Add to the list of President George W. Bush’s failures his inability to straighten out what he regarded as one of the top national security needs, a more effective U.S. intelligence community.
Despite upping the U.S. intelligence budget to $45 billion from about $30 billion – and signing legislation in 2005 meant to end “turf” battles – Bush left behind an intelligence community suffering from poor communications among agencies and a flawed management structure, according to an inspector general’s report finished in November and released last week.
Instead of creating a streamlined and efficient intelligence community, the changes that Bush oversaw appear simply to have added a new layer of bureaucracy – the Director of National Intelligence – on top of the earlier system whose shortcomings contributed to intelligence failures around the 9/11 attacks and the bogus assessments on Iraq’s WMD stockpiles.
The findings of the DNI’s inspector general also undercut former Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertions that the Bush administration made great strides in keeping the country safe from terrorist attacks and that President Barack Obama’s reversal of some key policies has put the nation at risk.
In a March 15 interview with CNN’s John King, Cheney said Obama had made the country less safe by moving to close the Guantanamo prison, shuttering CIA “black sites” where detainees were interrogated, limiting CIA interrogators to tactics from the Army Field Manual, defining waterboarding as torture, suspending the military commissions, and junking the “war on terror” concept.
“I think those programs were absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect the intelligence that let us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11,” Cheney said. “President Obama campaigned against it all across the country. And now he is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack.”
Cheney also criticized Obama for shifting back to the law-enforcement paradigm from the framework of waging a global “war,” which President Bush embraced after 9/11.
“I think part of the difficulty here as I look at what the Obama administration is doing, we made a decision after 9/11 that I think was crucial. We said this is a war. It’s not a law-enforcement problem. Up until 9/11, it was treated as a law-enforcement problem. ...
“Once you go into a wartime situation and it’s a strategic threat, then you use all of your assets to go after the enemy. You go after the state sponsors of terror, places where they’ve got sanctuary. You use your intelligence resources, your military resources, your financial resources, everything you can in order to shut down that terrorist threat against you.
“When you go back to the law-enforcement mode, which I sense is what they’re doing, closing Guantanamo and so forth, that they are very much giving up that center of attention and focus that’s required, and that concept of military threat that is essential if you’re going to successfully defend the nation against further attacks.”
Cheney also insisted that there exists a classified report listing all the planned terrorist attacks that were supposedly thwarted by extracting information from al-Qaeda and other “war on terror” suspects through “enhanced interrogation techniques" and from other intelligence gathering.
“John, I’ve seen a report that was written based upon the intelligence that we collected then that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through those programs.” Cheney said. “It’s still classified. I can’t give you the details of it without violating classification, but I can say there were a great many of them.”
However, the November 2008 inspector general’s report to the Director of National Intelligence indicates that while the Bush-Cheney administration pursued its aggressive tactics – torturing suspects, putting warrantless wiretaps on Americans, invading Iraq and creating an imperial presidency – it was ignoring the nuts and bolts of improving U.S. intelligence.
For instance, the IG report found that computer systems supposedly connecting the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies remain “largely disconnected and incompatible.” The “turf” battles also continue, with “few, if any, consequences for failure to collaborate,” the report said.
The IG also concluded that the DNI spends too much time briefing the President rather than managing the intelligence bureaucracy – and that officials inside the DNI still grapple with what their role is supposed to be.
Also implicit in the report is vindication for critics of the 9/11 Commission who questioned whether the creation of the new DNI post – as the commission recommended – would do much to address the politicization of the U.S. intelligence community, which lost its old commitment to objective analysis under the ideological and political pressures of the 1980s and 1990s.
In earlier days, the U.S. intelligence ethos was to provide objective information to the policymakers with “the bark on.” However, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency – and especially under the reign of CIA Director Bill Casey and his deputy Robert Gates – that traditional ethos was broken down, replaced by a more compliant, finger-to-the-wind style of analysis.
For instance, when the Reagan administration wanted to justify major increases in military spending in the 1980s, Casey and Gates purged the CIA’s Moscow specialists who were detecting dramatic signs of Soviet decline and promoted more malleable analysts who were willing to issue alarmist projections about Soviet capabilities and intent.
The politicization worked so well that the CIA’s Soviet division largely “missed” the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
In 1993, when President Bill Clinton ignored this cultural change at the CIA – indeed he deepened it by treating the CIA directorship as something of a patronage plum to be awarded to Democratic neoconservatives who wanted the job for their favorite James Woolsey – the Casey-Gates politicization became institutionalized.
So, it was not surprising that when Clinton left office in 2001, George W. Bush inherited as CIA director George Tenet, a back-slapping former congressional aide who had risen through the ranks on Capitol Hill by serving the needs of his political mentors.
Though Tenet did press on President Bush the growing threat from al-Qaeda – especially in the President's Daily Brief entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” – the CIA director also was careful not to wear out his welcome by confronting Bush too directly.
After failing to thwart the 9/11 attacks, Tenet was so thankful to Bush for not firing him that Tenet helpfully promoted false and dubious intelligence to justify Bush’s desire to invade Iraq, famously telling Bush that the Iraq-WMD case was a “slam dunk.”
Despite these two intelligence disasters, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission operated within its own narrow concept of what was politically acceptable, meaning that it couldn’t very easily decry the politicization that Ronald Reagan molded and Bill Clinton hardened.
Instead, the commission recommended putting a new bureaucratic box on top of the old flow chart. After all, addressing an institutional culture – in this case, politicization – is much tougher. It would have required rehabilitating many old CIA hands who refused to go with the flow and removing the younger generation which had learned how to play ball.
So, the post of DNI was born, essentially replacing the CIA director as the head of the U.S. intelligence community. But the quality of U.S. intelligence will improve only if analysts are committed to telling the truth rather than saying what politicians want to hear.
And the first major attempt by President Obama’s DNI, Dennis Blair, to select a top analyst who didn’t fear speaking truth to power ended up with that choice, former U.S. Ambassador Charles “Chas” Freeman, effectively being blackballed by the Israel Lobby and its many supporters in the Washington press corps and on Capitol Hill.
However, as the inspector general’s report makes clear, the U.S. intelligence community needs more than just a bureaucratic reshuffling – or reliance on dubious Bush-Cheney methods – to protect the nation. There must be a serious commitment to doing the job right.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on April 7, 2009.