A test of cognitive dissonance

If Bolton is confirmed, it will be because senators believe that the evidence making him unfit for the U.N. job, unearthed at their own hearings, is false.

Published April 14, 2005 7:14PM (EDT)

Once again, President Bush is conducting a grand experiment in cognitive dissonance, testing whether his asserted "truths" can prevail over new and obvious facts. This psychological phenomenon was first defined by sociologist Leon Festinger and a team of social scientists in 1957 who studied the behavior of members of a UFO cult under duress when aliens failed to land on Earth as predicted. Some in the cult dropped out when the announced deadline came and went; others redoubled their conviction in the face of disconfirming evidence.

Bush's latest experiment involves his appointment of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. The cognitive dissonance being tested goes beyond the nominee's oft-stated contempt for the United Nations, and extends to his blatant efforts to twist intelligence. Bush's guinea pigs are the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, as always, the American people.

On Tuesday, John Negroponte, nominated as the first director of national intelligence, pledged in his confirmation hearings before the Senate intelligence committee that he would attempt to ensure reliable information, unlike that provided in the run-up to the Iraq war. "Our intelligence effort has to generate better results," said Negroponte. "That is my mandate, plain and simple ... The things that need to be done differently will be done differently."

At the same time, Carl Ford Jr., the former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, was testifying in the Bolton confirmation hearings before the Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton was "a serial abuser" of intelligence and intelligence officers. Ford described Bolton as "an ill-suited nominee to become ambassador to the United Nations ... a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy who "stands out" as he "abuses his authority with little people" in his efforts to subvert the intelligence process for his own political purposes.

With the Bolton hearings we are at last getting a glimpse of how the Bush administration's political leadership has been systematically browbeating and threatening the intelligence community to drive ideological conclusions. We are also learning that the national security team of the first term was sharply and bitterly divided, with Secretary of State Colin Powell unable to impose his views even on his own undersecretary. Bolton waged his war against the intelligence professionals within the State Department as a Fifth Column, constantly and flagrantly undermining his own chain of command. His efforts to coerce the State Department's Intelligence and Research Bureau (INR) to rubberstamp his political imperatives "prompted the secretary of state to intervene," according to Ford's testimony. Powell felt compelled to speak to INR analysts in order to "assure employees that they should continue to 'speak truth to power.'" But his extraordinary step did not stop Bolton's relentless campaign of intimidation. In case after case -- Iraq, Cuba and North Korea -- Bolton personally bullied INR analysts, berated them, screamed at them and sought to destroy their careers if they did not do his bidding, even when it flew in the face of the facts, disregarded professional procedures and was contrary to the stated policy of the secretary of state.

The discrepancy between the reckless record of John Bolton and the anodyne promises of John Negroponte is not the only factor that points to the use of cognitive dissonance. Two reports on Bush-era failures of intelligence -- one by the Senate intelligence committee, the other by the President's Commission on Intelligence Capabilities Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction -- carefully avoided studying the political manipulation of information. Instead, both blamed the intelligence community alone, as though it acts in a vacuum. Despite orchestrated criticism before the Iraq war by conservatives that the intelligence agencies were not alarmist enough about Iraq's WMD, both reports have excoriated the agencies for being too alarmist. But the Senate intelligence committee report of last year attributed the failure to the intelligence community's "groupthink." In fact, INR was not part of any such "groupthink" and proved in retrospect to have been consistently correct on WMD in Iraq and elsewhere, while being subjected to the pressures of Bolton the "serial abuser."

The cognitive dissonance has been further elevated by Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., the swing vote on the Foreign Relations Committee. At first, he indicated skepticism about voting to confirm Bolton, and asked questions that elicited information highlighting Bolton's abusive conduct. But then he denied the hearings had produced anything that would lead him to vote against Bolton. If Chafee votes against Bolton the committee will be deadlocked in a nine-to-nine tie and the nomination will not be able to move to the Senate floor.

