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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Who Gets Held to Account?

By Dan Fromkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 1, 2005; 12:59 PM

Anyone who's ever worked in a hierarchical organization knows all about groupthink. People down the food chain feel a nearly palpable pressure to please the people at the top of the food chain -- without anyone necessarily saying a word.

It's typically a function of which behaviors get rewarded and which get punished. Who gets access? Who gets frozen out? Who is held to account for what? Who gets promoted -- and who gets pushed aside?

Groupthink is the villain at the heart of the latest intelligence report to hit the president's desk -- this one from his hand-picked panel of experts, and this one on its face giving the White House a complete pass.

But some of today's analyses and opinion pieces are suggesting that maybe the report should also be read as an indictment of an administration that has let groupthink run amok.

Analyses

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "It found no evidence that intelligence had been politically twisted to suit preconceptions about Iraq's unconventional weapons programs, and made no formal judgments about how top policy makers had used that intelligence to justify war. Yet in its own way, the presidential commission on intelligence left little doubt that President Bush and his top aides had gotten what they wanted, not what they needed, when they were told that Saddam Hussein had a threatening arsenal of illicit weapons. . . .

"[T]he latest and presumably the last official review of such questions leaves unresolved what may be the biggest question of all: Who was accountable, and will they ever be held to account for letting what amounted to mere assumptions 'harden into presumptions,' as Judge Laurence H. Silberman, chairman of the commission, put it. . . .

"But already some people have been judged, albeit it indirect ways, while others have been rewarded, even promoted. Some who foresaw potential disaster were punished or pushed aside, while the president and vice president were given new terms."

The Washington Post's Dana Priest fielded questions in a Live Online yesterday.

"St. Marys, Ga.: Who, if anyone, is going to be held accountable for being 'Dead Wrong?' It seems no one has been held accountable in the past few years . . . but 'Dead Wrong' is pretty strong language and I hope it is not ignored.

"Dana Priest: Well, President Bush gave George Tenet the Medal of Freedom. And the voters gave President Bush another term. SecDef Rumsfeld is in perfect standing with the president. His deputy is moving on to head the World Bank. The head of the other large intel agency, the National Security Agency (does eavesdropping) is becoming Negroponte's deputy. That leaves only the worker bees. . . .

"Boston, Mass.: Does the administration itself bear any responsibility for the failure of its intelligence agencies?

"Dana Priest: The CIA and its director work for the president. The president is responsible for hiring and firing that person, for holding that person and his agency responsible, for making sure, ultimately, that the agencies are working properly, spending more effectively and serving him -- and the American people -- the way it is supposed to. Was Nixon responsible for the operations of Attorney General John Mitchell? Were Johnson and Kennedy responsible, in any way, for the excesses of J. Edgar Hoover? Does Johnson bear any responsibility for McNamara's Vietnam vision? What about Bush I? What's his responsibility over a CIA that missed the collapse of the Soviet Union? Should Clinton bare a burden for the intel world's failure to see the imminent threat from Osama bin Laden? Does Bush have responsibility for his advisors so misjudging 'post-war' Iraq? You get my drift. It's your call and you bet historians will be writing about that subject for years to come."

Dafna Linzer and Barton Gellman write in The Washington Post that it's not like no one spoke up. "Up until the days before U.S. troops entered Iraqi territory that March, the intelligence community was inundated with evidence that undermined virtually all charges it had made against Iraq, the report said."

It's just that they weren't heard. "In scores of additional cases involving the country's alleged nuclear and chemical programs and its delivery systems, the commission described a kind of echo chamber in which plausible hypotheses hardened into firm assertions of fact, eventually becoming immune to evidence."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Bush has long refused to assign specific blame for intelligence failures to himself or top aides. What is not clear is whether Americans will accept this in the face of this latest, unusually scathing report."

But Silva says Bush has a tried and true way of dealing with these things.

"Confronting two large-scale intelligence failures during his tenure, the Sept. 11 attacks and the misreading of Saddam Hussein's arsenal, President Bush has largely escaped voters' wrath by convincing the public he is a man of action who is moving quickly to tackle any problems.

"Bush took this tack again Thursday."

The First Customer Is Always Right

Here is the full transcript of President Bush's statement upon receipt of the report yesterday, followed by statements from the co-chairmen. Bush then left, but the co-chairman stuck around to take questions.

You can read all about the members of the commission on my About the Commission page.

And here is the report itself.

There was only one part of the report that explicitly criticized White House procedures, but it as a telling one: The commission called for a rethinking of the intelligence reports Bush gets that are known as the presidential daily briefing.

