“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mutiny or Sloppy Governance. You Decide

This is the mission statement of the CIA under Gen. Michael V. Hayden
Director, Central Intelligence Agency:

The Mission
We are the nation's first line of defense. We accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go. We carry out our mission by:

  • Collecting information that reveals the plans, intentions and capabilities of our adversaries and provides the basis for decision and action.
  • Producing timely analysis that provides insight, warning and opportunity to the President and decisionmakers charged with protecting and advancing America's interests.
  • Conducting covert action at the direction of the President to preempt threats or achieve US policy objectives.

Dec. 8, 2007, 3:11PM
Bush is to blame for collapse of presidential authority


The Fourth of July came on Dec. 3 this year for the U.S. intelligence community.

The nation's espionage agencies delivered their own declaration of independence from the war aims and rhetoric of President Bush and Vice President Cheney in a National Intelligence Estimate that was ostensibly about Iran's nuclear program.

But the CIA, DIA and 14 other agencies grouped under the director of national intelligence also delivered a riveting if implicit X-ray of the changing nature of leadership in Washington, where the White House's once-commanding authority over government has been smashed but not replaced by any other power center.

This has happened not in spite of, but largely because of, the overweening Bush-Cheney obsession with restoring presidential authority. It is as if this administration has developed a political version of Jimmy Carter's aborted project for a neutron bomb, which was to destroy people while sparing buildings. Bush consistently manages to destroy or damage goals he proclaims and friends who support him, while strengthening foes.

The publication of an unclassified version of the NIE, which concludes that Iran is "probably" not working on a nuclear weapon at this time, has triggered multiple unintended consequences. Iran's diplomatic hand is strengthened — while foreign diplomats and officials who have pushed their governments to join the U.S. campaign of sanctions and international condemnation are suddenly undermined. "We will be exposed to a lot of criticism at home now," one official from the developing world glumly told me shortly after the estimate was issued.

"They won't say it, but our leaders must be devastated by the way this was handled," an Israeli friend says." Not by the facts of the report, which can be discussed reasonably, but by the presentation and interpretation of the report. This happens when intelligence agencies become traumatized by previous mistakes and overreact the other way the next time."

Domestically, the most significant fact about the NIE is its public manifestation. The White House was powerless to prevent publication of a document that made Bush aides unhappy and uncomfortable. The administration went along because it knew that the document — and any attempt to suppress it — would have been immediately leaked.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte (and formerly the director of national intelligence) subtly but clearly pointed to the underlying cause-and-effect syndrome when he recalled in an interview on PBS' The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer that "there was a time when one simply did not publicize any of this activity, nor was it leaked."

The intelligence community — and particularly the CIA, which was conceived as an exclusive tool for the president's use in making and executing his most difficult decisions — has today made itself a separate agency of government, answerable essentially to itself. This NIE makes clear that for better or worse, spy agencies today make the finished product of policy rather than providing the raw materials.

That significant change in the ways of Washington should not go unremarked, whatever we think about the publication of these necessarily vague predictions about Iran. On balance, the consequences of disclosure are positive: As its authors clearly intended, the document removes any basis for the U.S. military strikes on Iran that many of us have argued would be unwise and unnecessary.

As a journalist, I welcome the sunshine that comes when the important analytical work of intelligence agencies is exposed to public scrutiny and discussion. Transparency has been a consistent goal of Gen. Michael Hayden, first at the National Security Agency and now as head of the CIA.

Hayden's appointment 18 months ago to replace the hapless George Tenet began the chain of events that led to last Monday's breakout of the analysts. The Air Force general immediately told associates that his mission was to re-establish the agency's credibility, which had been shredded by the failure to detect both that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons in 1990 and was not in 2003. That meant "low-balling" — or being extremely conservative — intelligence estimates to restore confidence, Hayden remarked.

Bush bears heavy responsibility for the collapse of presidential authority on his watch. His reckless disregard of the hard work and details of governance has made followership a difficult and dangerous pursuit under him. The spies understand and reflect that reality in their thinly disguised disavowal of his gravely compromised credibility.

But technology and other forces are undermining hierarchal relationships in social and professional organizations everywhere. Bush's successor should not anticipate — with even medium confidence — that things will snap back to "normal" in the world of espionage when he or she arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Hoagland is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist, specializing in foreign affairs. ( )


  1. AWOL military justice

    Why the former chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions resigned his post.

    By Morris D. Davis
    December 10, 2007
    Iwas the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until Oct. 4, the day I concluded that full, fair and open trials were not possible under the current system. I resigned on that day because I felt that the system had become deeply politicized and that I could no longer do my job effectively or responsibly.

    In my view -- and I think most lawyers would agree -- it is absolutely critical to the legitimacy of the military commissions that they be conducted in an atmosphere of honesty and impartiality. Yet the political appointee known as the "convening authority" -- a title with no counterpart in civilian courts -- was not living up to that obligation.

    In a nutshell, the convening authority is supposed to be objective -- not predisposed for the prosecution or defense -- and gets to make important decisions at various stages in the process. The convening authority decides which charges filed by the prosecution go to trial and which are dismissed, chooses who serves on the jury, decides whether to approve requests for experts and reassesses findings of guilt and sentences, among other things.

    Earlier this year, Susan Crawford was appointed by the secretary of Defense to replace Maj. Gen. John Altenburg as the convening authority. Altenburg's staff had kept its distance from the prosecution to preserve its impartiality. Crawford, on the other hand, had her staff assessing evidence before the filing of charges, directing the prosecution's pretrial preparation of cases (which began while I was on medical leave), drafting charges against those who were accused and assigning prosecutors to cases, among other things.

    How can you direct someone to do something -- use specific evidence to bring specific charges against a specific person at a specific time, for instance -- and later make an impartial assessment of whether they behaved properly? Intermingling convening authority and prosecutor roles perpetuates the perception of a rigged process stacked against the accused.

    The second reason I resigned is that I believe even the most perfect trial in history will be viewed with skepticism if it is conducted behind closed doors. Telling the world, "Trust me, you would have been impressed if only you could have seen what we did in the courtroom" will not bolster our standing as defenders of justice. Getting evidence through the classification review process to allow its use in open hearings is time-consuming, but it is time well spent.

    Crawford, however, thought it unnecessary to wait because the rules permit closed proceedings. There is no doubt that some portions of some trials have to be closed to protect classified information, but that should be the last option after exhausting all reasonable alternatives. Transparency is critical. ...

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I read that Hoagland piece on RealClearPolitics, but I was scared to post excerpts here, for fear of being invited to go to DailyKos by one of the proprietors.

  4. Mutiny, or sloppy governance?

    Alas, it looks like both. We've hog tied ourselves, as the centrafuges purr along their peaceful ways, enriching uranium to weapons grade.