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 Bolton’s 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 Reagan’s presidency.
Within the intelligence community, Reagan’s CIA
Director William Casey oversaw the “politicization” of intelligence. He
and his subordinates berated, demoted and fired analysts who didn’t
share Casey’s conviction that Moscow was behind virtually all the
world’s terrorism or who doubted the Right’s 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 Parry’s
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 Department’s 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 Parry’s
Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Teamed with Bolton
Reich has now reemerged as a figure in Bolton’s
alleged bullying of subordinates over an intelligence assessment in
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 Castro’s Cuba as a more urgent priority for regime change.
But intelligence analysts objected to what they saw
as Bolton’s 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 Bolton’s 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 Armstrong’s supposedly leftist “political views colored his
intelligence judgment.” [NYT, April 17, 2005] Only the intervention of
CIA deputy director John McLaughlin saved Armstrong’s job, according to
intelligence officials cited by the Times [NYT, April 16, 2005]
Though Armstrong wasn’t fired, his experience
reminded the intelligence community of the career danger of challenging
the administration’s ideological judgments.
Faced with this pressure, many intelligence
analysts – or journalists – simply bend their assessments to fit with
the administration’s desires. On the surface, such compromises can be
justified because often the available information is not entirely clear.
So, it’s much safer to err on the side of the administration’s
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 administration’s political leadership has been systematically
browbeating and threatening the intelligence community to drive
ideological conclusions.” [Salon.com,
April 14, 2005]
Testifying on Bolton’s 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
Bolton’s behavior was so extreme that it led Secretary of State Colin
Powell to address the State Department’s 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
won’t be punished.
When lower-ranking officials see their protectors –
like Powell – pushed out of government and the abusers – like Bolton –
getting promoted, it’s only logical to expect that fewer and fewer
intelligence analysts will put themselves in harm’s 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 administration’s
mistaken WMD judgments have led to the deaths of more than 1,500 U.S.
soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.