Bush’s war on professionals

The president is determined to stop whistle-blowers and the press from halting his administration's illegal, ever-expanding secret government. But it may be too late.

Topics: CIA, Iraq war, John McCain, R-Ariz.,

Bush's war on professionals

New ranges of secret government are emerging from the fog of war. The latest disclosure, by the New York Times, of domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency performed by evasion of the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court surfaces a vast hidden realm. But the NSA spying is not an isolated island of policy; it is connected to the mainland of Bush’s expansive new national security apparatus.

At the beginning of the Cold War, the National Security Act of 1947 authorized the creation of new institutions of foreign policy and intelligence, including the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. But Bush has built a secret system, without enabling legislation, justified by executive fiat and presidential findings alone, deliberately operating beyond the oversight of Congress and the courts, and existing outside the law. It is a national security state of torture, ghost detainees, secret prisons, renditions and domestic eavesdropping.

The arguments used to rationalize this system insist that the president as commander in chief is entitled to arbitrary and unaccountable rule. The memos written by John Yoo, former deputy in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, constitute a basic ideology of absolute power.

Congress, at best, is held in contempt as a pest and, at worst, is regarded as an intruder on the president’s rightful authority. The Republican chairmen of the House Armed Services and Senate Intelligence committees, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, have been models of complicity in fending off oversight, attacking other members of Congress, especially Republicans, who have had the temerity to insist on it, using their committees to help the White House suppress essential information about the operations of government, and issuing tilted partisan reports smearing critics. This is the sort of congressional involvement, at White House direction, that the White House believes fulfills the congressional mandate.

During his first term, President Bush issued an unprecedented 108 statements upon signing bills of legislation that expressed his own version of their content. He has countermanded the legislative history, which legally establishes the foundation of their meaning, by executive diktat. In particular, he has rejected parts of legislation that he considered stepped on his power in national security matters. In effect, Bush engages in presidential nullification of any law he sees fit. He then acts as if his gesture supersedes whatever Congress has done.



Political scientist Phillip Cooper, of Portland State University in Oregon, described this innovative grasp of power in a recent article in the Presidential Studies Quarterly. Bush, he wrote, “has very effectively expanded the scope and character of the signing statement not only to address specific provisions of legislation that the White House wishes to nullify, but also in an effort to significantly reposition and strengthen the powers of the presidency relative to the Congress.” Moreover, these coups de main not only have overwhelmed the other institutions of government but have taken place almost without notice. “This tour de force has been carried out in such a systematic and careful fashion that few in Congress, the media, or the scholarly community are aware that anything has happened at all.”

Not coincidentally, the legal author of this presidential strategy for accreting power was none other than the young Samuel Alito, in 1986 deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Alito’s view on unfettered executive power, many close observers believe, was decisive in Bush’s nomination of him to the Supreme Court.

Last week, when Bush signed the military appropriations bill containing the amendment forbidding torture that he and Vice President Cheney had fought against, he added his own “signing statement” to it. It amounted to a waiver, authorized by him alone, that he could and would disobey this law whenever he chose. He wrote: “The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.” In short, the president, in the name of national security, claiming to protect the country from terrorism, under war powers granted to him by himself, would follow the law to the extent that he decided he would.

Sen. John McCain, the sponsor of the anti-torture legislation, according to sources close to him, says that he has not determined how or when he might respond to Bush’s “signing statement.” McCain wishes to raise other issues, like ghost detainees, and he may wait to see how the administration responds to the new law. However, with responsibility for oversight moved from the Armed Services Committee to the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by White House tool Pat Roberts, McCain and others have no reliable way of knowing whether the administration is complying. Once again, torture policy enters a shadow land.

Bush has responded to the latest exposures of the existence of his new national security apparatus as assaults on the government. It is these revelations, he said, that are “shameful.” The passion he currently exhibits was something he was unable to muster for the exposure by members of his administration of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. But there is a consistency between his absence of fervor in discovering who was behind the outing of Plame and his furor over the reporting of warrantless NSA domestic spying. In the Plame case, the administration officials who spun her name to conservative columnist Robert Novak and others intended to punish and intimidate former ambassador Joseph Wilson for having revealed that a central element of the administration case for the Iraq war was bogus. In the NSA case, Bush is also attempting to crush whistle-blowers.

Bush’s war on professionals has been fought in nearly every department and agency of the government, from intelligence to Interior, from the Justice Department to the Drug Enforcement Administration, in order to suppress contrary analysis on issues from weapons of mass destruction to global warming, from voting rights to the morning-after pill. Without whistle-blowers on the inside, there are no press reports on the outside. The story of Watergate, after all, is not of journalists operating in a vacuum, but is utterly dependent on sources internal to the Nixon administration. “Deep Throat,” Mark Felt, the deputy FBI director, whatever his motives, was a quintessential whistle-blower.

Now Bush’s Justice Department has launched a “leak” probe, complete with prosecutors and grand jury, to investigate the disclosure of the NSA story. It is similarly investigating the Washington Post’s reportage of the administration’s secret prison system for terrorist suspects. The intent is to send a signal to the reporters on this beat that they may be called before grand juries and forced to reveal their sources. (The disastrous failed legal strategy of the New York Times in defending Judy Miller as a Joan of Arc in the Plame case has crucially helped reinforce the precedent.) Within the bowels of government, potential whistle-blowers are being put on notice that they put their careers at risk for speaking to reporters in order to inform the public of what they consider wrongdoing.

“State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” by James Risen, the New York Times reporter who broke the NSA story, offers further evidence of Bush’s war on professionals in the intelligence community than has already been reported in newspapers.

