Right Hook

Beating back a CIA "insurgency" against Bush, Novak and the Wall Street Journal get ugly. Plus: O'Reilly's love-in on Letterman. And: Will Fox fire chief correspondent over fake story?


Mark Follman
October 8, 2004 3:53AM (UTC)

Evidence continues to pile up against the Bush administration proving that it took the nation to war in Iraq while fully aware that the U.S. intelligence community had serious doubts about Saddam Hussein's WMD capabilities. And recent intelligence reports throw further into question the White House's assertion, reiterated yet again by Dick Cheney during Tuesday's vice presidential debate, that the Iraqi dictator "clearly" had "an established track record" of working with Islamic terrorist groups.

By manipulating intelligence to an unprecedented degree, the Bush White House long ago sparked a war with the nation's own intelligence agencies. A top expert on the U.S. spy system went as far as labeling the administration's extraordinary grip on clandestine operations "a temporary coup." The battle rages on ever more publicly today -- anonymously leaked reports are now the norm -- as the administration continues to dead-drop the blame for intelligence "failures" on the doorstep of the CIA.

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But you wouldn't have gotten a sense of any of this if you'd read Robert Novak's breathless column in the Chicago Sun-Times last week. The Beltway commentator, who has helped the White House mete out retribution against CIA personnel and put an absurd campaign spin on national security, is leading a right-wing rally to defend the administration in a "shocking" struggle against whistle-blowing spooks.

"A few hours after George W. Bush dismissed a pessimistic CIA report on Iraq as 'just guessing,' the analyst who identified himself as its author told a private dinner last week of secret, unheeded warnings years ago about going to war in Iraq. This exchange leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the president of the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency are at war with each other...

"For President Bush to publicly write off a CIA paper as just guessing is without precedent. For the agency to go semi-public is not only unprecedented but shocking. George Tenet's retirement as director of Central Intelligence removed the buffer between president and agency. As the new DCI, Porter Goss inherits an extraordinarily sensitive situation."

Novak compared CIA officials who speak out against the president to Nazis and Islamic terrorists.

"Modern history is filled with intelligence bureaus turning against their own governments, for good or ill. In the final days of World War II, the German Abwehr conspired against Hitler. More recently, Pakistani intelligence was plotting with Muslim terrorists. The CIA is a long way from those extremes, but it is supposed to be a resource -- not a critic -- for the president."

Paul R. Pillar, the active senior CIA official who disclosed the Iraq report on background -- and whom Novak identified in his column -- took a similar beating, along with "large swaths" of the agency, on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

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"Congratulations to Porter Goss for being confirmed last week as the new Director of Central Intelligence. We hope he appreciates that he now has two insurgencies to defeat: the one that the CIA is struggling to help put down in Iraq, and the other inside Langley against the Bush Administration.

"We wish we were exaggerating. It's become obvious over the past couple of years that large swaths of the CIA oppose U.S. anti-terror policy, especially toward Iraq. But rather than keep this dispute in-house, the dissenters have taken their objections to the public, albeit usually through calculated and anonymous leaks that are always spun to make the agency look good and the Bush Administration look bad ... [The latest] highly selective leak was conveniently timed for two days before the Presidential debate.

"This follows [former U.S. Ambassador] Joe Wilson, whose CIA-employee wife nominated the anti-Bush partisan to assess intelligence on Iraq. Then there's the book by 'Anonymous,' a current CIA employee who has been appearing everywhere to trash U.S. policy, with the approval of agency higher-ups. And now we have one Paul R. Pillar, who has broken his own cover as the author of a classified National Intelligence Estimate this summer outlining pessimistic possibilities for the future of Iraq."

(Never mind that much of Anonymous' book is fervently hawkish on terrorism and that some CIA "higher-ups" reportedly tried to block its publication.) Citing some anonymous information of its own, the Journal further argued that the ominous prediction found in the 2003 memo on Iraq was not a key finding, but rather an "after-thought sentence" at the end of the report. And it recommends that Goss stifle any future dissent inside the agency.

