For the highly disciplined George W. Bush team, loyalty to the president — and that he exhibits towards his subordinates — has been more than a priority; to outsiders, it has often seemed an obsession. It came as a shock, then, to many Bush-watchers when the administration made the mistake of trying to appease critics of its war with Saddam Hussein by calling the inclusion of a reference to British intelligence findings in the 2003 State of the Union address a “mistake.” The predictable result was to precipitate a hardy perennial of Washington politics: the circular firing squad.
First, the vitriol was directed at CIA Director George Tenet. He was blamed for not objecting to the president uttering 16 words about London’s reports that the Iraqi dictator had sought to purchase more uranium from Niger (which had supplied Saddam with some 270 tons of the stuff in the 1980s). Tenet initially responded to public criticism from President Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice by issuing a public mea culpa, assuming responsibility for the error.
Within hours, however, the CIA struck back. Press reports were suddenly filled with leaks to the effect that the director had, indeed, objected to similar language being used in a previous speech in Cincinnati. The inference was rapidly drawn that Bush-administration policymakers had deliberately distorted and misused intelligence to puff-up the Iraqi threat.
In succeeding days, claims and counter-claims were made about what the president knew and when he knew it. His political adversaries — notably, the Democratic presidential aspirants — were emboldened to issue dark warnings of presidential misconduct, or worse. Calls for congressional investigations multiplied, even among a few Republicans.
Then Tenet appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee in closed session. In short order, portions of the classified hearing’s contents were disclosed. Illinois Senator Richard Durbin announced that the director of Central Intelligence had told the committee that the CIA actually had objected to inclusion of the controversial language in the run-up to the State of the Union address, but that an unnamed White House official had insisted it be included.
Within a news cycle or two, anonymous congressional and administration sources attached a name to that inflammatory charge: Ambassador Robert Joseph, a special assistant to the president with responsibility for counter-proliferation matters on the National Security Council staff.
I have known Bob Joseph for roughly 20 years. He is one of the most outstanding public servants of his generation, a man who brings to his present responsibilities a formidable academic background and a wealth of expertise born of two decades of service at NATO, in the Defense Department and on sensitive diplomatic missions.
Few officials in any administration have demonstrated a better grasp of the evolving security problems confronting this country (particular, although not exclusively, those associated with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their ballistic missile and other delivery systems). Fewer still have proven more creative, realistic, and determined in addressing them.
Joseph’s convictions and abilities have served George W. Bush well over the past two-and-a-half years and, it appears, earned him the president’s confidence. They have, moreover, been all the more noteworthy by comparison with the uneven quality of other members of the NSC staff — most of whom are detailees from the State Department and CIA with little, if any, commitment to this president. Typically, they share an understandable desire to curry favor with the agencies to whom they will ultimately return and whence come their annual fitness reports. (A case in point is ex-CIA man Rand Beers, who recently departed the National Security Council and, in a blaze of anti-Bush publicity, joined Democratic Senator John Kerry’s campaign.)
It should come as no surprise that bureaucracies that are hostile to President Bush have taken a dim view of Joseph and others who have proven so effective in helping him to articulate and advance his Reaganesque philosophy of international peace through American strength. Neither should anyone be surprised that the NSC counter-proliferation chief’s foes would try to take him out, or at least diminish his authority, by making him a scapegoat for the present controversy.
Fortunately, Bob Joseph’s integrity, professionalism, and outstanding service to his country and to this president are such that we can feel confident that any help he provided to the preparation of the State of the Union address was fully consistent with the NSC’s responsibility for making sure that presidential statements are factually correct and consistent with administration policy. Despite much blather to the contrary, that was certainly true of the 16-word statement (as Cliff May convincingly demonstrated recently in “Scandal!“)
The CIA’s efforts to make Joseph the fall guy for the present imbroglio should fail — for the aforementioned and many other reasons. Joseph’s name should be cleared and his considerable contribution to the national security should be able to continue undiminished for year’s to come.
— Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy.