Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 March 2008

Hillary Not Reading the NIE

Once again, readers’ comments have inspired me to write a whole new post. Two commenters (or possibly the same one twice) wrote to suggest that Hillary’s not reading the NIE (national intelligence estimate) before voting for war in Iraq was no big deal.

I differ strongly. Here’s why.

One commenter suggested that reading the NIE was a job for staff. That view is wrong for two reasons. First, as a matter of fact, the NIE was highly classified at the time. Hillary was not yet on the Armed Services Committee, and her staff were not yet cleared to read it. Only she could. A special room was set up for senators alone to read it. It was only 90 pages long, and the senators had ten days to read it. (To verify these facts, consult my original post and the New York Times article on which it was based.)

Second—and much more fundamentally—going to war is never routine business. If the last five years have proved anything, they have proved that.

The best analogy is a serious illness of a close relative. Suppose your aging mother or father—or your minor daughter or son—is told that she/he has cancer or a similarly serious condition and must undergo debilitating chemotherapy or major surgery. Now suppose that you are the head of household, responsible for making the medical decision and paying for it.

If you are a rational person and care about your ailing relative, you drop everything else and focus. You procure a second opinion, maybe a third. You ask everyone you know about the supposed medical condition and proper treatment for it. You spend hours surfing the Web for relevant information. You don’t stop until you have turned over every stone and exhausted all your skill and resources in an all-out effort to make a wise and well-informed decision.

For a senator, that is what going to war is like. That’s why our Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to declare war. It’s not a routine decision to be delegated to staff, to be made with the usual half-hearted diligence and one eye on politics, or to be left to the Executive Branch (which means one-man rule). It’s a fundamental decision on life or death that must be made collectively, with every legislator pulling his or her full weight.

Every leader worth his or her salt understood this. The very few real leaders in Washington did. Aging Bob Byrd (D., W. Va.), although fighting Parkinson’s disease, rose again and again on the Senate floor to plead with his colleagues not to rush to war before the upcoming congressional elections, but to take time to study the issue. Three days before the Senate vote, Bob Graham (then D., Fla.) urged all his Democratic colleagues to read the NIE carefully. He made that plea in a Democratic caucus that Hillary attended. He himself read the report and voted against war.

Colin Powell, the only member of the first Bush Administration with sound judgment, famously advised the president of what he called the “Pottery Barn” rule: “you break it—you own it.” Isn’t that precisely where we are in Iraq—five years, over 4,000 American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and (depending upon which estimate you believe) from one to three trillion dollars later? We are still trying to “own” and control this unnecessary conflict that we started so rashly.

As for the NIE itself, one commenter suggests it was ambiguous. Of course it was. But that’s the point. Just as you wouldn’t commit your mother, father, daughter or son to the surgeon’s knife on ambiguous and conflicting information, a senator should not vote for war without clear and compelling reasons for doing so. She should not vote for war when the basic facts justifying the war are hotly disputed, as they were in the NIE.

This commenter also suggests that evidence in the NIE against going to war was of “dubious veracity.” (To reduce the risk of quoting out of context, I reproduce the entire comment below.) But the facts were exactly the opposite: the NIE as a whole (especially the footnotes) pointed out that the reasons for going to war were of dubious veracity.

Specifically, the NIE’s footnotes and qualifications shed doubt on three fundamental supposed “facts” on which the invasion was based: (1) the notion that Saddam had procured high-strength aluminum tubes for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium, (2) the claim that Saddam had tried to buy uranium ore (“yellowcake”) in Niger, and (3) the rumor that one of Saddam’s intelligence agents had met with an Al Qaeda operative in Prague.

The NIE’s footnotes disputed every one of these claims, and today every one is recognized as false or unproven. The aluminum tubes were for use in short-range conventional missiles, not uranium enrichment. The claim of attempts to buy uranium ore in Niger was based on patently forged documents. The supposed meeting with an Al Qaeda operative has never been verified; the sole source of this claim was a single, unreliable Iraqi individual (code-named “Curveball”) with a strong motive to lie and a now-demonstrated history of multiple lies on war-related matters.

