A good intelligence system, like good administration or good plumbing, is rated not by what happens but by what does not. When things go well it remains unnoticed. Given that intelligence has been much in the news lately it is not surprising that George Tenet handed in his hat today, little lamented and widely damned with faint praise.
Tenet asserted that he had resigned for wholly personal reasons. Others think this was just a cover story. Actually, that entire discussion serves to hide the real story, which is how important the CIA has become in our political sphere. “What do they know of England, who only England know”, wrote Kipling. So too may we say of those who pretend that the nation’s security is the province of the security agencies alone.
Leave aside the cloak and dagger world of Tenet and his boys, and ask about the knowledge right in front of our eyes. Andre Codrescu wrote that in America, the obvious was very important. He might have added, “but only for banality and not for the significant stuff”. Here, our genius lies in our ability to skirt the obviously important with a deftness others may only admire. Consider these known facts:
When the first plane hit the World Trade Center on 9-11, was it Tenet’s fault that George Bush continued reading to the 2nd grade class in Florida?
The plane that hit the Pentagon did so nearly an hour after the first plane hit the WTC. Was it the CIA which prevented the scrambling of planes which we might normally expect under these circumstances? The Bush Administration gave the Taliban government a grant of over 40 million dollars. So we are clear, this was AFTER the Cole bombing, and at a time when it was well known that Osama Bin Laden had the support and succor of the Taliban. Did Tenet ask the Bush administation to fork over this money? Osama Bin Laden’s family was reportedly the only one allowed to be airborne the week following 9-11, when air traffic was banned over the entire USA. Surely not a CIA request? Saddam Hussain was conflated with Osama in the months following 9-11 in a well-orchestrated effort by the administartion. This was, of course, lacking any intelligence in this direction at all. Dick Cheney even went on record to claim he had such evidence, a claim President Bush repudiated with alacrity. Once we prevailed over Saddam in Iraq, we let looters take over for a week. Lack of intelligence — or cool deliberation? This was not a matter of not enough troops. Reports said that existing US troops watched quietly — even while the Baghdad museum was being stripped bare of its treasures.
And that’s just for starters. For President George W. Bush to strike the ‘And Tenet is an honorable man’ chord with unsubtle gusto and link our current plight to intelligence failure is a little like blaming the car for getting lost, or cursing the buttefly ballot for the Election 2000 mess. But in adopting this attitude Bush is hardly alone — missing the point seems an occupational hazard in Washington.
And so it will continue to be, as long as we mistake cleverness for intelligence, and worship technology as a panacea for political ills. While we hunt Osama and his coterie, should we not ask about similar, if smaller, demons we have created and turned loose in other countries? The technical wizardry to bug every diplomatic mission in the UN cannot make up for the permanent embarrassment of a premptive attack on a country which did not threaten us.
Of course, many don’t see it that way. Such abstractions which mean nothing to us, as Donald Rumsfeld demonstrated recently. Asked why the horror of Abu Ghraib did not seize him earlier, he said in all earnestness that it was because he had not yet ‘seen’ the photographs, only ‘read’ the descriptions. It is the same cartoon view of the world which leads President Bush to propose flattening Abu Ghraib as an expiation for the tortures within. ‘Kaboom!’. Building comes down. Problem solved. Image is everything, as the ad says.
Don’t show images of body bags from Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t show pictures of what the bombs do to lives. Control the images and you manage public opinion. The result is perfect democracy — a citizenry content to chew and ogle by and large, represented by an correspondingly demented political class. Only in a video-game nation would we have a president defending America’s imaginary borders in Iraq and pooh-pooh-ing the need to protect its real borders from illegal immigration. Only in a country so caught up in reality TV ( that reality itself is denied unless shown in pictures) would leaders speak of petroleum lying under lands thousands of miles away and belonging to hostile countries as ‘our oil’, while doing nothing to move us towards oil-independence. And only a vapid Congress so unmindful of either its constitutional or historic role would first grant a carte-blanche to the executive — and then turn around and spot in the resulting disasters an opportunity to grandstand by pulling up sundry government officials for the benefit of — what else — TV cameras.
As Tenet finally vacates his long-wobbling seat at the CIA, we would be victims of the mother of all disinformation (whether intended or not) if we fail to see that it is ultimately not the CIA but the political class, in the dock. Not to recognize this and declare it from the rooftops would be to fail the constitution one more time.
Intelligence is vital to an empire, politics is the lifeblood of a republic. What we emphasize is a mirror of what we are become.