08/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Moral Failure of Our National Intelligence

"The temptation to tell a Chief in a great position the things he most
likes to hear," Winston Churchill famously cautioned, "is the
commonest explanation of mistaken policy." But perhaps an even greater
failure of a leader is refusal to hear what he doesn't like. A number
of competent government officials, from the White House to U.S.
mission in Afghanistan, have told me that this attitude was their
greatest frustration: for example, in trying to get the administration
to tone down its promotion of public hysteria over a wildly overblown
domestic terrorism threat, to face up to the considerable popular
support for the Taliban in many areas of Afghanistan, or to deal with
the murderous venality and duplicity of regional U.S. allies.

A new government report on the Bush administration's surveillance of
personal commmunications reveals a familiar pattern of intellectual
deafness and moral abuse of the country. As with the administration's
promotion of waterboarding and other forms of torture, post- September
11 practices were implemented in defiance of existing law. On orders
of the president, those in his close circle then approached
second-tier government officials to elicit justifications for these
practices after the fact: In November 2001, Justice Department lawyer
James Yoo dutifully obliged with a legally flawed and factually
inaccurate recommendation for warrantless wiretapping; in October
2002, military lawyer Lt. Col Diane Beaver readily commended "cruel,
inhuman, and degrading" interrogations to Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld in knowing defiance of the Geneva Convention, and forcefully
argued for hiding these practices from the International Red Cross.
The lawyers' immediate superiors were misinformed, or not informed at
all, about their underlings' recommendations, or even about the
practices assessed. The president and his inner circle adopted the
recommendations of Yoo and Beaver as official U.S. policy without
bothering to elicit further legal opinion or consult Congress.
President Bush liked what he had.

Once word did leak through about what was being done, however, other
officials fought to stop the practices or at least bring them to
light. In March 2004, Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Comey --
who is no slouch when it comes to zealously pursuing even the thinnest
lead related to terrorism -- rushed up the steps to the hospital room
of Attorney General John Aschcroft, to prevent then-White House
Counsel Alberto Gonzalez from wangling a signature from the
heavily-sedated patient to re-authorize domestic eavesdropping.
Gonzalez signed the document instead, and later willfully deceived
Congress about the whole business (and many other matters) when he
became Attorney General. To their credit, both Comey and FBI Director
Robert Mueller threatened to resign unless greater transparency and
oversight were forthcoming.

In striking contrast to the rectitude of those officials who have
risked their careers for the law of the land, there are the partisan
stalwarts, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, who bend the law and
the truth to fit their ends. Cheney's repeated claims that harsh
interrogation and wiretapping "saved many thousands of American lives"
are supported by no facts known to the public. And his appeal to
classified evidence should be met with no greater confidence than his
bogus claims about Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda acting in tandem
against the United States.

Serving the aims of the Bush administration, were others who wanted to
please and play with the Big Boys, like Gonzalez and Bush's first CIA
director George Tenet. In December 2002, when plans to invade Iraq
were being set to "go," Tenet promised the president a "slam dunk
case" that would convince the public that Saddam Hussein had weapons
of mass destruction. Tenet, though, was careful not to claim to his
superiors that the evidence was in fact true, only that it would sell
the war to the American people.

A telling example is over reliance on a source -- codenamed
"Curveball" -- whose information was untrustworthy from the outset.
German intelligence first interviewed Curveball, an Iraqi chemical
engineer living in Germany, and informed the Pentagon's Defense
Intelligence Agency (DIA). The DIA passed along the information to the
CIA. When the CIA sought to interview Curveball, German intelligence
told the CIA it was a waste of time because Curveball was "a
fabricator and crazy." Tyler Drumheller, former head of the CIA
European Division, told reporters that in 2002 he saw "dozens and
dozens of e-mails and memos" impugning Curveball's credibility.
Nevertheless, Tenet claimed that there was never a "formal memo"
questioning Curveball's reliability until after then-Secretary of
State Colin Powell proffered Curveball's fantasies as "facts and
conclusions based on solid intelligence" in a speech to the U.N. on
February 5, 2003. When Powell realized he'd been duped, and started to
complain about it, he was no longer pleasing to the administration,
and he resigned.

Forgotten or ignored in the fiasco were at least three hard lessons,
which Reginald V. Jones, Britain's Head of Scientific Intelligence in
WWII, summarized years ago in his classic, The Wizard War:

(1) It is necessary to avoid "the steady and immediate broadcasting of
each... uncollated fact," and to withhold such information from
political decision makers until checked because "to spread half-truth
is often to precipitate erroneous action."

(2) The intelligence community must provide an "independent voice"
that takes no consideration of what political decision makers may want
to hear because this, as Churchill concurred, is "vital" to "the
leader on whose decisions fateful events depend."

(3) Information from disaffected nationals is usually the most
unreliable source on weapons or methods available to actual or
potential enemies and "must always be checked." As Machiavelli noted
long ago:

How dangerous it is to trust the representatives of exiles... such is
their extreme desire to return to their homes that they naturally
believe many things that are not true, and add many others on
purpose.... A prince therefore should be slow in undertaking any
enterprise upon the representations of exiles, for he will generally
gain nothing by it but shame and serious injury. (Discorsi, ch. 31)

In his apologia, At the Center of the Storm, Tenet argued that errors
made in the eagerness to respond to any positive indications of
terrorism, no matter how paltry, were justified by a pervasive but
still hidden threat from "sleeper cells" and the like. In fact, the
only bona fide sleeper agent in U.S. history was Soviet intelligence
officer Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher (aka Rudolph Abel), who was caught
and exchanged for the CIA's U-2 pilot Gary Powers in 1962. Yet Tenet
continued to insist even after leaving office that the U.S. is awash
with "sleeper cells" -- a wolf cry still widely echoed in the media.

But what of the decent men and women whose public profile is not high
enough to force the righting of a wrong by threatening to resign, and
who are bound by law from not revealing any information that could
contradict official policy? There are many of these people at all
levels of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies who are faced
with an almost tragic choice: resign into oblivion or continue to work
for the common good but inside the belly of the beast.

Consider the case of Phil Mudd. Early last month, Mudd, President
Obama's choice for intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland
Security, withdrew from consideration over Congressional doubts about
his knowledge of the CIA's "harsh interrogation" of terrorism
suspects. I have in this forum elsewhere denounced the Bush
administration's use of such techniques as criminally immoral forms of
abuse that undermine the principles of due process of law and
protection from cruel and unusual punishment -- Enlightenment
principles that, for the first time in human history, established the
sovereignty and integrity of each individual body and mind, and which
gave rise to the founding of our Republic. But the Phil Mudd I've
known in several encounters, from Washington to Riyadh, never conveyed
support for torture of any kind.

On the contrary, Mudd's principal argument to leaders and law
enforcement officials around the world is that the best way to end
terrorism is to give hope to the young. On March 10, 2008 he confirmed
to me for the public record: "Terrorism is not only a problem of
ideology or religion but a global virus that attacks young people who
have lost hope. I think there is a fairly strong correlation between
hope and extremism. We have to provide hope." I watched him wince at
the idiocies uttered by others about some central terrorist command
and control of "sleeper cells," "brainwashing," "recruitment" and
other nonsense but, as with torture, his only choice was to keep
silent in public or cease serving the nation with his talent.

This insightful man may be paying a political price that I hope will
not cost the country. How could President Obama drop Phil Mudd at the
slightest doubt about his possible knowledge of torture, but let
Guantánamo operate even a moment longer, where torture has been
indubitable? If the Bush years taught us anything, it's that when
petty politics play with moral principles, the nation's standing is
undermined and society wobbles.