The most recent angle of attack on President Bush’s nomination of John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations speaks volumes about the culture of America’s intelligence community, and how dismayingly difficult it will be to change its implacable dysfunction.
Where’s the Beef?
The New York Times reported on Sunday on a series of e-mails exchanged between Bolton’s staff and State Department intelligence analysts. The timeframe was early 2002, when Bolton was an undersecretary of State preparing to take an aggressive line with Cuba on biological weapons. The e-mails–internal State Department records that were “provided” (i.e., leaked) to the Times by a “Congressional official,” and thus become the latest fodder in the mounting innuendo attack on Bolton’s nomination–indicate real tension between policymakers and the intelligence community about how hard Fidel Castro’s regime should be pushed.
Bolton did not write any of the e-mails at issue, although they are said to be new evidence of a certain unseemliness in his “temperament and tactics”–which is a curious reason for the media and high public officials, of all people, to be fretting over his fitness. The most intriguing thing about the correspondence, however, is that it is all about process and nothing about substance.
Bolton is said to have been animated by “some highly classified intelligence reports” which showed that Cuba–a Communist tyranny 90 miles from our shores with a long history of abetting terrorist insurgencies–was making efforts to obtain biological weapons. Relying on this information, he wanted to speak out publicly and assertively–it having been Bush-administration policy, particularly in those months right after the 9/11 attacks, to confront rogue regimes that supported terror or trafficked in weapons of mass destruction.
Nowhere does the Times report that the temperamental and tactical Bolton was actually wrong about all this. More significantly, nowhere do the leaked e-mails from State’s intelligence analysts appear to contend that Bolton was wrong. What problem, then, stemmed from Bolton’s outrageous tactic of challenging the intelligence community to vet more aggressive language? Apparently, it risked upsetting the community’s “consensus.”
Christian P. Westermann, described as “the State Department’s top expert on biological weapons,” proposed that Bolton instead use “language that reiterated existing, consensus assessments by American intelligence agencies”–namely, State’s own intelligence bureau (the Bureau of Intelligence and Research), the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the CIA. As anyone familiar with consensus arrangements among bureaucracies can attest, such viewpoints tend to be a lowest common denominator: risk-averse, unprovocative, and general to the point of mush.
The existence of a consensus does not mean a more pointed critique would be inaccurate or unjustified. Far from it. A consensus calling for platitudinous tut-tutting would not, for example, prevent history from fondly remembering Mr. Gorbachev’s being told he was running an “evil empire” or to “tear down this wall.” Rather, alternative views are frowned on because they upset the intelligence community’s centralized, groupthinking apple cart.
Wimps in High Places?
Shaking such an amalgam of bureaucracies out of its sclerosis is, as Bolton’s staff appears to have found, a task more Sisyphean than reining in Castro ever could have been. Some seven months later–in an e-mail the Times implies, but does not establish, had something to do with the prior Cuba dust-up–Westermann complained to his boss about the “personal attacks, harassment and impugning of my integrity” that were “now affecting my work, my health and dedication to public service.” Naturally, we are not told what these “personal attacks,” “harassment” and “impugning” consisted of. The Times evidently looked at seven months worth of e-mail and, so far, the best it can come up with is that Westermann’s assessment of Cuba’s bioweapons program was challenged and that the wimpy consensus language he proposed was described as, well, “wimpy” in private correspondence written by a Bolton staffer to Bolton.
Public service–at least when it’s being done right–involves a lot of debating and disputing, sometimes with people one doesn’t necessarily like personally, sometimes with those one admires but believes to be profoundly wrong on some issue or another. When the stakes are high, as they are in national security, disagreements can get downright heated. Why sometimes, on the self-consciously authentic television drama, The West Wing, Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlett character has even been known to snap at the beloved press-secretary character, C. J. Craig–much as an actual president, Bill Clinton, reputed to have a meteoric temper, was once reported to have snapped at HUD Secretary Donna Shalala for criticizing his indiscretions, or as another media favorite, Senator John McCain, snapped at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during hearings on the Abu Ghraib scandal. Or as judges cut holes in prosecutors over this or that dispute in a big trial (and even in not-so-big trials).
Even the thin-skinned among us who’ve been through this sort of thing bear the resulting battle scars proudly. It is an unavoidable part of what truly is the privilege of serving the public in matters of importance. It is not the usual thing for an aggrieved official to assume an effete drama-queen pose and pine about whether he still has the strength to carry on.
If one did such a thing, moreover, the reaction of the boss would quite likely be to hand him a hanky and say “don’t let the door hit you in the behind,” because it means he doesn’t have the constitution for the rough-and-tumble that goes with the territory in this kind of work. It would not likely be the reaction of Thomas Fingar (the number-two official in State’s intelligence bureau), who is said to have put in writing that he was “dismayed and disgusted that unwarranted personal attacks [were] affecting [Westermann] in this way.”
Maybe there’s more to the story. Maybe we’ll find out there really was something to be dismayed and disgusted about. But if all there was is what the Times has sketched out in this article, that’s pathetic–and would give us a lot more reason to be alarmed about the temperament of the State Department’s intelligence bureau than about Bolton.
More to the point, though, one has to ask: Why do we bother to have extraordinarily expensive, high-profile investigative panels like the 9/11 Commission and the Silberman-Robb Commission if we are going to get hysterical over episodes that actually confirm their findings? The 9/11 Commission said the intelligence community failed the nation prior to the attacks because of risk-aversion and groupthink–the very traits that ooze from Westermann’s posturing with Bolton. Silberman-Robb was even more blunt:
The intelligence community needs to be pushed. It will not do its best unless it is pressed by policy-makers–sometimes to the point of discomfort. Analysts must be pressed to explain how much they don’t know; the collection agencies must be pressed to explain why they don’t have better information on key topics. While policy-makers must be prepared to credit intelligence that doesn’t fit their preferences, no important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment and what alternatives might also be true. This is not “politicization”; it is a necessary part of the intelligence process.
The Times story indicates that Bolton was doing precisely what policymakers ought to be doing. For that, his critics would hold him unfit. What does that say about his critics? And what, more critically, does it say about the prospects of improving the performance of American intelligence if, when dysfunction is pitted against challenge, dysfunction wins.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.