Monday, July 23, 2007

Bush's spymaster says yes to reality

Most Americans have long believed that the Bush team knowingly misled the nation into war by building a specious case against Saddam Hussein – in one national poll last October, 58 percent shared that view – but it’s rare indeed that a high-ranking Bush teammate stands up in public and says the same thing.

Actually, Admiral Mike McConnell was sitting down yesterday when he confirmed the Bush team’s prewar deceptions; it was a newsworthy event, given the fact that McConnell, a former National Security Agency official, currently serves Bush as director of national intelligence. It was valuable to get him on the record. His words yesterday, on Meet the Press, will probably be grist for those future historians who will assess Bush's legacy.

The key moment came when Tim Russert brought up some McConnell remarks that appear in a new book written by Stephen Hayes, a conservative scribe at The Weekly Standard magazine. Hayes, in preperation for his biography of Dick Cheney, interviewed McConnell in late November of last year. McConnell basically said that the top Bush officials cooked the intelligence in order to sell their case for war:

“All of these current players, Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, and the president…had, first and foremost, very strong political convictions. My sense of it is their political faith and convictions influenced how they took information and interpreted it, how they picked up and interpreted outside events. As a former intel pro, when you don’t like the answer and you set up your own thing, you tend to get the answer you want. You hire people who think like you do or want to satisfy the boss. I’ve read much more about the current set of players, and they did set up a whole new interpretation because they didn’t like the (intelligence community’s) answers. They’ve gotten results that in my view now have been disastrous.”

They’ve gotten results that in my view now have been disastrous...Good grief, does this man have Bush derangement syndrome (as no doubt the dwindling band of Bush idolators would argue), or, as an "intel pro," is he merely speaking as a member of the reality-based community? Clearly, he was referring to the neoconservative Pentagon office, set up by Cheney acolyte Douglas Feith, who skewed the intel until it was Cheney-worthy.

On NBC yesterday, Russert read that long McConnell quote, and asked the admiral to comment. I was expecting him to utilize the standard Washington dodge, and claim that Russert was taking his comments out of context; instead, McConnell confirmed and elaborated:

“I am a concerned citizen…What I was taking greatest exception to was to have a secondary unit established in the Pentagon to reinterpret information…The way you do (proper) intelligence is all sources considered. You have to factor one issue against another and balance it. If you start an independent effort with a point of view, it’s not infrequent that you would take a single piece of data to make a point as opposed to consider everything…. I consider myself an intelligence professional. I’ve been doing this either in—on active duty or serving this community for 40 years. The first responsibility of an intelligence professional is ground truth, and the second responsibility is to speak truth to power.”

From a Bush team perspective, McConnell was clearly “off message” - and this happened repeatedly yesterday. Russert pointed out that, according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, the war in Iraq has actually helped al Qaeda by providing the terrorists with a handy recruiting tool. (Bush, we now know, was warned of this dark possibility during the prewar phase.) Russert wanted to know what McConnell thought of that NIE observation. McConnell didn’t hesitate: “It (the war) has served as a recruiting tool to draw additional terrorists into Iraq.”

Moments later, Russert followed up: “But al-Qaeda is a much more robust and larger presence in Iraq now than it was before the war.”

McConnell’s response: “That’s fair to say, that’s fair to say.”

I doubt that Bush will be awarding this guy a Presidential Medal of Freedom any time soon.


My latest Sunday newspaper column – which argued that the typically timid Democrats need to go for the gut and paint the GOP as the weak-on-terrorism party – was featured yesterday on C-Span’s Washington Journal; during the show’s first 30 minutes, many of the 18 Democratic callers argued that it’s high time the Democrats grew a backbone and engaged voters on an emotional level.

While reading a new book by clinical psychologist/Democratic consultant Drew Westen – entitled The Political Brain, as discussed in my column – I was struck again at how often the Democrats have rendered themselves mute while under heavy GOP bombardment. Westen resurrects some of the golden oldies, such as Michael Dukakis’ 1988 decision to ignore the senior George Bush’s gut-level attempts to paint the Democrat as an unpatriotic coddler of criminals; Al Gore’s 2000 passivity as Republicans painted him as a serial liar; and John Kerry’s failure, for two long weeks, to hit back at the Swift Boaters. In all those cases, the Democrats simply convinced themselves that the GOP hyperbole lacked intellectual merit and that, therefore, they should not deign to hit back. They never imagined that the voters would buy the GOP arguments. The rest is history.

But Westen, on page 338, also brought up an incident that I had forgotten – one that is quite relevant at the moment.

In 2004, again on Meet the Press, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle debated Republican challenger John Thune, who was vying for Daschle’s South Dakota seat. At one point, when Daschle criticized Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, Thune retorted that any and all second-guessing of the Leader “emboldens our enemies.” In other words, Thune went for the gut, calling Daschle a coddler of terrorists. And Daschle - who, unlike Thune, was a military vet - said basically nothing in response, except to lament how he was “disappointed” and “saddened” that Thune would attack him that way.

Westen weighs in here: “You don’t express sadness or disappointment when someone slugs you. You express rage, and you start slugging back.”

For a textbook response on how to slug back, consider the way Hillary Clinton handled the Bush administration’s attempt last week to paint her as a coddler of terrorists.

This past May, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (and, of course, as a Democratic presidential candidate), she had asked the Pentagon to explain how it would work out the logistics of any eventual troop withdrawal from Iraq. This was not a shocking request; it was widely reported, nearly 18 months ago, that the Pentagon has worked on such contingency plans. But Hillary got no response for nearly three months.

Finally, a week ago, Pentagon underling Eric Edelman, apparently channeling his old boss Dick Cheney (whom he served as deputy assistant for national security), sent Hillary a letter, warning her that any “premature” discussion of U.S. troop withdrawal “reinforces enemy propaganda.”

Rather than say that she was saddened or disappointed by being labeled a terrorist propagandist, she lashed back, in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “Under Secretary Edelman…claims that congressional oversight emboldens our enemies. Under Secretary Edelman has his priorities backward. Open and honest debate and congressional oversight strengthens our nation and supports our military. His suggestion to the contrary is outrageous and dangerous...Redeploying out of Iraq will be difficult and requires careful planning. I continue to call on the Bush Administration to immediately provide a redeployment strategy that will keep our brave men and women safe as they leave Iraq - instead of adhering to a political strategy to attack those who rightfully question their competence and preparedness after years of mistakes and misjudgments.”

And in response, Gates quickly caved. He said Friday that of course he values congressional oversight; in fact, he considers it “constructive and appropriate.”

The lesson for Democrats – as Westen outlines at length in his book - is that weakness in the face of GOP aggression is fatal: “The kind of candidate who will not appeal to the American voter in the post-September 11 world is a candidate (who is) advised to take stands that exude timidity in the face of political aggression at home, for fear of being branded or outflanked. If the American people take that timidity at home as an indicator of how Democrats will respond to aggression from abroad,” then Democrats deserve to lose.

“What we need to today,” writes Westen, is a Democrat “with cajones. As we have seen, you don’t have to be born with them to use them.”