Open Up, Mr. President

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, November 3, 2005

Dear Mr. President,

Wouldn't a letter to the editor have sufficed?

Seriously. Wouldn't it have been better if you or Karl Rove or Scooter Libby had just written a letter to the newspapers that got so deep under the official skin by publishing the leaks and articles provided by former ambassador Joe Wilson?

"He's full of it" would have been one time-honored approach, followed by convincing supporting detail, of which you had some. Why not spring for a stamp and argue your case in public, rather than let Official A (aka Rove) and Libby overreact with anonymous counter-leaks about Wilson's wife, the CIA officer and Vanity Fair babe?

Yes, I presume a great deal in making this modest proposal, which would also have enabled you to uphold the principles of freedom of information that make this country proud and unique. There is no suggestion in the perjury, etc., etc. indictment sluiced down on Libby by the deftly disingenuous Patrick Fitzgerald that you participated in these events or even knew about them. That, sir, is part of the problem.

Your self-advertised disdain for the media and for the confusing, often contradictory flood of information that washes over a distracted public helped create a White House in which stealth tactics ran rampant and open debate was suppressed. This goes for official deliberations as well as for the uneven attempts at news management. Your aides learned quickly that you did not like to see them arguing in front of you. So they argued elsewhere.

That is the larger point about your responsibility for letting the Wilson molehill become a mountain. You set the tone. To figure out what they should do, your subordinates study the statements and decisions you make -- and the bureaucratic conflicts you leave open and simmering and unresolved to leach away the presidential authority you so covet. You have let official secrecy become an end in itself, a positive value rather than a necessary evil to be used sparingly in an open society.

It is not surprising that your White House distrusts and/or despises the media, the CIA, the State Department's career officers, the United Nations and a host of other institutions that you could not control, but that you could not accept that you could not control. Like most paranoia, yours is not totally unfounded: People in those institutions were out to defy and/or get you.

But you and yours helped them accomplish the mission. One lesson available in this story is that amateurs are no match for the CIA in disinformation campaigns. The spies are far better at operating in the shadows than you politicians will ever be. They have a license to dissemble.

The hidden management of the criminal justice process and the news media practiced by spooks in Wilson-Rove-Libbygate is nothing short of brilliant. So you were right to fear the agency. Where else do you think the one-page crime report that triggered the investigation and then the pressure-building leaks disclosing its existence came from?

Fear probably caused you to keep the Clinton-appointed leadership in place at the CIA long after some of its top operatives mounted a rebellion against the White House, in part to shift attention from their failures to yours. I know that George Tenet charmed you, and the rest of us. That's what spies and spymasters do, sir. You should have been taking that into account.

But you feared something else more. You feared openness. You feared laying out your fallibilities along with your strengths for others to judge. You feared laying out facts -- good, bad and indifferent -- for others to judge. You were unable even to acknowledge that the fiefdoms within your administration were at war. So all attacks had to be subterranean.

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