economic principle of generating the greatest quantity of harm with the least possible input of resources, would be to learn from the Washington D.C snipers of 2002. He suggests arming

20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrang[ing] to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable, especially considering how few resources it would require of the terrorists. It would also be extremely hard to catch these guys. The damage wouldn’t be as extreme as detonating a nuclear bomb in New York City, of course; but it sure would be a lot easier to obtain a handful of guns than a nuclear weapon.

This does indeed sound like a terrifying scenario and perhaps there is a terrorist cell hidden here that will carry it out.

Levitt believes that putting such suggestions in print for terrorists to read is “a form of public service.” By thinking of plausible ways of causing violent destruction, he writes, “it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur.”

Levitt’s column generated what he says today, in a subsequent posting on the Times website, was an immense amount of hate mail: “The people e-mailing me can’t decide whether I am a moron, a traitor, or both.”

But there are also quite a few letters on the site applauding Levitt, like this one from a person who identifies herself simply as Kelly: “I think you are doing a terrific job actually THINKING about our situation rather than reacting like so many of our fellow Americans.”

Is Levitt indeed performing a public service, or is he a moron, traitor, or both?

Answering this is not as easy as it might appear at first glance. The fact is that we do need to think carefully about the manifold ways terrorists might attack us again. The U.S. government has failed abysmally at that task in the past.

In his memoir, At the Center of the Storm, CIA Director George Tenet recalls with some pride how on the evening of September 12, 2001, he was sitting in his office “kicking around ideas” with a senior agency official when they hit upon the idea of creating “a group with the CIA whose sole purpose in life would be to think contrarian thoughts.” Such a unit, duly created by Tenet and dubbed the “Red Cell,” was given the assignment of “speculat[ing] on what was going through Osama bin Laden’s mind.”

In other words, up until September 11, it never occurred to the clueless Tenet or anyone else in a position of responsibility at our premier intelligence agency to perform the elementary task of thinking systematically about how our terrorist adversaries were thinking about us, including about how they might attack us.

There is thus a case for a public discussion of the issue raised by Levitt. But raising the issue and generating actual scenarios in public are two different things. Levitt defends himself on this point by noting that “a lot of the angry responses [he received made] me wonder what everyday Americans think terrorists do all day. My guess is that they brainstorm ideas for terrorist plots. And you have to believe that terrorists are total idiots if it never occurred to them after the Washington D.C. sniper shootings that maybe a sniper plot wasn’t a bad idea.”

True enough. Or is it true at all?

Yes, there are terrorist masterminds out there who do not need our help cooking up the most intricate and lethal plots against the United States. The attacks of September 11 alone are sufficient evidence of that.

But there are also more than a few terrorists and would-be terrorists roaming around who might qualify as “idiots,” or something close. Most recruits for terrorist action in the Islamist cause are not sophisticated planner types like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed but angry, ignorant, low-level figures, used by the higher-level terrorist plotters as expendable “muscle.”

Richard Reid is one such figure. If he had been smart enough to set off his shoe-bomb in the privacy of the bathroom instead of while remaining in his seat, American Airlines Flight 63 might now be resting quietly on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with all of it 197 passengers and crew.

Then there was Zacharias Moussaoui, who was encountering trouble in his Minnesota flight school. This deranged fanatic might have only needed scant prompting, perhaps by stumbling across a clever scenario cooked up by Steven Levitt, to find a way to work al Qaeda’s will that was easier than poring through aviation manuals and struggling to operate a Boeing 747 simulator.

There was also el Sayyid Nosair, an operative in the nascent al Qaeda operation, part of the band that was to attack the World Trade Center the first time around in 1993. In 1990, Nosair spent his time and energy planning and carrying out the assassination of the firebrand rabbi Meir Kahane. Given the combination of Kahane’s extremist views and marginal status, this act was senseless, and even counterproductive, from the point of view of Nosair’s own cause. In choosing his victim, Nosair could well have used some help from an economist like Levitt. Will Levitt now offer to provide a public list of superior human targets, whose deaths would be far more useful to the Islamist cause? The logic of his argument suggests that the answer would be yes.

But beyond the logic or illogic of Levitt’s argument, there is something else. Thousands of Americans died on September 11. Although Levitt minimizes the dangers that lie ahead, blithely writing that his guess is that “the terrorism threat just isn’t that great,” the fact is that, like everyone else, he does not know what he does not know. It is entirely possible that the United States will be hit again, and hit harder than we were on September 11.

To Levitt, however, this solemn subject is not solemn at all. He writes about it in a glib and flippant tone, as in his summons to the public to come up with even more lethal scenarios by which al Qaeda might wreak death and destruction on the United States: “I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them.”

One of the better ripostes to Levitt on the Times website came from a reader named Steve: “Sir, unable to determine if you are demonic, but your actions are demonic. Contemplate this name, Christine Lee Hanson.”

