In President Bush's State of the Union address, national security was a core theme, and with good reason: Recent polls show Bush enjoys far more popular support for his aggressive foreign policy and terror-fighting tactics than on domestic issues. Undoubtedly, the president's reelection campaign will tout two swift, decisive military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, and argue the homeland is more secure since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But for almost a year, the White House has been quietly fighting a contentious battle at home on the national security front -- against the U.S. intelligence community itself. Vocal retired intelligence officials, and anonymous active ones, have protested repeatedly that the White House has coerced intelligence agencies to rig findings and analysis to suit administration aims. An egregious example: The long-held goal of removing Saddam Hussein from power, by unilateral war if necessary. The consequences of such White House intimidation could be disastrous, the intelligence veterans say, with the integrity of their work -- and national security -- put at grave risk.
The latest salvo was launched this week when a group of respected former CIA officials, led by decorated analyst Larry C. Johnson, sent a letter to Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert demanding that Congress hold the White House accountable for deliberately revealing the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame. Johnson, who also served as deputy director for the State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism, says the administration's political tactics are clear. "With this White House, I see an outright pattern of bullying," he told Salon in an interview Thursday. "We've seen it across different agencies, a pattern of going after anybody who's a critic. When people raise legitimate issues that may not be consistent with existing administration policy, those people are attacked and their character is impugned."
Indeed, the clash between an increasingly vocal faction of veteran spooks and a heavy-handed Bush administration exploded into unprecedented open revolt in July of last year, after former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson exposed the administration's flagrant misuse of intelligence to promote the invasion of Iraq. In a seemingly vindictive reprisal, the administration leaked the identity of Plame, Wilson's wife, to conservative columnist Robert Novak and other journalists.
Perhaps indicative of just how deep the conflict runs, Johnson has particularly harsh words for a normally tough-talking president who stands by while "the most sensitive security assets of the United States" are compromised. Such behavior, he says, ultimately amounts to treason. "When you expose clandestine human intelligence sources," he fumes, "you aid and abet terrorists." Johnson speaks out not as a partisan opponent to the president, but as a registered Republican who has given money to Bush in the past.
Salon reached Johnson, who now runs a private consulting firm, by phone at his office in Washington.
The investigation into the Valerie Plame case has been ongoing since late July. Why are you sending this letter to the Congress now, and what's your central concern?
Our central concern is this: If the attention is left focused exclusively on the Department of Justice investigation, the White House and everyone else is missing the point. I think the FBI is doing a good job, but they're looking for evidence of a criminal activity. What we know happened is that there was a deliberate compromise of a clandestine officer's identity. What needs to happen, and what we've asked for to happen in the letter, is that there be a bipartisan investigation into this matter, and a bipartisan call for appropriate action to be taken.
We don't say this in the letter, but what would be ideal is for President Bush to call his senior staff in and ask for the resignation of the person who did this, and have that person apologize. At the end of the day I think it's going to be very difficult to get a conviction, or even an indictment, because the nature of the law is such that you have to demonstrate knowledge and intent [to willfully expose an undercover CIA operative]. That's going to be difficult to do.
Instead of getting people bent around arcane legal arguments, we need to focus on the actual act -- exactly what happened and how. So far we've only seen inaction at the White House on this.
How are congressional leaders responding to your letter, and how will it affect the ongoing struggle between the intelligence community and the Bush White House?
I've been told that even a number of Republican members want to sign on to the efforts launched by Rep. Rush Holt [D-N.J.], who's a former intelligence analyst at the State Department -- but they're saying "If we do, Dennis Hastert is going to have our ass." So, clearly the intimidation and the fear factor continues.
I believe there are some Republicans out there who recognize that this is wrong, who recognize they need to take a stand against it. To allow the partisanship to go on ... you know, sometimes it's like dealing with a bunch of 3-year-old kids: Everyone's arguing over who hit who last. This investigation gives the Democrats a great chance to take the high road -- though they've played the partisan card in the past, too. But both parties should get over it and do the right thing. They should stop worrying about whether they're Republican or Democrat, and start worrying about what's best for America.
What does the Valerie Plame leak say about the Bush administration's paradigm for national security policy?
You know, President Bush has often emphasized security his most important issue. But when you have people in your administration who compromise the most sensitive security assets of the United States, that makes the administration's agenda look pretty ridiculous in my view. And I say that as a registered Republican, and as someone who's given Bush money in the past.
Secondly, the Bush administration puts a lot of emphasis on fighting terrorism as a war, not as a criminal act, therefore the idea is you fight the war on terrorism without having to worry about criminal statutes. Well, that seems to apply as long as it doesn't affect someone in their own administration.
In my view, this administration is actually involved with aiding and abetting terrorists -- because when you expose clandestine human intelligence sources, you aid and abet terrorists.
Since Attorney General John Ashcroft has recused himself from the Plame investigation, are you comfortable that the Department of Justice is doing an adequate job with the case?
