Tim Russert interviewed former Secretary of State Colin Powell on Meet the Press today, where Powell said something that I find particularly interesting.
I cannot tell you why in the intelligence community, the people who put out burn notices – meaning, “Don’t trust this source,” – those burn notices never rose to the right level. One of the things that I am most irate about is that I have reason to believe that in the CIA on the nights we were out there until midnight every night putting this presentation together and trying to make it air tight there were people in the room who knew that burn notices had gone out on some of these sources and that was not raised to me or to [former CIA director] Mr. Tenet.
Let’s be clear about this. Colin Powell was preparing for a key speech to justify an American act of aggression against Iraq. Powell was giving this speech because, unlike Bush, Cheney, and others in the Administration, people trusted that Powell would not say anything he did not believe to be true. If Powell was sitting before the United Nations saying that we had reliable intelligence that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, then we can rest assured that the United States had reliable information.
True to his role in this (at least, according to Powell’s own testimony) he went over the information carefully and picked only conclusions that had multiple reliable sources. He said, for example, regarding the testimony that Iraq had mobile chemical weapons laboratories, that he had been assured that there were four independent sources confirming this conclusion.
The reason Powell was able to sit before the United Nations and give this false data is because people in the room decided – on their own or under orders from a higher source – not to tell Powell and Tenet that “burn orders” (warnings of a lack of reliability) had gone out on some of these sources.
When Russert asked Powell why he thought that this was the case, Powell answered:
I can’t answer that question. This is for others . . . I am not the investigator of the intelligence community. But if I was, we would be having very long meetings about this.
Indeed, this appears to be something about which there should be very long meetings.
There has been some sense of outrage over the fact that faulty intelligence made its way into the State of the Union speech. Bush said that there was intelligence indicating that Iraq was trying to buy raw material for nuclear weapons from Niger when intelligence experts had determined that the documents providing this evidence were forged. Even here, some people have asked why the Bush Administration does not seem to be at all embarrassed by this revelation. They certainly are not doing anything to ferret out who was responsible for putting bad data into the State of the Union speech. It is as if the Bush Administration does not see anything wrong with allowing the President to build the case for war based on faulty intelligence.
Indeed, Bush Administration members are behaving very much as if they have no antipathy at all to the idea of faulty information appearing in the President’s State of the Union Message. A person who misses an appointment, even if done for good reason, recognizes that at least a prima facie wrong had been done. He uses the words, “I’m sorry,” to show that he was aware of his expectations and intended to meet those expectations. Failure to use these words on the part of the Bush Administration suggests that they do not, in fact, sense any type of moral requirement to be honest to the American people and to refrain from ‘intelligence’ that is known to be faulty.
The case of getting false data into Colin Powell’s speech before the United Nations – an instance of the same type of moral crime – a crime of omission when it came to mentioning that certain sources of information were not reliable – is just as worthy of our concern.
Again, we see no concern coming from President Bush, Vice President Cheney, or other members of the Bush Administration. Again, this type of behavior indicates that they have no aversion (no sense of shame or embarrassment) in putting out false information before the public If they were the slightest bit embarrassed by what happened, they would seek to find out who was responsible for this embarrassment, and make sure that the culprit got the punishment he deserved.
Powell’s reaction demonstrates that he has a proper appreciation for the moral weight of this situation. The reaction from the rest of the Bush Administration shows that, at the very least, they suffer from a certain moral blindness that prevents them from seeing that a serious moral crime has been committed. They refuse to be embarrassed about something for which any morally decent human being would be greatly embarrassed.
The fault here rests as well with the American people. The best way to promote embarrassment, where embarrassment is appropriate, is to condemn those who would cause this embarrassment, and condemn those who let the culprits get away with this moral crime. If the Bush Administration is not guilty of committing the moral crime itself, it is at least guilty of giving the culprits a free pass, thus encouraging more of the same type of behavior in future generations.
This latter point ties in with another claim that Powell made during this interview. Powell said that if he were in charge he would close down Guantanamo Bay immediately, bring its prisoners into the United States, and put them into the Federal judicial system.
[I]f it was up to me, I would close Guantanamo, not tomorrow, this afternoon. I’d close it. And I’d not let any of those people go. I would simply move them to the United States and put them into our federal legal system. The concern was well, then they’ll have access to lawyers, then they’ll have access to writs of habeas corpus. . . America, unfortunately, has too million people in jail, all of whom had lawyers and access to writs of habeas corpus. And so we can handle bad people in our system . . . because every morning I pick up a paper and some authoritarian figure, some person somewhere, is using Guantanamo to hide their own misdeeds.
I have argued before that the Bush Administration suffers from a fundamental moral blindness – an inability to reason through whether it is a morally good idea to follow a particular policy. Every action that the Bush Administration performs, it tells the world – including the dictators, warlords, and other tyrants of the world, that this is a permissible thing to do. When Bush imprisons people indefinitely, it tells the world that indefinite imprisonment is a permissible option. When Bush has prisoners tortured it tells the world that the torture of prisoners is permissible.
When the Bush Administration allows faulty data to get into the State of the Union Speech and Powell’s speech before the United Nations, without showing any embarrassment over the fact or any attempt to ferret out those responsible for this situation, they tell the world that this type of behavior is permissible, and that we ought to see more of it.
This is one way that a morally astute person can judge the morality of his actions. He can ask whether he has reasons to promote a society in which everybody had those desires that would motivate people to perform the types of actions that he endorses. Do we have reason to want to live in a society where people do not care whether the vital statements of key state leaders knowingly contain false and misleading information?
I suggest that we do not. Instead, we have reason to promote a strong sense of embarrassment among those who are caught making false statements to the public, and for this acute sense of embarrassment to motivate them to take steps to prevent anything like this happening again. Leaders who do not take these steps are blind to the low moral quality of these types of actions.