Christine Lee Hanson was a two-year old who perished on board United Airlines Flight 175 when it plowed into the World Trade Center on September 11.

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The Clintonites’ Silver Bullet

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, both Clinton-era staffers on the National Security Council, have a short, sharp, sensible op-ed in the New York Times today. They make a good point—that the CIA should be more involved in the special-operations business—but they also self-servingly distort history along the way.

Benjamin and Simon point to the chronic difficulties the U.S. military has created for itself in mounting commando raids against terrorist targets. The occasion for their piece is the revelations now coming out about an aborted 2005 operation against a terrorist haven in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region to capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader.

The Pentagon, they note, through its bureaucratic processes, “added large numbers of troops to conduct additional intelligence, force protection, communications and extraction work. At that point, as one senior intelligence official told [the Times], ‘The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,’ and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug.”

This episode, Benjamin and Simon tell us, is reminiscent of trouble faced by the Clinton administration. “The Clinton White House repeatedly requested options involving ground forces that could hunt and destroy terrorists in Afghanistan.” But repeatedly, they write, “senior military officials declared such a mission ‘would be Desert One,’ referring to the disastrous 1980 effort to free American hostages in Iran. When the Pentagon finally delivered a plan, the deployment envisioned would have been sufficient to take and hold Kabul but not to surprise and pin down a handful of terrorists.”

This is true. But it is also false. It provides only half the picture. For, even as the Clinton administration was contemplating military action against al-Qaeda safe havens, it was also planning much narrower commando operations, conceived and planned by the CIA, to seize Osama bin Laden—precisely the kind of raid Benjamin and Simon are recommending now.

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Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, both Clinton-era staffers on the National Security Council, have a short, sharp, sensible op-ed in the New York Times today. They make a good point—that the CIA should be more involved in the special-operations business—but they also self-servingly distort history along the way.

Benjamin and Simon point to the chronic difficulties the U.S. military has created for itself in mounting commando raids against terrorist targets. The occasion for their piece is the revelations now coming out about an aborted 2005 operation against a terrorist haven in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region to capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader.

The Pentagon, they note, through its bureaucratic processes, “added large numbers of troops to conduct additional intelligence, force protection, communications and extraction work. At that point, as one senior intelligence official told [the Times], ‘The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,’ and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug.”

This episode, Benjamin and Simon tell us, is reminiscent of trouble faced by the Clinton administration. “The Clinton White House repeatedly requested options involving ground forces that could hunt and destroy terrorists in Afghanistan.” But repeatedly, they write, “senior military officials declared such a mission ‘would be Desert One,’ referring to the disastrous 1980 effort to free American hostages in Iran. When the Pentagon finally delivered a plan, the deployment envisioned would have been sufficient to take and hold Kabul but not to surprise and pin down a handful of terrorists.”

This is true. But it is also false. It provides only half the picture. For, even as the Clinton administration was contemplating military action against al-Qaeda safe havens, it was also planning much narrower commando operations, conceived and planned by the CIA, to seize Osama bin Laden—precisely the kind of raid Benjamin and Simon are recommending now.

But what happened? It was not the military which screwed up the operation by beefing up the forces until it turned into a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. It was the Clinton administration itself which called off the CIA action, out of fear that bin Laden would be killed—in violation of an executive order banning assassinations.

The 9/11 Commission Report contains a wealth of detail on this episode, including a remarkable kabuki dance of finger-pointing, with CIA Director George Tenet accepting most of the blame while implicitly suggesting that Sandy Berger, the National Security Council (NSC) chairman, should have been more vigorous in pressing ahead:

Impressions vary as to who actually decided not to proceed with the operation. [Richard] Clarke [NSC Counterterrorism] told us that the CSG [an interagency Counterterrorism Security Group] saw the plan as flawed. He was said to have described it to a colleague on the NSC staff as “half-assed” and predicted that the principals would not approve it. “Jeff ” [the CIA Counterterrorist Center Chief] thought the decision had been made at the cabinet level. [James] Pavitt [assistant head of the CIA Directorate of Operations] thought that it was [Sandy] Berger’s doing, though perhaps on Tenet’s advice. Tenet told us that given the recommendation of his chief operations officers, he alone had decided to “turn off” the operation. He had simply informed Berger, who had not pushed back. Berger’s recollection was similar. He said the plan was never presented to the White House for a decision.

Yes, it would be a good idea to make greater use of the CIA in the realm of special operations. But those advancing this recommendation would have done well to note that when they and the administration they served tried to fire this silver bullet themselves, they had a lot of trouble loading it and in the end could not bring themselves to squeeze the trigger.

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Is an al-Qaeda Nuclear Suitcase Bomb On the Way?

Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

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Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

I’ve long been skeptical that these things could be floating around. States that build nuclear weapons are well aware of their destructive potential and go to extraordinary lengths to keep them under control.