Walter Pincus and Peter Baker write in Washington Post: "Leading up to the Iraq war, the panel found, the briefings were 'disastrously one-sided' and 'more alarmist and less nuanced' than longer studies, such as the National Intelligence Estimates. The daily briefings never cast doubt on prior information provided to Bush and thus 'seemed to be "selling" intelligence in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested.' "

Editorials and Opinions

New York Times editorial: "The panel said timidly that 'it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom.' But it utterly ignored the way President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his team, and Condoleezza Rice, as national security adviser, created that environment by deciding what the facts were and saying so, repeatedly."

Los Angeles Times editorial: "Even if the intelligence was not manipulated, there will always be a tendency on the part of individuals (not to mention bureaucracies) to try to divine what outcome bosses want and tailor their facts accordingly, leaving out some inconvenient truths. That's bad in private industry and deadly in time of war, and the commission doesn't quite address this behavioral problem."

As for the report's insistence that there was no politicization of intelligence (see my column yesterday) the Times editorial said: "Somehow the panel must have missed the intelligence agents who told reporters for The Times on several prewar occasions that they thought their product was being politicized and that they were pushed to provide evidence to support the Bush administration's claims that Iraq was a threat."

Wall Street Journal editorial: "[T]the report blows apart the myth that intelligence provided by Iraqi politician and former exile Ahmed Chalabi suckered the U.S. into going to war."

USA Today editorial: "In the months before the war, Vice President Cheney said there was 'no doubt' Saddam was amassing weapons. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that even 'a trained ape' knew it was true. President Bush repeatedly made the case not just that war in Iraq was necessary, but that it was urgent.

"That is not a climate that would lead anyone to conclude that facts still needed to be discerned."

Rich Lowry in the National Review Online: "The commission studying the intelligence failures that produced disastrously flawed estimates of Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities has finally produced its report, and it's devastating. Not just for U.S. intelligence, which is portrayed as hapless and bungling, but for Bush critics who have vested so much in the argument that Bush officials pressured intelligence agencies to support the case for war."

David Ignatius in The Washington Post: "If there's one thing that has become clear in the history of U.S. intelligence over the past 50 years it is that the CIA is not in fact a rogue agency. It is shaped, often to a fault, by the priorities and pet projects of whoever is in the White House. Intelligence supports policy, but it doesn't make it."

Derrick Z. Jackson in the Boston Globe: "Perhaps no political pressure was necessary because everyone in the intelligence community knew what Bush wanted to hear and there were few people willing to risk their careers to expose weak evidence. This obvious possibility did not seem to be prominent in the commission's inquiry."

More Coverage

Pincus and Baker write: "The report depicted an intelligence apparatus plagued by turf battles, wedded to old assumptions and mired in unimaginative thinking.

"Yet while unstinting in its appraisal of intelligence agencies, the panel that Bush appointed under pressure in February 2004 said it was 'not authorized' to explore the question of how the commander in chief used the faulty information to make perhaps the most critical decision of his presidency. As he accepted the report yesterday, Bush offered no thoughts about relying on flawed intelligence to launch a war and took no questions from reporters. . . .

"Some Democrats complained that the commission effectively ducked the central issue of how Bush decided to go to war in Iraq to eliminate weapons that were not there."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Silberman and co-chairman Charles S. Robb flanked a beaming Bush as if they were bodyguards -- and in a sense, they were. . . .

"The commission report is plenty tough, but it directs its fire at the intelligence professionals -- the same ones already beaten up by the Sept. 11 commission and congressional reports -- and gives the political figures a pass."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "The latest intelligence-failure report to land on President Bush's desk raises serious questions about his policy of pre-emptive action against potential foes. How can he order such strikes if he doesn't have solid information?"

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post: "The commission explicitly warned President Bush that he should expect intelligence agencies to attempt to undermine the authority of the new director of national intelligence. 'They are some of the government's most headstrong agencies,' the commission wrote Bush. 'Sooner or later, they will try to run around -- or over -- the DNI. Then, only your determined backing will convince them that we cannot return to the old ways.'"

She quotes from the report: " 'Analysts must be pressed to explain how much they don't know; the collection agencies must be pressed to explain why they don't have better information on key topics . . . no important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment and what alternative might also be true."

Bob Drogin and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "The report puts new pressure on Bush, who has held office during two of the worst intelligence fiascos in modern U.S. history and who has struggled, along with Congress, to reform the sprawling, $40-billion-a-year intelligence system."

NBC News's David Gregory reported: "The U.S. went to war in Iraq claiming Saddam Hussein threatened America with weapons of mass destruction. The president's hand-picked commission concluded today, the intelligence behind that decision was quote, 'worthless', 'misleading', 'dead wrong'. This morning, however, the president sidestepped any personal responsibility."

When Gregory had Silberman and Robb to himself, he asked them again the question he tried to get them to answer during their public briefing: "Does the president of the United States bear ultimate responsibility for bad intelligence on his watch?"

Robb says: "The commander in chief is responsible for everything that happens on his or her watch."

Enter Townsend

Bush ordered White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend to take point on enacting the commission's recommendations.

