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Sunday, November 20, 2005

The President should "manipulate" intelligence 

We have lost our way in the partisan acrimony over whether the Bush administration "lied" about or "manipulated" intelligence to promote the war in Iraq. Opponents of the President's policies in Iraq (or opponents of the President, period) seem to be arguing for a world in which all Americans sit in judgment of every foreign policy decision as if they were the chief executive burdened with the responsibility of decision. This is an absurd conception of leadership that nobody serious actually believes. I'll say it: I want my president to manipulate intelligence in furtherance of his conception of the national interest. That's what we elect him to do.

We want the President to manipulate intelligence in small and large ways. The small ways are essentially bureaucratic -- it is in the nature of intelligence that it must be construed in the context of bureaucratic infighting. The large ways are geopolitical -- our foreign policy is an extended, endless game of poker. We do not want our chief executive to reveal all his cards, even if that means he must deceive us about his reasons for certain of his actions.

"Small" manipulation

Virtually all the information flowing into the office of a chief executive is attached to an agenda. In a corporation, executives with a particular expertise or area of responsibility will emphasize the information that matters to them. The sales department will "prove" that the critical input is more sales reps, and the research and development guys will argue that competitive advantage lies in developing new products. Not only will the chief executive understand that virtually all his advice depends from one or another agenda, but he will then cite the intelligence that he relies upon in making the case for the strategy that he ultimately advances. So, for instance, if a company cuts its R&D budget to hire more sales reps, the CEO will then cite the arguments of his sales department when defending his strategy to directors, analysts, stockholders and CNBC. Of course, he knows damn well that his R&D department argued differently and might ultimately prove to be correct, but he also knows that it is his job to argue for the policy that he embraces. To do that, he manipulates the "intelligence" he has received from his various departments to present the best possible case for the strategy he has decided upon. Stockholders do not feel "deceived" by this. Rather, they would think that any chief executive who revealed all the ugly internal argument over the best strategy had lost his mind.

So it is with Presidents. The White House receives thousands of intelligence inputs that support arguments for alternative policies. Some of those inputs are already digested in the form of a national intelligence estimate. That document is itself a bureaucratic compromise, a summary of thousands of other inputs that is bound to be qualified internally (via hedgy footnotes) and externally (via contradictory memos buried in the files of contributing agencies, or competing assessments entirely outside the government). We want the President to understand the intelligence and make a decision that incorporates it, but we don't want the intelligence to dictate the policy. We want the President to develop a policy that is based in part on intelligence and in part on sound judgment about the geopolitical benefits of the action proposed to be taken. The policy, though, will dictate that portion of the intelligence that the President emphasizes in his public argument for that policy. And that is how it should be. Do any of us want a President who twists his hanky in front of the world? Of course not. We want our President to decide upon the policy that he believes is in our best interest, and then we want him to go make it so.

President Bush believed that it was important for the United States to invade Iraq and replace its regime. There were a great many arguments in favor of this policy, most of which were made by the Administration in one form or another before the war. One of the arguments was a legalistic one -- that Saddam's government was, by virtue of its alleged present development and possession of WMD, in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. It was important to some people, including some Democrats and Tony Blair, that the UNSC endorse the war, or that it be unreasonably vetoed. Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make a legal case for a UNSC stamp of approval, not to make the best geopolitical case for the removal of Saddam Hussein. The geopolitical case did not depend on existing WMD, and still doesn't. But the intelligence that appeared to show Saddam's WMD programs were central to the administration's advocacy in front of the United Nations, so it is neither surprising nor shameful that it omitted all the various footnotes and hedges that have surfaced in the last thirty months or so. Do you want our President to share all our doubts and qualifications with the world? I certainly don't.

Large manipulation

Foreign policy is not an exercise in seeking the truth. It is a game of bluff and deception that occasionally turns bloody. Our government is engaged in an endless, high stakes game of poker in which cheating is essential and expected. We have spies to spot the other guy's cards, and he has spies to try to discover ours. He is going to defend himself by lying about his motivations and capabilities, and so must we. He is going to misdirect us by betting heavily on weak hands or fighting for positions that do not matter to him, and so must we. Since one cannot both lie to the enemy and tell the truth to the American people -- one can assume that the enemy watches CNN just like anybody else -- we need the executive branch to tell lies in the national interest even if it means lying to the American people. I am relieved when I learn after the fact that we did not understand the true reasons for a statement or action of our government. If we did know, that meant that our adversaries also knew, so we are better off if we, at least, were kept in the dark.