To be sure, there have been reports pointing in the other direction. In 1997, General Aleksandr Lebed, a Russian national security adviser, told CBS’s Sixty Minutes that the Russian military had 250 such weapons and had lost track of more than 100 of them. But was Lebed in a position to know? As James Kitfield pointed out in National Journal, other Russian authorities have asserted that the KGB was in charge of these devices, which would explain why the Russian military could not offer an accurate accounting of their numbers and whereabouts.

In his 2000 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, Yossef Bodansky stated that “there is no longer much doubt that bin Laden has finally succeeded in his quest for nuclear suitcase bombs.” But this claim was unsourced and seems difficult to credit. Although bin Laden has openly expressed interest in getting the bomb, and also obtained a fatwa from a Saudi cleric giving him divine permission to use one against American civilians, presumably, if he already had one in the 1990’s, we would have seen or heard it go off by now.

Still, the fact that there has been some sensationalist reporting does not mean there is no reason to worry. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal remains a chief concern. The country hemorrhaged nuclear-weapons technology for years when its atomic-energy program was being run by A. Q. Khan, who remains a national hero. Even if Khan is no longer in the loop, other elements within the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment might well offer to supply one to al Qaeda either for cash or to earn a place in heaven.

George Tenet adds significantly to our anxieties on this score. Although there are many things wrong with his recent memoir—and I point out some of them in The CIA Follies (Cont’d.) —what he writes about this problem seems credible. Immediately after September 11, it turns out, the U.S. government was uncertain whether or not al Qaeda already had such a device:

In late November 2001, I briefed the President, Vice President, and National Security Adviser on the latest intelligence. . . . I brought along with me my WMD chief, Rolf Mowatt-Larsen, and Kevin K., our most senior WMD terrorism analyst. During the ensuing conversation, the Vice President asked if we thought al Qaeda had a nuclear weapon. Kevin replied, “Sir, if I were to give you a traditional analytical assessment of the al-Qaeda nuclear program, I would say they probably do not. But I can’t assure you that they don’t.”

Tenet continues for many pages laying out precise intelligence about al Qaeda’s continuing efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb from Pakistan and from Russia. Whatever his flaws as a CIA director, Tenet was in a position to know all that can be known about this issue. His memoirs show that we do have reason to be afraid. But we shouldn’t be quivering in our boots. Rather, even as we work to avert a disastrous vacuum from forming in Iraq, we should be prosecuting the war against al Qaeda and allied Islamic terrorists with a vigor commensurate with what is at stake.

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The War on the War on Terrorism

The Senate Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas for documents concerning the legal basis of the Bush administration’s terrorist-surveillance program. The New York Times calls it “the most aggressive move yet by lawmakers to investigate the wiretapping program since the Democrats gained control of Congress this year.”

The program enabled the National Security Agency to monitor telephone calls and emails of persons in the United States, including U.S. citizens, whom the agency believed were linked to al Qaeda. The interception of such calls is the very core of counterterrorism. If our intelligence agencies are to connect the dots that will prevent another 9/11, these calls and emails constitute the critical dots.

The program was already damaged, if not completely compromised, when its existence was disclosed by the New York Times in December 2005. Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and other allies of the Times on Capitol Hill are now coming in for the kill.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas for documents concerning the legal basis of the Bush administration’s terrorist-surveillance program. The New York Times calls it “the most aggressive move yet by lawmakers to investigate the wiretapping program since the Democrats gained control of Congress this year.”

The program enabled the National Security Agency to monitor telephone calls and emails of persons in the United States, including U.S. citizens, whom the agency believed were linked to al Qaeda. The interception of such calls is the very core of counterterrorism. If our intelligence agencies are to connect the dots that will prevent another 9/11, these calls and emails constitute the critical dots.

The program was already damaged, if not completely compromised, when its existence was disclosed by the New York Times in December 2005. Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and other allies of the Times on Capitol Hill are now coming in for the kill.

To be sure, the legal status of the program is a crown of thorny issues. In various memos and briefs prepared by the administration, they have relied on Congress’s 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, which they claim trumps the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that formerly had governed all such wiretapping. They have also suggested that such surveillance is an inherent power of the President under Article II of the Constitution.

One of the most compelling briefs against the program was written by Louis Fisher, an estimable scholar at the Library of Congress, and I have yet to see it comprehensively answered. But I also have few doubts that, at the end of the day, the courts will side with the President on this one, based upon some variation of the premise that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. The fact is that if Bush had failed to authorize such monitoring, and we were struck by another major attack on our homeland that had been planned and executed by terrorists employing cross-border communications, that presidential lapse would itself probably be grounds for his impeachment.

All the same, one of the actions of the Bush administration that has long troubled me, and which has made it the target of withering criticism, was its failure to ask Congress to amend FISA when the program first began. The whole immensely damaging controversy would have been skirted if the administration, in the wake of 9/11, had simply worked with Congress to engage in this kind of surveillance within the framework of a revised law.

Why did that not happen?

