What's a president to do?
November 9th, 2005
Rick Moran

Suppose you were president of a country that had been hit by a massive terrorist attack that had killed 3,000 of your fellow citizens. Suppose you had come to the inescapable conclusion that not only were the terrorists to be destroyed for the threat they posed to the nation you led, but that other nations who supported the terrorists must also be dealt with. And suppose one of those nations in particular, already shooting at your fighters and bombers, was also known to give financial support to terrorists as well as allowing their territory to be used as a training ground for the murderous religious fanatics who threatened the very existence of the nation you have sworn to preserve and protect.

Now suppose that there were large swaths of the national security community unalterably opposed to your policy. Suppose that many of these unelected bureaucrats believed that their judgment was not only superior to yours, the elected leader, but better than those whom you appointed to oversee the agencies in which they worked. Also suppose that many of them were partisans who wished to undermine your decisions in order to swing an election to your opponent.

This scenario might make a good outline for a political potboiler of a novel. Unfortunately, this is the situation the President found himself in during the lead up to the Iraq war, and even more so afterward, as the 2004 election loomed on the horizon and the large stockpiles WMD that most of the world believed were present in Saddam’s Iraq never materialized.

Aided and abetted by friendly and ideologically sympathetic reporters who eagerly published the cherry-picked analyses given them by current and former intelligence analysts, this faction at the CIA tried their best to discredit their political opponent in the White House by undermining the war effort and embarrassing the elected leader of the United States.

If you were the President, how would you fight back? Do you simply acquiesce and bend a knee to these arrogant apostates in the intelligence community who treat you with contempt and disrespect?

Every president has had to deal at one time or another with this amorphous mass of conceited and corrupt intelligence bureaucrats, who spend almost as much time worrying about the bureaucratic pecking order as they do the security of the nation. If you spend any time at all in Washington studying and writing about national security issues, you know exactly what they are all about. Their self-importance is evidenced by the way they bully subordinates and fawn over superiors. They mask their insecurities with an arrogant bravado more appropriate to a bullfighter than a servant of the people.

So the President and his people discovered early on that there was implacable resistance in the CIA to their plans to invade Iraq to affect regime change. They started to mistrust the intelligence analysis coming from that quarter. In what can only be described as a desperation move, the White House set up an entire operation devoted to disseminating Iraq intel to policy makers independent of the CIA. In effect, they made an end run around a bureaucracy using the office of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith and his Counterterrorism Evaluation Group (CTEG).

What CTEG found is exactly what the 9/11 Commission found; that there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda – something the CIA refused to acknowledge, having so much invested in their conclusion that the supposedly secular Sunnis in Iraq wouldn’t sully their hands by dealing with the radical Shi’ites in al Qaeda. This analysis was demonstrated to be even more wrongheaded after the fall of Baghdad, when files from the Iraqi intelligence service revealed even more contacts with al Qaeda than had previously been revealed.

Other prewar analysis coming from the CIA seemed to confirm that Saddam in fact had large stockpiles of WMD. George Tenet famously referred to the case for WMD as “a slam dunk.” So is the Administration guilty of hearing what it wanted to hear and seeing what it wanted to see with regard to pre-war Iraqi intelligence, especially as it related to ties to al Qaeda and WMD?

What critics universally fail to point out is that in the wake of 9/11, the United States could not afford to take the chance that Saddam had WMD. This is such a fundamental tenet of American policy in the post 9/11 world that the argument for or against it reveals the great chasm in American politics and policy. The divide is not between Republicans and Democrats, so much as it is between those who live in a 9/10 world and those who live in a 9/12 world.

For those who live in the comfortable pre-9/11 America, Saddam was in a “box” and was no threat to the US. To those who woke up on 9/12 and saw a different world, Saddam was eventually going to outlast the world community and sanctions would be lifted, at which point he would be free to continue to threaten his neighbors in the region, as well as forge closer ties with the terrorist groups who ached to attack America and murder thousands of citizens.

Suppose you were President and faced with that possibility. Your political opponents would have the luxury of second guessing every move you made. But it is you who have the responsibility for the safety and security of the republic. If you had done nothing, you would have been taken to task for weakness, as was your father when he failed to effect regime change during the first Gulf War. But you, the president, not a sidelines critic, could not afford to do nothing. The downside risk of being wrong was too enormous.

Was the President hearing what he wanted to hear with regard to pre-war intelligence? Or, was he hearing the screams of dying Americans in his sleep, killed in a terrorist attack if he did nothing ? It really is too bad that our politics are so polarized today, because that is a debate that, on its merits, the President wins every time. It will be good to keep in mind that balance of risk during the coming confrontation with Iran over their enrichment of uranium in order to build atomic bombs. No one is going to argue that Iran doesn’t have ties to terrorists, or that they aren’t a threat to both our allies in the region and to us, the Great Satan,. If it comes to it, I wonder if the opposition will talk about “twisting” intelligence in the lead up to any military action we take against the radical mullahs who wish to wipe Israel off the map as appetizer and destroy the United States as the main course.

The momentous decision to take the United States to war was made even more difficult by the recalcitrance and disloyalty of a faction at the CIA, who opposed the Administration on ideological, political and/or policy grounds. They were the ones who “twisted” intelligence to try to affect policy by leaking classified information to reporters.

The announcement that leaks surrounding the classified CIA prisons where the worst of the worst terrorists were being interrogated will now be investigated is good news indeed. Perhaps, some of the unelected bureaucrats who have tried to bring down the President and undermine the war effort will themselves be revealed as the petty, arrogant small minded people that they are.

Rick Moran is a frequent contributor and is proprietor of the blog Right Wing Nut House