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"I am a creature of Congress," said Leon Panetta with a broad smile, which was returned by equally wide smiles from members of the Senate intelligence committee meeting yesterday to consider his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
I really wish he hadn't said that. For that sobriquet fits the worst of the worst, so to speak, of former CIA directors—the tarnished Medal of Freedom awardee, George Tenet. He too mastered the art of grinning in Congress.
When nominated to lead the CIA, his distinctive cachet was said to be that, as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, George was "equally popular on both sides of the aisle." Those of us who had been around a while knew this to be no cachet, but rather the kiss of death for intelligence work. His insatiable need to please his masters famously led George in Dec. 2002 to yell "slam dunk," when former president George W. Bush asked about evidence of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.
That same desire to please, bordering on the obsequious, showed through Panetta's performance at his nomination hearing on Thursday and Friday. There was little sense that the man who nominated him, Barack Obama, had won a decisive election victory and was determined to exorcise the flock of evil spirits possessing the White House of Bush and Cheney, in whose abuses many of those same Senators had acquiesced.
Obama did set the stage for the hearing by issuing executive orders against torture and other crimes. And, to his credit, Panetta did stand firm in defending the new policies and exposing as a false choice the one between greater security and preserving our nation's values.
Otherwise, though, the nominee appeared unnecessarily deferential. Worse still, he let a number of familiar lies fly by without challenge.
"Everyone Thought There Were WMD"
There was no real need for him to let the unreconstructed partisan Orrin Hatch (R, Utah) browbeat him into supporting one of the familiar canards promoted by the late Bush administration. Hatch insisted, twice, that Panetta subscribe to the bromide that CIA analysts "were relying on world-wide intelligence at the time," and that "every major intelligence community" in the world shared the view of U.S. intelligence regarding WMD in Iraq.
Can we not, at long last, dispense with this canard? Repeating it does not make it true. And were it to have been true, then how does one explain why Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair could not get the U.N. Security Council approval they knew would be required in order to make an attack on Iraq legal.
Those foreign intelligence services that chose to give credibility to the "intelligence" coming from the U.S. and U.K. did so because they had little or no independent evidence of their own, and their governments wished not to alienate Washington. And some intelligence analysts—in the Australian and Danish services, for example—did warn their governments about what the British press ended up calling the "dodgy dossier" of U.S.-U.K. faux intelligence on WMD in Iraq.
Did You Do Your Homework, Leon?
At the risk of damning with faint praise, Panetta is clearly twice as bright as the folks he will replace as CIA director. So, it should have been easy—had he been paying closer attention, or had he insisted upon being adequately briefed—to cite the Senate intelligence committee's own report, released on June 5, 2008, on prewar intelligence on Iraq.
That study, five years in the making, was approved by a vote of 10 to 5, with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R, Nebraska) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R, Maine) joining the majority. It concluded that the public statements of the highest Bush administration officials on WMD were not supported by the intelligence.
In releasing the report, then-chair Jay Rockefeller (D, West Virginia) stepped out of character and spoke plainly: "In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact, when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent." And Diane Feinstein (D, CA), who is now committee chair, attached this note to the report: "The results are now in…this administration distorted the intelligence in order to build its case to go to war."
Thus, it was hardly the case that "everybody" believed there were WMD in Iraq, but rather just those who chose to acquiesce in the distortion of intelligence and those countries that used to trust the intelligence coming from Washington. It is a safe bet that Feinstein and Rockefeller were disappointed by Panetta's inability or unwillingness to cite the committee's own official findings as a way to squelch Hatch.
Kit (alias James) Bond