We now have an answer: it can be found on page 238 of George Tenet’s new memoir. Tenet writes:

At one point in 2004 there was even a discussion with the congressional leadership in the White House Situation Room with regard to whether new legislation would be introduced to amend the FISA statute, to put the program on a broader legal foundation. The view that day on the part of members of Congress was that this could not be done without jeopardizing the program (emphasis added).

Is Tenet simply passing the buck by blaming Congress? I don’t think so, but since he does a lot of other buck-passing in his buck-passing memoir (see my analysis of it here), I can’t be sure. But Tenet has no particular reason to cover his tracks in this instance. For once, he had helped put in place an effective program.

If senior members of Congress of both parties rejected the idea of congressional action to amend FISA, the Judiciary Committee’s grandstanding now on this critical matter of national defense is even more disgraceful than it already appears.

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Do Not Bluff

Why did the CIA botch its Iraq-WMD estimate so badly? One factor was appalling tradecraft, some of it touched on in George Tenet’s memoir and all of it explored thoroughly by the Silberman-Robb commission.

Another factor was the unexpected behavior of Saddam himself. Saddam, to state the obvious, knew that he had no WMD program or stocks of any note. He also knew that we suspected him of having them and that we were threatening to take action against him on those very grounds. He also knew that if he cooperated fully with the UN inspectors, they would find next to nothing. But instead of cooperating, he chose a very different course.

Saddam, it would seem, wanted to appear to have the WMD. He evidently did not want hostile powers, like Iran or the U.S., to think that military action against him would go unpunished. It was thus a matter of keeping up appearances. Bluffing was a means of deterrence.

The CIA was surprised by this. Should it have been?

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Why did the CIA botch its Iraq-WMD estimate so badly? One factor was appalling tradecraft, some of it touched on in George Tenet’s memoir and all of it explored thoroughly by the Silberman-Robb commission.

Another factor was the unexpected behavior of Saddam himself. Saddam, to state the obvious, knew that he had no WMD program or stocks of any note. He also knew that we suspected him of having them and that we were threatening to take action against him on those very grounds. He also knew that if he cooperated fully with the UN inspectors, they would find next to nothing. But instead of cooperating, he chose a very different course.

Saddam, it would seem, wanted to appear to have the WMD. He evidently did not want hostile powers, like Iran or the U.S., to think that military action against him would go unpunished. It was thus a matter of keeping up appearances. Bluffing was a means of deterrence.

The CIA was surprised by this. Should it have been?

In addition to the CIA’s Family Jewels, which are stealing all the headlines, astonishing cold-war documents—the CEASAR, POLO, and ESAU papers—have been declassified by the spy agency in the last few days. The flood of information summons to mind a peculiarity of the Aldrich Ames espionage case. Ames was promoted repeatedly within the CIA’s counterintelligence division while actually working as a Soviet and then a Russian spy until his arrest in 1994.

Ames and the American agents he betrayed were used to convey disinformation to the United States. The KGB employed this devious channel to create the impression that the USSR’s military prowess was stronger than it actually was. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan characterized the gist of the disinformation campaign, it was designed to create “the effect that the Soviet colossus was growing in economic strength and military might and spoiling for a confrontation with the decadent and divided West.”

Moynihan, writing in 1996, was vastly overstating what the USSR was up to, but he was pointing in the right direction. The CIA’s own review, prepared by a Damage Assessment Team [DAT], put the matter in more measured terms. Ames’s activities, it stated:

facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in “perception management operations” by feeding carefully selected information to the United States through agents whom they were controlling without our knowledge. Although the extent and success of this effort cannot now be determined with certainty, we know that some of this information did reach senior decision-makers of the United States. . . .

it is very likely that the KGB, and later the SVR [the KGB successor organization], sought to influence U.S. decision-makers by providing controlled information designed to affect R&D [research and development] and procurement decisions of the Department of Defense. The DAT believes one of the primary purposes of the perception management program was to convince us that the Soviets remained a superpower and that their military R&D program was robust.

So the fact remains that, at least to some degree, the Kremlin was bluffing. But as both the Soviet leaders and Saddam were to find out, this was not a smart strategy.

In the Soviet case, perceptions of Moscow’s military might helped to sustain a U.S. counter-buildup, which the USSR could not compete against without straining itself to the breaking point. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, it broke.

Saddam Hussein, for his part, got himself into a shooting war that he rapidly lost, and he soon found himself hiding for his life in the basement of a hut.

A cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: some authoritarian regimes have a desperate desire to appear strong, even if it means exaggerating their capabilities and risking a tougher or more vigorous response from their enemies.

A second cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: not every authoritarian regime is always bluffing. There is not a shred of evidence that Iran, for example, is bluffing about its growing nuclear program.

A third cautionary conclusion is for foreign dictators: when dealing with the United States, it is generally not smart to bluff.

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Bush’s Worst Blunder?

George W. Bush has made his share of serious mistakes. Back in April, I noted here that one of the worst, to my mind, was awarding America’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to his CIA director George Tenet, a holdover from the Clinton administration, who presided over a series of critical intelligence failures and let the country down.

