Sense of Superiority
From The New Criterion.
January 31, 2008.
"Welcome to the real world," said the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, to the media at a press conference last month. He was attempting to explain to them why the difficulties of intelligence-gathering ought to be understood as denying them the opportunity presented by the new National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear threat for yet another cheap triumph at the expense of the Bush administration. He would have known in advance that the media don’t know, or at least pretend not to know, that intelligence changes all the time without any chargeable error to, let alone wrong-doing by, those who are responsible for collecting it or acting on it. The certainty that the news would be treated as yet another blow to the administration’s much battered "credibility" must have been behind the decision by someone in its press or political office to try to get out in front of the breaking story by claiming it as a victory for themselves.
"On balance, the estimate is good news," said poor Mr Hadley. "On the one hand, it confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it tells us that we have made some progress in trying to ensure that that does not happen." He did not even mention, though others did, that the only "international pressure" on the Iranians in 2003 — mentioned by the report as the reason for the nuclear program’s discontinuance then — was that exerted by the American invasion of neighboring Iraq. If the Iranians had given up on their efforts to build a bomb — as we already know the Libyans did — as a result of that invasion, wasn’t that a vindication of Mr Bush’s policies? That might sound reasonable enough to you or me, but good luck trying to get the media to believe that this was anything but what the anti-Bush blogger, Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post called "neck-snapping spin even by Bush standards."
For Mr Hadley must have known that his welcome to reality was premature. The charms of media-reality were bound to be too great to resist. In media-reality, as he must have known, public officials are measured not against the real-world difficulties of intelligence-gathering in an almost uniformly hostile environment but against the media’s own standard of presumptive omniscience by which, of course, such officials are invariably found wanting — particularly if their names are Bush or Cheney. Sure enough, the more cautious media analysts wasted no time in proclaiming that the administration had bungled yet again in calling attention for months and years past to the Iranian threat that every other Western intelligence service was calling attention to as well. The less cautious saw the report — as they see everything they plausibly or even implausibly can — as scandalous evidence of wrong-doing on the part of the President.
Was this a "pathological presidential liar, or an idiot-in-chief"? wondered the reliably incautious Keith Olbermann of MSNBC’s "Countdown," not for the first time. And in high dudgeon he apostrophized the President himself thus:
And we are to believe, Mr. Bush, that nobody told you any of this until last week? Your insistence that you were not briefed on the NIE until last week might be legally true, something like ‘what the definition of is is,’ but with the subject matter being not interns but the threat of nuclear war. Legally, this might save you from some kind of war crimes trial, but ethically, it is a lie. It is indefensible. You have been yelling threats into a phone for nearly four months, after the guy on the other end had already hung up. You, Mr. Bush, are a bald-faced liar. . . You not only knew all of this about Iran in early August, but you also knew it was all accurate. And instead of sharing this good calming news with the people you have obviously forgotten you represent, you merely fine-tuned your terrorizing of those people to legally cover your own backside. While you filled the factual gap with sadistic visions of, as you phrased it on August 28th, a quote, ‘nuclear holocaust,’ as you phrased it on October 17th, quote, ‘World War III.’
Such rhetorical hyperventilation could only have been produced by a profound and wilful ignorance on Mr Olbermann’s part — better to be "idiot-in-chief," perhaps, than idiot tout court — of what all intelligence reports, including this one, really are. If you knew what was "accurate," you wouldn’t need intelligence reports, which are precisely for the purpose of filling one "factual gap" or another with the best-sourced speculation available at any given moment. Mr Olbermann simply assumes that the speculation, now also the most recent, which confirms his own prejudices is "accurate" and all others are "lies." It is an assumption which might seem more unfair and unreasonable to him than it obviously does if one just like it had not lain so long unrebuked by the media consensus and even by the administration itself.
That was of course the now-famously erroneous intelligence estimates of five years ago concerning Saddam Hussein’s suppositional weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — estimates which led to thousands of bumper-stickers and demonstration placards all to the effect that "Bush lied; people died." The "lie" was in both cases what many in the media chose to call someone’s best guesses about secrets which our enemies were understandably sedulous to keep, which they had kept and, in the case of the Iranian nuclear program, which so far as we know they still keep successfully. Wouldn’t any fair-minded person reject such a characterization? If we can understand why the more rabid sort of anti-war protestors were eager to adopt it, why were so many commentators and analysts in the media ready to do likewise?