"You will begin to see action in a matter of weeks," she said.

She briefly took questions at yesterday's press briefing:

"Q It's been three-and-a-half years since the September 11th attacks, when the President first issued the call for the intelligence agencies to reform themselves to meet the threats of the 21st century. Here we have another report saying that they haven't done that. . . . What's the problem? . . .

"MS. TOWNSEND: Well, in fairness, I think the commission, when you look at the whole report -- I grant you, it's a large document -- when you look at the whole report, even the commission acknowledges we've enjoyed some successes, particularly in the counterterrorism area. . . . I think you have seen some progress. . . . There are still some hiccups. It's not perfect yet. We need to constantly work to refine that. . . .

"Q But the report would suggest that it's far more than a few hiccups. It's more like a massive case of gastroenteritis here that you're trying to deal with. (Laughter.)

"MS. TOWNSEND: Well, look, there is no --

"Q With an additional case of diverticulitis on top of that. (Laughter.)

"MS. TOWNSEND: No question, more needs to be done, and it will require the attention of the DNI."

The Bubble and the Denver Three

Some more voices today talking about Bush's Bubble and the "Denver Three" -- the three audience members at a public Bush event in Denver on March 21, allegedly evicted because of a bumper sticker on their car. (See Wednesday's column for more.)

Washington Post op-ed columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. writes: "And so you wonder why a president who sells himself as a tough, confident bring-'em-on type of guy seems so anxious about facing average citizens who disagree with him. Why does he insist on being surrounded, always, by people who tell him that he's right and great and wonderful?"

Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) released a statement: "The president seems to only want to hear voices that agree with his position on Social Security; that is a dwindling number of Americans."

And Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.) said on a radio show: "This kind of stuff should never really happen. At least as I understand it, these folks showed up -- they've got every right to be there. There was a pro-Bush leaning crowd but by no means at all, my understanding, a 100 percent pro-Bush crowd. And unless they did something wrong there's no reason why they should be yanked out of there and escorted through the door."

Today's Calendar

The president and first lady talk about America's youth at the Paul Public Charter School in Washington today.

Social Security Watch

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has acknowledged that President Bush's call for completion of a Social Security bill this year could be unrealistic and that the legislation might have to wait until 2006.

"The president's aides immediately responded by saying Bush is committed to winning passage this year. The White House and Republican congressional leaders have said repeatedly that the proposed restructuring of the retirement system is doomed if it does not pass this year, because it will be even more difficult to get Democratic support in 2006, a midterm election year."

Alan Elsner writes for Reuters: "President Bush's domestic agenda has hit roadblocks on two major fronts, leading some political analysts to conclude his administration is succumbing to the traditional 'second-term blues.' "

William M. Welch and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "Halfway through his administration's '60 Stops in 60 Days' national sales pitch for overhauling Social Security, President Bush hasn't sold his plan to create private investment accounts."

Glen Johnson writes for the Associated Press: "Out on the hustings, President Bush likes to make a case for allowing younger workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes by citing the example of the Thrift Savings Plan, private investment accounts available to members of Congress and other federal employees. . . .

"What Bush fails to mention is that his accounts differ from Thrift Savings Plan accounts in a key way: They would be carved out of the Social Security taxes nongovernment workers pay. By contrast, federal employees get their accounts in addition to a traditional Social Security benefit check."

Heidi Przybyla writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush began his battle for private Social Security accounts by targeting vulnerable Democrats. Now Democrats are turning the tables, using similar tactics to pressure Republican lawmakers."

Steven Greenhouse writes in the New York Times: "The nation's labor unions stepped up their campaign yesterday to stop President Bush's Social Security plan, staging demonstrations in New York, Washington, San Francisco and 70 other cities."

Life and Death

Here's what Bush had to say after Terri Schiavo died yesterday: "Today millions of Americans are saddened by the death of Terri Schiavo. Laura and I extend our condolences to Terri Schiavo's families. I appreciate the example of grace and dignity they have displayed at a difficult time. I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life, where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others. The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Republicans say the Schiavo case has mobilized their conservative base for the struggles over judicial nominations and a likely Supreme Court vacancy this summer. . . .

"Democrats, backed by public opinion polls, say the conservatives overreached and that the GOP now appears to be a captive of the religious right."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Conservative lawmakers' denunciations of the courts on Thursday signaled that Terri Schiavo's death was likely to escalate the war between the parties over President Bush's judicial nominations."

Karl Rove Watch

Charles S. Johnson writes in the Helena (Mont.) Independent Record: "Top presidential adviser Karl Rove praised President Bush as 'one of history's most consequential presidents' and touted Bush's plan to restructure Social Security as critical for the nation's younger and future workers. . . .

"On the international front, Bush is 'one of history's great liberators,' Rove said, while on the domestic side, the president has the chance to be 'one of history's great reformers.' "


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