But I wrote that before I had completed reading Tenet’s own account of his directorship, and I explicitly reserved the right to change my mind. Now that I have finished his memoir and written an article about it for the July-August Commentary, has my assessment changed?

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George W. Bush has made his share of serious mistakes. Back in April, I noted here that one of the worst, to my mind, was awarding America’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to his CIA director George Tenet, a holdover from the Clinton administration, who presided over a series of critical intelligence failures and let the country down.

But I wrote that before I had completed reading Tenet’s own account of his directorship, and I explicitly reserved the right to change my mind. Now that I have finished his memoir and written an article about it for the July-August Commentary, has my assessment changed?

The answer is: yes and no. Tenet himself discusses the medal in his book and is disarmingly self-deprecating. When he was informed by Brett Kavanaugh, a presidential assistant, that President Bush wanted to honor him with the Medal of Freedom, he writes that:

I was not at all sure I wanted to accept. We had not found weapons of mass destruction and postwar Iraq hadn’t been the cakewalk that some had suggested it would be.

I asked Kavanaugh why the President wanted to honor me, and to read the proposed citation. It was all about the CIA’s work against terrorism, not Iraq. Fair enough, I thought. Perhaps I could accept a medal on that basis, not for me so much as for the agency.

But if Tenet had mixed feelings accepting the award, what prompted President Bush to bestow it on him in the first place? Was it because Tenet had named the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, after Bush’s father, or was it a way—a successful way—to hedge in advance against criticism from Tenet? The answer is still unclear

Far more central than the medal issue is whether, after deciding to keep Tenet in his administration in January 2001, Bush should have fired him on September 11. My own view, given the catastrophe that had just taken place and given all the CIA fiascos that were to follow, is that by September 12, that action was overdue.

But there is another side of the coin. We had just been attacked massively on our own soil. Within the U.S. government there was a widespread conviction that a second wave of terrorism, possibly with weapons of mass destruction, was on the way. This was not a propitious moment to reshuffle the deck in a frontline counterterrorism agency.

And even with hindsight there is another reason why it is less than clear that firing Tenet might not have made a significant difference in the way things turned out. After all, when Tenet finally did step down, Bush’s replacement, Porter Goss, was also profoundly flawed, with key members of his management team caught up in tawdry scandal, and he was rapidly chewed up by the bureaucracy.

One of the lessons that one takes away from all this is that fixing the CIA is not a simple matter of changing its leadership. It is true that a fish rots from the head. But if one cuts off the head of a stinking fish, the rot does not go away.

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The Greening of the CIA

Peter Hoekstra, until January the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, has a noteworthy piece in the Wall Street Journal today, Environmental Intelligence, which takes up where I left off last month in my posting, CIA vs. MPG.

As I noted there, thanks to Clinton-era mandates the CIA has been spending a lot of time trying to reduce the amount of gasoline its operatives consume while driving LDV’s—the CIA acronym for a “light-duty vehicle,” otherwise known as a car.

Hoekstra, one of the best-informed and most thoughtful students of intelligence issues in Congress, reports on renewed efforts by the Democratic majority to green the spy agency even further. Among other things, its proposed 2008 intelligence authorization bill will compel the CIA to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on the effects of environmental change.

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Peter Hoekstra, until January the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, has a noteworthy piece in the Wall Street Journal today, Environmental Intelligence, which takes up where I left off last month in my posting, CIA vs. MPG.

As I noted there, thanks to Clinton-era mandates the CIA has been spending a lot of time trying to reduce the amount of gasoline its operatives consume while driving LDV’s—the CIA acronym for a “light-duty vehicle,” otherwise known as a car.

Hoekstra, one of the best-informed and most thoughtful students of intelligence issues in Congress, reports on renewed efforts by the Democratic majority to green the spy agency even further. Among other things, its proposed 2008 intelligence authorization bill will compel the CIA to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on the effects of environmental change.

Hoekstra calls this “a throwback to the mistakes of the 1990’s when scarce resources were diverted to issues that clearly were not related to the businesses of intelligence.” He notes that this diversion, initiated by Clinton’s second CIA director John Deutch and continued by Deutch’s successor George Tenet—who kept alive a bureaucratic unit called the Director of Central Intelligence Environmental Center—came with a stiff price tag.

The Center had ordered intelligence analysts and collectors to write about volcano eruptions, fish schools, and air pollution. And it also produced an annual Earth Day edition of the highly classified President’s Daily Brief.

At the direction of the Center, spy satellites were tasked to conduct what some in the press dubbed “environmental peeking.” The diversion meant fewer overhead images of vital national security concerns, such as Iran, North Korea, and al Qaeda.

The 1990′s turned out to be fateful years for American security. We will never know what the CIA missed thanks to this trade-off in resource allocation.