What was plain at the time of the Senate vote was that there was strong disagreement in the intelligence community on the supposed reasons for war. There was strong disagreement in the CIA. The State Department’s longstanding intelligence service did not believe a word of these three supposed “facts.” The military’s ad-hoc intelligence services, which That Idiot Rumsfeld had set up for the purpose of second-guessing CIA and State, were the strongest supporters of these now-disproved “facts.” Any sentient being who read the NIE and knew what was going on in Washington would have recognized the existence and strength of this unusual and clear dispute over fundamental facts.

Now return to our disease analogy. Suppose, as head of household, you procured a second opinion that conflicted strongly with the first. Would you go with the first just for the hell of it? Would you say “eenie, meenie, miny, moe” and pick one at random? Or would you dig deeper until you were sure that sending your mother, father, daughter or son under the knife was the right thing to do? That’s what Bob Byrd, Bob Graham and (indirectly) Colin Powell urged everyone to do, and that’s what Hillary did not do.

There are also four more reasons to condemn her rush to war. First, she is the only remaining Democratic candidate who voted for the war. Others may have made similar mistakes, including John Edwards, who has apologized for his. But they are not still seeking our highest office, and rightly so. The buck stops on the president’s desk; he or she doesn’t get second chances, any more than all of our brave troops and the innocent Iraqis who’ve died in this conflict did. Some judgments, right or wrong, are final. Anyone worthy of sitting in Congress, let alone the Oval Office, should understand that.

Second, Hillary voted against the Levin Amendment to the war resolution, which would have required Bush to engage in additional diplomacy before using force. Third, she has based her entire candidacy on her supposed “experience” in Washington. Wouldn’t an “experienced” legislator have read the NIE, if only to get the basic facts directly from their sources: the intelligence analysts who had digested the raw data? And if she had, wouldn’t her “experience” have led her to believe that there was great dissension among the analysts, thereby urging caution and further investigation?

But the final reason is the clincher. Hillary’s entire persona is a policy wonk immersed in facts, figures and data, which she loves to spew in great profusion in her rallies and speeches. Why didn’t she immerse herself in the data on the most important decision she has ever made and probably ever will make as a politician?

There is only one possible answer. Hillary knew that Dubya and Rove would smear her as “weak” if she hesitated to jump on the bandwagon for war. So she voted for war in her own political self-interest, ignoring her duty to her constituents, to us the people, and to history. Hillary’s failure to read the NIE belies her claims of experience, leadership and readiness to serve on day one. Her actions showed whom she really cares about: herself.

I am lucky enough that I have no relative killed or maimed in this unnecessary war. If I did, I know exactly how I would feel about Hillary. I would feel the same way I would feel about a head of my household who, without seeking a second opinion, ordered an operation that killed the patient. I would never forgive or forget that error of judgment, diligence and loyalty.

If you think the war in Iraq is no big deal, then you might think the same about Hillary’s error. As for me, I will never vote for her, because I believe she put her political ambitions above our nation’s welfare, later did so in matters of race, and will do so again.

If by some miracle of misdirection and spin Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, I will vote for John McCain—a braver, more honest, more honorable, more loyal and infinitely more careful person. Although a lifelong Democrat, I will cast that vote with a clear conscience and a happy heart. Virtue, judgment, and perspective matter—much more than cleverness in debate.

In my view Hillary has little to recommend her but a glibness that can justify or elide any half-truth or error, a brilliant public relations team, and her gender. I cannot begin to conceive how, with her record, she would still be in the race if she were male, especially now that her claims of bravery under fire and helping to solve the riddle of Northern Ireland have been revealed as greatly exaggerated.

Update (4/2/08):

As if in confirmation of Obama’s incomparable superiority in matters of foreign policy and national security, Lee Hamilton today endorsed Obama. Hamilton (formerly D., Ind.) was chairman of both the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group. It would be hard to find any member of Congress more knowledgeable about external threats and opportunities.


Complete Text of One Comment.

Here’s the second comment, by an anonymous author, in full:
    I’d first like to say that I enjoy your blog very much. This is my first comment here.

    I’m curious if you think reading the NIE would have ultimately made a difference for any of the members of Congress, Clinton included. I have recently watched episodes from Frontline entitled “The Dark Side” and “Bush’s War”. These episodes state that the NIE included information that was of dubious veracity.

    While it is certainly shameful that more officials didn’t read it, I find it highly unlikely that it would have made a difference. Furthermore, it may have given some Senators even stronger resolve to go to war based on the false information contained therein.

    What do you think?

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