Bolton's Biggest Problem
"My conscience got me," Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich said this week in explaining why he wanted to delay a vote on the Bush administration's nominee for U.N. ambassador, John Bolton. That's a sentence you don't hear often in Washington, and it suggests that there's more going on with the
Bolton nomination than a mere partisan squabble.
The problem with Bolton, in fact , is that he epitomizes the politicization of intelligence that helped produce the fiasco over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration has so far managed to evade any real accounting for its role in the Iraqi WMD blunder, letting the intelligence community take the hit. But the Bolton saga is a microcosm of that larger failure: It's the story of a policymaker who tried to pressure intelligence analysts into supporting WMD views that turned out to be wrong.
I've read hundreds of pages of testimony gathered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in its review of the Bolton nomination. It's a fascinating account -- not simply in its documentation of how Bolton tried to intimidate the analysts when he was undersecretary of state but in showing how the analysts refused to buckle under pressure. In that sense, it's a lesson in how to improve the performance of the intelligence community.
The most damaging allegation about Bolton involves his 2002 efforts to prod the intelligence community to back his allegation that Cuba might be seeking to export weapons of mass destruction from a biowarfare program. In February 2002, he prepared a speech that, according to an unclassified Senate intelligence committee report, "contained a sentence which said that the U.S. believes Cuba has a developmental, offensive biological warfare program and is providing assistance to other rogue state programs."
The problem was that Bolton's charges went well beyond what the intelligence community viewed as solid evidence. The agencies' cautious judgment, expressed in a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was still classified in 2002, was that Cuba had a "limited, developmental, offensive biological warfare research and development effort."
Bolton wanted to sound the alarm about Cuba, regardless of what the NIE said. So he asked his chief of staff to submit his proposed language to the intelligence community for clearance. The request went to the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), where it was given to the chief biological weapons analyst, Christian Westermann. And there the battle was joined.
To appreciate the story, it's important to see Bolton and Westermann as Washington archetypes. Bolton is a political appointee who has made his career delivering broadsides at think tanks. Westermann, by contrast, is a career man. He served 20 years in the Navy, including combat time, before joining INR as a weapons analyst. He took his job as an intelligence gatekeeper seriously.
Westermann sent Bolton's proposed speech language about Cuban biowarfare efforts to the intelligence community for clearance the afternoon of Feb. 12, 2002. With it, he attached alternative language that in his view accorded better with the NIE. Westermann had frequently suggested similar changes for other colleagues and saw it as part of his job. But Bolton seemed convinced that it was a stab in the back. His chief of staff fired off an e-mail complaining about the alternative language and summoning the analyst to Bolton's office immediately. Westermann e-mailed back meekly that he had provided the same language a few months before for Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Bolton was enraged when Westermann arrived: "He wanted to know what right I had trying to change an undersecretary's language. . . . And he got very red in the face and shaking his finger at me and explained that I was acting way beyond my position. . . . And so, he basically threw me out of his office and told me to get Tom Fingar up there," Westermann testified.
Fingar at the time was acting head of INR and now has the job full-time. He testified that when he arrived, Bolton was still furious, saying that "he wasn't going to be told what he could say by a midlevel INR munchkin analyst," and "that he wanted Westermann taken off his accounts." To their immense credit, Fingar and his boss, INR chief Carl Ford, refused to cave to continuing pressure from Bolton to transfer Westermann. He's still on the job.
And what about the Cuban biological weapons program that had Bolton so exercised? In 2004 the intelligence community revised its 1999 estimate because it was even less sure that Cuba had any such effort to develop offensive weapons of mass destruction. In other words, the mercurial, finger-wagging policymaker appears to have had it wrong, and the cautious analyst who refused to be intimidated had it right.