The Iran NIE: Mendacity, Incompetence or Just the Usual Vileness

The Iran National Intelligence Estimate finding with a high degree of confidence that Iran abandoned its pursuit of a nuclear weapon in 2003 seems on course to completely upend the state of political debate — provided some Democrat wants to make something of it instead of just leaving the story to follow its course in the press.

The NIE has been in essentially the state that it is today for a year. Apparently additional sourcing for the 2003 abandonment has caused the intelligence community to upgrade their confidence level in recent weeks, but that’s about it. This information has been in hand for a year now, during which time the administration continued to amp up their rhetoric on Iran with dark portents of World War III. Now the administration is obfuscating what was known and when. There are three stand-outs to me in their various stories:

  1. The President was only fully informed of the contents of the NIE on Wednesday, 28 November, or maybe 26 November 2007, depending on whether you believe Stephen Hadley or Seymour Hersh (“Hersh: Bush Told Olmert Of NIE Two Days Before President Was Allegedly First Briefed On It,” ThinkProgress, 4 December 2007). Or maybe some earlier date still, since all that Mr. Hersh has is a no-later-than date.

    Given that this information has been the subject of some rather significant administration infighting, possibly even resulting in the demotion of John Negroponte from the cabinet-level post of Director of National Intelligence to a Sate Department Deputy (Porter, Gareth, “Cheney Tried to Stifle Dissent in Iran NIE,” Inter Press Service, 8 November 2007), it would be hard to believe that it could have escaped the attention of the President. Hard to believe, but not impossible: President Bush’s attention is hardly inescapable.

  2. Bush was told — sort of — back in August as he hedgingly revealed in his Tuesday press conference (“Press Conference by the President,” White House, Washington, D.C., 4 December 2007):

    BUSH: I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was John — Mike McConnell came in and said, We have some new information. He didn’t tell me what the information was. He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze.

    One might think from this that the President’s Daily Briefing is a guessing game between the President and the Director of National Intelligence (“I’m thinking of a rogue state that sets off a Geiger counter. Can you guess which one it is?”). But reading any book on the Bush administration by — take your pick — Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind, etc. — and you quickly see that the President’s habit of punctuality and always ending meetings on time — touted by the right as a virtue over the perpetually behind schedule Bill Clinton — is actually a function of his remarkable incuriosity. Again and again you read of a briefer or primary’s amazement that after sitting through a detailed presentation, President Bush would simply jump up without a single question, issued a manly “Great work” or some such oral back-slap and exit the room.

    Given this, I wouldn’t doubt that after hearing of potential critical new information, it wouldn’t occur to President Bush to even ask what that might be. Having now become fully informed as to the new information, President Bush yesterday specifically said that it hasn’t changed his addled mind one iota. People who never reexamine their positions aren’t in need of new information, so why bother asking?

  3. The Office of the Vice President has done everything it its power to pressure the intelligence community to alter its findings (sound familiar?). Baring that, they have tried to prevent the release of the key findings and have succeeded in doing so for some months now (Porter, Gareth, ibid.). But it’s nut just for the sake of external message that they go to all these lengths. There’s been plenty of reporting on the fact that Dick Cheney and his staff engage in a significant amount of maneuver to determine who gets to speak to the President and what information reaches his desk — undoubtedly with only the best intention to wisely manage the President’s time, certainly not to squelch positions differing from that of the OVP.

    At this point President Bush is systematically kept in the dark about all manner of issues. Think of that memo from George Tennet warning about the famous sixteen words in the State of the Union that died on Stephen Hadley’s desk. Just a bureaucratic oversight?

    Of the services that an effective agent provides to a president one is that of plausible deniability in the form of the agents shielding the president from possession of certain inconvenient information, especially in the era of “what did he know and when did he know it.” It is well observed that one of the pitfalls a president faces is “the bubble.” Especially as an administration wears on, a president can wind up extremely isolated and the Oval Office is an extremely lonely place. This is an extremely complicated dynamic, but the gift of plausible deniability is one of those reasons.

    President Bush has always been more the pitch-man-in-chief more than the prime mover of this administration and to make his pitch for the administration’s policies sometimes less is more. Every president needs a sin eater and Vice President Cheney serves that roll for President Bush.

Now-a-days even the likes of Joe Scarborough are suggesting that the President is either lying or stupid (Frick, Ali, “Joe Scarborough Rips Bush On Iran NIE: He’s Either ‘Lying’ Or ‘Is Stupid’,” ThinkProgress, 5 December 2007). I see no reason to choose as I think that this administration is polymorphously evil: a nasty combination of mendacity, incompetence and the malign.

The thing I don’t get is how these people can preserve even a modicum of legitimacy. If the papers won’t just report that the President lied his way through a press conference this afternoon, you would think that at some point they might just stop reporting on what he says as it is simply too unreliable to print.

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