"It was strong testimony from Mr. Ford. He used strong language," Chafee conceded. But, he added, "it's all focused on this one incident. We're not really seeing a pattern." Then the Senate's Hamlet swung the other way. "From the evidence we've heard, he's a difficult man to work for," Chafee said on Wednesday. Bolton, he continued, was "absolutely not" the best man for the job. "It's not my style," he said. Here, with infinite jest, Chafee was playing Yorick, but he swiveled back into character as Hamlet. "I don't endorse it, but that doesn't mean it can't be successful for some people." Thus Chafee wrestled with cognitive dissonance: Should he acknowledge the reality that contradicts the false picture before him? To be or not to be?

On Wednesday, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., asked Bolton to explain why he had requested intercepts from the National Security Agency of other U.S. officials' communications, a highly irregular act. And the committee's vote on Bolton was postponed until next week. Will new information surface between now and then about this or another matter?

The pattern that has emerged so far in the hearings is inescapable. Ever the realist, Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush's national security advisor, lately fired by President Bush from the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, remarked last week at a Washington think tank: "How [Bolton] performs will depend on two things -- the instructions he gets -- and whether he will carry them out."

Consider, first, the case of Iraq's WMD:

The Senate intelligence committee report states that in early October 2002 the deputy director of the CIA informed the Senate that the intelligence community did not believe British intelligence reports of enriched uranium sales from Niger to Iraq. Then CIA Director George Tenet told the deputy national security advisor the same thing. The president, Tenet urged, should not be a "fact witness" to a claim for which evidence was lacking.

This assessment was consistent with that of State's own intelligence office, INR. Yet, in December 2002, the first State Department report on Iraq's WMD declaration included the falsehood that Iraq was seeking enriched uranium in Niger. This lie was inserted by none other than Bolton, only to be subsequently scrubbed from official documents and the State Department Web site after his superiors realized he was gaming the system.

Despite these efforts by the CIA and the State Department to accurately reflect the facts, President Bush uttered the now infamous 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address, lending his imprimatur to the lie. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice claimed she never reviewed the statement before it came out of the president's mouth. Her deputy, Stephen Hadley, who had been told only three months earlier by Tenet that it was false, took responsibility. (Both, of course, have since been promoted in Bush's second term.) A White House spokesman was trotted out in July 2003 to acknowledge that "the 16 words did not rise to the level of inclusion in the State of the Union address."

Undoubtedly, Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, were keenly aware of Bolton's disloyal act. The evidence is unmistakable -- Powell did not use the claim in his February 2003 speech to the United Nations making the case for Iraqi WMD, one week after the State of the Union. Neither Powell nor Armitage was formally interviewed by the Senate intelligence committee for its report. Nor have they been called to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Bolton's confirmation.

Consider, next, the case of North Korea:

From the beginning of the administration, Bolton has been a key figure in the manipulation of intelligence in a conservative network stretching from the Office of the Vice President to the Defense Department's Office of Special Plans to Bolton's own office as an undersecretary in the State Department. This political operation has also depended upon Republican senators and outside conservative groups for support at crucial moments. Bolton acted like a rogue, but he was not unilateral. Powell distrusted him, but could not remove him, in part because of Dick Cheney's protection for Bolton's subversive campaigns.

Over the six-party talks with North Korea to curb its production of nuclear weapons, Powell and Bolton fought a running battle. Bolton continually attempted to sabotage Powell's negotiations by making antagonistic remarks to upset the North Koreans. Finally, in 2003, Powell instructed his special envoy and chief negotiator, Charles Pritchard, to inform the North Koreans that only the president and the secretary of state -- and their designated representative (meaning Pritchard) -- had authority. This communication was specifically aimed at Bolton.

Bolton's speeches were combed over by INR and others in the State Department -- "taken on line by line," according to a direct source quoted by Steve Clemons, a fellow at the New America Foundation, on his Web site, the Washington Note. "There was always a fight." In July 2003, Bolton submitted a speech to be delivered in Seoul, South Korea. Forty-three "line items" were "challenged and expunged," Clemons reports. Bolton left for Seoul without having his speech approved. Upon landing, he demanded that the South Korean government provide him a venue, but after consulting with the State Department it refused. Then Bolton forced the U.S. Embassy staff to locate a forum. On July 31, he gave his inflammatory speech, titled "A Dictatorship at the Crossroads" and calling the North Koreans "extortionist," without having received final clearance from the State Department. The North Koreans' response was immediate and exactly what Bolton must have hoped for. They called him "human scum." With that, the negotiations threatened to blow up.

