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Monday Morning Spooks

Why are some people second-guessing President Bush's intelligence work and reasons for going to war?

12:00 AM, Jun 26, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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THIRTEEN MONTHS AGO, Senator Hillary Clinton rose on the Senate floor to demand answers to questions about what President Bush knew about the September 11 attacks before those attacks occurred. Dick Gephardt (then minority leader in the House) echoed the demand, asking "what the president and what the White House knew about events leading up to 9/11, when they knew it, and most importantly, what was done about it at the time." The Notebook editors at the New Republic couldn't resist a little second guessing of their own--directed at Attorney General John Ashcroft's post-attack request for a higher budget for counterterrorism: "[S]omeone should ask why he didn't mobilize some of those resources beforehand," scolded the magazine in its June 17, 2002 issue.

It's a year later and leading Democrats are again throwing bricks at the president's handling of intelligence. So is the New Republic. But this time the charge is that the president overestimated the threat to American security posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. A year ago he was too cold. Now he's too hot. The Democrats and their allies want the president to be just right.

The trouble with both sets of attacks is not their inconsistency--though that is amusing--it is that they lack a standard to instruct a commander in chief's action. This is the freedom that lack of authority brings: Every action can be second guessed, even if the second guessing makes no internal sense.

Stephen F. Hayes has made short work of the John Judis and Spencer Ackerman manifesto on Bush's handling of pre-war intelligence out of Iraq. Joshua Micah Marshall's attempts to have it every way has become so transparent that folks aren't even bothering to answer his charges of "the various misrepresentations, distortions, and outright lies the Bush administration put out in the lead-up to the war with Iraq," although it is great fun to revisit his postings from May of last year, especially his caution from May 16, 2002, that "we should keep in mind the distinction between signals and noise in intelligence collection, and how hard they can be to distinguish from each other," and his pronouncement on May 23 that "I for one remain quite skeptical of this sort of retrospective analysis of scattered intelligence data," even as he endorsed the idea of a hard look into the what "the White House should have known about the attacks or perhaps could have if all the tidbits and shreds of evidence had been properly assembled and analyzed."

It appears as though the public has already concluded that the attacks on Bush of this spring are like the attacks on Bush of last spring--partisan cheap-shots of the worst sort since they concern national security. I think a good majority of the electorate has also come to an intuitive understanding of the key concept: It is okay to overestimate a threat, but, since September 11, it is never okay to underestimate one. If Bush overestimated the threat from Iraq, he certainly gave Saddam every opportunity to open the doors, and even at the end, to quit the country. Bush was unwilling, however, to run any serious risk of WMDs reaching terrorists. His 2003 critics have apparently reversed their 2002 positions, and would have preferred him not to highlight the threats in his intelligence briefings.

I will leave it to the foreign policy mavens like Marshall to come up with a more precise standard, but I think the layman's rule is this: If the commander in chief perceives a significant risk of severe casualties to Americans, he uses whatever force is necessary to remove that risk. The forgery of documents related to purchases of uranium from Niger, or the lack of a detailed Baghdad hotel bill from Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, in no way detracts from the correctness of the president's assessment of all the evidence of risk. The attempt to impeach the president's conclusion by impeaching parts of his data set establishes a standard under which many future September 11s could never be prevented because of the distinction between "signals and noise in intelligence collection."