John Bolton & the Battle for Reality
By Robert Parry
April 19, 2005
The John Bolton nomination battle is one of those rare moments when a window has opened onto how the U.S. public was rushed into war with Iraq and, in a larger sense, how conservatives seized control over the flow of information that shapes policy.
Bolton may be as former State Department intelligence chief Carl Ford Jr. said a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy who bullies those below him who come up with inconvenient facts. But Boltons abusive tendencies are not just a personality flaw; they are part of a broader political strategy.
Since his early days as a protégé of Sen. Jesse Helms, Bolton was part of a new aggressive breed of conservatives, who came of age during the Vietnam War and who thus understand the importance of keeping a lid on public dissent.
In practical terms, that means influencing or controlling what the public perceives as reality, often exaggerating threats to stampede the people in a desired direction. That need to manage information, in turn, requires discrediting individuals who can effectively challenge the factual constraints.
This concept of directing the national debate by controlling the switching points of information particularly in the intelligence community and the news media gained powerful momentum during Ronald Reagans presidency.
Within the intelligence community, Reagans CIA Director William Casey oversaw the politicization of intelligence. He and his subordinates berated, demoted and fired analysts who didnt share Caseys conviction that Moscow was behind virtually all the worlds terrorism or who doubted the Rights certitude that the Soviet Union was a rapidly growing threat, not a nation in serious decline.
[For details on these behind-the-scenes intelligence battles, see Robert Parrys Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Meanwhile, Reagan authorized a parallel project that took aim at the national press corps. Called public diplomacy or perception management, this media strategy dispatched teams of government officials to news rooms around Washington to browbeat editors and bureau chiefs into reassigning or firing reporters who challenged administration claims about Central America and other hot spots.
A key figure in those media operations of the 1980s was Cuban exile Otto Reich, who ran the State Departments public diplomacy office on Central America. In one memo, Reich said his office has played a key role in setting out the parameters and defining the terms of the public discussion on Central America policy.
In another memo, Reich said he was taking a very aggressive posture vis-à-vis a sometimes hostile press and his office did not give the critics of the policy any quarter in the debate. The attacks on reporters included spreading rumors about their sex lives. [For details on this hardball media strategy, see Parrys Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Teamed with Bolton
Reich has now reemerged as a figure in Boltons alleged bullying of subordinates over an intelligence assessment in 2002.
Bolton, as an undersecretary of state, and Reich, as assistant secretary of state for Latin America, teamed up to pressure WMD intelligence analysts to sharpen or some might say, hype accusations that Cuba was developing biological weapons. In the post-Sept. 11 climate, this alarmist intelligence was a sure bet to raise Fidel Castros Cuba as a more urgent priority for regime change.
But intelligence analysts objected to what they saw as Boltons exaggeration of the evidence, forcing Bolton to tone down his warnings. Furious at the interference, Bolton sought to have one CIA analyst, Fulton T. Armstrong, reassigned, according to Boltons Senate testimony. Bolton was joined in that effort by Otto Reich.
In an interview with the New York Times, Reich justified the targeting of Armstrong on the grounds the analyst gave the benefit of the doubt on human rights violations and security issues to left-wing governments, such as those in Cuba and Venezuela.
Reminiscent of the rhetoric used to discredit journalists in the 1980s, Reich now a private business consultant said Armstrongs supposedly leftist political views colored his intelligence judgment. [NYT, April 17, 2005] Only the intervention of CIA deputy director John McLaughlin saved Armstrongs job, according to intelligence officials cited by the Times [NYT, April 16, 2005]
Though Armstrong wasnt fired, his experience reminded the intelligence community of the career danger of challenging the administrations ideological judgments.
Faced with this pressure, many intelligence analysts or journalists simply bend their assessments to fit with the administrations desires. On the surface, such compromises can be justified because often the available information is not entirely clear. So, its much safer to err on the side of the administrations preconceptions.
But an honest analyst or reporter will only go so far, which is where the bullying starts.
As Salon.com columnist Sidney Blumenthal noted, the Bolton hearings have finally given the American people a glimpse of how the Bush administrations political leadership has been systematically browbeating and threatening the intelligence community to drive ideological conclusions. [Salon.com, April 14, 2005]
Testifying on Boltons nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Carl Ford, a former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton was a serial abuser of intelligence analysts and stands out as someone who abuses his power with little people.
Ford, himself a conservative Republican, said Boltons behavior was so extreme that it led Secretary of State Colin Powell to address the State Departments intelligence analysts and assure employees that they should continue to speak truth to power. [NYT, April 13, 2005]
But the reality in government agencies, the news media and most other professions is that the vast majority of people will speak truth to power only if they have some confidence that they wont be punished.
When lower-ranking officials see their protectors like Powell pushed out of government and the abusers like Bolton getting promoted, its only logical to expect that fewer and fewer intelligence analysts will put themselves in harms way.
The consequence is almost certain to be more bad intelligence from the government. Bad information, in turn, leads to misguided policy and then innocent people get hurt.
In the case of Iraq, the Bush administrations mistaken WMD judgments have led to the deaths of more than 1,500 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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