Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Ok, it's official: the CIA is at war with the Bush administration. Now they're undercutting an anticipated briefing on Syrian WMDs that Bush was to have presented.

U.S. officials told Knight Ridder that [Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton] was prepared to tell members of a House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee that Syria's development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons had progressed to such a point that they posed a threat to stability in the region.

Syria has come under increasing U.S. pressure during and after the Iraq war for allegedly giving refuge to members of Saddam Hussein's regime, allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq to attack U.S. troops and for backing Palestinian militant groups that were conducting terrorist strikes on Israel. After Saddam's government fell, some Bush aides hinted that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus might be the next U.S. target.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies said that assessment was exaggerated....
Bolton's planned remarks caused a "revolt" among intelligence experts who thought they inflated the progress Syria has made in its weapons programs, said a U.S. official who isn't from the CIA, but was involved in the dispute...

...The CIA's objections and comments alone ran to 35 to 40 pages, the official said.
The punchline? The address was supposed to happen on Tuesday, but the avalanche of objections and the continual public leaks from the CIA make that impossible, so it's been pushed back to September. What's disturbing about this situation, however, isn't that the CIA has decided they're not going to knuckle under anymore, it's that if they hadn't been doing so, we'd all be talking about the upcoming invasion of Syria at this very moment. It's abundantly clear that that's what Bolton's address was all about; he was starting the ball rolling, and we'd have seen the same little "we won't/we will/why are you asking that" dance that we saw last summer, as the administration gets everybody used to the idea of invasion, starts to understand it as an inevitability, and spends their time trying to ferret out whether Bush is actually going to authorize the invasion or not instead of whether or not such an invasion is justified.

Right now, though, any such attempt would be almost impossible. The questions about misrepresented, misinterpreted, or deliberately altered intelligence make the sort of trust in the President that would be necessary for any sort of war (let alone a preemptive one) absolutely impossible. This is why this is worse than Clinton, and why the Republicans have been so obviously tendentious over the actions of the two presidents. Clinton's behavior eroded his moral authority- he had (supposedly) lost the "bully pulpit" with which a head of state can cajole the people into doing what they don't necessarily want to do but must for the good of the nation. Bush, on the other hand, has shown the American public that he cannot be trusted: to know what's happening in the world, to relate it to the people, and to formulate foreign policy based on that knowledge and their reactions.

This is extraordinarily dangerous. If he doesn't know if a country is a threat- if nobody knows if a country is a threat- then he could be damaging America's alliances and reputation through unwarranted military action, or he could be letting a real threat get stronger. Either way, it damages American national security. Since that is the most important job he has in the eyes of most Americans, it raises questions about his fundamental competency for the job. I think those questions are what have prompted the CIA to start contradicting Bush. It isn't just trying to blame Tenet or the CIA; it is a realization that their boss is dangerously incompetent, threatens their own country and families, and that they hold the key to getting him kicked out.

Just goes to show that, as others have pointed out, you really, really don't want to tick off the CIA.

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