consortiumnews.com

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 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.

Switching Points

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 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 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 preconceptions.

But an honest analyst or reporter will only go so far, which is where the bullying starts.

'Serial Abuser'

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.


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.'

Back to Home Page