Nobody serious objects to this idea that we want our government to lie to our enemies. The objection, of course, is that an administration might lie not to deceive the enemy, but for a nefarious purpose. Obviously, if a government lies to justify an action that cannot be seen as in the national interest, the lie itself is suddenly indefensible. The political opposition to George Bush, therefore, has devoted a great deal of time to imputing a nefarious motive behind Operation Iraqi Freedom. This is why we hear the laughable claims that the war was for Halliburton, the product of some dark "neocon" conspiracy to aid Israel, or to grab Iraq's oil. The opposition hurls these slanders so that it can characterize the administration's behavior as self-serving, and therefore not in the national interest at all.

The problem with this line of attack, though, is that it exposes the weakness in the opposition's argument. We want the administration to lie if it is doing so in the national interest, and therefore will not object to its characterization of the available intelligence unless we think that the purpose of the war was nefarious. But if the purpose of the war was nefarious, does it really then matter that the administration lied about the intelligence? Is it not far worse to go to war for a nefarious purpose? The "respectible" opponents of the war -- the Cold Feet Democrats, for example -- will not claim that the purpose of the war was nefarious. They simply complain that the President "lied" about the underlying intelligence. But if the war was in the national interest, we needed him to lie. They know this, but for so long as the war repels rather than attracts votes we can expect them to claim that "truth" is the highest value, even if it means showing our cards to our enemies.

28 Comments:

By Blogger Seixon, at Sun Nov 20, 10:06:00 PM:

I'd be tempted to think that the CIA purposely lied to Congress and the Bush administration to further our national interests.

The Plame scandal, and the Democrats' sniping at Bush might be more of a strategy by certain factions within the CIA who did not agree with going into Iraq.

Just a theory anyway. It's not like Bush really had a clue what was going on in Iraq, but the CIA sure did. Or at least they should have known...  

By Blogger Gateway Pundit, at Sun Nov 20, 10:13:00 PM:

Why is this even a discussion? It is so ridiculous and untrue. I wish the democrats would look back at number 8 in the Commandments. But, since they took those out of public view they have probably forgotten that it is not appropriate to make up stories against your friend or foe.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sun Nov 20, 10:44:00 PM:

CIA who did not agree with going into Iraq

The CIA should take positions on "agree/disagree" with policy decisions.

They are (these days at least)a frigging supplier of intelligence.

I find it totally OUTLANDISH that a supplier would be in the business of taking positions on what its CUSTOMER does with its product.

The CIA needs an attitude tune-up on what their actual mission is.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sun Nov 20, 10:45:00 PM:

Oops, should be "The CIA should NOT take positions on "agree/disagree" with policy decisions"  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Nov 21, 12:39:00 AM:

Given that you'd like him to, do you think the President actually did manipulate the intelligence - lie in order further his conception of the national interest - in this case?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Nov 21, 12:50:00 AM:

ALL PRAISE THE GREAT LEADER!  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon Nov 21, 01:26:00 AM:

Max Power -

No, I don't think that the White House lied in this case. There was a huge amount of circumstantial evidence that Saddam was at least trying to reconstitute his programs, and intelligence agencies all over the world thought that he had. Also, Saddam's behavior in the run-up to the war was totally irrational -- why not just comply if you don't have the weapons? Finally, if you are going to lie about something, why lie about a fact that will become demonstrable following the invasion? Why not come up with some less refutable lie? So, no, I believe that the White House genuinely believed that we would undercover WMD, or even be attacked by them.

However, I do think that in their public advocacy for the war the Bushies tended to emphasize and lend credence to the intelligence that supported their position. I also think that there were actors who very much wanted an American invasion, including particularly the Iraqi exiles and perhaps the Iranians, who fed the United States incorrect or even fraudulent intelligence. Since I do not think that the existence of functional WMD stockpiles was ever the best geopolitical reason to remove Saddam, but only the best way to make the case to the Security Council, I am not myself troubled by this. Except, of course, that the whole episode has very much harmed American credibility after the fact.  

By Blogger Admin, at Mon Nov 21, 07:25:00 AM:

i cannot support this line of thought at all.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon Nov 21, 07:31:00 AM:

'Course you can't, Uptown. However, you obviously have many talents. Perhaps you will be CEO of a public company some day, and will be able to relate.  

By Blogger cakreiz, at Mon Nov 21, 09:35:00 AM:

Being a pragmitist, I understand your argument. There are times in foreign policy when deceit or bluff may be required (FDR's prewar policies). But as a whole, the allure of 'ends justifying the means' is frought with problems. The days of LBJ pulling off a phony Gulf of Tonkin are over. And then there was this guy named Nixon. Like it or not, we're handicapped with candor and honesty. But we'll be okay.  

By Blogger Gordon Smith, at Mon Nov 21, 10:26:00 AM:

The President ought not be able to manipulate the intelligence he gives to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or any other Congressional body charged with the task of approving military action.

All of the abstractions aside, President Bush had a good deal of information to cast doubt on the "certainties" of nuclear weapons, unmanned aerial drones, 45 minutes, tons of chemical and biological weapons. In many cases, the administration used information from sources they knew were unreliable.

Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and the gang looked into the eyes of the American people, still profoundly shaken by 9/11, and willfully tried to scare the shit out of us in order to make his case for war. Powell's visit to the U.N. with his "there can be no doubt" and his "rock solid intelligence", has proven to the world that the word of the United States can not be trusted.

So the administration, in an effort to go after Iraq (Bush and the gang had been looking forward to this for a loooooong time), sold half-truths to a frightened populace and cherry picked the intelligence he gave to Congress.

Any argument that rests on a foundation of dishonesty in government is one that doesn't trust truth and open democracy to win out.

To that I'd ask, what are we fighting for?  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Mon Nov 21, 11:21:00 AM:

Powell's visit to the U.N. with his "there can be no doubt" and his "rock solid intelligence", has proven to the world that the word of the United States can not be trusted.

No, it's only proven that we should never have gone that route.

And we didn't have to. Saddam was in obvious non-compliance of the terms of the original Gulf War cease-fire. We should have never allowed ourselves to be put in the position of having to try to prove anything. It was Saddam's responsibility to abide by the terms of the cease-fire and the many resultant UN resolutions set forth to try to compell that compliance.

Instead, Saddam played us and the UN (not to mention the rest of the world) for fools for as long as he could. And anyone wishing to look for the "foundation of dishonesty" in this matter need look no further than that.  

By Blogger honestpartisan, at Mon Nov 21, 11:37:00 AM:

If I was the shareholder in a corporation where the CEO manipulated information, and the CEO's plan caused the share price to drop precipitously, I'd demand that the Board of Directors fire the CEO.  

By Blogger Gordon Smith, at Mon Nov 21, 12:01:00 PM:

Shorter sirius_sir:

"When Saddam lies about weapons he doesn't have, it's very, very bad. When the United States lies about the weapons he doesn't have, it's very, very good."  

By Blogger Admin, at Mon Nov 21, 01:45:00 PM:

“The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government……..The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” -Eisenhower-

Bold and Italics mine  

By Blogger Admin, at Mon Nov 21, 01:48:00 PM:

it is in the best interest of the people of the united states to have its president lie to it and its representatives?

speaking of ceo's and their understanding of political manuverings, i think what we have is the enroning of the united states of america.

may i suggest: http://www.consortiumnews.com/2005/111705a.html

as a decent read.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Nov 21, 01:58:00 PM:

I guess if I were a right-wing asshole like Tyger here, I'd be proud of a lying, deceitful President too, since that's the only kind the GOP ever seems to give us these days.  

By Blogger Admin, at Mon Nov 21, 02:52:00 PM:

actually, we try to keep that kind of namecalling out of the discussions here, as they really aren't going to help us find common ground, which is the whole point of our little experiment in democracy.

where we certainly do not agree, i've learned alot reading this blog.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Mon Nov 21, 06:04:00 PM:

screwy hoolie,

I'm curious about your statement that Saddam lied about the weapons he didn't have.

Does that mean he was telling us he DID have them?

In any event, given the fact that the cease-fire required him to show he had disarmed, and given the further fact that he continually disrupted all attempts to discover what he did or did not have, it doesn't really matter what Saddam said.

It matters only what he did, and the fact remains his actions put him out of compliance with the original Gulf War cease-fire.  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Mon Nov 21, 06:34:00 PM:

Smitty - well that was rude. In defense of my partner, TH, I would observe that he really doesn't qualify as a right wing asshole. Screwey will confirm to you that that would be me. TH is merely pro-war. He is a centrist.

If you're going to be insulting, crass and offensive, at least get your facts right. Otherwise I'll haul off and call you a Democrat.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Tue Nov 22, 10:29:00 AM:

Now that was funny!  

By Blogger Catchy Pseudonym, at Tue Nov 22, 11:10:00 AM:

Dude!... a Democrat?... That's just plain mean.

Smitty needs to learn some manners and how to spell Tiger. As a lefty commie tree-lovin' Democrat, I'll throw in my agreement with Cardinalpark in defense of TH.

P.S. Though I very much disagree with Tyger on his post.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Nov 23, 05:41:00 AM:

Tigerhawk, here is the case for why a President, or a CEO of a public company, should not lie to the public, even if he thinks it is in the best interests of nation or company.

If a leader resorts to deception to make his case - no matter how honorable his intention - people will stop believing him. People stop believing liars. A leader whose word cannot be believed cannot lead.

That's not a partisan political argument. Any politician know that without their credibility, they have nothing, which is why they try so hard to keep it.

Other problems relating to lying - that certain forms of deception are strictly illegal and may lead to impeachment or the SEC prosecuting you for fraud - are serious, but perhaps subordinate to the main drawback.  

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