Small People, Impressed By The Hush-Hush
"Let's face it, people are impressed by people like [James] Clapper and [Kenneth] Alexander and [John] Brennan. They're impressed by the seal of classification; they're impressed by the nature of the briefing and the hush-hush and the fact they can't talk... There are a lot of small people in the world who are impressed by things like that." - Col. Lawrence Wilkerson
On September 26, 2002, a bipartisan group of fifteen United States House members was summoned for a classified briefing on Iraq. In the West Wing of the White House, inside a room swept for bugging devices, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet hammered home the points made during a recent briefing carried out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Before entering the room, the House members signed an oath of confidentiality. What they were about to hear was top secret stuff too sensitive to be shared with the masses.
The result of intelligence briefings, we now know, was to convince members of congress to support a war that turned out to be based entirely on false intelligence.
Fast forward to a little over a decade later, and Senior White House officials are spending a lot of their time summoning House members to classified briefings on Syria. This time, the result of the briefings of a reported 370 House members and 93 Senators has been the opposite of what the administration purportedly wants - representatives have chosen to vote against action in Syria.
"Classified briefings don't serve any purpose anymore," Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell tells me. "They're never full, they're never compete, they're never reflective of the real context and the real situation on the ground, and they tend… to capture people because they are classified."
The criticism that classified briefings "capture" the representatives who participate in them is one echoed to me by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), who previously served on the intelligence committee, "a lot of members of congress certainly feel constrained because they want to tell what they understand about a particular issue - they want to tell their constituents. In fact, they feel obliged to tell what they know."
He continues, "It's difficult because the intelligence community instructs members of congress that they can't talk about what they've learned in a classified briefing - they can't divulge classified information even if it is widely known or available to the public. So, [briefings] could be used to prevent members from communicating fully." (emphasis mine)
Holt also questions classified briefings' effectiveness, "For policy purposes, a member of congress can usually get everything that he or she needs from careful reading of the media." He continues, "you sometimes get some information that will help you evaluate the reliability of the claims by the administration officials - but classified briefings aren't worth much… As far as what you need to make a policy decision - who did what, when, and to whom - you can get that, as I say, through careful reading of the press. The importance of classified briefings are [sic] oversold. Part of the reason is the intelligence communities never like to tell what they know, even to members of congress. They're secretive by nature; you often have to pry the information out of them."
Classified briefings, Wilkerson explains "clearly were designed" to manipulate members of congress "with regard to Iraq.... Politicians like Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and even the president of the United States - I think somewhat unwittingly, unlike others - actually used intelligence that they were fed by others in the professional intelligence community to shape a rhetoric that they then used on the American people and the international community to try to influence them to go to Iraq in 2003."
Wilkerson continues, "I don't think the intelligence community starts out [trying] to manipulate. I think they start out with some information and the politicians take that information, and they say 'this is the policy that we want to pursue, what other information do we need to reinforce this policy?' and then, instead of coming back and saying 'that's not the way this should work, Mr. President or Mr. Secretary, we should be giving you the intelligence and you should be using that intelligence to inform your policy. We shouldn't be giving you little tidbits of intelligence that happen to be laying around and cherry-pick to make your policy more powerful.' You wind up with a policy that the decision makers and the people who develop that policy go out and farm the intelligence community to find little tidbits that will fit that policy.'"
The blame for this behavior, Wilkerson argues, belongs more to the politicians than to the intelligence operatives, "I'm not saying intelligence hasn't been bad before and hasn't been given too high a credibility level, but generally speaking, [intelligence failure] happens far less frequently than policy failure - and by policy failure, I mean when the people making the decisions begin to take the intelligence and shape it around those decisions."
And yet, despite reservations on all sides, classified briefings continue to be held, something that Wilkerson chalks up to a desire for some drama. "Let's face it, people are impressed by people like [James] Clapper and [Kenneth] Alexander and [John] Brennan. They're impressed by the seal of classification; they're impressed by the nature of the briefing and the hush-hush and the fact they can't talk." He continued, "there are a lot of small people in the world who are impressed by things like that."
In a September 6th New York Times op-Ed, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) told how he had been given access to a 12-page classified document on Syria in addition to the four-page declassified document. He wrote, "the Syria chemical weapons summaries are based on several hundred underlying elements of intelligence information. The unclassified summary cites intercepted telephone calls, “social media” postings and the like... (As to whether the classified summary is the same, I couldn’t possibly comment, but again, draw your own conclusion.)" (emphasis mine)
"I couldn't possibly comment" may sound familiar to viewers of the Netflix series "House of Cards." Kevin Spacey's character uses the phrase occasionally to lead or mislead a young, gullible reporter. But in the British series on which the Netflix series was based, Ian Richardson's character wields the phrase like a gong for the audience. When he says "you may very well think that, I couldn't possible comment," whether the information is true or false, he is letting you know that he is manipulating somebody to his own personal benefit, and somebody is going to lose his influence, his job -- even his, or her, life -- as a result.
Thanks to classified briefings, we now have a congress full of accidental Spaceys and over-enthusiastic Richardsons. You may very well think you know the arguments for, and against, attacking Syria, but none of them can possibly comment. And that seems to suit many of them just fine.