Another in a series of positive contributions from George W. Bush: the press questions unexpected events that are closely coupled to the political calendar, which educates or radicalizes people, whichever word you prefer. I agree the press will soon sink back into its accustomed place, but I believe the public at large learns from these situations and the Mighty Wurlitzer has to be adjusted.
For example, the Democratic convention ended on Friday, July 30. Over the weekend the “homeland czar” announced a terror alert. The following Monday, August 2 the US announced that an al Qaeda computer expert had been captured. This was apparently necessary because the press had learned that much of the data on which the alert was based was three or four years old. Naturally this doesn't mean the data's irrelevant, but it does spotlight the timing of the announcement.
When the name of Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan appeared in the New York Times as the computer expert in question, the President's National Security Advisor disclaimed responsibility:
"We did not, of course, publicly disclose his name," Ms Rice told CNN television on Sunday.
She said Mr Khan's identity had been given "on background".
Of course, as everyone and his family have pointed out, “background” means the reporter can use the information but cannot identify the source.
So what does the so-called intelligence community think about another in a series of non-denial denials? Naturally, such people don't speak to the press much. But they do have friends and retired colleagues who talk about their sense of the community. For example:
"If it's true that the Americans have unintentionally revealed the identity of another nation's intelligence agent, who appears to be working in the good of all of us, that is not only a fundamental intelligence flaw, it's also a monumental foreign relations blunder," security expert Paul Beaver, a former publisher of Jane's Defence Weekly, told Reuters.
And if “the Americans” have intentionally revealed such an identity, then what is it?
Which brings me to the second of Rove's chessmen du jour, Porter Goss. A lot has been written already about his nomination to head the CIA at a time when its products have been questioned and its morale is no doubt low. Goss, who as recently as a month ago was considered out of the running by the chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee (“Rep. Goss has no chance of heading CIA: Roberts”), is exactly what the Democrats said they would not put up with. As Jay Rockefeller, the ranking member of the committee, said:
"We need a director that is not only knowledgeable and capable but unquestionably independent," said Rockefeller. "I strongly urge the President to look for an individual with unimpeachable, nonpartisan national-security credentials and the stature and independence to bring about much-needed reform of our intelligence agencies."
Again, what does the intelligence community think? Ray McGovern spent twenty-seven years in the CIA and was a founding member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. In July he said:
There is, thankfully, a remnant of CIA professionals who still put objective analysis above political correctness and career advancement. Just when they thought there were no indignities left for them to suffer, they are shuddering again at press reports that Rep. Porter Goss (R-FL) may soon be their new boss.
Given that viewpoint, he naturally has some ideas about why Goss would be picked:
There seems a better than even chance the Bush administration will nominate Goss, and use the nomination hearings as yet another forum at which to blame the Iraq debacle on faulty intelligence. And, as a bonus for Bush, if there is time before the election, it would seem a safe bet that Goss will be able to bring to heel recalcitrant analysts who are still "fighting the problem," still staring in disbelief at the given wisdom (given, apparently, only to the Pentagon and White House) that Iraq and al-Qaeda were in bed with each other. Nor should anyone rule out the possibility that Goss will see to it that 'weapons of mass destruction' are found--perhaps as an October surprise.
Given that they knew what sort of reception the announcement would get, why'd the adminstration pick Goss, who's pretty much exactly what the ranking member said he didn't want? Mike Allen and Walter Pincus write in the Post:
Democratic senators, in unusually tough statements about a fellow lawmaker, warned that Goss would be an unacceptable choice because of what they described as his partisanship. Even some Republican senators said the confirmation battle would not be worth it.
Bush nominated him anyway.
Administration officials said the White House calculated that the president could not lose: Democrats would either cave when faced with a fight, or Bush could accuse them of obstructing CIA stability at a time when the nation is under threat of a terrorist attack.
This is the kind of street chess Rove plays: with an untenable position, start pointing out every pretty girl that walks by.
Flynt L. Leverett, who was a senior director on Bush's National Security Council last year and now is informally advising Kerry, said the Goss selection was also a way for Bush to slow-walk a revision of the nation's intelligence machinery. "They could try to get serious about intel reform, which I think they're reluctant to do, or they could try to change the subject, and this is a way of changing the subject," he said.
This kind of thing, which can work in street chess because most chess players are male solitaries, generally fails if the opponent is paying attention. Allen and Pincus:
Democrats promised Goss's confirmation hearings will be marked with examples of his recent partisanship in intelligence matters, positions that contrast with his more bipartisan approach in past years.
On June 1, Goss took part in a Bush-Cheney conference call with reporters to critique Kerry's first national security speech. He described one of Kerry's nonproliferation proposals as "naive," and answered "clearly yes," to a question about whether Bush's policy toward North Korea was producing results. North Korea, he said, is "no longer making the progress they were making at Yongbyon [their key nuclear production site] and other places because we have called their bluff."
In fact, since the Bush administration confronted the Pyongyang government, North Korea has thrown out inspectors, removed nuclear fuel from internationally monitored storage, and may have increased the size of its nuclear arsenal, according to U.S. intelligence.
Do I have an explanation for this behavior? Not exactly. It's always hard to tell why your opponent adopts a losing strategy.
But my guess is that Rove is looking at some worrisome items:
Imagine yourself in Rove's position.
Your trump card has been terrorism, but you've played it so many times that even the supine US press now questions you. Your man is about to receive the formal nomination against the backdrop of a thousand dead Americans. Everyone knows you lied about the WMD. The 9/11 commission explicitly denied your purported connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. Of the three governments that backed you, those in Spain and Poland are gone, and in Britain there are Labour Party members calling for Prime Minister Blair to be replaced as the party leader.
You're behind in the state you cheated to win last time, and although you still control the levers of power in the state, you look poised to lose its twenty-seven electoral votes and the White House with them, at which point there's a non-zero chance that some of your colleagues will be prosecuted for war crimes based on the torture memos.
You need to distract people. How about the classic “let's you and him fight”? Democrats usually fall for that one. You need a boost in Florida. How about nominating one of its Congressional representatives to be CIA director?
Adm. Stansfield Turner, director of CIA under President Carter, called this
...the worst appointment that's ever been made to the office of Director of Central Intelligence because that's an office that needs to be kept above partisan politics.
...that yesterday he [President Bush] announced the nomination of Goss, a Floridian, at the White House and immediately flew to Florida to campaign.
This is desperation.
Last year a student in one of my chess classes took advantage of my attention being elsewhere to add a bishop to his position. Unfortunately he placed it on a8, and he had a pawn on b7. Sometimes even cheating isn't enough. (No, I didn't call him on it, but I beat him anyway, which is not surprising given that he was in the second grade.)