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"Our point here isn't to assail everyone at the CIA, which includes thousands of patriots doing their best to protect America. But clearly at senior rungs of the agency there is a culture that has deep policy attachments that have been offended by Mr. Bush, and these officials want him defeated. American voters need to understand this amid this election season. As for Mr. Goss, his task is to tell the Pillars of Langley to shut up -- or quit and run for office themselves."

John B. Roberts, who writes about national security issues and who served in the Reagan White House, got in on the act in the Washington Times.

"When the president cannot trust his own CIA, the nation faces dire consequences. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak's revelations this week that CIA officer Paul R. Pillar is actively undermining President Bush fail to portray the depth of animosity between factions within the CIA and the White House."

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And if Novak, in Roberts' view, failed to see the scope of the dispute -- perhaps the Journal got the "pre-presidential debate" timing of the leak wrong.

"The NIE [leaked by Pillar] is a gloomy assessment of the prospects for Iraq's stability. The timing of the leak just before Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Washington visit and Mr. Bush's U.N. General Assembly speech was intended to undermine both leaders."

Still, he went after Pillar personally as well -- including putting 9/11 on Pillar's "watch."

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"The full dossier on Mr. Pillar raises disturbing questions regarding the National Intelligence Council's decision to rely on him as principal author of the NIE on Iraq. Mr. Pillar is a longstanding intellectual opponent of the policy options chosen by President Bush to fight terrorism...

"September 11 was the CIA's most spectacular failure. It happened on Mr. Pillar's watch. Afterward, he was reassigned to the National Intelligence Council. (At times since September 11, Mr. Pillar has served on assignment to the Counterterrorism Center.) At the CIA, a transfer from an operational unit to an analyst's desk is a de facto demotion."

In the end though, Roberts was willing to acknowledge the seriousness of the long-running internal intelligence war, one that is not strictly partisan.

"Senior officials within the CIA are subverting Mr. Bush politically. In conversations I have had with senior CIA officials over the past two years, the tone has grown increasingly acerbic. I was in Switzerland and spoke with a veteran CIA officer when the furor over Valerie Plame's blown cover broke. The officer, a longtime Republican, denounced the White House for a 'vindictive' leak. Long before Anonymous published 'Imperial Hubris,' CIA officials I spoke with called the White House 'arrogant' and 'hubristic.'

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"This breach between the White House and CIA is dangerous. When there is mistrust between an intelligence agency and the political leadership, the peril is immense."

Can't we all just get along?
Reigning king of the Fox News Channel Bill O'Reilly appeared on "The Late Show" with David Letterman on Wednesday night to plug his new book, "The O'Reilly Factor for Kids." (Salon has yet to obtain a copy, but we're wondering if he addresses his young readers with "Zip it!" instead of "Shut up!") Discussing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack ads against John Kerry, O'Reilly agreed with Dave that it was "nonsense" to "assail the record" of anyone who fought in Vietnam.

Indeed, stepping outside the no-spin zone apparently lets O'Reilly take the high road on the down-and-dirty presidential race. "I really believe both of these guys want the best for their country, I really want to emphasize that," he told Dave. "We have too much of this hatred going on. Really. It's bad."

Maybe O'Reilly could offer some words of advice to his Fox colleague "Campaign" Carl Cameron, who published a nasty-minded little story about John Kerry's alleged beauty-salon preferences on the Fox News Web site last week. In fact, the story was a fake, and now there's a movement afoot to get Cameron fired by the network.

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While there's no indication that will happen, the folks over at the Kerry campaign are pleased that Fox has at least apologized for Cameron's less-than-glamorous behavior. And with respect to the Bush campaign, they even see a silver lining in Cameron's faux pas.

"Fox is doing the right thing by admitting its mistake and correcting the record," Phil Singer, a Kerry spokesman, told the New York Times. "George Bush would be well served to heed the lesson and admit to his own mistakes."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

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Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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