Back in the 1970’s, Richard Nixon used to drench the CIA with contempt. “What the hell do those clowns do out there in Langley,” he said at one point. “What use are they? They’ve got 40,000 people over there reading newspapers.” At another point he grumbled that the agency “tells me nothing I don’t read three days earlier in the New York Times.”

Nixon, of course, was venting, as was his wont. But there is no question that the spy agency’s problems have been chronic, culminating in its failure to avert the 9/11 plot and its slam-dunk assessment that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Of course, some of its failures have been the result of absurd Congressional mandates. But even with respect to these, the agency’s senior management has all too willingly rushed to go along.

Transforming the CIA into a global-warming research center is not going to solve its problems. Nixon had another idea, though—which, whatever its merits or demerits, would be better than turning the agency into a replica of the EPA: “Get rid of the clowns—cut personnel 40 percent. Its info is worthless.”

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Learning To Love the Islamic Bomb

As I noted in my previous post, George Tenet: CIA or CYA?, much of what is contained in the former CIA director’s new memoir is a self-serving attempt to dodge responsibility for the monumental intelligence failures that occurred on his watch. But as a matter of formal logic, just because In the Center of the Storm contains false statements—see Andrew McCarthy’s analysis at NRO for chapter, verse, hook, line, and sinker—not every statement uttered by its author is always untrue.

Appearing on CBS’s Sixty Minutes to flog his book, Tenet noted that Osama bin Laden has been seeking nuclear weapons since 1993, and proceeded to raise the alarm: “Is it going to happen? Look, I don’t know, but I worry about it because I’ve seen enough to tell me there is intent and when there is intent the question is when does the capability show up?”

In the aftermath of September 11, whether Tenet’s worries are based upon slam-dunk intelligence is irrelevant. Even more so than was the case with Iraq, this is not a matter on which we can gamble. But how would Osama bin Laden go about obtaining a nuclear bomb?

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As I noted in my previous post, George Tenet: CIA or CYA?, much of what is contained in the former CIA director’s new memoir is a self-serving attempt to dodge responsibility for the monumental intelligence failures that occurred on his watch. But as a matter of formal logic, just because In the Center of the Storm contains false statements—see Andrew McCarthy’s analysis at NRO for chapter, verse, hook, line, and sinker—not every statement uttered by its author is always untrue.

Appearing on CBS’s Sixty Minutes to flog his book, Tenet noted that Osama bin Laden has been seeking nuclear weapons since 1993, and proceeded to raise the alarm: “Is it going to happen? Look, I don’t know, but I worry about it because I’ve seen enough to tell me there is intent and when there is intent the question is when does the capability show up?”

In the aftermath of September 11, whether Tenet’s worries are based upon slam-dunk intelligence is irrelevant. Even more so than was the case with Iraq, this is not a matter on which we can gamble. But how would Osama bin Laden go about obtaining a nuclear bomb?

Building one from scratch is out of the question; major states spend years and billions of dollars acquiring the expertise and the materials, especially the fissionable elements for its explosive core. Conducting such an enterprise on a shoestring budget while on the run from cave to cave is not a likely prospect.

Far more worrisome is that al Qaeda will seek out a bomb from Pakistan, which now has perhaps as many as 25 to 100 such devices in its arsenal. There would be two ways to lay one’s hands on such a heavily guarded apparatus.

The first would be to foment a revolution in unstable Pakistan that brings Islamists into power. Toward that end, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been waging a campaign of terror inside Pakistan designed to topple the government of General Pervez Musharraf. In the most recent attack this past Saturday, a suicide bomber killed 28 people in a failed attempt on the life of Pakistan’s interior minister.

A second approach would be to find a sympathizer inside Pakistan’s military or nuclear establishment. Given recent history, this might well be the easier route. After all, the head of Pakistan’s nuclear-bomb-making project, Abdul Q. Khan, now under house arrest in Islamabad, found it convenient and profitable to trade nuclear secrets and materials to a host of aggressive anti-American, terror-supporting states, including Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

How many others are there like Khan inside the Pakistani establishment, and can they be stopped? That is a question that every presidential candidate should be compelled to ponder, especially because a swelling chorus of voices in the liberal-Left foreign-policy establishment is now all of a sudden telling us that nuclear proliferation is not the fearful thing we have long believed.

The latest entry is a new book called the The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, by William Langewiesche, a correspondent for Vanity Fair, whose considered opinion is that the “spread of nuclear weapons, even to such countries as North Korea and Iran, may not be as catastrophic as is generally believed,” and certainly not bad enough to justify “the pursuit of preemptive wars” of the kind we are now fighting in Iraq and contemplating against Iran.

On the contrary, suggests Langewiesche, we should recognize that we live in a “new reality in which limited nuclear wars are possible, and the use of a few devices, though locally devastating, will not necessarily blossom into a global exchange.” Overall, he concludes, since the end of the cold war, “the risk of an apocalypse may have been reduced.”

