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An Arrogance of Power

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

There is a temptation that seeps into the souls of even the most righteous politicians and leads them to bend the rules, and eventually the truth, to suit the political needs of the moment. That arrogance of power is on display with the Bush administration.

The most vivid example is the long delay in informing the country that Vice President Cheney had accidentally shot a man last Saturday while hunting in Texas. For a White House that informs us about the smallest bumps and scrapes suffered by the president and vice president, the lag is inexplicable. But let us assume the obvious: It was an attempt to delay and perhaps suppress embarrassing news. We will never know whether the vice president's office would have announced the incident at all if the host of the hunting party, Katharine Armstrong, hadn't made her own decision Sunday morning to inform her local paper.

Nobody died at Armstrong Ranch, but this incident reminds me a bit of Sen. Edward Kennedy's delay in informing Massachusetts authorities about his role in the fatal automobile accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969. That story, and dozens of others about the Kennedy family, illustrates how wealthy, powerful people can behave as if they are above the law. For my generation, the fall of Richard Nixon is the ultimate allegory about how power can corrupt and destroy. It begins not with venality but with a sense of God-given mission.

I would be inclined to leave Cheney to the mercy of Jon Stewart and Jay Leno if it weren't for other signs that this administration has jumped the tracks. What worries me most is the administration's misuse of intelligence information to advance its political agenda. For a country at war, this is truly dangerous.

The most recent example of politicized intelligence was President Bush's statement on Feb. 9 that the United States had "derailed" a 2002 plot to fly a plane into the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles. Bush spoke about four al Qaeda plotters who had planned to use shoe bombs to blow open the cockpit door. But a foreign official with detailed knowledge of the intelligence scoffed at Bush's account, saying that the information obtained from Khalid Sheik Mohammed and an Indonesian operative known as Hambali was not an operational plan so much as an aspiration to destroy the tallest building on the West Coast. When I asked a former high-level U.S. intelligence official about Bush's comment, he agreed that Bush had overstated the intelligence.

Perhaps the most outrageous example of misusing intelligence has been the administration's attempt to undercut Paul Pillar and other former CIA officials who tried to warn about the dangers ahead in Iraq. I'm not talking about the agency's botched job on weapons of mass destruction but about its warnings that postwar Iraq would be chaotic and dangerous. Pillar said so privately before the war, and he helped draft an August 2004 national intelligence estimate warning, correctly, that the situation in Iraq was deteriorating and heading for "tenuous stability" at best.

Bush was unhappy at this naysaying, just as he has grumbled about pessimistic reports from the CIA station in Baghdad. When Pillar made similar warnings about Iraq at a private dinner in September 2004, the White House went ballistic -- seeing Pillar as part of a CIA conspiracy to undermine the president's policies. Soon after, Bush installed a former Republican congressman, Porter Goss, who began a purge at the agency that has driven out a generation of senior managers. Pillar and many, many others have retired, leaving the nation without some of its best intelligence officers when we need them most.

Bush and Cheney are in the bunker. That's the only way I can make sense of their actions. They are steaming in a broth of daily intelligence reports that highlight the grim terrorist threats facing America. They have sworn blood oaths that they will defend the United States from its adversaries -- no matter what . They have blown past the usual rules and restraints into territory where few presidents have ventured -- a region where the president conducts warrantless wiretaps against Americans in violation of a federal statute, where he authorizes harsh interrogation methods that amount to torture.

When critics question the legality of the administration's actions, Bush and Cheney assert the commander in chief's power under Article II of the Constitution. When Congress passes a law forbidding torture, the White House appends a signing statement insisting that Article II -- the power of the commander in chief -- trumps everything else. When the administration's Republican friends suggest amending the wiretapping law to make its program legal, the administration refuses. Let's say it plainly: This is the arrogance of power, and it has gone too far in the Bush White House.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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