Partly it must be because they are overwhelmingly anti-Bush in sympathy and inhabit a media culture which, even if they were more sympathetic than they are, has come to the point of having little or nothing to report about our public life that is not scandal or, like the NIE, a hopefully projected scandal. That’s why I think it injudicious for those who themselves aspire to the office held by Mr Bush to be eager to join in the Olbermania. Aren’t they giving hostages to fortune by adopting as their own a media ideal of presidential perfection which has been designed to generate endless scandal stories? Perhaps John Edwards thought he had little to lose by choosing to conduct his campaign in media-reality just so as to be able to take for granted the existence of the very bad thing, now hopefully stymied by the NIE, that he called "George Bush and Dick Cheney's rush to war with Iran." At any rate, he was willing to run the risk that the people he sought to excite with such rhetoric might pause in their baying for those two gentlemen’s blood long enough to notice that there has been no war with Iran during the nearly seven years of the Bush presidency. Some rush!
But there is another reason why, I think, the media wilfully mischaracterize the lessons of official government intelligence and that has to do with their horror of not knowing and especially of admitting to what they don’t know. Diplomatic and military intelligence always amounts to creatively organized ignorance, but the media tend to be blind to the fact because they are as desperate to conceal their own ignorance from the public as they are to conceal their bias. Once acknowledged, either would spell economic ruin — at least so the media themselves imagine — for an industry which has been built on the promise of accurate and "objective" knowledge inaccessible to those without the media’s resources and the media’s skill in using them to ferret out "the truth." It is not only ignorance and lack of imagination, therefore, which blinds the media to the difficulties and uncertainties of intelligence-gathering by official bodies and their assumption that it is, instead, just like journalism. It’s also the advertising imperative to claim superiority for their own intelligence-gathering operation.
USA Today gave voice to the media consensus when it wrote of "the apparent return of intelligence developed without political meddling" — which is as much as to say, if the intelligence estimate disagrees with our estimate it’s political, if it agrees with us it isn’t. This is typical. The paper went on: "The pre-Iraq war NIE became notorious because of White House political interference and the lack of rigor in sourcing and reporting. Its assertions were almost all disproved, and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction proved to be a mirage. The latest NIE may or may not turn out to be right, but it at least appears to be untainted." Note the assumption there that intelligence gathering is in all essentials the same thing as journalism and involves the same "rigor in sourcing and reporting." That’s the fantasy world that Mr Hadley was unavailingly inviting the media to leave for the unfamiliar charms of reality. But for them to admit that there is no intelligence "untainted" by political judgment might lead on to the further admission, clearly unthinkable, that neither is their journalism untainted by political judgment.
Maybe it is because of the exaggerated and unjustified valuation put on intelligence — in the sense of brainpower — by the media, but it also seems to be beyond the brainpower of the media to conceive of the notion that intelligence — in the sense of military or diplomatic information useful to government — is a partisan and political phenomenon. Since they see themselves as being above partisanship and politics, it is easy for them to see those who gather information on behalf of their government in the same way. Both these views, however, are illusions, born of a species of wishful thinking and hopeful belief in the accessibility, at least to an élite to which the hoper invariably imagines himself to belong, of a realm of truth above politics and partisanship. At least I prefer this explanation of their obtuseness to the more cynical one that they adopt their lofty and "objective" view of the world as a mere cover to hide from the credulous their attempts to advance their own partisan agenda.
At the very least, we unashamed partisans ought to be entitled to some merry-making of our own to read that the same "high confidence" with which two years ago it was announced that there was a threat now accompanied the revised judgment that there was not a threat. Those who for years have been ridiculing the ineptitude of American intelligence on Iraq now hail the latest pronouncement by the same people as if it had come with a copper-bottomed guarantee of accuracy from God himself. As with the man who changes his testimony while under oath, we might consider ourselves as being entitled to ask: Are you lying now or were you lying then? Except, of course, lying doesn’t come into the matter except in the fevered imagination of the media, eager as ever to sniff out wrong-doing. What does come into it is what the media are well-practised in turning a blind eye to, namely the political motivations of those who seek to portray themselves as disinterested tellers of truth.
For if there were political motivations behind the impulse to maximize the Iranian threat, could there not also have been political motivations behind the impulse to minimize it? In places the NIE acknowledged that there were doubts about its own conclusions. It had only moderate confidence that Iran had not re-started the nuclear program since 2003, and it acknowledged that the Iranians continued as a part of their allegedly "peaceful" nuclear program to enrich uranium, which is primarily if not exclusively useful for military purposes. But the report’s authors invited the misreading that they received from the media, as they would have been extraordinarily na ve not to have foreseen that their work would be all but universally characterized by media scandal-hunters as "the truth" which therefore disproves the "lies" or "fabrications" that the previous estimate is now supposed to have amounted to.
