In Bushworld, the Truth Hurts

Liars move up as straight shooters take the hits.

Margaret Carlson

Los Angeles Times

April 7, 2005

Everybody says Washington has become too mean. The majority doesn't speak to the minority, except to threaten a "nuclear option" to block filibusters of judicial nominees. Oppose a domestic policy and you'll be branded an obstructionist. Oppose a foreign policy and they'll brand you as unpatriotic. It goes downhill from there.

It is amazing that in a town with so many mean people that there's no one to express righteous anger when the situation begs for it. We've had outpourings of congressional anger over steroids in baseball and Terri Schiavo, but only modest dismay over the latest report on U.S. intelligence failures.

For $10 million, nine presidential commissioners told us that there were flaws in the intelligence community. Great. There are lots of people who would've told us that for free.

Worse yet, the commission concluded in a 600-page report that intelligence wasn't politicized. Uh-huh. Frankly, only a politicized commission could possibly have concluded that "no one from the White House or Pentagon contributed to the mistaken intelligence."

Of course, there were Democrats on the panel. But it's like one of those suspense movies in which it turns out that everyone's on the take. They're all members of the permanent establishment, writing to absolve other members of culpability. No one wants to be cast out, even someone who got been rolled.

It's especially true here in Washington that to get along, you must go along. I saw that principle in action recently at a restaurant where Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (dining with Vice President Dick Cheney) went out of his way to table-hop over to shake hands with Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic national chairman. They may be in different parties, but they're in the same club.

You'd think Colin Powell, of all of them, would be incensed over going to war on false pretenses, and publicly so. He's the only top member of the administration who could truly claim to have been duped, a doubter turned believer after he was fed information that turned out to be wrong.

After the report came out last Thursday, Powell in an interview in Stern, the German magazine, did allow that he was "furious and angry," that "some of the information was wrong." "Some" and "wrong"? How about "most" and "dishonest," especially about aluminum tubes and mobile labs?

According to the report, the night before Powell gave his speech to the United Nations, then-CIA Director George Tenet got a call from a senior deputy saying he was very concerned about the credibility of "Curveball," a principal source for the mobile labs story. Tenet claimed to remember none of that exchange. He never told Powell.

At least Powell is expressing some anger. But President Bush? He's not angry at all. He's got yet another report absolving him of cherry-picking intelligence to fit his needs.

It was bad analysts and organizational foul-ups. That's unfortunate, and he's on the case. No higher-ups are to blame. Bush can name an intelligence czar and move around some boxes on a flow chart — and poof, his political problem is solved. All without even being interviewed by his own commission.

So why care about anger? The ease with which many in Washington accept that we went to war on a false pretext means it could happen again. If someone doesn't say that this isn't only an organizational problem but a political one, CIA analysts will believe that if you give the boss what he wants, you'll be fine. And so will the boss.

Look at the people gone: Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill; director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Lindsey; Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki. They spoke the truth. Look at the people rewarded: Tenet, L. Paul Bremer III, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and all those welcomed to a second term, like Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney.

The lesson is clear: Nothing upends a career in Bushworld like devotion to the truth. For delivering the appearance of a slam dunk, Tenet was awarded the Medal of Freedom. For playing his part, Powell, the noble warrior, was not invited back.

Margaret Carlson writes a syndicated column for Bloomberg News.