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Faulty Intelligence Or Bad Smarts?
by Terrell E. Arnold
June 5, 2004

Yesterday the chief US intelligence officer, George Tenet, resigned, leaving himself open to be handed credit for foreign policy screw-ups that have plagued the Bush administration from its beginning. The best reading on this by his peers and predecessors is that Tenet did this to save Bush chances for reelection in November. If it worked, that in itself would be unfortunate, but the real tragedy of Tenet's action is that it takes public attention away from the real flaws in Bush team leadership.

There are several ways to view what has happened to our country and its fortunes on the Bush watch. One is Bush could argue that since he took office our country has faced challenges that exceed even exceptional human talents. That, however, is pure nonsense. Our country has been in deeper trouble with fewer side effects. A second scenario is because of faulty intelligence our leadership did not have enough facts to make good decisions. But one of the chief marks of a good executive is the ability to see when he or she does not know enough to make a decision. A second mark is taking time to solve the information problem before plunging ahead. A third scenario is that dire emergencies forced Bush and his team to make decisions quickly on the basis of what they knew at the time. That scenario is true for virtually all emergencies. But there has been only one "time is of the essence" emergency in the whole Bush administration. That was during the actual run of the 9-11 attacks, and the Bush team failed to respond on key matters such as deploying fighter aircraft to head off the hijacked airplanes.

To be fair, if our fighter aircraft had been deployed on 9-11, their use to shoot down the hijacked planes would not have been a simple choice. While intelligence clearly existed that terrorists had considered such action, up to that point hijackers had not used an airplane as a guided missile. If the planes had been blown out of the sky before any of them struck their targets, the President would have faced the charge that he needlessly killed several hundred passengers. Even so, after the first plane hit the World Trade Center the second plane might have been stopped, if our fighters had been in position.

Most of the time the management of our country's affairs is not rocket science. The operational details of national management are spread over thousands of issues and thousands of decision makers. Presidents often can do little about them except to read the results at the margins and take corrective actions that are within the government domain. Once in a while exceptional judgment is needed to deal with a complex set of issues. But the real failures of the Bush team are not due to issues that exceeded his IQ. They have been, as a growing number of critics now point out, ideological decisions taken in spite of the facts. Decision makers simply ignored the flaws in intelligence.

The basic rule that should be written over the door at Langley, the CIA headquarters complex, is "You can never know everything about anything." The big sport in Washington for some time has been comparing notes on who knew enough to connect the dots. But in the context of complex and fast-breaking events it is easy to confuse the dots with bird droppings. And if the spaces between dots are longer than patience allows, it is tempting to fill in the blanks with one's own bs.

All governments hide things. Successful businesses generally do too. Families have numerous things they will not put on the street. Those hidden things often concern national, business or family interests that are critical to stability, finances, growth, opportunity, reputation, self-esteem, et cetera. It is not easy to learn what people do not want you to know. It is even more difficult when all you may have is a glimpse of players, capabilities or intentions. What the Bush team has done more often than most is confuse the personal interests and ambitions of the players, especially Bush and his neocon advisers, with the national interests of the country, and they have overstepped or ignored facts or weaknesses in information that collided with their objectives. The chief mischief-maker in this has been the neocon agenda as twisted and turned by hard right preferences and as distorted by catering to Israel.

Recognition that this game has come a cropper may drive the current Washington scene. But George Tenet's resignation and today's reactions to it tell us that the Bush team is neither willing nor able to fix the problem. The other side of the blame game is blame avoidance. The White House hope, as several commentators have noted, is that piling the blame on faulty intelligence will help George W. Bush come up smelling like a rose in November.

If that occurs, the collective fault lies with us. We the people will have let ourselves be bamboozled once again into believing that Bush is blameless and that he can and will run our country in our interest.

The problem was not faulty intelligence. It was making faulty use of what was actually known, proceeding undeterred by what was not known, or acting hastily out of ignorance in pursuit of preference. Faulty intelligence in this case means faulty judgment, bad smarts. Can our country afford another four years of it?

The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome comments at wecanstopit@charter.net

Posted: June 13, 2004


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