The British were more skeptical, as were the Israelis — whose destruction of a North Korean-Syrian project of some kind in September was a reminder that they not only have more of a stake in getting the intelligence right but a better track record in doing so than we do. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed doubts about the report. As John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the U.N., wrote in the Washington Post, "when the IAEA is tougher than our analysts, you can bet the farm that someone is pursuing a policy agenda." And who could that be? According to an editorial in The Wall Street Journal,
the NIE’s main authors include three former State Department officials with previous reputations as "hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials," according to an intelligence source. They are Tom Fingar, formerly of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research; Vann Van Diepen, the National Intelligence Officer for WMD; and Kenneth Brill, the former U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). For a flavor of their political outlook, former Bush Administration anti-proliferation official John Bolton recalls in his recent memoir that then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage "described Brill’s efforts in Vienna, or lack thereof, as ‘bull****.’"
Even if this were not true, however, we could infer a political motivation behind the revision of the previous estimate. Otherwise we would have to assume that the authors of the report were so na ve as not to know what the media reaction to it would be, and in fact was, namely to regard the NIE as a serious embarrassment to the Bush administration. Moreover, it was an embarrassment that had even more serious real-world consequences. As Ambassador Bolton wrote, "While the president and others argue that we need to maintain pressure on Iran, this ‘intelligence’ torpedo has all but sunk those efforts, inadequate as they were. Ironically, the NIE opens the way for Iran to achieve its military nuclear ambitions in an essentially unmolested fashion, to the detriment of us all."
As I have noticed before in this space (see, for example, "The Plame Game" in The New Criterion of September, 2005), there are many reasons for thinking that the intelligence services and especially the CIA have for some years past been engaged in an effort to discredit the administration. When Ambassador Joseph Wilson or the CIA agent Michael Scheuer (the latter at first anonymously) took to the media their private disagreements with the government they were publicly sworn to serve, there was to be sure no chance that the media would do anything but pounce on them eagerly as an excuse for scandal-mongering against the president and his more loyal agents. But this meant that they missed the real scandal, which was that the CIA and perhaps other parts of the permanent bureaucracy were out of the control of their constitutionally designated political masters. In that context, the effective scuppering of a key element of the administration’s "War on Terror" by the NIE begins to look like no accident, comrades.
The role of the media in all this is obvious to everyone but the media themselves. Jim Hoagland, also writing in the Post, recognizes that "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." He also recognizes that "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." And yet he concludes his column by finding in these alarming facts no fault to find with anyone but the President himself: "Bush bears heavy responsibility for the collapse of presidential authority on his watch," he writes. "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."
In other words, if the spy agencies are slipping out of their constitutional restraints to undermine the policies of the government they are supposed to serve, it must be because the policies are bad and ill-conceived in the first place — and because, anyway, other people have already come to doubt them and so "made followership a difficult and dangerous pursuit." When, we might ask, is followership not a difficult and dangerous pursuit — particularly in war-time? How is that supposed to make us feel better about the renegades’ disloyalty and their subsequent lack of accountability to anyone but the media — whose own agenda in the matter makes them easily manipulable by anyone who can plausibly represent himself as a whistle-blower and a truth-teller? At the least, these ought to be troubling questions to every American, but the nearest that Mr Hoagland gets to considering them is his observation that "technology and other forces are undermining hierarchal relationships in social and professional organizations everywhere."
I love that euphemistic "technology and other forces" — by which he may be supposed to be alluding to the media themselves, conceived of as a vast, impersonal "force" in which he sees himself and the dissident spies and the constitutional authorities of his country and "social and professional organizations everywhere" as being somehow caught up against their will and helpless to do anything about it. Even to suggest that the media might have some responsibility of self-restraint in the uses to which they are prepared to put the information that comes into their hands and of scrutiny into the motives of those from whom they obtain it appears to be all but unimaginable to him — as, indeed, it does to all but a handful in the media culture as a whole. They know that the media’s commercial interest in being able to represent themselves as the exclusive purveyors of those secret truths that are commonly supposed to lie behind official falsehoods must take precedence over the national interest in security and constitutional government. As usual, bad news for everybody else is good news for the media.