Perhaps Langewiesche is right. Or perhaps he is wrong. On the basis of his experience writing for Vanity Fair, should we just take his word for it? I prefer to side with the tainted Tenet in the view that we should do our utmost to stop such a thing from happening. And I find it fascinating, and profoundly disquieting, that a growing chorus of voices is telling us that we should not worry about something so worrisome, a case of defining deviancy down if there ever was one. 

A nuclear device supplied by a rogue element in Pakistan and detonated by al Qaeda at Four Times Square, where the offices of Vanity Fair are located, would almost certainly destroy the offices of COMMENTARY as well, even though we are located a few blocks north and across town. A global apocalypse during the cold war would no doubt have been awful. “Locally devastating” in the post-cold war would be bad enough.
 

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George Tenet: CIA or CYA?

Former CIA director George Tenet’s score-settling memoir, At the Center of the Storm, is rocking Washington, with officials in the Bush administration dashing for shelter from his charge that they ignored or distorted CIA intelligence findings as they hurtled toward war. Tenet’s signature line, a paraphrase of something clever said once by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is: “Policymakers are entitled to their own opinions—but not to their own set of facts.”

True enough, but in evaluating the CIA’s intelligence in the run-up to the second Gulf war, could policymakers really trust the facts provided by the CIA, or would they have been justified in being quite skeptical of anything and everything the agency said?

The latter is far more likely, for despite the billions spent on intelligence (the exact sum is classified, but it is known that the U.S. paid out $26.7 billion in 1998), the track record of the CIA in this period, and on this critical subject, was not exactly stellar.

One event that loomed large in the mind of decision-makers at the time was a plot that came out of the blue skies on September 11, 2001. This was an event whose possibility the spy agency had caught glimpses of but mostly missed, and whose actuality it proved unable to stop—the most consequential intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor.

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Former CIA director George Tenet’s score-settling memoir, At the Center of the Storm, is rocking Washington, with officials in the Bush administration dashing for shelter from his charge that they ignored or distorted CIA intelligence findings as they hurtled toward war. Tenet’s signature line, a paraphrase of something clever said once by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is: “Policymakers are entitled to their own opinions—but not to their own set of facts.”

True enough, but in evaluating the CIA’s intelligence in the run-up to the second Gulf war, could policymakers really trust the facts provided by the CIA, or would they have been justified in being quite skeptical of anything and everything the agency said?

The latter is far more likely, for despite the billions spent on intelligence (the exact sum is classified, but it is known that the U.S. paid out $26.7 billion in 1998), the track record of the CIA in this period, and on this critical subject, was not exactly stellar.

One event that loomed large in the mind of decision-makers at the time was a plot that came out of the blue skies on September 11, 2001. This was an event whose possibility the spy agency had caught glimpses of but mostly missed, and whose actuality it proved unable to stop—the most consequential intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor.

And the CIA had been horribly wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the first Gulf war, when, despite blithe agency assurances, Saddam turned out to be far closer to putting the final screw in a nuclear bomb than any of its assessments had previously entertained.

Tenet faults the Bush administration for going beyond facts established by the CIA as, ten years later, it was gearing up for a campaign against Saddam. But even at that moment, the CIA had botched the facts. As Tenet himself concedes, the agency’s appraisal of Iraq’s WMD programs in its 2002 National Intelligence Estimate—the critical one on which the war was premised—was flawed.

Tenet implicitly wants to have it both ways: the Bush administration was reckless when it ignored “facts” put forward by the CIA, and it was equally reckless when it acted on those same supposed facts. Perhaps I am missing something, but this score-settling memoir appears to be more of a CYA operation than anything else.

George W. Bush has clearly made his share of serious mistakes, but one of the biggest ones, to my mind, was awarding America’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to George Tenet, a holdover from the Clinton administration, who presided over a series of critical intelligence failures and let the country down.

Why Bush bestowed this award is something about which one can only conjecture. Was it because Tenet had named the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, after Bush’s father, or was it a way—a successful way—to hedge in advance against criticism from Tenet? While Tenet skewers vice-president Cheney and cabinet-level figures one after the other in the book, he largely leaves the President alone.

A caveat: I have not yet read At the Center of the Storm in its entirety; I intend to review it in COMMENTARY; and I am reserving the right to change my mind.

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Tiramisu, Andrew?

Joshua Muravchik wrote what I thought was a sharp and sensible item about Zbigniew Brzezinski here yesterday. Others disagree. Andrew Sullivan called Josh’s posting a “brutal, personal attack.” Andrew then proceeded to note that he is still waiting “for one leading neocon to examine some of the premises that led us into what is clearly a bloody and endless trap in Iraq.”

To paraphrase Josh, this is rich. Actually, it is not just rich, it is a parfait on top of tiramisu.

Leading neoconservatives have been examining the premises which led us to topple Saddam Hussein longer than Andrew has been lambasting conservatives—and avidly flagellating himself—for supporting the war.

