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Meet Larry Johnson

The CIA official turned Democratic spokesman has a pre-9/11 mindset.

12:11 PM, Jul 25, 2005 • By GARY SCHMITT
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ON SATURDAY, former CIA analyst Larry Johnson gave the Democratic party's weekly radio address and excoriated President Bush for not having fired Karl Rove and others in connection with the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's name to the press. This followed Johnson's appearance before a panel of House and Senate Democrats on Friday, where he made similar criticisms of the president. A self-described Republican, Johnson argued that the failure of the president to fire Rove and anyone else supposedly involved in the leak had severely damaged national security and would certainly hamper future efforts to recruit informants in the war on terror.

Well, it's good to see that the former CIA employee is now worried about the war on terror. But it's a bit late. On July 10, 2001--two months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--Johnson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times ("The Declining Terrorist Threat") in which he argued that Americans were "bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism" and, in truth, had "little to fear" from terrorism. And, in turn, he rebuked his former colleagues in the national security bureaucracy for using the "fiction" of the terrorist threat to pump up their budgets.

Nor was this Johnson's first foray into dismissing bin Laden and al Qaeda. Johnson, who also served as the deputy director for the office of counterterrorism at the State Department in the early 90s, was interviewed by PBS's Frontline for its 1999 program, "Hunting for bin Laden." According to Johnson, Americans had "tended to make Osama bin Laden sort of a superman in Muslim garb," when in reality he is "more of a symptom of a problem" than a looming threat. And while bin Laden "would like to kill Americans . . . wanting to is different from being able to, having the full capabilities in place." By Johnson's lights, "Osama bin Laden . . . has not been a very effective organizer or leader. He talks a great game."

The Democratic party wants to use Larry Johnson as a seemingly safe mouthpiece to attack to the president. But, in doing so, they have adopted someone who fits perfectly the profile of the pre-9/11 CIA: see no evil, hear no evil. As documented in report after report, the CIA's directorate of operations had no assets in al Qaeda and CIA's analysts were asleep at the switch when it came to analyzing the scale of the threat posed by bin Laden.

Obviously, the leak of Valerie Plame's name to the media is not something to be tolerated. And if someone in the White House is responsible for that leak, they should be held accountable. But, that said, the idea that Larry Johnson should be given a platform by Democrats to pontificate about the damage done to national security by the leak is a bit perverse. Their time would be better served by wondering how the Larry Johnsons and Michael Scheuers of the world were allowed to rise to senior levels within the intelligence community in spite of their spotty record of analysis--and perhaps continue to do so.

Whatever the crime associated with the leak of Ms. Plame's name may be, the more serious matter is whether the reforms of the intelligence community put in place by the administration and the Congress are really producing better intelligence. Given the character of some of those reforms--greater centralization and increased bureaucratic lines of authority--one has to wonder. And, at the end of the day, it is how that concern is answered--and not whether Karl Rove, Scooter Libby or some other White House official was behind the leak--that will make Americans appreciably safer or not.

Gary Schmitt is executive director of The Project for the New American Century.