The Spies Strike Back
The Fourth of July came on Dec. 3 this year for the U.S. intelligence community.
The nation's espionage agencies delivered their own declaration of independence from the war aims and rhetoric of President Bush and Vice President Cheney in a National Intelligence Estimate that was ostensibly about Iran's nuclear program.
But the CIA, DIA and 14 other agencies grouped under the director of national intelligence also delivered a riveting if implicit X-ray of the changing nature of leadership in Washington, where the White House's once-commanding authority over government has been smashed but not replaced by any other power center.
The Bush-Cheney obsession with restoring presidential authority has provoked new challenges to powers the White House can legitimately claim. It is as if this administration has developed its own political version of Jimmy Carter's aborted project for a neutron bomb, which was intended to destroy people while sparing buildings. Bush consistently manages to destroy or damage goals he proclaims and friends who support him, while foes escapes harm.
The publication of an unclassified version of the NIE, which concludes that Iran is "probably" not working on a nuclear weapon at this time, has triggered unintended consequences. Iran's diplomatic hand is strengthened, while foreign diplomats and officials who have pushed their governments to join the U.S. campaign of sanctions and international condemnation are suddenly undermined. "We will be exposed to a lot of criticism at home now," one official from the developing world glumly told me shortly after the estimate was issued.
"They won't say it, but our leaders must be devastated by the way this was handled," an Israeli friend said. "Not by the facts of the report, which can be discussed reasonably, but by the presentation and interpretation of the report. This happens when intelligence agencies become traumatized by previous mistakes and overreact the other way the next time."
Domestically, the most significant fact about the NIE is its public manifestation. The White House was powerless to prevent publication of a document that made Bush aides unhappy and uncomfortable. The administration went along because it knew that the document -- and any attempt to suppress it -- would have been immediately leaked.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte (formerly the director of national intelligence) subtly but clearly pointed to the administration's fear of disclosure when he recalled in an interview on PBS's "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" that "there was a time when one simply did not publicize any of this activity, nor was it leaked."
The intelligence community has made itself a separate agency of government, answerable essentially to itself. This NIE makes clear that for better or worse, spy agencies today make the finished product of policy rather than providing the raw materials.
That significant change in the ways of Washington should not go unremarked, even if on balance the consequences of publication of the assessment are positive: As its authors clearly intended, the document removes any basis for the U.S. military strikes on Iran that many of us have argued would be unwise and unnecessary.
As a journalist, I also welcome the sunshine that comes when the important analytical work of intelligence agencies is exposed to public scrutiny and discussion. Greater transparency has been a consistent goal of Gen. Michael Hayden, first at the National Security Agency and now as head of the CIA.
Hayden's appointment 18 months ago to replace the hapless Porter Goss, who replaced the devious George Tenet, began the chain of events that led to Monday's breakout of the analysts. The Air Force general immediately told associates that his mission was to reestablish the agency's credibility, which had been shredded by the failure to detect both that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons in 1990 and was not in 2003. That meant "low-balling" -- or being extremely conservative -- on intelligence estimates to restore confidence, Hayden remarked. Disclosures last week that the CIA had destroyed two videotapes of "severe interrogation techniques" being used on terrorism suspects show how far Hayden has to go and the need for a congressional ban on such practices.
Bush bears heavy responsibility for the collapse of presidential authority on his watch. His reckless disregard of the hard work and details of governance have made followership a difficult and dangerous pursuit under him. The spies understand and reflect that reality in their thinly disguised disavowal of his gravely compromised credibility.
But technology and other forces are undermining hierarchal relationships in social and professional organizations everywhere. Bush's successor should not anticipate -- with even medium confidence -- that things will snap back to "normal" in the world of espionage when he or she arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.