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Joshua Muravchik wrote what I thought was a sharp and sensible item about Zbigniew Brzezinski here yesterday. Others disagree. Andrew Sullivan called Josh’s posting a “brutal, personal attack.” Andrew then proceeded to note that he is still waiting “for one leading neocon to examine some of the premises that led us into what is clearly a bloody and endless trap in Iraq.”

To paraphrase Josh, this is rich. Actually, it is not just rich, it is a parfait on top of tiramisu.

Leading neoconservatives have been examining the premises which led us to topple Saddam Hussein longer than Andrew has been lambasting conservatives—and avidly flagellating himself—for supporting the war.

One highly pertinent examination was Norman Podhoretz’s essay “Who Is Lying About Iraq?

As Podhoretz noted there, first and foremost among the reasons we went to war was the widely shared belief that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Podhoretz noted that in judging Iraq’s progress toward the acquisition of such weapons, Bush’s CIA director George Tenet

had the backing of all fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States. In the National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, where their collective views were summarized, one of the conclusions offered with “high confidence” was that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” The intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and—yes—France all agreed with this judgment.

So did Andrew Sullivan. Here is one sample of what he was saying before the war was under way: “The question with Iraq is simple,” Andrew wrote on October 20, 2002:

in trying to stop Saddam getting a nuke, do we follow the same policies as Clinton and Carter in 1994 with North Korea, or do we try something else? Amazingly, large swathes of apparently intelligent people seem to think we should try the Carter/Clinton approach to Iraq. My view is simple: if we do not disarm Saddam now, we never will. And if we don’t, a full-scale nuclear, biological and chemical war is inevitable in the Middle East; and that war, with the help of terror groups like al Qaeda, will soon come to LA and New York and London and Washington. So the choice is a dangerous war now; or a much more destructive war later. I know democracies don’t like to hear these as the two options; democracies rightly, understandably hate to go to war. But these choices, in my view, are the only ones we actually have. So what’s it gonna be? Or do we still want to change the subject?

After we were already in the war and had toppled Saddam Hussein, and doubts began to arise about whether Iraq did in fact have weapons of mass destruction, Andrew continued his defense of the enterprise. On October 3, 2003, in the Washington Times, he wrote:

Today’s ubiquitous second-guessers would have us believe that there was an easy alternative to confronting Saddam earlier this year, and deposing him. But there were no good options—and none better than the difficult decision to go to war. President Bush should, in my view, say something similar at some point. I know that any concession with regard to prewar intelligence can lead to the anti-war hysterics piling on and the Democratic opportunists playing clairvoyants. But the point of concession is to say that he took the right decision—even if the intelligence turned out to be flawed—and may have to make a similar decision again. The threat has not gone away.

And a week later, also in the Washington Times, Andrew continued in the same vein, while adding some additional reasons we were still right to go to war:

The casus belli was not proof of Saddam’s existing weapons, but proof of his refusal to cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors or account fully for his WMD research. Nothing we have discovered after the war has debunked or undermined any of these reasons. And the moral reason for getting rid of an unconscionably evil regime has actually gotten stronger now that we see the full extent of his terror-state.

And by late January, 2004, when it was becoming clearer that Saddam did not have the arsenal of weapons of mass destruction all had feared, Andrew continued to remain on board, writing in the Washington Times yet again:

I still believe in the need to take out WMD threats before they take us out. And I don’t buy the argument that you have to have proof of actual ready-to-go weapons in order to take action. All you really need is componentry. And the preliminary Kay report convinced me—and still convinces me—that the war was worthwhile, that Saddam Hussein had been lying, that he couldn’t be trusted, that we had no viable future alternative to war [sanctions were becoming grotesquely immoral and porous] and that the future threat was absolutely real. But—and it’s a big but—we made the case on the existence of actual, operational WMD and stockpiles of the same. We did so publicly, openly, clearly to as big a global audience as we could find. We said: Trust us. We know. But we didn’t. I cannot see how a single ally will support us in future similar circumstances because of that. Certainly, Britain won’t be able to. And I think a large swathe of American public opinion will be more skeptical than ever. It’s not exactly a case of crying wolf. The wolf was there all right. It’s a function of exaggerating a threat. I believe it was an honest mistake.

In April 2004, around the time the Abu-Ghraib story broke, Andrew Sullivan came to have great misgivings about the way the Bush administration was handling the war. He’s been a shrill critic ever since and has expressed his “shame and sorrow” for his initial support of the war.

Some of his criticisms are legitimate. Many of them, expressed in lacerating—sometimes self-lacerating—tones, are not. But when it comes to the basic decision to go to war, Andrew has disavowed his initial position for reasons that hindsight, and only hindsight, can provide.

Given what we knew at the time, going to war was a necessary move. A legitimate debate can be held now about the mistakes made along the way, about the path forward, or about whether and how to exit. But in conducting that debate, let us not erase the past. By all means let us examine the premises that led us into this war. And let us examine exactly who shared those premises and why.

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