Monday, May 07, 2007

The fine art of Washington weasling

I caught George Tenet’s act yesterday on Meet the Press, and found him to be emblematic of a certain subspecies of animal: the Washington weasel.

The ex-CIA director and proud recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is still doing the modified limited hangout route (Richard Nixon’s term for a partial confession), offering quasi-mea culpas, declaring his willingness to “share responsibility” for drawing us into a disastrous war (now that it’s too late to do anything about it), and asking us to fork over thirty bucks apiece for the privilege of reading his hardcover account of how he and his Bush administration comrades – by a toxic combination of deception, incompetence, and (and in Tenet’s case) cowardice – managed to hoodwink the nation.

Listening to Tenet, it’s no wonder that President Bush now commands the support of a mere 28 percent of the citizenry (his worst showing ever in the Newsweek poll; see question 19). Tenet's depiction of the prewar backstage deliberations is hardly flattering, what with Vice President Cheney blowing him off and making alarmist public speeches that had little basis in fact – and with the CIA director (that would be Tenet) uttering nary a word of protest about Cheney’s effrontery.

This came up in the NBC interview yesterday. After Cheney insisted in an August 2002 speech that “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Tenet, who knew at the time that Cheney’s claim was less than accurate, said nothing. As he recalled yesterday, “the speech was not provided to us for clearance. I should not have allowed my silence to imply acquiescence at that moment. That’s my fault.” (Now he tells us. That’s not what he told us three years ago. While testifying on Capitol Hill in 2004, Tenet insisted that he was a backstage watchdog: “You have to have the confidence to know that when I believed that somebody was misconstruing intelligence, I said something about it.”)

Some watchdog. After Bush claimed in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Hussein was on the hunt for nuclear material (“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa”), the CIA director – who knew at the time that the claim was false, having excised it from a previous Bush speech – again uttered nothing in protest.

Yesterday, here’s how Tenet sought to defend his silence: “I didn’t watch the speech that night. I didn’t go back and read the speech carefully.” What was he doing that night, watching ESPN? One might assume that the nation’s top intelligence official would have wanted to monitor every word that Bush was uttering about Iraq – given the fact that war seemed imminent – and perhaps express his opinion soon thereafter. He didn’t.

Nor did he utter a peep when Cheney kept insisting publicly that Hussein had been in close cahoots with the 9/11 plotters. Tenet said yesterday that he knew at the time that Cheney’s claim was a crock: “There was a deep, deep disagreement between us,” because he and his CIA colleagues “could see no complicity, no operational relationship, no command and control between Iraq and al Qaeda.” But he did not protest at the time.

His current defense, however, is that he just wasn’t paying much attention to what Bush and Cheney were saying: “Did I monitor the press every day to see what everybody was saying? No….Does every (administration) statement absolutely comport with the intelligence? Probably not.”

Now there's a ringing endorsement for the Bush administration’s credibility.

In the broader sense, you get the impression that Cheney in particular was walking all over this guy, yet Tenet kept his lip zipped and kept coming back for more. That’s what Washington weasels do: they put their honor in blind trust and serve their betters…until they are safely outside the loop and decide, for reasons of self-interest, to see the light.

Tenet is clearly incensed that his old colleagues have tried to hang the whole war around his neck, by invoking his December ’02 claim to Bush that selling the WMD intelligence to the public would be a “slam dunk.” He’s ticked about being scapegoated (which perhaps he should be, given the fact that the scapegoaters are arguably more culpable than he is), but, like many Washington weasels, he is a tad self-absorbed. For instance, he writes in his book that the scapegoating campaign against him “is about the most despicable thing I have ever seen in my life.”

That’s quite a superlative. But I would argue that the families of the 12 American soldiers killed in Iraq yesterday might think there are many things far more despicable than the image travails of George Tenet.


And here’s one thing that’s arguably more despicable: The Iraq war is stressing our soldiers in ways that are more severe than the privations inflicted on the troops in World War II. Two psychologists have authored a new report, on behalf of the military’s Mental Health Advisory Team, which says that “a considerable number of Soldiers and Marines are conducting combat operations every day of the week, 10-12 hours per day seven days a week for months on end. At no time in our military history have Soldiers or Marines been required to serve on the front line in any war for a period of 6-7 months."

Result: the extended deployments are straining military families and the mental health of the soldiers; the military shrinks discovered that 27 percent of troops serving multiple tours in Iraq screened positive for a mental illness, as opposed to 17 percent among the soldiers deployed for the first time. Both shares were up significantly from the previous year. The shrinks urged that the soldiers be given a lot more down time, especially between tours, for the sake of their mental equilibrium – but, as we well know, the Bush war team has decreed the opposite.

And this is the same administration which still insists it has a monopoly on "supporting the troops."


Following up on the GOP presidential candidate debate, which I wrote about on Friday:

I would not presume to accuse the ’08 Republican field of lacking diversity – after all, seven of the white men believe in evolution, while three of the white men do not – and that particular issue did surface the day after the debate.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the most credentialed candidate in the science-challenged trio, was asked on Friday to explain his stance further. He replied, magnanimously, “If you want to believe that you and your family came from apes, I’ll accept that,” and furthermore, he said that he does not object to the idea of teaching evolution as a theory in public schools. That’s big of him.

And leave it to the captain of the Double Talk Express to play it both ways. John McCain declined to raise his hand, thereby indicating that he doesn’t believe man was fashioned by the hand of God. However, apparently fearing he had alienated the religious right voters whom he has so assiduously courted, he quickly added a caveat: “But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there.” (Hence McCain’s nuanced position: He did the rocks, then He rested.)


It’s sacrilege, in certain American circles, to suggest that we would ever be wise to emulate the French. Granted, they love Jerry Lewis, they bring their dogs into five-star restaurants, they enact non-smoking laws that are universally ignored, and the staffers at Air France are infamous for their rude hauteur. But, hey, let’s give the French a shout-out for this number:


That’s the percentage of French people who turned out to vote in this weekend’s presidential election. And they didn’t even need a war to motivate them.

One would think that we Americans, saddled next year with the ruinous war that France opposed, should be capable of posting a 60 percent turnout. But, given the fact that we haven’t hit that percentage since the 1968, I would not want to borrow from George Tenet and predict that it’s a slam dunk for 2008.