Pritchard tried to calm North Korea by reiterating Powell's injunction about who spoke for the U.S. government. Infuriated, Bolton struck back. In August 2003, Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., sent a letter to Vice President Cheney and the State Department calling for "corrective action" against Pritchard for being out of step with administration policy. Kyl claimed that Pritchard had attacked Bolton by telling the North Koreans that his speech reflected only Bolton's "private view." Pritchard replied that he had not mentioned Bolton by name at all. "According to those who have read the diplomatic notes on the meeting," Clemons reports, "Pritchard never mentioned Bolton's name in the meeting and focused on his objective -- which was to keep the North Koreans committed to the scheduled first meeting of talks in Beijing." Nonetheless, a week later, Pritchard resigned his post. Bolton had won.

Consider, finally, the case of elusive Cuban WMD, the incident that led Ford, after some "soul-searching," to testify at Bolton's confirmation hearings:

In February 2003, as the Bush administration was making its closing arguments before going to war that Iraq possessed WMD, Bolton decided he would give a speech stating that Cuba also had WMD. His text appeared on the desk of INR's chief expert on chemical and biological warfare, Christian Westerman. He checked Bolton's claims with the existing intelligence and concluded that Bolton's case about Cuban WMD was untrue. Enraged, Bolton summoned the analyst to his office.

Westerman testified before the Foreign Relations Committee about what happened next: "He was quite upset that I had objected and he wanted to know what right I had trying to change an undersecretary's language ... And he got very red in the face and [was] shaking his finger at me and explained to me that I was acting way beyond my position, and for someone who worked for him. I told him I didn't work for him." Of course, Westerman worked directly for Carl Ford -- and for the U.S. government. "And so, he basically threw me out of his office."

Bolton angrily called Thomas Fingar, principal deputy assistant secretary of state, to his office. "What did Mr. Bolton say to you?" Fingar was asked by the Foreign Relations Committee. He replied: "That he was the president's appointee, that he had every right to say what he believed, that he wasn't going to be told what he could say by a midlevel INR munchkin analyst." Then Bolton told Fingar "that he wanted Westerman taken off his accounts. I said, 'He's our CW/BW [chemical and biological weapons] specialist, this is what he does.' He expressed again, as I remember it, that he was the president's appointee, [and] he could say what he wanted."

In the end, Bolton did not give the speech and Westerman was not reassigned or fired. Questioned about the episode, Bolton remarked, "I didn't seek to have these people fired. I didn't seek to have them discharged. I said I lost my trust in them."

By exposing a handful of Bolton's manipulations, the hearings have exposed the politicization of intelligence that has been studiously ignored by the Senate intelligence committee and the President's Commission. The Republican chairman of the committee, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, has been a reliable tool of the White House in suppressing any talk of the political distortion of intelligence. Not only has he reneged on his commitment to Democratic senators on his committee that it would conduct an investigation, but he has avoided looking into the obvious cases of abuse of intelligence beyond that of WMD in the rush to war -- and has thus laid the onus entirely on the intelligence community. Roberts conceives his chairmanship as blind support of the Bush White House at the expense of his constitutional duty in the Senate. He has been a principal enabler of the abuse.

After three days of testimony, the pattern of Bolton's efforts to bend information, intimidate the intelligence community and willfully subvert his superiors was firmly established. Yet Sen. Chafee wavered about whether there was indeed a pattern. "Chafee's comment that it is an exception is inaccurate," a senior State Department official told me. "Bullying, bombastic, screaming 'I'm going to crush you,' that's typical."

Bolton's methods are hardly unknown to the White House. It can only be assumed that they are what the president wants in his ambassador to the United Nations. But Bolton will be confirmed only if the senators voting for him believe that the evidence their own hearings have unearthed cannot possibly be true. In that event, Bush's use of cognitive dissonance again will have triumphed.

By Sidney Blumenthal

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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Iraq War United Nations