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Posted by on Jan 11, 2010 in Politics, War | 2 comments

Bolton: Take Government out of Government

John Bolton has a piece in the WSJ entitled Let’s Take Bureaucracy Out of Intelligence.

My initial reaction is that taking the bureaucracy out of a governmental is impossible (one might as well say that we need to take the government out of government).  Government is bureaucracy (and really, any large organization as readers in corporate America can attest—or anyone who has had to deal with an insurance company, a cell provider, or cable company). While we all like to make fun of/get annoyed by bureaucracy, the fact that there are standard operating procedures in the context of an established hierarchy of properly trained officials is requisite for modern government (and, really, democratic governance).  The modern state is a bureaucratic one.

Perhaps the all-wise, all-knowing philosopher king would make better decisions than does the bureaucracy, but since he ain’t coming through that door, we are stuck with the collective action of the bureaucracy.  This is not to say, by the way, that a given bureaucracy cannot be improved–of course it can.  However, Bolton’s basic recommendation doesn’t do that (nor does it take the bureaucracy out if intelligence):

Solving that problem requires not the mind-deadening exercise of achieving bureaucratic consensus, but creating a culture that rewards insight and decisiveness. To create that culture we should abolish the DNI [Director of National Intelligence] office and NIEs [National Intelligence Estimate].

Eliminating the DNI should be accompanied by reversing decades of inadequate National Security Council supervision of the intelligence function. The council is an awesome instrument for presidential control over the IC [Intelligence Community], but only if the national security adviser and others exercise direction and control. Sloughing off responsibility to the bureaucracy embodying the problem is a failure of presidential leadership, and unfortunately gives us exactly the IC we deserve.

That doesn’t take away bureaucracy.  Nor does it guarantee good analysis—it just means that one level of the process would be eliminated.  As James Joyner notes:

And it’s well and good to say we shouldn’t have an NIE, since it’s necessarily going to be a namby pamby collective report.  But Bolton’s alternative is to present the president with a dozen or more namby pamby collective reports.   Perhaps that will be better for assessing blame afterwards — some agencies will be closer to right than others — but it will make it much harder to make decisions.

Ultimately, it seems to me that what Bolton is complaining about is a combination of the general difficulties of large organizations and the fact that the current organization isn’t behaving the way he wants:

Ill-concealed policy preferences dominated the now-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. So eager were the NIE’s drafters to forestall the use of force against Iran that they distorted the intelligence, ignored contrary evidence, and overstated their conclusions.

Bolton clearly prefers a more belligerent approach to Iran. For example, The TelegraphJohn Bolton: US should bomb Iranian camps, via David Frum: Bolton: Israel Must Bomb Iran, via the WSJSanctions Won’t Work Against Iran.

His real criticism here, by the way, is that he doesn’t like the outcome of the last election:

Finally, the real debatable issue is often not intelligence or analysis, but the inescapably political judgment of how much risk to our national security we are willing to tolerate. Today, the Obama administration’s level of risk tolerance for potential terrorists and proliferators is far too high. Changing that doesn’t just mean fixing the IC. It means fixing the White House.

That, however, has little-to-nothing to do with the structure of the intel community.  Indeed, I would note that his recommendation of placing more emphasis on the National Security Council would hardly solve his objections, as the NSC is a creature of a given president.

Really, what he wants is less about bureaucratic reform as it is a more aggressive approach to the Iran situation.  He states “The problem is often not the intelligence we collect, but assessing its implication” and he clearly thinks that the current assessments are not serious enough.  That is a legitimate debate to have, but it really has as much to do with Bolton’s own biases as it does with some endemic problem within the intelligence community.  The bottom line is that he would prefer an aggressive, neoconservative president in the White House whose appointees control the various bureaucracies of the federal government.

This is not the first time that Bolton has criticized the NIE.  Back in 2007, for example, Bolton Calls NIE on Iran a “quasi-putsch”.

So, on balance, Bolton’s problem with the intelligence community is that he isn’t getting the conclusions that he wants.  As such, it is amusing to read Bolton make accusations about the “politicizing intelligence.”

Cross-posted from PoliBlog.