Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The White House's Chilling Effect

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, February 21, 2006; A15

The Bush administration is constantly telling us that it can't tell us too much, for fear of chilling debate among the president and his top advisers. This argument would be a lot more persuasive if -- on the rare occasions the public is permitted a peak behind the White House curtain -- there were more evidence of something to chill.

Five years and counting, the notion that this is an insular White House headed by an incurious president isn't exactly administration-bites-dog news. But recent developments have reinforced and even broadened this image: This White House is not just reluctant to hear anything that conflicts with its pre-set conclusions -- it's also astonishingly ineffective in obtaining and processing information it wants to have.

The classic version of this phenomenon -- the administration's disinterest in dissenting views -- is painfully detailed in Foreign Affairs article by former CIA official Paul R. Pillar describing how the administration failed to prepare for -- or, Pillar says, even inquire about -- the "messy aftermath" that intelligence analysts predicted for Iraq. Pillar's efforts to assign blame to Bush administration policymakers ought to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, given the CIA's own shortcomings. Still, it's maddening to read that the administration's first request for an analysis of postwar Iraq didn't come until "a year into the war."

And had the we'll-be-greeted-as-liberators crowd asked? According to Pillar, the prewar analysis was depressingly prescient: a "long, difficult and turbulent transition" in which occupying forces become "the target of resentment and attacks" and Iraq "a magnet for extremists." The CIA and the White House may have the most publicly rocky relationship since Ben Affleck and J. Lo, but how is it possible this information wasn't sought and considered before the fact?

The findings of the House and Senate investigations of the administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina may be even more disturbing, though, because they suggest that the administration has a hard time assimilating and acting on information even when it wants to.

Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who headed the surprisingly hard-hitting House investigation, describes an administration more concerned about maintaining the chain of command than getting things done. Yes, senior officials dutifully asked whether FEMA officials had what they needed, he says, but then were happy simply to accept assurances that all was fine. And that's what the panel was able to learn despite what Davis terms a White House "stiff arm" on documents and interviews. "I've got to believe it would have only gotten worse," he says, if the White House had turned over more information.

The White House's handling of what the House report calls "perhaps the single most important information during Katrina" -- the levee breaches in New Orleans -- is instructive and depressing: Information was slow to arrive and inexplicably discounted once it did. On that Monday, a FEMA official on the scene, Marty Bahamonde, sent reports of a breach and saw it himself from a helicopter -- though his e-mail didn't reach the White House until after midnight. Even then, Ken Rapuano, deputy homeland security adviser, told House investigators that the breach wasn't considered confirmed because "this was just Marty's observation"; other officials were still analyzing. Expecting this kind of bring-me-the-witch's-broomstick level of certainty makes no sense under such exigent circumstances.

(Read more at the above link!)


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