Risen writes that the administration created a secret parallel chain of command to authorize the NSA surveillance program. While the professionals within the Justice Department were cut out, a “small, select group of like-minded conservative lawyers,” such as John Yoo, were brought in to invent legal justifications. To the “small handful on national security law within the government” knowledgeable about the NSA program, the administration’s debating points on the Patriot Act, which stipulates approval of eavesdropping by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, was a charade, a “mockery.” Risen presents more witnesses and adds some episodes to familiar material — the twisting of intelligence and intimidation of professionals both before and after the Iraq war; a national security team commanded by Vice President Cheney in league with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld; and neoconservatives contriving “stovepipe” intelligence operations to funnel disinformation from Ahmad Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles who were their political favorites.

Risen quotes a former top CIA official on Condoleezza Rice: a “very, very weak national security advisor … I think Rice didn’t really manage anything, and will go down as probably the worst national security advisor in history. I think the real national security advisor was Cheney, and so Cheney and Rumsfeld could do what they wanted.”

Then director of the CIA George Tenet appears as an incorrigible courtier, trying to ingratiate himself with anecdotes of derring-do from the clandestine services. Rumsfeld, seeking to concentrate intelligence within the Pentagon, which controls 80 percent of its budget, was not amused. When Tenet told his entertaining James Bond-type stories, Rumsfeld asked him why they were relevant, and in a meeting made a point of humiliating Tenet by upbraiding him for using the F-word in the presence of a female official. A former CIA official who worked closely with Tenet is quoted: “George Tenet liked to talk about how he was a tough Greek from Queens, but in reality, he was a pussy. He just wanted people to like him.”

While Rumsfeld was trampling Tenet, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Deputy Undersecretary Douglas Feith, the Laurel and Hardy of neoconservatism, set up the Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group, “to sift through raw intelligence reports, searching for ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.” CIA analysts were under unrelenting pressure to accept Chalabi’s disinformation at face value. “They sent us that message a thousand times, in a thousand different ways,” said one former senior CIA official. Tenet did nothing to halt the stream of pollution.

Risen reports that in April 2002, in a secret meeting in Rome, CIA case officers in Europe were told by the CIA’s newly fortified Iraq Operations Group they had to get on the bandwagon for an Iraq war. “They said this was on Bush’s agenda when he got elected, and that 9/11 only delayed it,” one CIA officer who attended the conference is quoted as saying. “They implied that 9/11 was a distraction from Iraq.”

Cheney not only intervened personally in attempting to force CIA analysts to rubber-stamp Chalabi’s disinformation, Risen writes, but also directly interfered in CIA field operations. When the Netherlands declined to permit the CIA to attempt to recruit an Iraqi official there as an intelligence asset, Cheney called the prime minister of Netherlands to demand his approval, but was rebuffed.

Startlingly, Risen reports that on the eve of war, the CIA knew the U.S. had no proof of weapons of mass destruction, the casus belli, the justification for preemptive attack. The agency had recruited an Arab-American woman living in Cleveland, Dr. Sawsan Alhaddad, as a secret agent to travel to Baghdad to spy on her brother, Saad Tawfiq, an electrical engineer supposedly at the center of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. Once there, she won his trust and he confided there was no program. He urged her to carry the message back to the CIA. Upon her return, she was debriefed and the CIA filed the report in a black hole. It turned out that she was one of some 30 Iraqis who had been recruited to travel to Iraq to contact weapons experts there. Risen writes, “All of them  had said the same thing. They all reported to the CIA that the scientists had said that Iraq’s programs to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons had long since been abandoned.”

Not willing to contradict the administration line, CIA officials withheld this information from the National Intelligence Estimate issued a month after Alhaddad’s visit to Baghdad. The NIE stated conclusively that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program.” Risen writes: “From his home in Baghdad in February 2003, Saad Tawfiq watched Secretary of State Colin Powell’s televised presentation to the United Nations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. As Powell dramatically built the American case for war, Saad sank further and further into frustration and despair. They didn’t listen. I told them there were no weapons.”

When CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin raised questions about the fabled aluminum tubes that were supposedly a critical element of Saddam’s nuclear program, Tenet waved McLaughlin’s doubt aside. Skepticism was banished. When David Kay, chief of the Iraq Survey Group, discovered there were no WMD, he met with the ever-faithful Tenet, who told him: “I don’t care what you say. You will never convince me they didn’t have chemical weapons.”

After the war, efforts within the CIA to dispel illusion and acknowledge reality in Iraq met with punishment. In November 2003, the CIA station chief in Baghdad submitted what is internally called an “aardwolf,” a formal report on country conditions. “It pulled no punches in detailing how the new insurgency was gaining strength from the political and economic vacuum that the United States had allowed to develop in Baghdad,” writes Risen. For his honesty, the station chief was subjected to “inflammatory accusations about his personal behavior, all of which he flatly denied,” and “quit the CIA in disgust.” The destruction of his career led other CIA officers to hedge their reports, especially on Chalabi. The new station chief, in an “aardwolf” in late 2004, described the lethal conditions on the ground, and as a reward “his political allegiances were quickly questioned by the White House.” Reality remained unwelcome.

Risen’s book is one of a small and growing library that contains the strangulated, usually anonymous cries of professionals. No doubt there will be other volumes to fill in more spaces and reveal yet new stories of the mangling of policy in the interest of ideology.

By counterattacking against whistle-blowers and the press, Bush is rushing to protect the edifice he has created. He acts as if the exposure of one part threatens the whole. His frantic defense suggests that very little of it can bear scrutiny.

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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