It's only one part of the puzzle. I think that for its part the Department of Justice is probably on target, particularly with Ashcroft stepping aside. But what I fear here is that they'll come back and say, "We couldn't find evidence of a crime, and therefore no crime was committed." But it's not the legal statute that should be the standard here -- it's the moral statute that should be the standard, because it's U.S. national security and the lives of intelligence personnel that are at risk.
Congresswoman Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, recently called the U.S. intelligence system under the Bush administration "a mess." Do you agree with that, and with her call for a major overhaul?
There are some real deep-seated problems throughout the intelligence community. They're not caused by any one thing, but one thing I'm certain of is that it's not a matter of not having enough resources, or not being large enough. In fact, in some aspects the intelligence community is too large and has too many agencies which are duplicating functions. So there is clearly a need for reorganization and refocusing.
Accountability is also a problem within these huge bureaucracies. Here's one quick example: The individual at CIA who was blamed for the wrong targeting information that led to the attack on the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslav Republic several years back [NATO air strikes mistakenly hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999], was actually the same person who raised concerns that the targeting information was wrong. But that analyst's senior managers ignored him.
How much of that kind of problem is due to political pressure, either back then or now?
Political pressures have always been there and will always be there. The key is for the intelligence agencies to maintain a focus on what their mission is, which is not to be politically popular downtown, but to be an honest broker. Being an honest broker means you have to bring bad news to the powerful.
Has the Bush White House created a political environment where intelligence officers can no longer do that at all?
Well, they're doing what others have done. But it's as bad in this administration as it was probably during the Johnson administration, where you had pressures to shade intelligence, to misrepresent intelligence. An overall politicization of it, with an agenda for going to war.
In addition, you have now what appear on the surface to be some huge, huge intelligence failures, and it's not clear where those failures originated.
What are you hearing from your colleagues still active in the intelligence community now in terms of morale and their ability to do their jobs?
The morale is not good. There are a lot of people expressing a lot of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. But meanwhile, when you've got kids who are about to go to college ... who wants to put their job at risk by confronting the situation?
There has to be better accountability. You have to have an agency that has enough independence, and yet enough internal self-control, where they reward excellence and punish mediocrity. The CIA has tended to reward mediocrity, and at the same time bow to White House pressure and not take a strong enough stand. But look, this is nothing new. There's always going to be political pressure on the intelligence system; it's happened under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
But why does the intelligence community appear increasingly to be in open revolt against the White House? If the political pressures are nothing new, why the unprecedented degree of protest?
Put it this way, with this White House, I see an outright pattern of bullying: Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, warned that the U.S. was going to need several hundred thousand troops in Iraq, and he's attacked for that, and basically told that he doesn't know what he's talking about -- and he's fired essentially a year before he's out of that job. When it's time for him to retire, not a single senior representative of the Department of Defense or White House leadership is there for his retirement. Then there was Thomas White, the secretary of the Army who was forced out. There was a senior CIA analyst by the name of Fulton Armstrong who was attacked, using leaks to the press, which alleged that he was disloyal and somehow under the influence of the Cuban government. There was a prosecutor [ousted from] the Department of Justice who had warned that John Walker Lindh's father had hired a lawyer and that [the DOJ] needed to consider the Miranda rights.
So what we've seen is a repeated pattern across different agencies, all with the apparent sanction of the White House, of going after anybody who's a critic, or who's seen as not being in tune with the administration's message. When people raise legitimate issues that may not be consistent with existing policy, instead of conducting a fair intellectual assessment of those issues, those people are attacked and their character is impugned.
Recent polls show that Bush has strong public support on the issue of national security; it will undoubtedly be a major theme of his reelection campaign. How do you currently rate the president's national security policy?
They talk it up well, but their actions are very inconsistent. In spite of that, I do think that overall we're in a better security situation now than before 9/11. But look, they've allowed the outing of a clandestine CIA operative to go unpunished. That affects the ability to collect human intelligence, which is crucial.
And they still haven't solved the problem of who's in charge of security. You have the FBI doing its thing, and the CIA, and now we've got this huge Department of Homeland Security. But one question we ought to be asking is, who's in charge of finding Osama bin Laden? If everybody's in charge, that means nobody's in charge.
I think there's still a big problem with a lack of coordination and sharing of information. Failures to effectively use our existing intelligence resources -- failures which evidently existed before 9/11 -- have reemerged. And now decisions are being made with an eye toward the politics of the election, and not on what actually needs to be done.
Moreover, the war on Iraq was a complete diversion from the war on terrorism. The Bush administration continues to tout that it was central to the war on terrorism, but that's just flat out wrong. They can keep saying that, they can keep claiming every day that the moon is made of green cheese, but just saying it doesn't make it true. The fact of the matter is, the terrorist threat we face, the one that causes the greatest danger to U.S. citizens, is from Muslim extremists. Up until we invaded, Iraq remained one of the most secular countries in the Middle East. We've now managed to take that country and set it on a road that could easily lead toward Muslim extremism.
If that's a success in the war on terrorism, I don't get it.